This is the true story of my family’s two encounters with Huey P. Long.
The first clash with Long was when he was a young lawyer, in Leesville, Louisiana during a rape and murder trial.
The second encounter with him was at the Boy Scout Camp, a mile from my family’s home, near Longleaf, Louisiana. The charismatic and controversial Louisiana politician had just launched his bid for governor, in 1924.
Huey Long was poised to run for president in the 1936 election against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To Roosevelt, however, Huey was “one of the two most dangerous men in America.” The other was Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Long was a member of the United States Senate from 1932 until his assassination in 1935.
My dear wife, Julia Ann Willis, and I grew more in love on the banks of Barber Creek. We decided to visit our son, Dr. Daniel Oscar “D.O” Willis, in Leesville for a checkup. Julia Ann sensed something was not right with me.
Our son’s medical clinic and office adjoined the Hotel Leesville that he built in 1907. He bought the first automobile in the parish in 1909 for $825.00. Although most of his patients did not make that much money in two years, it allowed him to make house calls faster than his horse-drawn doctor’s buggy. The Model T could go 40 miles per hour.
Unfortunately, my condition worsened no matter what our son did.
FROM THE JOURNAL OF JULIA ANN WILLIS:
Here, I take up the record my late husband could not finish, for he died of Bright’s disease at the home of our son. The kidney disease was named after English physician Richard Bright in 1827 after he described 25 cases. They had the same symptoms as Daniel.
Still mourning the death of his father, our son was asked to attend to a 16-year-old girl named Anna Mae Granstaff, who was brought to his office next to the Leesville Hotel. She had lost a lot of blood but could still speak to our son and the sheriff.
“He violated me in every way!” she said hoarsely.
“What do you mean in every way?” the sheriff asked.
Dr. Willis looked him in the eyes. “I’ll explain later.”
“At least tell me his name.”
“Billy Blanchard. Billy Ray Blanchard.”
“From over Tenmile Creek way?”
“Yes.” She passed out and never regained consciousness.
“Now, Doc, I understand that he had his way with her. But that doesn’t normally kill someone, does it?”
“Gangrene does though.”
“I’ll get a deputy and head to Tenmile Creek. I know of him. He’s a fifty-year-old man with a family.”
Billy Blanchard denied it all. His attorney from Shreveport arrived at the jail. The brash young lawyer had already made a name for himself as a defender of the friendless.
“I’m Huey P. Long. I represent the falsely accused Mr. Billy Blanchard. May I see him, sir?” A deputy led him back to the jail cells.
“Mr. Blanchard. I’m your attorney. We will speak of these fraudulent charges later. What is the best hotel in Leesville?”
“The Hotel Leesville is the only hotel in town,” a deputy informed him.
As he walked to the hotel, he spied a man getting out of an automobile. “Mister, you have an automobile I see. My name is Long. Huey P. Long. I’ll be your Governor someday. You will be famous if you drive me.”
“No, thank you.”
“Aren’t you interested in being a friend of the next governor of the great state of Louisiana?”
The trial lasted only two weeks. Long made his final argument. “It’s this loose woman’s word against one of the most outstanding citizens of Vernon Parish. My client has a good job. Works hard. He belongs to the Baptist Church, although he has stated he’s unable to attend because of his work with less fortunate girls at a home for unwed mothers. Do you think a man with three daughters and a Christian wife would ever do such a thing? Anna Mae Granstaff was white trash—God rest her soul—and forgive her.”
Several in the jury nodded yes.
The jury came to its decision. The court convened at 10:00 a.m. the next day. Huey assured his client that he would be home soon.
Dr. Willis opened his office at 7:00 a.m. A patient had been waiting outside for two hours.
“Come on in, Sir. What’s ailing you?”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Doc, how did my sister die?”
“Who are you?”
“Charles Granstaff. I got the news while working cows in East Texas. Rode as hard as my saddle horse could go. How did she die?”
“Loss of blood and gangrene.”
“What caused that?”
“Thank you for being honest. I rode once with your father and the Stark brothers on a cattle drive from East Texas to Lecompte. Like them, you do not mince words.”
Charles Granstaff led his horse to the jail.
“Howdy. I’m here to congratulate my old friend Billy Blanchard.”
“He will be out in a couple of hours,” the jailer said.
“Cannot wait. I have business elsewhere.”
“I’m sure the sheriff will not mind, you being a friend and all. Come with me.
“Mr. Blanchard, I have an old friend of yours who wants to congratulate you.”
“Do I know you? What’s your name, mister?”
“Justice.” Charles Granstaff emptied both of his repeating pistols into Blanchard’s groin area.
The Leesville newspaper interviewed Long before Blanchard’s funeral. “Dr. Willis acted as judge and jury when he incited Granstaff with his erroneous conjecture. He should be convicted of manslaughter. I gave the doctor guidance once by offering him an opportunity of a lifetime. When he rejected my kindness, I should have known he was a man prone to bad choices.”
“Will you assist in the prosecution of Willis?”
“I wish I had the time. I must pack in the morning. I’m off to represent a small group that’s suing the giant Standard Oil.”
The newspaper was on Dr. Willis’s desk early the next morning. He tossed the paper aside and made his way to the hotel.
“I need the keys to Huey Long’s room,” Dr. Willis said to the desk clerk.
“He’s not checked out yet, Sir.”
“I figured as much. Give me the keys. I want to give him a special send-off.”
Dr. Willis turned the keys and opened his door. “You’re past my check out time.”
“It’s not but 7 a.m.”
Dr. Willis grabbed Long by his collar and dragged him down the stairs.
“I’ll sue you,” Long screamed as he fell into horse manure in the street.
“What is your check out time?”
Dr. Willis knew the importance of available medical care to Louisiana. He was not the only descendant of Joseph Willis to understand the need for education. Poverty gripped Louisiana.
Huey P. Long began his campaign for governor in 1924. On a sunny day he came to preach his gospel of prosperity at the Boy Scout Camp on the banks of Spring Creek near Longleaf, Louisiana.
Dr. Willis had no desire to hear him, but his brother Ran Willis did. Ran and his wife Lillie’s home, the Ole Willis Place, on Barber Creek was walking distance to the Boy Scout Camp. As Ran approached with his three sons, Howard, Herman, and Julian, they could hear Long’s reassuring voice.
“I’m for the poor man—all poor men, black and white, they all gotta have a chance. They gotta have a home, a job, and a decent education for their children. ‘Every man a king’—that’s my slogan.”
Long looked straight at us. “I don’t care about what the big shots say. All I care is what the boys at the forks of creeks like Barber and Spring creek think of me.”
“Is he speaking to us?” Ran asked.
“I don’t know, Daddy, but don’t you like what he said about free textbooks for all of us?” Howard asked.
“Free! There is nothing free. We will pay for them with increased taxes. Well, I take that back. Your Uncle Doc gave Huey Long a free education four years ago at the Hotel Leesville.
“That’s the same year I met a young man at Louisiana College who started his education, but with fewer advantages than we have and lot less than Huey claims.
“We became friends. He was the son of a poor sharecropper from Beech Springs in north Louisiana. He wanted to get an education like your Uncle Doc and me. He told me his family was so poor that he did not have a bed in which to sleep until he was nine.
“Upon graduation from high school, he began the task of choosing a college. One of his neighbors had a college catalog.
“He told me all about it.”
“I was amazed and believed you could order a college just as you ordered something from Sears and Roebuck. I’d never seen a college, had never been on a college campus, but I read it, and it told all about Louisiana College at Pineville. I decided that’s where I would try to go.”
“But how could he pay for tuition, books, housing, and food? He didn’t have any money or know anyone who did. He decided to try to get a job at the college. On his second day on campus, he went to the college employment office and found employment in the dining hall.
“How did you meet him, Daddy?” Howard asked.
“Through our cousin, Willie Strother.
“Willie’s a history professor at Louisiana College. The young sharecropper’s son attended his classes. He wished to get his degree in history.
“After acquiring the job in the cafeteria, he joined the glee club. Professor Dunwoody assigned him to the college quartet. He sang lead and received a gift, a used guitar. As winter approached, the young man became desperate for money. With his guitar, he began to sing on the street corners in Alexandria. When an officer told him to move on, he moved to another street corner.”
“What was his name, Father?” Herman asked.
“Jimmie Davis. He graduated this year from Louisiana College without free textbooks.
“None of this would have happened had it not been for two encounters on the campus of Louisiana College. The last year Jimmie did not have the money to continue his education. He tried banks for a loan. They all turned him down.”
“Everyone ought to be hungry and try to borrow money at least once in their life. To be broke and turned down, well, it’s something,” Jimmie said.
“With his dreams put on hold, Jimmie found himself in back of a mule again, plowing and picking cotton from sunup to sundown. He supplemented that by slipping back into Alexandria and singing on street corners. After one year in the cotton fields, he was able to return to Louisiana College and obtain his degree in history after Willie Strother loaned him $120.
“But, there was another encounter on the campus of Louisiana College. It had an even greater impact on Jimmie’s life. While walking across campus, a man introduced himself to Jimmie.”
“The stranger was striking looking, well dressed, and friendly,” Jimmie said. “At first we talked about football and baseball. The man was the son of a sharecropper, too.”
He began to ask Jimmie questions and explained who he was. “I’m Robert G. Lee, and I’m holding a revival in Pineville at First Baptist tonight. Please be my guest. Jimmie, may I ask you something? If the Lord would call you today, would you be ready to go?”
“Dr. Lee, I hope He doesn’t call me today because I don’t think I could make it,” Jimmie said.
“The Lord’s been good to you, and it’s something you ought to think about. I hope you’ll come to church tonight.”
“I realized that everything I had, everything I had ever had, and everything I would ever hope to have on this earth had come and would come through the grace of God,” Jimmie said.
That night Jimmie went to church. Dr. Lee gave his most famous and beloved sermon, “Pay Day, Some Day.”
“There’s no doubt of it, the man had the finest command of the English language I’ve ever heard. Before he had finished, I was ready to go down the aisle. And when he gave the invitation, I was the first one down and made public my profession of faith and united with that church,” Jimmie said.
Willie Strother was there. He was a deacon in the church.
Excerpted from Destiny, a novel by Randy Willis
Destiny is a powerful epic with love stories, battles, testimonies, drama, politics, history, and even humor.
The sweeping family saga spans four centuries.
Inspired by true stories.
Available now at