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Eugene J. Westhues

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   In memory of my brother,
   Eugene J. Westhues


    Kenneth Westhues, 2020  

1947, when I was 3 and Gene was 21    

"Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
— Abraham Lincoln, speech at Cooper Union, New York, 1860. Not that it makes any difference, but Gene and I descend through our mother from President Lincoln's Uncle Josiah.

The other kind of highwayman

The word highwayman dates from the seventeenth century. It meant a bandit on horseback who robs stagecoaches and foot travellers. In 1906, the English poet Alfred Noyes used the word in this original sense as the title of what became a famous ballad. This remains the most common meaning of the word.

My brother Gene was not a highwayman in this pejorative sense, though I might have said so in teasing. That would have been payback for his merciless teasing of me when he was in his twenties and I was just a boy. The eighteen years between us were huge then. They shrank with time.

In fact, Gene was honest as the day is long (our dad’s metaphor, his highest compliment for anyone). Gene believed what Lincoln said, that right makes might.

A neighbor and I once saw a break-in in progress. We went after the burglar, armed with just a hockey stick. I told Gene later it was good we didn’t catch him, we might have gotten ourselves killed.

“No,” he said, “you had the advantage.” I asked how so.

Gene answered, “You were in the right and he was in the wrong.”

Gene’s kind of highwayman

Gene was a highwayman in the sense of the word most common in Missouri in the decades after World War II. It meant a civil engineer who builds highways. The word implied admiration and respect. The newsletter for employees of the highway department of a neighboring state was named, The Oklahoma Highwayman.

Why Gene chose this profession and made it a way of life comes clear in light of his upbringing on our parents’ farm. That was long before Joni Mitchell complained in song about paving paradise. In rural Missouri in the 1930s, paving was paradise. Roads around Glasgow were dust and dirt at best, mud at worst. Farmers routinely had chains on their tires. To get to St. Louis or Kansas City reliably, you were best advised to take the train.

Gene’s and my cherished grandparents, John and Lena Conran, lived on a farm south of town that was inaccessible for weeks of the year, whenever the hill was muddy, the creek was high, or snow was deep.

A major event of my childhood was in 1947-48: the state government upgraded the road at the end of our lane into a “farm-to-market” thoroughfare. The change in the landscape was dazzling. Paving was still years away, but the road was straightened, leveled, widened, gravelled, and well maintained. Our farmhouse was connected to the outside world as never before.

Helping build that farm-to-market road was Gene’s first job after his return from the army. As a rodman on a survey crew, he foresaw his career. He enrolled the next year in Central College on the GI Bill, car-pooling to Fayette with cousin Harold. Gene then transferred for civil engineering to the Missouri School of Mines in Rolla.

Gene resumed full-time work with the Missouri Highway Department in 1951, and stayed with it his entire working life. He was the State Utilities Engineer when he retired in 1988.

Road trips

True to his highwayman identity, Gene loved cars. Combined with paved roads, the car meant freedom beyond a depression-era farm boy’s wildest dreams. It was from Gene that I learned of the existence of the American Automobile Association, that would give a member a free triptic on request.

In January of 1954, Gene invited our mother, our sister Dolores, and me to make a week-long road trip with him in his new Chevrolet Bel Air all the way to Miami, Florida. Two years later, when he had accumulated two weeks of vacation, he bought another new Bel Air and invited us to ride with him again, this time to Mexico City.

Today, two-thirds of a century later, it is hard to grasp what rare, exotic adventures those trips were. None of my schoolmates had done such a thing. The teachers had me give speeches about all that I had learned. Those trips were great gifts to me, conclusive evidence that Gene cared for me, though he teased and grumbled at me all along the way.


Except about his grandsons, Gene was not a braggart. He did not inflate his own worth. In one of his last years at the Highway Department, there was a meeting in advance of a visit by the Governor, John Ashcroft, later U.S. Attorney General under President G. W. Bush. Missouri law required at the time, maybe still, that the Governor make an annual visit to the Highway Department and meet personally with the brass.

“My office is far enough down the hall,” Gene said, “he’ll never get to me.” And Gene went on eating the bag lunch he brought daily to his office for thirty years.

As this story has to end, there was a knock on Gene’s office door on the day of the Governor’s visit.

“So, Westhues,” Ashcroft said, “you thought I wouldn’t want to talk with you. Well, here I am.”

On their return from
the army in the first
months of 1947, Jim
(left, holding me) and
Gene (right) worked
on the farm and played
baseball. In that pre-
TV era, games between
Glasgow and
neighboring towns
were major
community events.


James F. Westhues

Jim Westhues,
How my old red hen with scaly legs helped Dad catch a thief
Morning chores and a lesson from Dad

Jim and Gene, contrasting temperaments

The foundational blessing of my life was to be born into a family that made room for me, loved me, drew me into its complex web of relations. I mean not just my parents but all five of my older siblings, who ranged in age from 12 to 21 when I arrived.

Inevitably, I compared Jim and Gene, the big brothers still at home in my early years. From little on, I could see how different from each other they were.

Jim was right-brain: warm, impulsive, intuitive. He lived for baseball and basked in the crowd’s applause. With his gift of gab, he was cut out perfectly for sales. What a salesman he became! He could sell steak to vegans: “Just freeze it and feed it little by little to your dog, he’ll love you for it.”

Gene was left-brain: linear, logical, factual. He was an engineer by temperament long before he earned credentials in the field.

When I was about five, I asked Jim to give me his solemn promise never to tease me anymore. He agreed. We shook hands on it. He kept his promise. We were good friends ever after.

I never tried to make such a pact with Gene. He was hopeless, couldn’t have kept the promise anyway. He had a soft, emotional side, a side that showed itself years later in his own family, but that side of him was not much part of his fraternal relationship to me. This bothered me less as I grew up. Indeed, I took comfort in being able to talk completely straight with Gene.

Jim and Gene had a relationship of their own, no doubt complicated by sibling rivalry due to their closeness in age. It’s good that they lived miles apart. In their sunset years, politics became a big bone of contention. Gene tilted slightly to the left, Jim greatly to the right.

The photo is of Gene and Jim horsing around at our hotel in Sarasota, April 2009.

A reunion in old age

In April of 2009, our sister Dolores in Sarasota was ill. She asked that her three surviving brothers come visit her. Jim and Gene were both mid-eighties by then, but they said yes, they would fly from Kansas City to Tampa. I said I would fly there from Toronto and meet them on arrival, then drive the three of us to Sarasota.

As our reunion approached, I got to worrying about too much togetherness. The thought of Jim and Gene sitting next to each other for two and a half hours on the plane weighed on me. They might not be on speaking terms by the time the plane landed. A further hour and a half together in the car to Sarasota might be misery for all three of us.

I therefore made a mental list of questions I could ask in the car about life on the farm before I was born. This was something I had genuine interest in, something they both knew lots about. If I could keep them talking about old times, we might make the drive without a fight.

Luckily, Southwest Airlines does not permit seat selection in advance, and Jim and Gene could not sit together on the plane. On the drive to Sarasota, Jim sat beside me in the front seat, Gene in the back. I pulled out my old-times questions one after another. Conversation moved along happily.

Then, in answer to one of my questions, Jim gave a long monologue, recounting endless fascinating details about something or other. When at last he finished, I waited for Gene to add his own details, but the silence from the back seat went on and on. At last Gene spoke.

“Jim, goddammit,” he said, “when you tell a story, it has to be true. You can’t just make things up.”

All three of us laughed. It was a replay of hundreds of earlier exchanges. Right brain versus left. Salesman versus engineer.

As things turned out, for me and I think for all of us, the few days we spent together in Sarasota were a hallowed time. We three brothers shared a hotel suite. I was struck by Jim’s and Gene’s gentleness and patience toward each other, as also to Dolores and to me. We would never all be together again, though Jim would live almost ten years more, and Gene eleven. Now in 2020, only Dolores and I are left.

Unspoken love

I’m pretty sure I never told Gene, “I love you.” I’m quite sure he never said that to me. The terms of our relationship precluded gushiness. No regrets for that. Actions speak louder than words.

Gene and Juanita asked me to be godfather for their daughter Debbie at her Baptism. They trusted me to drive their son Doug with his Grandma to Colorado. They asked my wife Anne to be sponsor for daughter Kristy’s Confirmation. Less than a year after I moved to Canada in 1970, they brought their whole family to visit me.

Years later, they visited Anne and me in Canada again. It was just before the U.S. government dropped its charges against me, so that I could again travel back to Missouri. True to form, Gene grumbled that he wished the government had acted sooner, it would have saved him a long trip.

I often complimented Gene and Juanita on their children as they were growing up: smart, fun, serious kids, a credit to their parents. Gene's response was always the same: So far so good, but you never know what they'll do next. I don't imagine he was an easy dad, but I think he was a very good one.

I give thanks for the lives of all the members of the family into which I belatedly was born. I did not love the highwayman any more or less than any other sibling, but I deeply feel his loss.





Gene and me at his and Juanita's home in Jefferson City, 2010.