Home Up Favor Returned



Written by Rick Archer



1978: M


Other than the friendly maid who dropped by occasionally to refresh our coffee, Mrs. Ballantyne and I were completely alone in her living room.  After Mrs. Ballantyne filled me in about Mr. Salls, she took the occasion to pick up her life story right up where she left off ten years ago.  Mrs. Ballantyne began by reminding me of what she had said ten years earlier... money was tight in her home when she was growing up and how she had faced a desperate college situation nearly identical to mine. 

How would Maria ever be able to pay for college? 


Mrs. Ballantyne said she was resigned to finding whatever work she could after high school when out of nowhere an offer to pay her college tuition came from a highly unlikely source - an underworld gangster. 

"Rick, do you remember me telling you that?"

I nodded.  Mrs. Ballantyne had no way of knowing I had every word she said that day memorized like the Lord's Prayer.  I remembered that Mrs. Ballantyne had barely whispered that a mobster had paid her way to college.  Now today for some reason she spoke openly about the man.  She identified him as Sam Maceo, the Godfather of Galveston. 

"Sam Maceo was the most powerful man in Galveston when I was a little girl.  Mr. Maceo was a close associate of Carlos Marcello, the Godfather of the New Orleans crime family.  Together these two men dominated the entire Gulf Coast.

Mr. Maceo knew who I was because my dissolute father occasionally did small jobs for the Maceo syndicate.  In addition, Mr. Maceo visited my uncle's restaurant on occasion because he had a gambling and prostitution operation hidden there behind a well-guarded door.  Since I lived upstairs, I had to cross through the restaurant to get to my room.  Mr. Maceo enjoyed eating at the restaurant and would see me.  He always seemed to go out of his way to greet me.  I was 12 at the time.  He knew my mother had just died and he also knew my father had forced me to go live with my aunt and uncle.  Mr. Maceo may have been a gangster, but he had an honorable side.  He felt responsible for taking care of the Galveston community. 

That was a door that swung both ways.  Galveston was sort of a world unto itself.  Outsiders in Texas law enforcement went nuts trying to put him out of business, but the gratitude of the Galveston people went a long way towards shielding him from harm, including local law enforcement.  They knew where their bread was buttered.  Sam Maceo was the economic engine that kept Galveston prosperous."


Mrs. Ballantyne paused for a second, probably because it hurt to talk about her father.

"My father Mike was a real jerk.  Noting how my father was preoccupied with gambling and chasing women, Mr. Maceo did not approve of his behavior.  I think he felt sorry for me.   A firm believer in family, he was disgusted at my father's neglect of his duty.

Mr. Maceo would spot me as I walked through my uncle's restaurant after school and smile at me.  I was so lonely, I loved the attention.  I would always smile back.  Then one day he waved at me and beckoned for me to come over.  As I stood at his booth, Mr. Maceo asked me how school was going and if I needed anything.  I just stared in awe.  I was much too intimidated to say a word."

Mrs. Ballantyne paused for a moment to laugh.  With a twinkle in her eye, she said, "Can you imagine me being speechless about anything?"  She giggled again, then continued.

"Mr. Maceo handed me a dollar and told me to spend it wisely.  After that, I got in the habit of going over to his table to chat whenever I saw him.  Eventually I found my voice and we struck up a friendship.  I was so starved for attention, I was grateful to anyone who was willing to be nice to me.

 One day he handed me another dollar and I told him he didn't need to do that.

'Why don't you want my dollar?' he asked.

I handed it back to him.  'Mr. Maceo, I would rather talk to you for free.'

He got the biggest kick out of that.  That's how we became friends."


Now Mrs. Ballantyne paused again. 

"You need to understand that there was nothing improper here.  Mr. Maceo was not that kind of man."

I nodded, so Mrs. Ballantyne continued. 

"My mother Katina was a wonderful woman.  I was just 11 when my mother died of a stroke in 1932.  I felt so much grief I did not know if I could continue.  Thank God my older brother George pulled me through the pain.  He was just a year and a half older, but he grew up fast when Mom died and began to take care of me.

My father went off the deep-end.  He felt sorry for himself and did stupid things.  Rather than get an honest job, he preferred to run errands for the mob and chase women in the casinos day and night.  Not long after my mother died, my father got in a terrible car accident and broke his leg.  Now that my father was crippled, that was his excuse to stop being a father to George and me. 

My father forced my George to go live with his brother and made me go live with my mother's sister Virginia and her husband Gus.  I was heart-broken.  I could not bear to be separated from George.  He was my absolute best friend in the world.  Fortunately he didn't live too far away, so we met every day after school. 

Sometimes George would take me fishing.  I would sit there in the boat and keep him company.  George was a good fisherman.  He caught some really big fish and sold them to seafood restaurants for spending money.  But usually we played tennis for hours on end.  George was a fanatic about tennis.  We played all the time.  Tennis and astronomy were the two great loves of his life.


I hit a real low point in my life when George enrolled at Texas A&M in 1935.  Now with George away at college, Uncle Gus and Aunt Virginia decided this was a good time to leave Galveston and move to San Antonio to open a restaurant of their own.  

I strongly objected to leaving Galveston.  I had just started high school and all my friends were here.  However, since I was only 15, what choice did I have?  I hated the world.  I hated my father, George was gone, my friends were gone, and I did not get along with my aunt and uncle very well at all.  I chafed under their discipline.

The next two years in San Antonio were the loneliest years of my life.  I was not allowed to date and I didn't make many friends at my new school.  So I kept my nose in the books and played a lot of tennis after school to keep from going nuts."

I smiled ruefully at that comment.  Mrs. Ballantyne had no way of knowing her comment about using tennis as a substitute for dating had never left my mind since the long-ago parking lot meeting.  Due to my misfortune to attend a men's school, I turned to pick-up basketball as my own substitute for not dating in college.   Every time I visited the gym, I thought of Mrs. Ballantyne and her tennis.  Thanks to my lousy love life, I had become quite a basketball player.  That memory raised an idle thought.  What kind of effect did Mrs. Ballantyne's non-existent love life have on her tennis game?  Curious, I asked a random question.

"Mrs. Ballantyne, have any of your children ever beaten you at tennis?"

"Oh, heavens no.  It irritates them so much we don't play anymore.  Same thing for my brother's children.  His kids can't beat him either."


I grinned.  "That's what I thought you would say.  Now I have another question.  When I first met you ten years ago, you mentioned you never dated in high school.  Now you just said it again.  Is that really true?  Why didn't you ever date?"

Mrs. Ballantyne laughed. 

"That is a funny story, Rick.  George was very protective of me and I loved him for that.  However, he took it a little too far when I moved to San Antonio.  My brother George was almost two years older than me.  After my mother died and my father split up the family, George became the most important person in my life.  He became my constant companion due to how lonely I was.  After my father split us up, we lived in different homes and went to different schools.  Using money he earned from selling fish, George bought him a bike and made a point to come look me up after school practically every day.  George loved tennis with a passion; he couldn't get enough of it.  Tennis and astronomy were the two great loves of his life, oh, and fishing too.  But tennis was tops.  The tennis courts were pretty far from me, so George bought me a bike too.  From that point on, we had a standing afternoon tennis date.   Every day George would challenge me to another game of tennis.  This became my daily curse.  Don't get me wrong, ordinarily George was wonderful to me, but tennis was different.  George was pretty mean when it came to tennis.  He refused to let me win and loved to rub it in how superior he was.  George was older, taller, and faster than me.  I couldn't beat him to save my soul.  You have no idea what it is like to lose time and time again to someone."

Well, actually I did know what it was to lose all the time.  When I was 13, a man named Neal became my mother's live-in boyfriend.  He was undefeated at chess for six months.  I despised Neal because he loved to taunt me for losing all the time.  "How did you you ever get a scholarship to a prep school, kid?  You can't even beat a taxi cab driver."  I would seethe when he tormented me with his chess skills.  I could not beat him... until one day I discovered his hidden chess book.  Studying in secret over the summer, I finally turned the tables on him.  However I lost enough times to Neal to know what Mrs. Ballantyne was talking about. 

"So did you ever beat George?"


"No, not in Galveston.  The thing is, I was a very good player.  None of my friends had a chance against me.  But I didn't care about beating them.  All I wanted to do was beat George.  George wasn't going to let that happen.  No way his kid sister would ever beat Mr. High and Mighty.  I lost every game we ever played and George teased me about it.

He made me so mad!  I wanted to quit so many times I lost count, but the next day I would be out there playing him again.  I vowed that one day I would beat him.  Didn't know when, didn't know how, but someday I would beat George.  It became a point of honor for me.  The thing that irritated me is that I was getting better playing him all the time, but George was also getting better playing me!  I could not seem to catch up.

After three years of this torment, George went off to college up at A&M.  Now that George was gone, my Aunt and Uncle decided this was a good time to move to San Antonio.  I was furious.  This forced me to leave my hometown and what few friends I had.  I decided I would find a boyfriend and handle my loneliness that way.

I was in the 11th grade and wanted to start dating.  But I made the mistake of telling George.  George was fiercely protective and didn't want me dating anyone unless he could check out the boy first.  This was ridiculous.  George was in college 200 miles away.  How is he going to supervise my love life?  Besides, I could not believe George thought he had the right to order me around like he was my father.  I argued with George no end that I was old enough to take care of myself, but he wouldn't listen. 

I wrote him a letter and I said I was going to start dating whether he liked it or not.   Since he was up at A&M, George was in no position to control me.  Or so I thought.


George pulled a dirty trick on me.  One day he showed up at the house with my two older brothers Johnny and Christie.  They all ganged up on me.  Johnny and Christie were just as rotten as George.  In their minds, I was this naive, helpless little Catholic girl who needed to be protected from those dangerous school boys.  They didn't want me dating when they weren't around to inspect the boys first and keep their eyes on me night and day.  Their solution was to forbid me to date period.  So my brothers gave Uncle Gus and Aunt Virginia explicit orders not to let their kid sister date anyone without their consent. 

Here I am listening to every word.  I am sitting right there in the living room listening to them say this stupid restriction was for my own good!  I could not believe the words that came out of their mouths!  My brothers made me so damn mad.  It makes me mad all over again just telling you about it.  I was about to lose my temper, so I stomped out of the room and ran out of the house to cool down.  Maybe they would change their minds, but I doubted it.  Sure enough, when I came back, those were the rules.  No dating in high school.  I was stunned.  Now, don't get me wrong, I love George from the bottom of my heart and I know he thought he was doing the right thing.  But I didn't agree with him.  This was my life he was interfering with. 

I felt trapped.  Here I was in San Antonio without a friend in the world and forced to live like I had been sent to a nunnery.  Everyone at my school dated but me.  Everyone at my school went to dance but me.  Thanks to my idiot brother, I was a hermit.  I was angry!  I got mad, really mad, mad all the time.  And because I was mad, I played tennis.  And more tennis.  It was the only thing I could do to ease my frustration.   Sometimes I challenged the boys from the school tennis team.  I was encouraged when I started to beat some of them.  I was getting better.  Every time I played tennis, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to get even with George.


Meanwhile George, bless his soul, had written to tell me he had become captain of the tennis team at Texas A&M.  He was so proud of himself.  George added he was virtually unbeatable.  That was a mistake.  George should not have told me he was unbeatable.  Huge mistake.  I was so mad at George for not letting me date, I decided to teach him a lesson. 

From his letters, I knew he was struggling hard to make enough money to stay in school.  I figured if George was that busy scrambling odd jobs to pay his tuition, there was no way he could be playing much tennis.  That gave me an advantage because I had all the free time in the world thanks to his knucklehead idea that I couldn't date. 

Around Thanksgiving, George called the house to apologize for not coming to see me.  He mumbled something about going to see the Aggie football game against Texas as his excuse for ignoring me.  Hmmph.  Feeling guilty, George promised to come see me at Christmas.  I smiled because that was exactly what I wanted to hear. 


Now I practiced even harder!   I played tennis every day against the toughest players I could find at school.  When I wasn't playing tennis, I trained as hard as I possibly could.  I walked to and from school and jogged in my spare time.  You know that movie Rocky?  That was me.  I was the underdog, but if I could get in the best shape of my life, maybe I could catch him off guard.  When George came to San Antonio to visit me over Christmas, it was time to spring my trap.  I casually asked him about his game.  I got my hopes up when George said he hadn't played in months. 

I innocently asked why not.  George replied it was the dead of winter and besides he was busy working his odd jobs and studying constantly.  For these reasons, he had to put tennis on hold till the next tennis season began in the spring.  I smiled wickedly.  Just like I thought!   Dead of winter, my ass!  He was just being lazy.  There is no such thing as winter in South Texas.  I should know because I played tennis nearly every day.  Meanwhile George had no idea I played constantly.  Plus I was older now and more physically mature.  I was also a lot faster than he realized.  In his ignorant boy's mind, I still looked like his little kid sister, a weakling too frail to keep up with the likes of him, tennis team El Capitano and Texas A&M bigshot.  So I casually asked if he would like to play. 

George's eyes lit up.  Noting it was a brisk 60 degrees here in the Dead of Winter, he replied, "Well, sure, Maria, if you want to."   George was more than happy to play his favorite patsy.

Oh, Rick, I was so nervous!  When I took my jacket off, I was scared to death he would notice that my Greek skin was practically black from all that time practicing in the sun.  After all, it was Christmas.  Why would I have a tan?  Fortunately George was a boy.  Boys are too stupid to notice anything that obvious.  Sure enough, George never suspected a thing.

I jumped all over him.  George never knew what hit him.  I got to balls he had never seen me reach before.  Not only was George out of shape, he was in shock over how much I had improved.  Before he could recover, I had too big a lead for him to catch up.  I beat him soundly in the first set.  I was so thrilled!  I had never taken a set off George before.

George was not used to being whipped.  Oh no, not by a long shot.  George was so mad!  Now he was bent on revenge.  When I saw him set his jaw and get that determined look of his, I was in trouble.  No more element of surprise.  Sure enough, he beat me handily in the second set.  However, I noticed he was huffing and puffing towards the end.  After his victory, George was ready to give me a big hug and call it a day.  He smiled and said, "Let's call it even, Maria.  Nice job on the first set."

I said, "No way, Buster, you're not getting off that easy.  You know the rules, Mr. Captain of the tennis team, tie-breaker!  One more set."

The third set was battle of the century.  Neither of us could break the other person's serve, but I noticed George was tiring.  He wasn't chasing down balls he would normally get to.  He just let them go for winners because he was too tired to try.  That was so totally out of character for him.  Ordinarily George chased down everything in sight, but not today.  As I hoped, the off-season had made him soft.  My goal was to wear him down and it worked.  Even when I didn't win the point, he used so much energy volleying back and forth that I was encouraged.  Mind you, there were no tie-breakers to shorten the game back in the Thirties.  We went into overtime and I finally broke through in a marathon match, then held serve for the victory. 

Afterwards George was so tired he could barely move.  Not just that, George was numb.  This could not have happened!!  He stared at me like I was an alien or something.  He kept shaking his head in disbelief.  He could not believe his baby sister of all people had beaten him.  George was so glum, it was wonderful.  I started to feel sorry for him, but then I remembered all that teasing.  Then I remembered he wouldn't let me date either.  So I rubbed it in, "Hey, Georgie, you just got beat by a girl!"  Now if George got beat by the collegiate champion or something, he could have handled that.  But not his kid sister, not a helpless little girl so frail she could not be allowed to date.  So I razzed him all the way home.  Let him suffer.  He deserved it. 

I never beat George again, but it didn't matter.  For some reason, my solitary victory in San Antonio equaled all the times he beat me.  I never saw him more rankled.  Ever since I have spent the rest of my life teasing George unmercifully about the upset victory.  It does not matter to George that he had countless victories over me.  George was never able to accept that one day long ago through some bizarre fluke his little sister beat him, Mr. Invincible, the self-described best tennis player in Texas.  It still bugs him every time I bring up the subject.  So naturally I will never, ever let him forget!!"


At that moment, Mrs. Ballantyne's husband Jay appeared in the dining room.  From what I gathered, he had been up on the roof with some sort of project.  Mrs. Ballantyne introduced me and her husband nodded with a brief smile.  He grabbed something out of the refrigerator, then took off.

One of the things I was curious about was the source of Mrs. Ballantyne's considerable wealth.   Her house here in River Oaks was both beautiful and expensive.  It was also very large with many bedrooms to accommodate raising seven children.   To be polite, I asked Mrs. Ballantyne how she met her husband.  Maybe I could discover how Dr. Ballantyne came upon such great success.   

Mrs. Ballantyne answered, "I loved college, but I went to a woman's school, so meeting men at a woman's college was something of a challenge.  I don't know, for some reason I continued to remain the shy, quiet, unwanted girl.  It was easier to concentrate on my studies instead."

Then, with a rueful smile, she added, "I played a lot of tennis in college too." 

I smiled ruefully as well.  I swear, this woman could be my twin.  She had just described my four years of college at Johns Hopkins.  "That's funny, I never dated much in college, so instead I played a lot of basketball.  So if you didn't meet your husband in college, where did you meet him?"

"I finished college while World War II was still in progress.  After college, I returned to my aunt and uncle's house in San Antonio.  This is when I finally blossomed."

"What was your secret?"

Mrs. Ballantyne laughed.  "Oh, I can't tell you that!"

"C'mon, it can't be that terrible."


"You won't believe this, but I learned to dance!"

"No kidding!"  I grinned.  Gee, that's sounds familiar.  Yet again, our lives unfolded in a strange parallel.  "Tell me the story."

"Straight out of college, I started working as an executive secretary.  I began to hang out with the young professional set of San Antonio.  Lots of guys from the air force base would ask me to dance.  Big Band music was the hit back then, so I learned to Swing dance to Glenn Miller.  Loved it.  However, I saved my real passion for Greek dancing.  I developed a reputation for my flamboyant style in traditional Greek folk dances.  I danced every chance I got.  My girlfriends called me 'Dancer Maria'.  Men noticed me as well.  Some even said I was pretty.  For the first time in my life I was popular. Their compliments helped me come out of my shell."

I imagine Mrs. Ballantyne was being modest.  More likely, she was very pretty.  As a young Greek woman with a strong, athletic figure honed from years of tennis, no doubt her beauty and provocative dance style drew considerable attention.

"Did you meet your husband through dancing?"

"No, actually I met Jay at the swimming pool on a San Antonio air force base.  That is an interesting story.  Jay was so handsome he took my breath away.  However, once I discovered he was a flight surgeon, I was convinced this guy was way out of my league.  Deep down I was still pretty shy."


I could not believe what I was hearing.  Mrs. Ballantyne was openly admitting to being shy!  It was so difficult imagining the most outgoing woman I had ever met being shy, I tried hard not to laugh out loud.    

"I don't know what got into me.  Jay was begging for my phone number, but I refused to give it to him.  I hesitated because I suddenly had a total failure of confidence."

"What was stopping you?"

"I don't know, this young man was so well-educated and so good-looking that every girl at the pool was dying to meet him.  They could not take their eyes off of him.  I withheld my phone number because I could not figure out what he saw in a shy girl like myself.  What chance did I have?  I liked him so much, I was afraid of getting my feelings hurt."

I smiled quietly. I was still having a hard time picturing this beautiful, vivacious woman as 'shy' and 'lacking confidence'.  That said, I appreciated her modesty.  Given my own shyness and lousy luck with the ladies, maybe there was hope for me yet.


"To avoid embarrassing me, Jay finally gave up and moved away.  But he was sneaky enough to go behind my back.  When I wasn't looking, he got my phone number from one of my girlfriends at the pool.

We went out on a date and now I was even more intimidated.  My suitor was a very impressive man.  Jay had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Arizona and had been awarded a scholarship to Columbia Medical School. 

During World War II, Jay served as an army captain and medical doctor.  At the moment he was temporarily stationed at the Randolph air force base here in San Antonio. 

He was so nice to me I finally conquered my jitters.  We saw each other every chance we got and were married three months later."

"Why so fast?"


"The reason for our whirlwind decision was typical of young couples during the war.  Jay had received orders to report to Hawaii.  Uh oh.  I was heartsick when he broke the news.  Jay was just as miserable as I was.  It was either get married or be separated.  Neither of us wanted that, so Jay wasted no time proposing.

We had not known each other long, but I was so in love.  I could not bear the thought of letting him leave.  If something went wrong... another Pearl Harbor... I could never forgive myself.  However I wouldn't dare know let him know I would follow him to the end of the earth.  I played hard to get, made him beg a little. 

Finally I relented.  I told Jay ordinarily I would make him wait longer, but if it was Hawaii, maybe, just maybe I would reconsider.  Our time in Hawaii was the happiest I have ever been in my life.  I had waited so long for this moment!  Now it was all worthwhile.  That is why I always tell my children to keep trying.  Sooner or later their luck will turn, but only if they put in the work.

Following the war, Jay's training took us to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.  Then came the big opportunity.  In 1947, Jay became the first resident at the new M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston." 


"Why Houston?  Because it was close to Galveston?"

"Yes and no.  My father lived in Galveston, but I couldn't care less.  No, my main reason for asking Jay to move us to Houston was to be reunited with my brother George.  George had settled in Houston and was busy raising his own family.  I missed George so much and wanted to be close to him again.  Jay had enjoyed his previous time in San Antonio, so we moved our growing family to Houston.  My husband became a respected cancer surgeon at M.D. Anderson.  He also served as a teaching professor for the University of Texas medical system.  Meanwhile I set up shop in our new home."

Now the conversation drifted to the story of her home.  Mrs. Ballantyne smiled at the memory of how her family was able to move into Houston's prestigious River Oaks area. 

"You know, Rick, people always think we are rich, but we have everyone fooled.  We aren't rich, we're just lucky.  Jay is well paid, but we live on a fixed income.  All the mothers at St. John's assume that since my family has this nice big home in River Oaks and I have seven children at the school that my husband must be filthy rich.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  That has always been my family's big secret.  Compared to the wealth of some of our neighbors, we are the Beverly Hillbillies, but what they don't know won't hurt them.  We aren't wealthy, we are fortunate.  We only live in River Oaks thanks to a generous gift from my brother and a couple of lucky breaks."

"You mean this house was a gift from your brother?"

"Sort of.  George practically gave us the property.  In the late Fifties, George bought an undeveloped tract of land on the edge of River Oaks.  Located on the banks of muddy Buffalo Bayou, this lot was inexpensive by River Oaks standards.  He got it cheap because the property was a veritable jungle at the time.  Heavily forested with oak trees and dense underbrush, the lot was infested with mosquitoes, snakes, and countless squirrels.

George had thought about building here himself, but when we moved back to Houston, he was beyond thrilled.  George changed his mind and sold it at a ridiculously low price to our family.  That was lucky break number one.

Soon after, the City of Houston bought an easement down to Buffalo Bayou.  That was lucky break number two.  The money from the city purchase nearly paid for the whole lot.  This gave us enough money to build.  The third lucky break came when a German architect named Karl Kamrath offered to build our family home at a significant discount.  The architect wished to build a showcase home in the exclusive River Oaks area.  In this way, he could demonstrate his talent to the booming Houston real estate market.  But I think the real reason he helped us was because George asked him to.

We were more than happy to accept the offer.  As it turned out, the lot and house together cost only $60,000.  Although this was a lot of money in the early 1960s, the price tag was still far below what anyone would have guessed.  Ever since then, everyone looks at our big house and thinks we own an oil rig.  I just smile and keep the truth to myself."

Mrs. Ballantyne's comments left me very curious.  Who is George?  The last I heard of George, he was selling fish to buy a bike and aggravating his sister with his tennis superiority.  Now George has enough money to hand a River Oaks property to his sister at a dirt cheap rate.  I was dying to solve the mystery of George, but I did not want to interrupt.  Instead, I added the question to my list for later.

"Getting this house was quite an accomplishment.  Now we owned a prestigious River Oaks address in the land of the Über-rich.  Unfortunately, we could barely make ends meet.  Although Jay's earnings placed us in the upper middle class, his salary was stretched very thin with seven children to support.  Plus those seven kids ate us out of house and home.

My next step was finding new schools for the children.  I looked to nearby St. John's School for Michael, my oldest son.  Poor Michael, he was so intimidated being surrounded by all these wealthy kids.  Michael was convinced he was the poorest kid in the school."

Mrs. Ballantyne looked at me and grinned.

"I have a guilty confession to make.  You have no way of knowing this, but back when we had our long talk at Weingarten's, I almost broke out laughing when you told me you were the poorest kid at St. John's.  Michael used to say the same thing.  I told Michael he was crazy, but he never stopped arguing with me.  He was so convinced we were the poorest family at the school. 

Michael was very fortunate to be away at Stanford when I met you.  Otherwise I would have taken you home with me that afternoon and let him meet you just so I could win the argument!"

I nodded appreciatively.  The irony was unmistakable.  No matter how bad someone thinks he has it, there's always someone else who has it worse.  I never met Michael, but I knew who he was.  Michael had been a Senior when I became a Freshman.  He was the school's famous track star.  Michael was so fast that he set a school record in the mile that stood for over thirty years.  He was a top scholar as well, a genius with many academic honors.  Indeed, Michael, the self-described poorest kid in school, was the shining light of his graduating class.  Based on what Mrs. Ballantyne said, I gathered that Michael's admission back in middle school is what started the legend of the Ballantyne family at St. John's. 

"Mike was our Trailblazer.  Mr. Chidsey, the Headmaster, was very taken with Michael's combination of academics, leadership and athletics.  When he discovered I had a pantry full of younger kids at home, he wasted no time informing me that all of my children were welcome at his school.  But I said we couldn't afford to send them all once.  One by one, Mr. Chidsey arranged a series of scholarships to make this possible.  Following in Michael's path, his six brothers and sisters would get their education at St. John's.  Like I told you back in 1968, all my children went to St. John's on scholarships." 

Now with a smile, Mrs. Ballantyne looked around the room and waved her hand in a sweeping motion to call attention to her home and the pictures of her family. 

"It was always my dream to marry a man I could respect.  I wanted him to be the kind of father I never had to our kids.  I wanted him to help me create the home I never had growing up.  Thanks to Jay, this dream has come true in more ways than I could possibly imagine.  My family means everything to me.

Who would have ever believed this was possible?  When I was a little girl and my mother had just died, things were very bleak.  I never dreamed it could get worse, but then it did.  When my father sent me away, I was broken hearted.  I had just lost my mother and could barely cope.  Now my father didn't want me either.  I could not understand why my own father would abandon me. 

My father was a real jerk.  First he sent George away to his brother.  Then he turned me over to his sister-in-law and said, 'Here, Virginia, take Maria.  I can't take handle her, so you do it for me.  I want you to give Maria a home.'"

Mrs. Ballantyne snorted with contempt.

"What was he thinking?  Virginia didn't want me.  She had a family of her own, but my father bullied her into taking me.  I thought my father would at least come to visit, but I was wrong.  He forgot I existed.  Instead, my father turned his back on me and started chasing women.  I was so angry at him."

I winced as she said this.  My father had abandoned me too and my mother ignored me to chase men every chance she got.

"It didn't take long to realize that Aunt Virginia didn't have time for me.  She had her own children to worry about plus she had the restaurant to take care of.  She resented that my father had used guilt to make her take her dead sister's little kid against her will.  The tension was obvious.  I was only 11 years old and convinced my life was going absolutely nowhere.  I had no idea of this wonderful future awaiting me.  All I knew was these were the six loneliest, toughest years of my life.  Then one day a gangster hands me a college scholarship.  It was the break of a lifetime."

Those words stuck in my mind.  'The break of a lifetime.'  Didn't I say the same thing about my college scholarship to Johns Hopkins?  You know, the more Mrs. Ballantyne spoke, the more I felt the 'Rick Archer Story' was the sequel to the 'Maria Ballantyne Story'.  The parallels in our lives were unmistakable. 




"Mrs. Ballantyne, long ago during our 1968 parking lot conversation, you told me that a gangster paid your way through college.  However you did not elaborate at the time.  Would you mind telling me more about what happened?"

"That is a very strange story.  I wanted so much to go to college.  I made very good grades, but it all seemed futile.  My aunt and uncle had children of their own to worry abut and my father barely knew I was alive.  My college chances looked bleak.  Just as I was about to finish high school, Sam Maceo unexpectedly stepped in, but he did it secretly.  He told George he wanted to pay my way to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a women's school in Belton, Texas.  However George was under orders to hide the truth from me, so it took me a while to catch on.  I was stunned.  I had not seen Mr. Maceo in over two years.  He not only remembered me, but wanted to help." 

"Why do you suppose Mr. Maceo did that?" I asked.  "I mean, paying your way to college was quite a gesture."

Mrs. Ballantyne smiled.  "That is a very good question.  I have to thank George for my scholarship.  He was the one who paved the way."

At this latest mention of George, now I was really curious.  "What did George do to help you get a scholarship from a mob boss?"

"Sam Maceo was an immigrant from Sicily.  He knew how tough it was to get established in the U.S., so he had a soft spot for the immigrant families on the island.  Mr. Maceo took a special interest in me thanks to my brother George.  He had helped George out of a really tough spot a couple years earlier. 

George was in danger of getting kicked out of school because he could not pay his monthly tuition.  Back in those days, Texas A&M didn't cut anyone a bit of slack.  You paid your monthly tuition on time or you left school.  George was so broke he was certain he would have to drop out of school.  This drove him crazy because his education meant the world to him.  George was desperate to continue.  But what could he do?  George had no one to turn to and time was running out."


"You said that Sam Maceo knew you, but did he know George?"

"I'm not sure about that.  Mr. Maceo knew who George was because he knew my father.  But I don't recall their paths crossing because George lived on another part of the island.  Let's put it this way, at best George was a pebble on the beach to this man.  Meanwhile George was at his wits end.  He had no one to help him.  No scholarship, his father was useless, no rich uncle, nothing.  But George was and still is the most determined man I have ever met.  Throughout college George worked a million odd jobs, but for some reason the day came when the money dried up.  George was frantic.  His entire existence was wrapped around his education.  George despised our father, but he had exhausted all other options.  That left George with no choice but to swallow his pride.  George wired our father to see if he could help.  When my father got the wire, he was broke.  No surprise there.  The poker cards had not been breaking his way lately.  But he knew George would not have asked unless he was at the end of his rope, so he decided to go see if his boss could help. 

Mr. Maceo looked my father in the eye and asked a question.  "How well is this son of yours doing in school?"

My father replied, "George is the top student in his class, sir.  He studies real hard!"

Without another word, Mr. Maceo reached in his pocket and handed my father a hundred dollar bill.  My father's eyes grew big.  That was a lot of money in those days, a lot of money, maybe the equivalent of five, ten times that amount today.  Typical of my father, he knew George only needed $39.  So my deadbeat father went to a bank and split the money.  Mike sent a $50 money order to George and kept the rest for poker.  What a champ!

Since Mike did not tell George where the money came from, George was stunned.  He had no idea what was going on.  All he knew was that his father had come through for the first time in his life!  What a break!  Unbelievable.   About a month later, George got a surprise.  Mr. Maceo sent word to George and told him to contact him directly if he ever got in trouble again.  George was startled, but very happy.  Sure enough, George did need his help a few more times.  Each time, the money appeared on the spot.  George never forgot what Mr. Maceo had done for him."

"Mrs. Ballantyne, I'm confused about something.  How did George find out your father split the money in half?"

"George is the kind of guy who refuses to leave a single rock unturned.  After Sam Maceo contacted him, George could not rest until he understood why the man had been so kind to him.  At some point, George confronted his father and got the whole story.  However, there was one twist that neither George or Mike knew about at the time.  A few years after George graduated from A&M, he met someone who had the inside scoop.  George discovered Mr. Maceo had personally checked with Texas A&M.  Apparently Sam Maceo didn't believe a word Mike had told him.  Top student in his class?  The thought of some immigrant kid from Galveston standing at the top of his class was unheard of, much less a kid with a father like ours.  Let's face it, my father didn't have much credibility, so Mr. Maceo had every right to be suspicious.  Very few children of the immigrants here in Galveston were good students, so if it was true, that accomplishment set George head and shoulders above the rest. 

When Mr. Maceo found out that George was indeed at the top of his class, he was very impressed.  Like I said, Mr. Maceo was an immigrant just like my father, so he knew first-hand how tough it was to make it here in America.  Mr. Maceo knew my father was a dubious character, so this told him that George had to be special to overcome the loss of his mother and his father's abandonment.  After pegging George as an ambitious kid who was determined to rise beyond his circumstances, from this point on, Mr. Maceo followed George's progress.  George's source shared something else Mr. Maceo had said.  Referring to George, Mr. Maceo had said, "Galveston needs to nurture its native sons."

Unbeknownst to me, now that he was helping George, Mr. Maceo remembered me.  Since I lived in San Antonio, he would ask George or most of the time my father how I was doing.  One day my father told him I had this hare-brained idea to go to college, but there wasn't any money.  Typical of my father, he quickly added that it didn't matter. 

"Don't worry about Maria, she don't need no college.  She can get a job as a clerk, type a little, answer the phone.  Besides, she's pretty, so let her get married and have babies."

After all, I was a girl, what difference did it make if I wanted to go to college?  That's my father for you.  What a prince.  Mr. Maceo saw things differently.  He smiled and informed my father he would like to pay my way to college.  And that is how I went to college!"

"But wasn't it risky taking money from a mobster?  Don't they always expect something in return?"

Seeing the curious expression on my face, Mrs. Ballantyne shrugged her shoulders. 

"Well, to begin with, I did not know where the money was coming from.  George sent it to me.  I was overjoyed, but I was also suspicious.  I wrote back and demanded to know where he got the money.  He fibbed and explained he saved up money from his summer job.  Furthermore, now that he had an extra job at school, George promised to keep sending money.  He added how pleased he was to finally be in a position to help.  I took his word for it and enrolled in college.  However, I still had my doubts.  The next time I saw George in person, I asked him again about that extra job.  When George got one of those deer in the headlights expressions, I saw right through him.

"Okay, George, time to fess up.  What bank did you rob?"

"No, no, Maria, it's not like that.  There's nothing for you to worry about."

"Bullshit!  You tell me the truth right now or I'm going to drop out of college and get pregnant with the next boy I meet!"

George didn't know whether I was bluffing or not, but he saw how mad I was and caved in.  He admitted that Sam Maceo was paying my way.  I was so shocked you could have knocked me over with a feather.  George said that Mr. Maceo had been so impressed by his performance at Texas A&M, he decided to help out George's ultra-shy sister as well.  Mr. Maceo had promised George he would pay my way to Mary Hardin-Baylor for all four years.

I did not know what to think at first.  It was strange that my education was bankrolled by a Godfather, but then I realized I didn't care.  I am not so sure about his brother Rosario, but Sam Maceo was not a violent man.  He was polite to everyone, very outgoing.  He never insulted people, but he was firm.  They got the message anyway.  In the eyes of many, Sam Maceo was seen more as a benefactor than an evil presence.  He came all the way from Sicily without any money and education, yet here he was the most important man in the city.  I admired him for that.  People called him 'Mr. Galveston' and I can see why.  He was more like a businessman than a mobster.  The only problem was that his businesses were illegal due to Prohibition.  But not everyone agreed with Prohibition.  There were a lot of people who liked to drink bootleg liquor and a lot of people who liked to gamble.  As for prostitution, who was I to judge?  Yes, Mr. Maceo was a gangster, but in my eyes he was also a good man.

At the time, I was too young and I didn't really understand why Mr. Maceo was helping me.  Later on, George and I talked about it.  George believed that Mr. Maceo understood the importance of education as a way to give the children of immigrants equal footing here in America.  He knew how tough it was to be an immigrant and he helped everybody whenever he could if he believed they were trying hard.  He was trying to help me get an education and I was extremely grateful.  What mattered to Sam Maceo was that George and I were good kids.  And he also knew how poorly my father had treated us.  To him, that wasn't right.  In his book, we both deserved better.  Even though we had gotten some rotten breaks with our mother dying and our father turning his back, Mr. Maceo was impressed that George and I continued to work hard in school without any encouragement.  I believe our situation must have reminded him of himself when he landed in America.  That is why Mr. Maceo felt a kinship with both of us.  Greek, Italian, it didn't matter to him.  He wanted the children of the immigrants here on Galveston Island to succeed.  He felt a responsibility to lift us up.  That is the way I remember Sam Maceo."

Mrs. Ballantyne got quiet for a moment, then she laughed.

"I have to tell you something.  Mr. Maceo was so impressed when George graduated at the top of his class.  He was just as proud of my brother as if George was his own son.  One day he sent George a message that he expected George to do a better job as a father than my own father Mike.  George really took that to heart.  He became determined to be a great father.

As for me, I owe my college education almost as much to George as to Sam Maceo.  Mr. Maceo got such a kick out of helping George, he decided to try it again with me.  Can you imagine??  A nobody kid like me?  A worthless girl?  What a break!  Totally unexpected.  I could not be more grateful.  Now I had my chance just like George did.  George and I owe so much to this man. 

You know, Rick, your story reminds me a lot of my brother.  I remember how hard you worked to get to college.  I am so glad Charlie was able to help you get that scholarship.  George was just as determined to get a college education as you were and he worked just as hard to get one, maybe even harder.  What Mr. Maceo did for my brother George was amazing.  George took that education and went into the oil business.  Next thing you know, George turns into a hotshot businessman.  Look what Sam Maceo did for George.  Me too!!"


Mrs. Ballantyne made a sweeping gesture to the countless family pictures on tables and the living room wall.

"These pictures tell the story.  These pictures show what Sam Maceo's kindness did for me.  I spent my entire childhood dreaming that I would someday have a family like this.  You have no idea the pain I felt when my family disintegrated around me after my mother died.  My father was a confused man.  He had no business walking away from his duty to me.  I was bound and determined that when I grew up, I would create my own family and do so much better. 

Now look.  I have my home, my marvelous husband and seven of the best children any mother could ever hope for.  I could not possibly be more proud of my children.  Who would ever believe a story like mine?"

Then she smiled at me. 

"Rick, I don't tell my gangster story to very many people.  Most people would not understand why I took money from a mobster.  They would look down their noses.  I know a lot of people like that.  But now you know how I escaped my trap and found a way to become my own person.  I could not believe how lucky I was.  Who would have imagined that a man who barely knew me would pay for me to go to college?

Look what a simple act of kindness did for me! 

Same for my brother.  If it was not for Sam Maceo, I cannot imagine where George and I would be today."

I was very touched by Mrs. Ballantyne's Godfather story.  A Simple Act of Kindness.  Hmm.  As long as I lived, I swore to myself the memory of this story would never leave my mind.






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