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March 2011 cover image The Best of Texas, Naturally!

Remembering “Bubby,” the Best Kind of Grandfather

Love and Lessons From a Legendary Man

By Mary Catherine Fondren

One of the first things I was told when I arrived at Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine for my internship in January was that I had one big shadow to live up to. Now, if I could have put words in the publisher’s mouth, I would have probably interjected “humongous,” “gigantic,” maybe “colossal”? Surely something greater than merely “big”.

As my three weeks continued, I realized this shadow I have been blessed with is one that I couldn’t have thrived without — one that has made me passionate about the things I love and has made me work hard for the things I want.

Though my grandfather might not have acknowledged it, those who crossed his path were blessed to have known such a legendary man. A man who never bit his tongue, was a rough-and-tough kind of guy, a savvy business entrepreneur, a football fanatic, a die-hard fisherman, a flower photographer, a conservationist and, most importantly, a family man.

Walter Fondren III, or, as our family called him, Bubby, was hands-down the best grandfather anyone could ever dream of (and I’m not just bragging). With my 14 cousins in tow, Bubby created a world in which all you needed was family. Whether we were out hunting at the ranch or casting lines from the dock in Port O’Connor, he was our personal guide through life. My oldest cousin, Michael, referred to his guidance as the “School of Bubby.” School was always in session; no matter where you were or what you were doing, there was always a lesson (or a “Bubbyism,” as we liked to call it) to be learned.

One of the first Bubbyisms I can remember is: “A fishing pole and tackle are two ingredients that you have to have in life.” Fishing was a word that Bubby forged into my vocabulary from the day I could talk. He made sure my cousins and I didn’t forget the importance of everything from casting a reel to conserving what was in the canal.

When I close my eyes, I can still see my grandfather up in his chair at the front of the boat, casting into the back bay in Port O’Connor, with the same trademark hat and glasses, telling yet another story about life. There wasn’t a day in the summer when he wasn’t braving the Texas heat to be out on the water, and once he ventured back from his journey, you couldn’t get him to stop talking about it. I can’t remember a summer where I didn’t spend every waking moment on the top seat of the boat tower or finding shells at Sunday Beach with my grandfather by my side.

As a child, I was slightly intimidated by the man who held our entire family together with his booming voice. My dad would tell us stories about him nailing shoes to the dock if they were left outside or running over a bike you forgot to put up. But, as time flew by, that rough-and-tough exterior exposed a sweet, loving grandfather who would do anything for his family.

Just two years ago, after a photo safari on the ranch, I remember him patting his knee, motioning for me to sit down on it. Then 15, I had obviously outgrown the stage of lap sitting by age and definitely size, but he didn’t care. Once I perched there, he told me to never stop following my passion for photography.

It may come as a surprise to most, but Bubby was an avid and wildly talented flower photographer. “Flowers?” I remember hearing from a friend as we flipped through his photos. Yes, flowers. There was no limit to his endless passions, and he wanted to make sure I never let mine go. He told me that following your passion meant spending countless hours devoting yourself to what you claim to love. If you didn’t devote yourself entirely, there was no passion, and that would be false.

I’d like to think that if I could put his life together in a book — OK, more like an encyclopedia set — you might be able to fully understand how great a man Bubby really was. Through his eyes, the most important lesson he taught was that life was black and white. You never change who you are, you go with what you know, and you never give up the fight for what you believe in.

The best thing about Bubby was that he was never all talk. Bubby gave every ounce of his heart and soul to fighting for what he believed in, and it showed through everything he set his mind to.

Just over a year ago, I found myself in the Fondren hospital wing, surrounded by the people I couldn’t live without – all of us there for the person we loved most. A moment filled with Kleenex and sorrow came and passed, and we found ourselves with a hole in our hearts. The grandfather we loved so dearly had ended his 73-year journey in life.

To this day, it’s hard to believe that the man who taught us everything we needed to know, anything we desired to learn and sometimes the things we didn’t want to hear, is gone. But after all is said and done, I proudly live under his shadow, following every Bubbyism I can remember, holding on to every experience I can, hoping to live a life as full as his.

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