Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wonderful Wednesday - a Loving Tribute to my Uncle Lonnie Sanford

James Alonzo "Lonnie" Sanford, ca. 1920s

When I think of wonderful, I think of my Uncle Lonnie.  He was wonderful to me, but unfortunately, as you will see, he didn’t have such a wonderful life.
James Alonzo “Lonnie” Sanford was born on November 11, 1902, in Memphis, Shelby Co., TN to Alonzo Orlando Sanford and Elizabeth Dorothy “Libbie” Zeigler, my great grandparents. He was Lorena Grace Sanford’s youngest brother.  She was my grandmother, and he was actually my great uncle. 
Since my Mother had no brothers and sisters (that we knew of at that time!) and my Father’s family was estranged from us for so many years, my great aunts and uncles were the only ones I knew.  They stepped into the void with love and pride.  I have already written about my sassy Aunt Bobbie, and I wanted to make sure that I included my wonderful Uncle Lonnie.  Rest assured that my precious Uncle Emile will be honored soon, too!  I was never privileged to meet my Aunt Ruby because sadly, she had passed away many years before I was born.
I thought of Uncle Lonnie as wonderful because he had that marvelous Sanford sense of humor that somehow just oozes from many of those with Sanford blood running through their veins.  He was funny, charming, handsome and brave.
He went off to fight in World War I when he was only fifteen years old, lying about his age, of course.  He simply had to go to war because his big brother, Emile, had joined the Armed Forces, and he needed to be there with him to fight in that War to End All Wars.  It was something he just had to do.  After only a few months overseas, he was reported ‘missing in action, presumed dead.’  The family was devastated.
My Grandmother recalled in later years that one day near the end of the war, as the family were all gathered on their front porch in Helena, Arkansas, she was looking down the street and saw a man walking towards the house.  She remembered that she cried and said, “That man looks like Lonnie.” Everyone thought she was just being emotional, but suddenly, as the man came closer, they all realized that it was Lonnie!  Nobody could ever explain why he was reported missing, but having had the pleasure of knowing him the few short years that I did, I’m just not surprised at all at anything that happened to him. (That’s certainly a story that needs more research!)
After the war, Lonnie and his older brother went to work as painters with their father in his business, which became known as Sanford and Sons, Painters. (Not to be confused with the TV program of yesteryear, but I’d bet they were just as funny!) They were house painters, carriage (and later automobile) painters, and fine art painters, as well. That was a talent that was passed down through the generations and even, thankfully, to my own sons through my brother, who had learned the skill from his uncles. 

Regrettably, in their spare time, my two uncles gained a rather risqué reputation, not only around Helena, but in Memphis as well.  It seems they loved the wine, women, and the night life…and the women certainly loved them. They were so very handsome.
I’ve often wondered what effect the following story had on Uncle Lonnie’s subsequent life.  One young lady, whom he dated for a while and ultimately broke up with, took a slow-acting poison, notified the newspapers, and related how she was ‘dying of a broken heart.’  It was a much-publicized story in local papers after her death, and I know that it must have caused Uncle Lonnie much anguish.  Before she died, she even sent him back the photo of himself that he had given her with a cover over his face and ‘devil-cut’ slits for his eyes.  Okay, I know the woman must have been a 'wee bit off,' but imagine what this must have done to him emotionally. It was a topic ‘not spoken of’ around our house until years after his death, and even then in a 'hush-hush' manner.
He ended up married only one time, a short-lived affair that resulted in no children.  My Uncle Emile married and settled down, but Uncle Lonnie went back to his wild ways, succumbing finally to alcoholism, which he didn’t overcome until the final two years of his life. He would spend many years of his life in and out of jail being arrested for drunkenness.  He never committed a crime…he just drank too much.
So why did I think he was wonderful?  I loved him with a child-like love that responded to the absolute love that he gave to me.  Whenever he visited us, he laughed constantly, told marvelous jokes, played games with us, taught us to paint, and – wait for it – taught us to shoot craps!  Oh, yeah…that’s what I said.  My Grandmother nearly died when she learned about that!
In the last two years of his life, he had actually become sober and was doing well with a job at a local hospital.  Sadly, he became ill and collapsed in the street walking home from work one day. He had not wanted to call in sick because he didn’t want to lose the job. The police, who knew him well, thought he was drunk again and took him to jail, where he died of pneumonia on November 2, 1957, only nine days short of his 55th birthday. I was ten years old and had just lost my Father in August of that same year. I was crushed, to say the least.
What a sad ending and what a sad life for such a wonderful man.  Yes, he was wonderful and will always remain so in my heart.  I smile even today just thinking of him.
After all, how many of you can say that you learned to shoot craps at the tender age of six?



  1. What a great story. I never knew any of my great uncles, or at least I can't remember them. I knew a few of my great aunts and I always loved being around them.

    Regards, Jim
    Genealogy Blog at Hidden Genealogy Nuggets

    1. Thank you, Jim. I'm glad you enjoyed learning about him. I'm sorry you didn't get to know yours. I've always been sad that I didn't get to know any of my great grandparents. I guess that's why I try to do so much research about my ancestors. I personally want to 'know' them, and at the same time try to 'bring them to life' for others by writing about them.

      Thank you so much for reading this post and for your comments.

  2. Great story! When I visited my Grandmother as a little girl, an "Uncle Lou" often stopped by in his overalls with a little something from his garden. I never thought through his relationship until after he died and I learned that he was actually my Grandmother's uncle and he was born in 1883! What a great reminder of the importance of writing about those who influenced our lives.

    1. Thank you! Sometimes we do forget that those 'great' aunts and uncles really are and were GREAT! I'm glad you enjoyed the story.

  3. Carla, thank you for all your research and bringing our family to life, for me. .. As you know, I never got to know our family, and am so grateful that you have this blog; it's made me laugh, brought back memories of grandma Bobbie, although vague memories. I recently restored a highboy dresser that belonged to her bedroom furniture, and in doing so, I could smell her cigarette smoke. I didn't mind the cigarette smell at all, as it brought back small bits of memories of her. I loved every moment of restoring that piece. I wish I could remember more of her. ❤️

    1. Hey sweet cousin! I'm so glad you've been brought closer to our family through this blog. As you can see, I haven't been writing much lately. All of my time now is devoted to my husband as a full-time caregiver. That's why I haven't called. It's hard to use the phone most of the time, too. (Please keep him in your prayers.)

      I'm so glad that you got Aunt Bobbie's highboy. I understand how that smell of smoke would remind you of her! I'm sorry that you didn't get to spend much time with her, but I know for a fact that she ADORED you!

      I'll do my best to contact you soon. All my love to you.