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In Mid-Century Paint Creek, Perry Was Center of His Universe

If Rick Perry felt like the center of the universe in his first 18 years, he couldn’t have been faulted for it. Life in his tiny hometown of Paint Creak revolved around children — their school, their scouting, their sports.

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PAINT CREEK — Of all the stories Paint Creek natives tell about “Little Ricky” Perry, the mischief-making, over-achieving hometown boy turned Republican presidential contender, the favorite (and possibly apocryphal) tale involves a six-man high school football game in which Perry was knocked flat by an opponent. When the coach knelt over him to check for injuries, local lore has it, Perry said: “I’m okay, coach. But how are the fans taking it?”

If Perry felt like the center of the universe in his first 18 years, he couldn’t have been faulted for it. Reared in a Rolling Plains town so flat and barren he could see the blue-brown horizon from any direction, in a community where farmers spent months at a time willing storm clouds to gather and everyone was related by blood or marriage, life revolved around children — their school, their scouting, their sports.

The charming, eager-to-please young Perry — son of a vivacious, gifted seamstress and a cotton-farming Democratic county commissioner who’d returned from tail-gunning duties in World War II — ate it up, according to several childhood friends interviewed in his hometown an hour north of Abilene. (Perry and his family declined to be interviewed for this story.)

He ferried his pals around in his father’s pick-up truck before he was old enough to see over the steering wheel, swimming in the newly dug Lake Stamford, where the red clay waters from aptly named Paint Creek dyed pink the underwear of a full generation of boys.

He tromped through cactus, cow piles and cowering mesquite trees with his boy scout troop — the Badger Patrol — building brick and tin huts, practicing first aid on a beloved mutt named Tramp, and one November night, fishing near-naked for crawdads in a frigid creek. 

At age 8, at a piano recital, he met Anita Thigpen, the doctor’s daughter in nearby Haskell who would become his wife 24 years later. 

In between church revivals and pancake suppers he attended in western shirts sewn by his mother, he darted around the football field, an emerald oasis amid miles of yellow wheat and white cotton bolls, and won “most popular” and “football hero” superlatives in his tiny rural school.

“He believed that second place was first loser,” recalled Jim Bob Mickler, a life-long friend whose father was Perry’s football coach.

His early years were no cakewalk, a point Perry makes frequently in his presidential campaign stump speeches. Following his 1950 birth, he lived with his parents Joseph “Ray” and Amelia, who were tenant farmers, and his older sister Milla in a cabin with no running water. Perry and his friends helped their fathers sow hardscrabble fields that had to be coaxed — begged, really — to produce cotton and wheat, and that were home to far more coyotes and rattlesnakes than farmers. Mothers hung wet tea towels in the windows to cut the summer heat.

“The way kids were reared was structured toward our country, toward taking care of it,” said Mickler, who now works for the state’s Veterans Land Board in Austin. “It fit well with farming in the respect that you had to care for the land.”

By Perry’s adolescence, his father’s farming skills had allowed the family to move into nicer digs, a modest red-brick ranch home with white lattice shutters. His parents, now in their 80s, still live there.  

“It was the center of civilization,” Perry wrote in his paean to the Boy Scouts, On My Honor, of growing up in Paint Creek, “and everything else was an alternative universe.”

Childhood friends recall Perry as a skinny kid with an always-perfect haircut. A boy who yes ma’amed and no sir’ed his elders but couldn't resist the temptation to yank a girl’s pigtails at recess. Who mended fences and raised livestock, jumping from the tractor to swim in drainage channels when rainstorms blew through. He handed out penny candy to convince his classmates to elect him Junior High Halloween King. Another year, he and his best friend pushed a snowman off the school roof to splatter the girls’ basketball team (it landed on the school superintendent instead).

“If you messed up anywhere in the community, your daddy knew about it before dark,” recalled Wallar Overton, 72, a longtime friend of Perry’s despite their opposing political affiliations, whose father Gene was Paint Creek’s boy scout troop leader. “It took the whole community to raise somebody.”

Scouting was Perry’s first love. He spent every Saturday building flint fires and swimming in stock tanks in the Overton’s 150-acre pasture. He lived for scout camp in Buffalo Gap, where Mickler recalls that Perry held court, idolized by younger boys for his perfectly knotted scout kerchief and his savant-like ability to call those he’d barely met by name. His Eagle Scout Court of Honor, a big to-do at the Methodist church, was the first most local boys ever witnessed.

It was scouting, and his connection to the Overtons, that sparked Perry’s fervor for Texas A&M University. The scoutmaster and his son, mentors to Perry, were Aggies and military veterans, and took the boys to College Station to witness the pageantry of the A&M Corps of cadets and a home football game. “Once Rick saw A&M, it was all over for him,” Overton said.

In the years Perry attended college there — earning mediocre grades, but being elected yell leader — and even after he enlisted in the United States Air Force, his mother returned the favor, hauling high school boys considering Texas Tech to A&M to be converted. “There was a direct line between the Boy Scouts and A&M and the military,” Mickler said. “It was just a continuation of the way things were done in this community.”

It’s been more than four decades since Perry left for college, and in some ways, his childhood home is now starkly different: An exodus of young people who don’t see a future in the family tradition, coupled with a historic drought, has left the future looking grim, evidenced by the desperate prayers for precipitation and the vacant storefronts and dilapidated homes dotting Haskell, the county seat.    

But in many others, Paint Creek remains unchanged: There’s still no gas station, no grocery, not a single stoplight. Farming remains the lifeblood of the community, though the industry is bolstered by federal subsidies. Just 160 kids are registered for school this fall, an average of 13 per grade — the same number as in Perry’s graduating class. And despite Perry’s conversion in the late 1980s to the Republican Party, Paint Creek natives have remained largely Democratic. This has left them at odds politically with their hometown presidential hopeful, Perry’s childhood friends say, but not — as some locals have alleged — abandoned by him.

When they speak of him today, it’s not of Perry the governor or Perry the candidate. It’s of the young pilot fresh from the air force who chartered a plane to fly a dying family friend to a big-city hospital, or in recent months, traveled hundreds of miles to visit a childhood playmate recovering from surgery.

“He was a normal Paint Creek kid,” said Phyllis Coleman, who grew up on the farm next to Perry’s, grinning at the 1960s high school yearbook photos “Ricky” signed for her in careful cursive. “Still is. Just like the rest of us.”

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