Family Leadership, Then and Now
Two fathers, separated by a generation
Burdette Henney was a highly celebrated “yell king” at the University of Southern California in the late 1920s. Red-headed “Carrots” Henney became locally famous for originating the Trojan War Horse in the student card section at the Los Angeles Coliseum where USC played and still plays home football games. Head yell leaders with their cone-shaped megaphones leading cheering sections of obedient, white-shirted students holding large, colored cards were big stuff at Pacific Coast Conference (eight schools then, 12 today) games from the 1920s through the 50s.
Born dirt-poor on a Kansas farm, he was student body president at L.A.’s Lincoln High, went to SC on an academic scholarship and joined a fraternity populated by football players, some of them All Americans. At SC he comfortably cultivated and was at one with what Los Angeles in that era considered its best and brightest. He rode his beloved USC Trojan Horse of cards for the rest of his life. Indeed, his calling card was a small desk blotter with a photo of the Trojan War Horse in the SC cheering section.
In the 1930s Burdette announced SC football halftime activities at the Coliseum. Heading his own insurance agency in downtown L.A., he served as president of The Trojan Club and the Downtown Optimist Club, which met at the locally historic Biltmore Hotel in the heart of the city. After SC home football games Burdette would quaff gin martinis with pumped up alumni at the venerable Jonathan Club, also downtown and a stone’s throw from the urban SC campus. As did many other Jonathan Club cronies, Burdette proudly carried in his wallet a large, shiny, gold-colored badge attesting to his appointment as an honorary deputy during the durable reign of L.A. Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz. In those distant days the Los Angeles sheriff was among those who ran that burgeoning city—a city without freeways, smog, the Dodgers or Dodger Stadium. Disneyland, in nearby Anaheim, was avocados and orange groves. Hollywood was making movies like Gunga Din, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and King Kong (the original). In pop music, Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters were as good as it got. The City of Angels seemed more angelic then.
Burdette and his first wife, a privileged Long Beach, California flapper named Harriet Helen Harriman, whom he met in college, had a son and a daughter, then divorced in 1935. The children were reared in Long Beach, mainly by nannies. In the late 30s and early 40s Burdette took the son to sit with him in the Coliseum’s field-level announcer’s booth at SC football games, into the players’ locker room afterwards, and to annual Rose Bowl battles in Pasadena when SC represented the Pacific Coast Conference, which was often. Saturday morning trips with his dad to the Coliseum football games were happy and memorable. Burdette’s nickname for his son was Pete. En route to the L.A. Coliseum, in a Packard with white sidewalls, they would pass mules or goats munching weeds by the side of a rural road and Burdette would yell, “Pete, what are you doing out there!” And if the mule or goat happened to be taking a poop then the glee to both Burdette and the son was magnified. “Pete, is that you I smell?” etc. etc.
The son sometimes accompanied his dad to downtown L.A. Trojan Club meetings and to the Jonathan Club. There he played solo billiards while Burdette imbibed and talked football with fellow SC boosters at the polished mahogany bar. Before dissipation stole his life, Burdette annually rode a horse up a rugged coastal mountain pass with fellow members of Rancho Vistadores, attired in Stetson, chaps and boots. His mounted colleagues, Los Angeles quasi-cowboy businessmen and most of them USC alums, included Sheriff Biscailuz. The ride was a luxury-catered, early California-themed, hard-drinking week of male camaraderie.
Burdette and his business buddies in the 1930s and 40s didn’t know many Jews, Blacks, Latinos or Orientals—and didn’t want to. At a classic 1939 USC/UCLA football game at the Coliseum, he scolded his son, then 8, for cheering for a speedy, black Bruin halfback from Pasadena Jr. College named Jackie Robinson. Yes, the same. “Coloreds” like Jackie Robinson carried razors and used them on white boys, he told his son. He also said boys need to always lift toilet seats when they pee, something Jews did not do.
SC’s most emotional, important football game in those years was Notre Dame, coached by Knute Rockne. Burdette said to his son that Notre Dame players were Catholic and played dirty. Because of his love for and trust in his father, the son believed into his teen years that The Fighting Irish played dirty football. Wrong advice notwithstanding, the boy loved and admired the father, and vice versa, and they had grand times together. Today the son carries cherished memories of his dad, warts and all.
Once wiry and famously gregarious, Burdette grew soft, paunchy and jowly from round-the-clock gin, little exercise and thick, marbled, black market, World War II steaks slathered with butter before backyard barbecuing. The son, up from Long Beach for the weekend via Pacific Electric streetcar, ate his fill, then hunted rabbits with a new Savage 22 rifle in the sage-covered hills above the stately Chevy Chase Drive home in Glendale. Becoming increasingly booze-fueled and bellicose, Burdette insulted and bored old friends and new neighbors, who backed away. A lauded campus leader as a 21-year-old undergraduate at a private university, known then as now for its local social cachet and clout, 25 years later he hadn’t a friend.
Trout fishing near Big Pine, California in 1948 with his wife, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 46. The son, a high school junior in Long Beach, was stunned into deep despair, which lasted decades. The father’s dreadful, open casket, Forest Lawn funeral was attended by Sheriff Biscailuz, former SC athletes and L.A. business chiefs, most of whom undoubtedly carried gold pseudo-sheriff badges in their wallets. Burdette’s third wife, Nora Lane, a 1930s movie actress in early Westerns, killed herself with Burdette’s six shooter in their canyon home a month to the day after he died. A note read, “I can’t go on without him.”
Justin John Henney of Sandpoint, Idaho, 46 at this writing, was born to Jacquelynn and Tim Henney 18 years after his grandfather died at that age. Some in Sandpoint know Justin as the guy who twice rode his unicycle non-stop to the top of Schweitzer Mountain in the competitive annual nine-mile bike ascent.
Justin doesn’t own a six shooter or (gasp!) any other sort of shooter (he trusts his North Idaho neighbors to be nice and doesn’t run scared). He owns neither a suit nor an honorary deputy’s badge. His pals are of every faith, age, color and sexual orientation. Few are wealthy or famous. He downs an occasional beer or rum punch and, at the same age that Burdette died from overindulgence and sedentary choices, the grandson bikes, runs, swims, works out at a gym, skis, kayaks, hikes and sails—usually with family or wayward boys in tow. Being a role model for troubled teenage boys is how he earns his living.
Justin has never been invited to ride California’s coastal mountains on a horse with garrulous pre-John Wayne wannabes in cowboy gear—and wouldn’t accept if he had. Rather, he telemarks Schweitzer and camps out at Green Bay with his family and with kids who have been kicked out of their homes by at-wits-end parents. In the course of his job he comfortably befriends and is befriended by the boys’ bewildered parents, many of them well-heeled and well-known. But cultivating high rollers or wheeler-dealer political big shots isn’t his gig. He is a dedicated environmentalist and a Democrat. He doesn’t agree with the National Rifle Association that citizens need to own AK-47 automatic combat weapons. (To openly feel that way about the NRA in North Idaho—and throughout much of our beloved West—takes gumption).
Justin the grandson has a loving wife who worked her way through college and will never be in a Hollywood movie yet is brighter, prettier and more savvy than many who are. She and her man would rather rear their two daughters in Sandpoint than in Brentwood, Beverly Hills or Santa Barbara. The life they live together is a life without pretend badges, six shooters, buttered marbled steaks, well connected associates, ubiquitous booze, or suicides. It is a life which happily includes all, or at least most, not merely the pompous and prominent.
Perhaps one can attribute the lifestyle differences of grandfather and grandson to the starkly divergent decades and social attitudes when each was 46. There seems little question, however, at least to this writer, as to which lifestyle represents success, joy and family responsibility in these times. Perhaps the most compelling rationale for Justin’s life choices over his granddad’s is that the grandson at 46 wants to be around when his daughters are in high school and college so that they and their mother can continue to love and need him. With any luck at all, this family’s future will be full, contributive, rewarding and joyous.
Justin at 46 lives like he intends to be around. And he will be. Burdette at 46 did not—and was not. It still hurts.