While I was in high school, a man named Ross Hawkins was charged with murdering his wife. Ross Hawkins and his wife were residents of Smith County, Mississippi. The Hawkins murder trial was held in Raleigh, the seat of Smith County Government.
My family and I also lived in Smith County. Murder is always big news and being a born news junkie, I wanted to attend the trial and I wanted company. I failed to convince the first few classmates I approached to join me in playing hooky from school and “hitching” to Raleigh for the trial. But a classmate and cousin, Patsy Westbrook, said she would go with me. Patsy agreed to the hitchhiking part of my plan but flatly refused to sneak off campus.
It was report card time and my solution to her objection was for us to go into the typing room, which was empty in the morning. We would each type a note of permission, and then forge a parent’s signature. To do that, we’d each put our note over our report card and simply trace our parent’s signature.
With forged permission notes in hand, Patsy and I headed for the principal’s office. Patsy insisted on the way there that I had to do the talking when we presented our notes because going to the trial was my idea. The principal terrified me but I did what I’d learned to do when feelings of terror struck: I took a deep breath, pasted a mile-wide smile on my face, and pretended I felt no fear.
The principal’s office was crowded and we were not challenged.
Giggling as we went, my cousin and I waved to the other students we passed as we crossed the campus and hurried down the lower school driveway to the public road. We caught the sound of a vehicle as we ran across what today is called Highway 481. Delighted with this extraordinarily good luck, we stepped off the roadbed and onto the shoulder in unison and turned to face the sound of the of the approaching vehicle.
“I hope it comes this way instead of turning in at the school,” Patsy said as we strained to catch sight of the vehicle.
“Me too,” I said, raising my right arm, sticking my thumb out and walking backward along Highway 481.
“It is coming our way and it’s definitely slowing down,” Patsy said as she, too, walked backward with her thumb up.
Whether I was distracted over having forged my mother’s signature or the bright sun flaring off the windshield of that approaching automobile blinded me, I didn’t recognize it as it rolled to a stop beside us.
“Where are you girls going,” the driver asked?
I recognized my father’s voice and I was stunned, but lived experience left me knowing that I was in deep trouble and speaking one word less than the truth would put me into even deeper trouble.
I said, “We’re going to the trial in Raleigh.”
My father answered, “You’re lucky because that’s where I’m going. Get in.”
My father was a strict disciplinarian and bad conduct did not go unpunished in his house. Playing hooky from school was indefensible and forging a signature was, well, a crime. I feared the worst.
My father left me to imagine appropriate consequences that I would surely suffer for these acts until bedtime on the night that he’d picked Patsy and me up and taken us with him to Raleigh. He called me into the living just as I finished cleaning the kitchen after my four brothers had finished their evening snacks. My mother was there, nodding in agreement as my father explained my punishment.
I could not write an article on my trip to the trial and submit it to Burns School’s version of a student newspaper. I would be allowed to attend basketball games with my team and could wear my basketball uniform. But I could not play for one month. And, should I behave improperly again during that time, then I wouldn’t be allowed to play basketball again during high school.
At 15, a month seemed like forever yet, given my father’s unwavering demand for obedience from his children, I considered the punishment moderate. It was certainly less severe than the ones I’d imagined. During the next month, I obeyed every rule my father had ever made and played basketball again afterward.
My interest continued in the Ross Hawkins murder trial and though I did not even consider a return to Raleigh, I followed news stories about it. Ross Hawkins was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Patricia “Patsy” Westbrook died in February of this year and she is missed by all who knew and loved her. I’ve told the above story to Pat’s sons and other members of her immediate family. None object to this story being printed in this forum. -Betty Traxler Eppes
School Stories, Hooky, Classmate, Burns School MS, Patricia Westbrook Lembo, Betty Traxler Eppes, Ross Hawkins, Murder Trial