Toot-Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye! Farewell to Maury Maverick: Fighter for Justice and an Honest Man
Even after his death last week at the age of 82, Maury Maverick Jr. was still fighting for justice and peace. When he entered the hospital for surgery a few weeks ago, he had filed a few of his San Antonio Express-News columns in advance. He died Tuesday, Jan. 28, and his final column -- called "Is This War Just?" -- was published Sunday, Feb. 2. A couple of weeks earlier, he had quoted the U.S. Constitution, "The Congress shall have power to declare war," and continued, "Don't we civilians owe the professional military the honor and duty of complying with the U.S. Constitution?"
Maverick went to his grave asking embarrassing but necessary questions of his country and his readers. Hundreds of them, a lifetime of friends and family, and a whole tribe of cousins came to the Trinity University chapel on Saturday to say farewell. It was not precisely the sort of memorial service Maury had long planned for himself, notably requesting a "hootchy-kootchy dancer" and a farewell anthem of "Toot-Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye." Instead he got "Climb Every Mountain" and "You'll Never Walk Alone," although the Jim Cullum Dixieland Jazz Band did indeed wait at the gravesite. Maury had long since given up organized religion, instead describing himself as a "pantheist," or a "deist," like his beloved Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine.
Perhaps he would have grumbled a bit at the number of preachers who stood at the lectern to sing his praises. One, activist and Catholic priest Bill Davis, said that Maury told him he preferred a grove to any church, and once gestured at a passing flock of birds: "Those are my cardinals -- you have yours!" Davis said he responded to Maury in kind: "The only reason you hug trees is you know they can't talk back." The irascible Maverick, curmudgeonly scourge of the smug and the self-satisfied, tireless fighter of the pompous and the powerful, had a legendary soft spot for birds, flowers, and stray dogs. Concluded Davis, "He was the closest thing to St. Francis I ever really met."
Maury Maverick Jr. is no longer as well known in Austin as he should be, so it's worth briefly recounting some Maverick highlights. The family name goes back to the Boston Massacre -- in Maury's retelling, the original Sam Maverick personally started the American Revolution -- although "maverick" acquired its contemporary meaning of nonconformist from Maury's great-grandfather Sam, who declined to brand his South Texas cattle. Maury Sr. was a stalwart New Deal congressman, before that a legendary mayor of San Antonio, who defended the free-speech rights of communists and literally faced down the Ku Klux Klan.
Don't Get Old, Kiddo!
So it was in the family tradition when Maury Jr., as a member of the state House of Representatives at the height of the McCarthy era, helped kill a bill that would have imposed the death penalty for membership in the Communist Party. Maverick later said he spent his six years (1950-56) as a House member "on edge" trying to fight the worst excesses of racism and McCarthyism -- and that it was worse than his WWII combat service. "In the final analysis," he said, "the worst thing about it wasn't the bad guys, but the good guys. ... That was the thing that almost finished me off. It was the nice people that either capitulated to it or kept quiet."
Maury left electoral politics to take on a heroic but hardly lucrative career as an ACLU attorney. He defended blacks against discrimination, radicals against political persecution, and soon a long string of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. He did so much of that work pro bono that in 1999 -- by then Maury had long since become venerable -- he was honored by the American Bar Association.
He never earned much money -- he wrote that the mark of an honest politician is how little he leaves to his estate. He was not ashamed of his moderate means, but in the last few years of illness it worried him a bit, as much for others as himself. Rep. Robert Puente said the only advice Maury ever gave him was "to stay long enough in the Legislature to get your pension."
"Don't get old, kiddo!" he would warn me, shouting through the phone from San Antonio. "I'm blind, and deaf as a post, and my prostate's all shot to hell!"
"And check your Social Security account," he'd conclude. "You could end up living on it, like I am."
Maverick turned to journalism in the Seventies, and for 30 years lambasted crooks, thieves, hypocrites, liars, and bullies. In the last year of his life, between eulogies for old friends and hymns to ordinary nature, he denounced the U.S. warmongers against Iraq and the Middle East, writing repeatedly that they were betraying the ideals of the country, not to mention risking World War III. He was one of the few U.S. columnists willing to defend the beleaguered Palestinians against the brutal and illegal Israeli occupation, a murderous violation of international law (not to mention numerous UN resolutions), heavily underwritten and sustained by the U.S. "The fact is," he wrote last August, "American Jewish peace activists are going to have to speak up more in public against their own bullies." His last semi-conscious words, to a friend at his bedside, were "Are we at war yet?"
Free at Last
Maury had no patience with the sentimental or the maudlin, so it won't do to shed tears on his behalf. In the end, he even got his hootchy-kootchy dancer: An anonymous neighbor hired a stripper to appear at the grave on Saturday, to perform one last celebratory and impious dance in honor of the old maverick. He had long ago assigned his friend, San Antonio poet Naomi Shihab Nye, to read "The Mustangs" by J. Frank Dobie at his memorial, and she did so Saturday in a ringing voice at the chapel. It'll do for an epitaph:
I see them vanishing, vanishing, vanished,
The seas of grass shriveled to pens of barb-wired property,
The wind-racers and wind-drinkers bred into property also.
But winds still blow free and grass still greens,
And the core of that something which men live on believing
Is always freedom. n