By Bud Kennedy
The mystery of Fort Worth’s Christmas song is solved.
It took help from readers in Palo Pinto County, plus one surprised family in Conroe.
I wrote last Christmas how for almost 50 years, we’ve heard Willie Nelson’s sad ballad Pretty Paper, about holiday shoppers rushing past a disabled street vendor selling pencils and ribbons while crawling “all alone on a sidewalk” downtown.
Dozens of readers who shopped at the old Leonards Department Store remember the man whom Nelson wrote about in 1963, after he left a local radio career for Nashville.
But we never knew the vendor’s name.
Several readers remembered that the man commuted from Santo, in Palo Pinto County, to take his place outside Leonards, where he drew sympathy as he crept along the sidewalk on all fours, wearing clunky gloves and kneepads made from old tires and a custom leather vest with a pencil rack and coin box sewn into the back.
Finally, rancher Bob Neely, 82, of Santo called about his former neighbor, Frankie Brierton.
“You could always hear him in town, dragging himself along the gravel street,” Neely said.
It turns out that Brierton refused a wheelchair. He chose to crawl because that’s what he learned growing up after his legs were weakened by a spinal disorder, said his daughter, Lillian Compte, 84, of Conroe.
She couldn’t figure out why anybody would be asking about her father, who died at 74 in 1973. He’s buried in Mineral Wells.
I told her that I think her father is probably the man in the song, selling gift ribbons and “hoping that you won’t pass him by.”
“It’s a pretty song,” she said.
“But I just never thought of it being about my father.”
Brierton worked as a street vendor in Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston, she said. Besides his Leonards corners at Second and Houston streets or Second and Throckmorton streets downtown, he sold pencils at the Stock Show, at the State Fair and on Main Street in downtown Houston.
He earned a living without government assistance, Compte said.
“He was my father — that’s all I knew,” she said.
“He sold pencils. He crawled around on his hands and knees. But we never did without.”
Her son, Rick Compte, 58, said he admires his grandfather. And Rick Compte spilled one more secret: Brierton was married seven times.
“You might say,” Rick Compte said, “that he really liked attention.”
He never knew about the song.