What'll kids think of next? No doubt, long-time school principal Marion Lafayette (Choc) Wetzel has pondered this question many times. He's seen the ingenuity of children "up close" since he was a kid himself on hard-scrabble farms in Comanche County, Texas.
His own "kids"—son Grayson and daughter Kristi—head the list of thousands of youngsters whom he's taught, coached and "principaled" over the years.
They threw a party for him at church when he turned 80, and 225 guests showed up to wish him well. Now, a decade later, his children's "next-thinking" creative juices flowed. They figured an inundation of greetings would be a good way to mark the big "nine-oh," and zealously asked friends to send birthday cards. Remember, they are "chips off the old Choc."
The big day was June 27. During the last 10 days in June, Choc opened 376 birthday cards. Some days, he received nearly half the mail for residents at CARE, Inc., where he lives independently.
What a deal! The barrage of cards re-ignited friendships, visits and phone calls. His eyes sparkled with wisdom and optimism as he rummaged through a washtub filled almost to the top with birthday cards. "Here's one made of wood," he said. "And this one from a friend in DeLeon reminded me of some calls I blew when officiating high school basketball games he played in more than 50 years ago."
One of them included a gift certificate. He decided to "shake down" all the others to make sure he didn't overlook other certificates….
Choc chose the "high road" way back yonder, and he's stayed on it. Early on, he learned that life offers few guarantees. World War I raged at the time of his birth, and the Great Depression was on the horizon.
His tenant farmer family never owned a home, nor lived in rental property that didn't leak. He attended several tiny rural schools as the family scrambled to stay stitched.
Once, when his daddy got sick and the crop failed, Choc dropped out of high school for a year to help out….
He remembers graduation in 1937. He and friends used a school pick-up truck to haul yucca plants for stage decoration. "It was a 'make-do' time," he smiled.
And what a smile! It has always flashed quickly. (With a head cocked sideways to accommodate his "good ear," and a smile splashed across his face, his gentle countenance warms hearts.)
For the next couple of years, he labored on farms. With few "regular jobs" available, he languished on a Comanche street corner one day. He heard friends talking about going to Brownwood to attend now-defunct Daniel Baker College. Invited along, he joined them in "thumbing rides" on the 25-mile journey. His love affair with education was about to blossom….
Penniless, he found ways to go to college. Right off, he cleaned the gymnasium, where he slept for the first few months. Later, he washed football uniforms. He also ran track and played basketball.
Despite numerous attempts to enter World War II military service, his punctured eardrum kept him out. He finished college in 1943. While there, he met his future wife, the former Dorothy Nell Baker, whom he married in 1944.
Choc retired from Brownwood Public Schools in 1979 to render full-time care to his wife, whose eight-year battle with leukemia ended in 1983. He had served Brownwood schools for 35 years as a teacher/coach/principal, and he was loved….
He hasn't been idle during almost three decades in retirement. He's fed his horses and 75 goats daily. For more than 20 years, he rode in the award-winning Brown County Sheriff's posse, a prize-winning unit that won trophies in parades all over Texas.
He's thinned his herd to three, but still rides horses at least weekly. Visit his apartment, and the first photo he'll point to shows six men on horseback. With Choc are son Grayson, son-in-law Jerry Nelson and grandsons David, Brian and Blake.
A long-time deacon and greeter at church, Choc has always had mints for children, and a smile for all….
Choc says he's a simple guy with a complicated name. "I got a letter addressed to 'Miss Marion' Wetzel," he said. "And 'Lafayette' was too hard to spell."
Tan-skinned and of Choctaw Indian heritage, he's opted for "Choc," a nickname from childhood.
It's easy to be friends with Wetzel. Choc doesn't give you any choice….
Dr. Newbury is a speaker and writer in the Metroplex. He welcomes inquiries and comments. Send email to: email@example.com Phone: 817-447-3872. His Web site: www.speakerdoc.com.