Personal History


With first cousin Paul Hughes in our backyard in Esto on my 8th birthday.

DR. J. PAUL HUGHES had a head start on life by being born to parents who lived in Esto, an idyllic little town on the Alabama-Florida line. They lived on the south side of the railroad tracks, near the Wellses and some of the Kirklands. Motor and Humpy Pitts also lived nearby, a little farther back into the woods.

Paul’s grandparents, Ethel and Cullen Hughes, lived a couple of blocks away, if we’d had blocks back then in Esto. So did his father’s sister, known in the family as Doll, who was my mother. Paul and I were close in age — I’m two years older — and we were playmates as far back as I can remember.

What I recall most fondly about Paul’s early years is when Uncle Leonard and Aunt Sarah bought him a swimming pool — just a little above-ground tin-sided round pool that held about two feet of water, but it seemed rich in a time and place where swimming was done in Ten Mile Creek. Paul and I spent hours in that pool, which sat out in their yard beside a big stinky gardenia bush. Our favorite game was to hold our noses and dive underwater, looking to be the first to find the bottle cap one of us had thrown backwards over our shoulder.

As we got a little older, our hobbies grew more sophisticated. We began collecting and identifying rocks we found on nearby dirt roads. We used our crayons to draw flags from countries around the world. Eventually we took up stamp collecting. We claimed a corner of Mama and Papa’s junk house and set up the H&R Hobby Shop. Why his name came first I can’t imagine, although it’s true he always was a little smarter.

Wells Grocery Store sat just beside Mama’s house. One day Mr. Wells decided to put in a coin laundry. The washers and dryers came in huge cardboard boxes, and we had weeks of fun playing in those big boxes.

Perhaps inevitably, Esto became too small for Paul. He and his parents moved across the state line to Hartford, Alabama, about 10 miles north. We thought they were puttin’ on airs by moving to town, but off they went, and into a new brick house, no less. Our play days were over.

But we remained friends. Years later, after he’d finished college and medical school, he came to live with me in Chicago for a few months while he interned at Cook County Hospital. By then our hobbies and interests were considerably more refined. I especially remember dollar pitchers of beer at Streeter’s Tavern on Thursday nights.

He became a brilliant physician, an astute investor and a talented musician who played many instruments and recorded quite a few albums. But he never lost his taste for beer. It did him in, at only 61, three days before Christmas. He will be buried this morning back near home in the Hartford cemetery.

OBITUARY | Dr. J. Paul Hughes (1957-2018)




A PHONE CALL tonight from Esto reminds me to wish a Happy Father’s Day to U.T. Kirkland, who was a father figure to many of us Esto boys. That’s T, as we knew him, in the middle with (from left) Wesley Brockway, Stevie and David Godwin, Charles Crutchfield, Dean Newman and Ray Reynolds.


Lynelle Vanlandingham’s pointed finger and raised eyebrow were legendary.

MANY STUDENTS from Esto and other Holmes County communities who went to school in Bonifay had Lynelle Vanlandingham as their civics teacher in 9th grade. She was from the old school, and misbehaving in her classroom was never an option. She’d point her finger and raise her eyebrow and everyone would fall in line.

That technique worked until the very end. Her fellow teacher Mrs. Dianne Smith — who first taught 9th grade English and later became the senior English teacher at Holmes County High School — recalled a visit with Miss Vann at the nursing home in Bonifay shortly before her death in 2016.

“Nelle remained as feisty as ever,” Mrs. Smith said. “I visited her in the nursing home just a few days before she died. I asked her then if she could still raise that eyebrow like she did to control students. She showed me that she could — and said she used it on some of the nurses when they did something she didn’t like.”

Read More: “Lynelle Vanlandingham was a treasure


Homemade ice cream under the pecan trees.

IT WAS 30 years ago today — exactly — that my mother died.

She had tried again to quit smoking, and had succeeded for almost a month. But when she’d come home from the shirt factory a few days earlier, driving the 10 miles south across the Alabama-Florida line, as she’d done nearly every working day since she was 16, she sat down on the back steps and smoked a cigarette. The aneurysm in her brain followed.

All the way to the hospital, she kept saying, “I knew I shouldn’t have that cigarette.” My brother Bobby called that night to say, “We have a problem.” Somehow I knew I should take a suit and tie. By the time I got across the country the next night, the doctors said it was unlikely she would recover. We never talked again. She was gone by the end of the week.

A death in Esto requires food. Fried chicken, potato salad and chocolate cake soon began to arrive from the neighbors. Two days later, at her funeral, flowers crowded the front of our church. Afterward we went outside to her waiting grave in the cemetery. We are neck-hugging people. When Mr. Bass, the ancient patriarch of our church, came slowly walking up, I hugged him close and cried. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not so soon, or so fast, or so unexpectedly. “Well, son, it’s hard to lose your mama,” our neighbor Clyde Griffin said in his big loud voice as he wrapped his arm around my shoulder. And then he lightened the mood, unintentionally. “If she’d a lived,” he said, “after that aneurysm, she’d a never been nothing but a vegetarian.”


MOTHER HAD BEEN in intensive care for a week. Her eyes were closed, but she seemed to move at times. The doctors said her ruptured brain was dying, that the movement was involuntary.

Still they kept her alive. They said there was no hope of recovery, but still they kept her breathing. It didn’t seem right. “They should let her go,” I told my friend Susan, who phoned in every day. “She’ll go when she’s ready,” Susan replied.

I had to leave the hospital. I drove home to Esto. It was late on Sunday afternoon. As I pulled mother’s car into the driveway, the weak winter sunlight was slanting through the pines. I walked around our acre, through the trees, past the barren garden, by the modest tin barn, as the sun went down. As I walked into the house, the phone was ringing.

“Better come back,” my brother said.

Mother died that night as we stood holding her hands.


THE DOORBELL RANG. It was a mailman delivering a priority mail box. Inside was a treasure: old family books and papers from Elijah Curtis Young, the only relative of my father I ever knew, who died 40 years ago, in 1976.

I was never sure exactly how we were related, or even if we really were. Throughout my childhood, Curtis would stop and visit every fall when he came through Esto on his annual trip home to see friends and relatives in Georgia and Alabama. Usually he brought along oranges or grapefruit as a treat from South Florida.

As it turns out, we truly were related. Curtis’s mother was a Reynolds, according to the family Bible. Lennie Jane Reynolds, born December 3, 1882, married Stephen F. Young, born May 17, 1866. Elijah Curtis was one of four brothers and sisters. He married Elizabeth Hayes on December 27, 1934. I would know them as Curtis and Lizzie, and they were important beyond measure in my young life.

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A FEW YEARS after The Esto Herald appeared in 1970, the editor was invited to begin contributing to the Holmes County Advertiser, the weekly newspaper of record published in the county seat of Bonifay. It launched a lifelong friendship between an aspiring young editor from Esto and Orren Smith, longtime editor and publisher of the Advertiser, that lasted until Smith’s death on September 16, 2015.

Read More:Remembering Orren Smith”