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Looking for family history, Daily News editor uncovers a murder

ANCESTRY.COM? Be careful what you wish for. Patty Valentine, 58, of Houston, my first cousin, wished to dig up our roots.

This is the only known photo of Shorty and Della, taken in 1934 (from left): son G.W., father Wrentham Badger “Shorty” Valentine, daughter Maurnice, daughter Willie Fern, daughter Maureen, mother Della Valentine, daughter Juanita and son Eugene.
This is the only known photo of Shorty and Della, taken in 1934 (from left): son G.W., father Wrentham Badger “Shorty” Valentine, daughter Maurnice, daughter Willie Fern, daughter Maureen, mother Della Valentine, daughter Juanita and son Eugene.Read moreSubmitted photo

ANCESTRY.COM? Be careful what you wish for.

Patty Valentine, 58, of Houston, my first cousin, wished to dig up our roots.

She dug up a murder.

It was our grandpa Wrentham Badger "Shorty" Valentine who pulled the trigger in 1923. It was a lawyer, William Garnett Weatherly, who helped Shorty escape the charges.

That's how my mom and I - Willie Valentine and Garnett Joseph - got our odd first names. We were named for the man who saved Shorty.

That's the family story. Gar Joseph, longtime reporter and politics editor at the Philadelphia Daily News, is really Garnett. Fern Valentine Joseph Brown is really Willie.

What else did Patty uncover, beyond a neighbor's death by Shorty's shotgun? Mental illness. A pig sty assault. A hushed Native American background. A link to the suicide of her father, Eugene Valentine.

Why Patty? Why dig up all these roots?

"When I was 9 years old I was playing in our house in Lufkin [Texas] and found my dad's old metal army trunk," Patty told me. "Inside were a bag of pictures, a black evening dress and tweed suit from the 1940s and, in the bottom of the trunk, a photo album of dad during World War II in Panama.

"I got the bug right then. When I turned 18 and moved out, I took the trunk with me, guarding the pictures as trophies because to me it was our family history."

In those days, doing research was time-consuming and rarely done by the average family. The internet changed things. That's why millions of Americans pay and its competitors.

Within the past year, Patty dug up information about our late grandfather, "Shorty" Valentine. Shorty got his nickname because he broke his leg when he was 11 or 12, running through a sweet potato patch. He never saw a doctor and his left leg grew up shorter than his right.

Patty also probed Adella Case, our late grandmother. She was a Nacogdoches telephone operator during World War I. Shorty fell in love with her voice. She didn't tell him that she was one-quarter "Indian." (Maybe Chickasaw, but grandma was closed-mouth about it.)

When Shorty and "Della" met, her bronze skin color, high cheek bones, deep-brown eyes and thick black hair revealed her ethnicity in a time and place where racism ruled. But it didn't stop Shorty. He and Della married Nov. 11, 1918, the end of World War I, now known as Veterans Day.

The marriage was held in Caldwell Parish, La., where Shorty's dad was a prominent Church of Christ minister.

Shorty and Della worked a farm she inherited in Appleby, near Nacogdoches. They'd have two boys (first) and four girls (next). Farms, in those days, required kids. More workers, better results.

Gnarled roots

Everyone loves a happy background. Patty dug up a tough one. The problem was the Valentine neighbor, Leander V. Cunningham, a distant Della relative. One who had a reputation as being crazy. His wife also had been in and out of a mental institution.

Just a few weeks ago, Patty's older brother Billy told her things he'd kept secret.

"Cunningham was a bully that tormented our poor grandma and grandpa," Patty said. "He let their cows out. He threw cockle burrs down their path to the creek where they got water walking barefoot. You only wore shoes going into town or to church. Then Cunningham starts bantering that he's going to build a pig pen on the Valentine property."

Pig pens were notorious smelly sites. If it was close to your house, your life could be ruined.

In 1922, Cunningham gave Shorty shells for his double-barreled shotgun, to guard his fields from crows. A year later, Cunningham started to build a pig sty on Shorty and Della's property.

Shorty was plowing about half a mile away. Della ran out to him. They marched - along with their 4-year-old son, Eugene (Patty's dad) - back to the house to confront Cunningham.

"Shorty takes two shotgun shells lent to him, loads the shotgun, and goes with little Eugene over to the pig pen Cunningham's building," Patty says. "Shorty wants to run him off. Tells him to leave his property. Cunningham refuses.

"To scare him, Shorty decides to fire the shotgun over Cunningham's head."

Turns out Shorty missed. Fired too low. Blew Cunningham's head off. That's the defense. Patty, via, dug up a document that showed Shorty was charged with murder on May 19, 1923.

Gar the first

This is where William Garnett Weatherly - inspiring my name, my mom's name, and my uncle's name - enters the picture.

The key to the case: Cunningham was indeed building a pig sty on Valentine's property. He ignored the property owner's request that he stop.

This is a classic American issue, even today. The owner trumps all on a property battle.

What gets fuzzy here is whether or not William Garnett Weatherly was a lawyer. I checked with W. Albert Weatherly, who has been practicing law in Nacogdoches since 1979.

"I was the first as far as I know," he said. "If I'd had a predecessor, the older lawyers would've told me.

"As far as I know, there was nobody in the family [lawyering] but me."

Sounds logical to me. I called my mother, Willie Fern Valentine Joseph Brown. Does she know how she got her name?

"Grandma never told me until I was in my 20s," Mom said.

Della didn't tell daughter Fern very much. She did reveal that Shorty killed a man. By accident.

"She was very clear on one thing: William Garnett Weatherly was the lawyer who saved my father. That's why my brother G.W. got the name Garnett and I got the name Willie," Mom said.

Willie is a name Mom didn't like. She dropped it for Fern. I dumped Garnett in college for Gar. My uncle dropped his for G.W.

Just as my Mom never told me about the shotgun blast and the murder charge until I asked about it a few weeks ago, Patty's late father Eugene Valentine never once told her.

"I think Dad began his life from seeing that neighbor shot and never forgot it until the day he died," in 1998, Patty said. "Something that bothers me and makes me want to cry is that Dad blew his own head off. But with a 9mm Browning instead of the shotgun."

A shotgun's shadow

"Our whole lives might have been different if Shorty hadn't done that," Patty said.

"To pay lawyer Weatherly, they had to sell most of the farm. Shorty bought a restaurant with some of the sale money, but that got done-in by the Depression."

Shorty and Della had to move to Louisiana where Shorty's dad was able to get him a state highway job. Now he was working outside every day while Della oversaw the six kids.

In late 1936 Shorty caught a cold, but kept working because if you didn't show up, you didn't get paid. On Jan. 29, 1937 he died of pneumonia, one month shy of his 41st birthday.

The Valentine family after that had plenty of hard work just to stay alive.

"Funny thing about that shotgun case is, had so many lives not been affected, even our generation, would all our lives have turned out better?" Patty wondered.

Tragedy circles back

Willie and Garnett are names that didn't work for me and my mom. That burden isn't as tough as Eugene's was.

Eugene couldn't seem to catch a break.

One day in the 1970s, "he walked across the street [in Lufkin] because a neighbor tried to kill our dog," Patty said. "They had a fight. The neighbor hit him in the head with a shovel. He was never the same.

"The police did nothing because daddy was over in the neighbor's yard, not his own property. And the injury, years later, causes daddy to kill himself."

So what did our family learn from our ancestry?

"For my daddy, his death was a circle from the shotgun," Patty said. "How it ends for our generation could be just in the names."

In her most recent research, Patty discovered a new challenge.

"A few months ago I met a family whose grandfather and our grandfather [Shorty] were brothers. One of them said 'Did ya hear we're related to Bonnie Parker?' " Patty said.

That's Bonnie of "Bonnie and Clyde." Is this something we want to know?

"I think a lot of people from the South sort of looked at Bonnie and Clyde as Robin Hood-type outlaws." Patty said. "While on the road they were very friendly, giving money or rides to those they met along the way."

No more Willies or Garnetts or Shortys. But here comes Bonnie. @CloutPage