Tuesday, August 11, 2020

“The most fascinating individual I ever met”: My Uncle Don Timbrook

One day when I was about four years old my uncle Don Timbrook was driving by my home on Fayetteville’s South College Avenue when he spotted me kissing one of the neighboring Phillips girls. The next day, he started kidding me about it. Reddening and flustered, I blurted out that next time I kissed a girl I would hide “to-hind a tree” where he could not see me.

Don was tickled by my response, and he never let me forget about this episode. He even incorporated it for a while in the repertoire of stories he told to entertain friends and relatives. He had a big stock of such stories, some funny and others hilarious, and you had to laugh at his often-exaggerated accounts of life’s events.  After you knew Don for a while, you would start smiling when you saw him coming, anticipating the whoppers he would tell.

Don Timbrook, smiling and being funny, as always

Don was lucky to marry Vera Durning, my dad’s sister. She was seventeen and he was twenty-two when they got hitched on February 24, 1934, and pictures of them at the time show they were a handsome pair. She was a good-humored and kind person, who enjoyed Don’s outsized personality. Even though she often seemed exasperated and sometimes outraged by some of his stories, the exasperation was faux, and the outrage was calibrated to reward Don for his provocative humor. She basked in his company.

Both Don and Vera grew up in poor but hardworking families. Don was born in Hulbert, Oklahoma, a rural community a few miles east of Tahlequah on Highway 51, on December 6, 1911, and spent his first years on a rented farm in nearby Crittenden township. He was the sixth child of James A. (Feb. 1881–Aug. 1941) and Roxie Ann Timbrook, née Harris (Sep. 1883–Feb. 1981). The two had met while growing up near each other on farms in Elixir township in Boone County, Arkansas, and married in 1902.  Don was their fifth born offspring, and eventually, he had four brothers and four sisters, all but one of whom lived long lives. Don and his siblings did not have much opportunity to attend school. In fact, Don may have never attended school except, as he told a friend, for three days when he went in place of his brother Berry, who had chickenpox.

Don and Vera, about 1940, with their daughter

Some of Don’s ancestors were Cherokees, whose capital was in nearby Tahlequah, probably on his father’s side of the family. You could see traces of his ancestry in his features, although his dark complexion could likely be attributed in large part to his daily outdoor activities. He had legendary prowess as a fisherman, and I always assumed that was an attribute of his Native American heritage.

Vera also came from a large family that farmed in the Ozarks. She was the granddaughter of George William Durning, who had moved from Tennessee to the tiny community of Cass in Franklin County Arkansas in the 1840s. She was born there on August 13, 1916, the sixth of the eleven children of Nathaniel Elias (1882–1960) and Lillie Samantha Durning (1889–1964). Like Roxie, Lillie Samantha was born a Harris, but her childhood home was in Fort Douglas in Johnson County, Arkansas.

Elias and Lillie Samantha were still living in Cass with their children when my dad was born on April 1, 1925, but soon after that, they moved to Denning, a small settlement near Altus. I think they left Cass after the death of Vera’s older brother, John Lewis Durning, at the age of eighteen in 1928. That death hit my grandmother hard, so much so that she left the Baptist Church and became a Jehovah’s Witness. Vera also joined that church.

Vera, middle, with her sisters Ruth,
Rheta, Stella, and Norma (L to R)

After a few years in Denning, the family, including Vera, moved in the first part of the 1930s to the outskirts of Fayetteville, renting a farm there. By the time the Durning family had settled into their new Fayetteville-area home, Roxie Ann and her children had already lived in the city for several years. In the middle 1920s, she had left her husband to relocate in the university town. When 1930 census takers asked her marital status, she told them she was a widow. The response would have surprised James A. Timbrook because he was still living in Oklahoma at the time; he remained there until his death in 1941.

No doubt, both the Timbrook and Durning families had to scramble to make a living after they moved to Fayetteville and vicinity. Fortunately, they were no strangers to hard work, and survival during the Great Depression required it. Roxie Timbrook rented a home at 421 South Church Street where in 1930 she lived with her five youngest children and was a self-employed seamstress. By that time, Don, who had been working for many years to help the family’s financial situation, was employed at a “produce house” as a “chicken picker.”

Thanks to Don’s friend Arthur Friedman (1916-1997), who ran around with him during the years between Don’s arrival in Fayetteville in about 1925 and his marriage to Vera in 1934, we have a glimpse of Roxie Timbrook’s life in her early years in Fayetteville. Friedman mentioned her in one of his autobiographical columns he wrote in the 1980s for the Northwest Arkansas Times:

Mrs. Roxie Timbrook, one of the most wonderful persons I have ever known, told me some years ago that she walked from the fairgrounds to a house of Mount Nord, worked 14 hours as a domestic, and tramped back home to take care of a large family. For her work outside the home, she was paid 10 cents an hour.  


Don with his mother Roxie Ann Timbrook

Friedman told us even more in his newspaper column about Don, whom he had met “one summer day sixty years ago at the Town Branch that runs eastward along the north base of South Mountain” He wrote that sentence in January 1986, so that meeting would have been in 1925 or 1926. Friedman continued, “This encounter developed into a close friendship that was to endure for well over half a century. We played together, hunted together, fished together, and honky-tonked together, and often drank out of the same bottle.” During this friendship, Friedman heard Don’s stories and collected his own stories about him. He told one story that he said was Don’s favorite: 

[Don] was at Lake Fayetteville fishing off the bank. A small boy came wandering by, throwing rocks and skipping them on the water. As has been the custom since time immorable [sic], the lad asked Don if he was having any luck. Don replied that he had caught two big catfish, but had to throw them back because they had ticks on them. The child, eyes wide in amazement, went on his way, but a little later returned. “My dad knows you,” he said “When I told him what you said,” he replied, “That’s Don Timbrook – he’s the only man in the State of Arkansas that can catch fish with ticks on them.”
Don with his prize catfish


Friedman liked to recall his hunting and fishing trips with Don and L.D Timbrook, Don’s brother, along with his other “constant companions,” Ray Hinkle, Tom Plant, and Robert Cook. These boys sometimes went to South Mountain to kill rabbits and fish in the Town Branch at the base of the mountain. According to Friedman, their expeditions started at Lewis Brothers Hardware store on the Square where they could buy 12-gauge shotgun shells for three cents each. They and their dogs would walk down the hill to Hunts Pasture, where Walker Park is now, and keep going south on flat land until they reached South Mountain. According to Friedman, 

One day as we were walking along, Don Timbrook made his brother L.D. carry his gun, a heavy double-barreled 12 gauge. When Don wasn’t looking, L.D. plunged the end of the gun about an inch into the muddy ground that we were traveling over. 

Later on, Don retrieved the weapon and fired at a fast-running rabbit that jumped up and took off in front of us. There was a terrific explosion. Black powder smoke enveloped the whole area. The recoil of the gun threw Don backwards across three rows of strawberries and left a large purple bruise on his shoulder….The concussion of the first shell set off the one in the left barrel and the end of the gun split open like the hull of a ripe cotton boll. For years we tried to explain to Don that a mud-dauber had built a nest in the muzzle of his gun, but to this day, he refuses to buy the idea.


The carefree days of hunting and fishing together on South Mountain came to an end as the young friends took on new responsibilities. For Don, no doubt the first ten years of marriage were an economic struggle. He and Vera had their only child, Carol Sue, in 1935, and work during the Depression was hard to find. In 1939, according to the census taken the following year, Don had worked as a “poultry paster” at a processing plant for sixteen weeks, earning $300. Probably, Don’s hunting and fishing talents helped ensure that the family had plenty of food for its table.

When “Donald Lee Timbrook” registered for the draft on October 16, 1940, he was unemployed. His draft papers listed the twenty-eight-year-old man as standing 5’11’’, weighing 162 pounds, with brown eyes and hair and, inexplicably, a “light complexion.” As the father of a young child, Don’s entry into the military was delayed until 1944 when he was drafted into the Navy. His service lasted from April 10, 1944 to December 29, 1945, during which time he served on two ships in the Pacific Theater, first on the USS Clay, an attack transport, and then, after the end of the war, on the USS Rocky Mount., a command and communication ship.
Don in the Navy, 1945

Returning from the War in early 1946, Don found opportunities open to him that had not been there during the war. He made a good living for several years after the war as hide buyer, working for a time for the Midwest Hide and Skin Corp., then he worked as a butcher, some of the time for Mhoon’s Grocery store. He continued in that occupation for the rest of his working years, and he was apparently a skilled expert in the art.  Friedman recalled that one day Don had told him that he was now “Dr. Timbrook” and that “he expected me to treat him with dignity and respect due the holder of such a title.” It turned out that a professor at the University of Arkansas’s College of Agriculture had “recognized his outstanding ability as a butcher [and] had hired him to skin and dress carcasses while the instructor lectured to his classes on the proper procedure for preparing and grading meat.” I am sure he gave a performance that evoked lots of laughter.

After the war, Don and Vera moved to a house a 716 South College, south of Jefferson School and a short walk from the South Mountain area where Don had long fished and hunted. They later moved further south for a while, to 901 South College, but by 1960 were back at 716 S. College, where they lived for the rest of their lives.  At these locations, Vera was only a few blocks from her parent’s home and those of several of her brothers and sisters.   

They were living at 901 S. College, four long blocks from my parent’s, house when they came into my life and vice versa. They sometimes took me swimming by the one-lane Tilly Willy Bridge on the West Fork of the White River, and I recall that on the day that I got my smallpox vaccination and had a plastic bubble strapped on to protect the injection site, we headed to that swimming hole. They also took me with them to 71 Drive In, and I relished the few minutes at the playground by the base of the screen, waiting for the first images to appear. I was usually asleep by the middle of the first feature. Vera fed me and my parents some heaping meals as we spent evenings laughing at Don’s stories. She woke us up with frantic late-night calls imploring us to join them in their basement because a tornado was heading our way. Don patiently taught me the basics of fishing, starting with how to get minnows and worms for bait, then how to properly bait a hook and cast a rod, and ending with how to gut a fish. He also provided insights into where to find the best places to fish and how to choose the best bait for different settings.  He sometimes took me and my cousin, Morris Daniel, with him to fish at different ponds around Fayetteville. 
Don, Vera, and Bernice Durning, play rummy

Don and Vera were an important part of my childhood, but as usually happens, I saw them less and less as I got older and especially after I moved away from Fayetteville.  Time passed, and Vera got sick, passing away after a long illness on February 13, 1981, keeping her optimistic attitude and warm smile to the end. The next day, Don lost his mother, who died on February 14, 1981 at the age of 98.  Friedman observed that Don had been blessed with “two wonderful women in his life” and when they were not available “he was like a ship without a rudder.”  Don died on January 6, 1986.  

His old friend Friedman, who graduated from the University of Arkansas and taught eighth-grade history for 27 years in Kansas City, wrote a touching tribute to Don a few days after his death.  He said, “If I am ever interrogated as to the most fascinating individual I ever met, he would have to be Don Timbrook… Don worked hard, played vigorously, met adversity and trouble head-on, loved and enjoyed associating with his fellow man.” Friedman then summarized his life, concluding “He loved everyone he knew and always had time to console and help a friend. I don’t think he ever did anything inherently evil in his long life. When he stands before Judgment, I can see him telling the Lord, “I did the best I could with what you gave me – You cannot expect more of any man.”
Don, making me laugh

I did not know Don nearly as well as Friedman, but when I was growing up, I also found Don the most fascinating man I knew, and the most entertaining.  I was lucky to have him as an uncle and Vera as my aunt, and I still smile when I recall the time I spent with them and miss the laughs that erupted when Don told his yarns, even the one about the time he caught a little boy kissing a girl on South College Avenue.



 “Don Timbrook” (obit.). 1986. Northwest Arkansas Times, Jan. 7, p. 2.

 “Family Reunion.” 1959. Northwest Arkansas Times, July 18, p. 7.

 Friedman, Arthur. 1984. “Fayetteville’s Own – A Mountain to Measure.” Northwest Arkansas Times, May 21, p. 12.

 -----. 1984. “Schulertown.” Northwest Arkansas Times, Sept. 3, p. 14.

 -----. 1984. “Old Fairground Leaves Fine Memories.” Northwest Arkansas Times, Nov. 5, p. 18.

 “Note” (Marriage Notice). 1934. Fayetteville Daily Democrat, Feb. 26, p. 3.

 -----. 1986. “Remembering a Close Friend.” Northwest Arkansas Times, Jan. 26, p. 20.

 “J. A. Timbrook Rites.” 1941. Cherokee County Democrat-Star, Sept. 4, p. x

 “Personal Mention.” 1934. Fayetteville Daily Democrat, Feb. 26, p. 3.

 “Mrs. Vera Timbrook” (obit.). 1981.  Northwest Arkansas Times, February 15, p. 2.