Willie Nelson signs late Central Texas classmate’s 1948 yearbook

ABBOTT, Texas (KWTX) A local police chief who has been trying for years to get his father’s 1948 Abbott High School yearbook signed by his dad’s most famous classmate, Willie Nelson, was brought to tears when the yearbook arrived back to the family’s home in Abbott this week 5 years after his father passed away and a decade after he set out to score the signature.

Willie Nelson signed two photos in the yearbook, and his older sister, Bobbie, signed one as well. (Courtesy photos)

by: Julie Hays

Joe John Barton, who passed away in West in 2014 at the age of 82, was a senior in 1948 in the small town of Abbott, population 363, along with Bobbie Nelson who had a younger brother in the 10th grade at the time named Willie.

The three were friends throughout their school years, and kept in touch even after Willie’s rise to fame so when Joe John’s family came across the 70-year-old yearbook when moving him into a nursing home in West in 2008, they had an idea.

“I said ‘dad we should have Willie sign it’ and he said ‘that be really, really great,’” Joe John’s son, West police Chief Darryl Barton said.

“He was all for the idea but I was going to do it as a surprise.”

Joe John Barton’s and Willie Nelson’s friendship started in the 1930’s in Abbott.

“In a town that size everyone is friends,” Barton recalls.

The boys played on the same six-man football team, Joe John as a right guard and Willie as a left halfback.

“Dad said he was scrawny but everybody on the team had to pull together because they were small so he may have been scrawny but he was full of fight.” Barton said.

Darryl recalls many of the stories his father told him about the classmate with humble beginnings in Central Texas who went on to become one of the best known musicians in the world.

“He says what he remembers growing up was Willie was dirt poor. Literally, the house he grew up in had a dirt floor,” he said.

“Everyone knew he didn’t have a lot of money.”

Joe John told stories of Willie turning to music at an early age playing in nearby night clubs as a way to earn money.

“Dad said there used to be a club called The Night Owl Club on Old Dallas Highway. Willie played for the lady who owned that place all the time.”

Willie rose to fame at the end of the 1960’s.

Darryl’s father stayed in contact with him and his sister Bobbie and visited them on many occasions at their Austin area ranch but as time passed and Nelson’s schedule got busier, the friends lost touch.

Darryl recalls meeting Nelson when he worked security for the performer at the Cowboy Club in Mexia and trading stories about his dad.

“I spoke to Willie on the steps of his bus for a good while,’ Darryl said. “I mentioned who my dad was and he said ‘Joe John oh yes I know him.’ That was very cool to me. The only thing I had for him to sign that day was one of my checks, which he did. He was so easy to talk with, almost forgot he was famous.”

Joe John Barton didn’t live to see the signature.

He died in 2014 at the West Rest Haven nursing home, his family says, after experiencing PTSD from the April 17, 2013 West Fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15, injured scores more and left parts of the town heavily damaged including the nursing home, whose 133 residents were displaced.

His death didn’t deter Darryl from getting the yearbook signed, however, and he came the closest when the grandson of Waylon Jennings, who had ties to Central Texas, took it to one of Willie’s shows.

“A few years back Josh Jennings, the grandson of Waylon Jennings who went to Bruceville-Eddy High School, took the yearbook to Willie’s 4th of July concert and it just got so busy. He was never able to take it to him.”

Barton finally made the right connection when asking the man who helps care for Willie’s home the singer still owns in Abbott.

That man helped get the yearbook in the mail to Willie three months ago and on Tuesday it arrived back to the Barton’s home in Abbott with multiple signatures, one of Willie’s over his 1948 school picture, another across Willie’s football photograph and another signature came from Nelson’s sister, Bobbie.

“I cried,” Barton said.

“Just an overwhelming feeling yesterday of happiness when I got it because I was finally able to do something I was working on for so long and also kind of sadness that he wasn’t able to enjoy it himself but with my faith I feel like my dad was looking down and is well aware that I accomplished this way to honor him.”

“Even though it’s Willie’s signature, it honors my dad.”

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