Hugh Henry Austin, or "Hudie" as the family called him
By: Sandy Williams Driver
When I was growing up in north Alabama, I loved to visit my grandparents, Rube and Dollie Morrow. Grandpa was quite a character and always had plenty of amusing tales to keep me entertained for hours. Grandma didn't talk very much but shared her assortment of memories with me through a tattered box of black and white photographs she had collected over the years.
Those keepsakes were my treasured link to the past. They provided me with a vivid portrayal of yesterday and tied me securely to the apron strings of my ancestors. Even as a child, I realized I didn't want my family's history to fade away along with those images staring back at me. The desire to gain knowledge about the people from whence I descended ran deep in my veins.
On my quest for information, I would ask, "Who is this, Grandma?" She always answered and then Grandpa would contribute a tidbit of information. Uncle Noah was five feet tall; Aunt Lizzie had ten children; Great-grandfather Allen fought in the Civil War; and so on.
There was one particular photo, however, that intrigued me more than the others. It was taken of my grandmother's half-brother, Hugh Henry Austin, or "Hudie" as the family called him. There was something about that picture which fascinated me and I often asked Grandma about her sibling. "He died awhile back," was all she would say with a "look" at Grandpa.
My beloved grandparents both passed away in the late 1970s and somehow I was fortunate enough to be given the frayed container of photographs sitting in the top of Grandma's closet. Through the years, however, my inheritance was packed away and regretfully forgotten.
While doing a little cleaning recently, I ran across the cardboard box stored in the top of my own closet. After wiping off the layer of dust, I decided to sort through the memories. Halfway through my reminiscing, I picked up the photo of my great Uncle Hudie. I was intrigued once again as I studied it, trying to figure out something about him.
His worn boots and overalls told me he was probably a hard worker, most likely a farmer. His large hands looked as if he could have plowed many fields and picked huge quantities of cotton. The hat perched atop his small head and the thick mustache hiding his top lip indicated he might have been a little conceited about his appearance.
His eyes, however, are usually the first thing I am drawn to when looking at the picture. They appear full of knowledge but also touched with a hint of sadness. I showed the photograph to my daughter and asked her first impression of the man. She said, "He looks like he's hiding something." That's what had captured my own attention to the photo. Uncle Hudie looked like he had a secret.
In the bottom of Grandmother's box, I found a yellowed newspaper clipping with "Rites held for Hugh H. Austin" typed across the top. The year "1959" was added in Grandma's handwriting.
The brittle piece of paper stated that Mr. Austin, 67, died suddenly on Thursday around noon of an apparent heart attack. A small building near his home was engulfed in flames when the local fire department arrived at the scene. Neither the building nor Mr. Austin could be saved.
I showed the clipping and the photograph to my mother and asked if she remembered the incident. "Of course," she said, and then told me the story.
Uncle Hudie was of the miserly sort and even though he made good money, he was extremely frugal and saved most of his earnings. Rumor has it that he distrusted the local banks in the area so much that he buried his accumulated wealth in the wooden floor of a small building near his house. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the rest of the tale and why he had a massive heart attack just minutes after his backyard depository caught fire.
Only now can I sit and stare at the photo of Uncle Hudie and understand what his eyes were hiding as he gazed solemnly into the camera. I guess it's true that sometimes a "picture can say a thousand words."
As I close the lid on the box, I can only hope my cherished legacy of photographs that chronicles the past 100 years of my family's history will be worth at least a thousand words for the future generations to come.
© Sandy Williams Driver
Published Feb 2004 U.S. Legacies