Jon E. Garrett
Writing the future of journalism one post at a time


July 24, 2012

Inspiring teachers and students and preserving a legacy

The Legacy Project was set up in the memory of my mother Shirley Collins Cook, or “Duck,” as Grandpa Rob used to call her because of the way she waddled as she walked as a babe. This is her story for those who want to know more about the person that inspired this ambitious undertaking.



Duck was born in Columbus, Texas, a small town west of Houston along the Colorado River to Robert and Eunice Collins in 1945 in the waning days of World War II. Rob worked in the gravel pits while Eunice was a maid. Growing up she dreamed of being a singer, a writer or even a famous musician. The oldest of five children, however, she spent much of her time around the house helping cook, clean and taking odd jobs to bring money into the household. She picked pecans and grapes that Eunice would make into wine and pies to sale, and helped take care of her three brothers and little sister.

The Collins did not have much but they did have plenty of love to go around and after working hard all their life to provide food and shelter for their kids they wanted an easier life for their children. So, like many black parents in the days before ‘colored’ people had the right to vote they pushed their kids to seek an education as a key out of the life of, often backbreaking, manual labor that had awaited the descendants of former slaves as they struggled to find a way to make a living with little education and sometimes even fewer rights.


All that shoving and encouragement paid off. Duck eventually graduated from high school and went on to become the first of the five siblings to attend Prairie View A&M University. A historically black college located in Prairie View, Texas, north of Houston the school gave her a chance to spread her wings and broaden her knowledge, but with her parents just 60 miles she made sure not to have too much fun and worked hard in her studies as well.

She played Clarinet in the band and attended parties and football games with friends and studied the literary greats, devouring immortals like Shakespeare and Dickens, dreaming of the exotic locales and foreign lands in their worked. Duck was both moved and saddened by Samuel Clemens and his look at slavery through children’s eyes in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but as much as she loved Shakespeare and the others it was the work of black authors like Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes that impacted her the most. In a world in which for most of  her young life she was not able to vote, eat at certain establishments and sometimes had to drink from water fountains marked ‘colored only,” they were proof that with hard work she could be anything, even the great writer of her teenage dreams. It was a lesson she never forgot.


She got the education. She put in the hard work, but Duck never became a famous writer. Don’t feel sad for her though. Like many of us, as she grew up her dreams changed. While there was always a voice in her head that said, one day when she had some extra time she might sit down and get to work on the next Great American Novel, she had found a new passion –  teaching.

So, after finishing her degree at Prairie View, Duck headed even further from her country roots to Conroe, Texas, a town 40 miles north of the bustling city of Houston to share the lessons of her youth and inspire a new generation to believe that, through education they could be anything.

It wasn’t always easy. She started teaching at Washington High School, the school all the black kids attended in the area when they were of age. Eventually she moved onto Conroe High School after integration. Through 32 years she taught English and other subjects for the school district, most in room 117. There were times when money was short, when she was left alone with two young boys following a divorce and things seemed dim, but she never lost her laugh, love of learning, or the ability to inspire both in others – especially her boys.


James was the firstborn. Charismatic, funny and popular he was just like his father and namesake James Edward Garrett Sr., while Jonathan came four years and a day later in the same month of February, quiet, bookish, yet always smiling he loved books and writing as much as Duck

Both were bright boys but after her marriage to James Sr. failed and a later marriage to Archie Dale Cook was not totally approved of by the boys early on, who thought his Arkansas ways and love of old trucks and dogs made him seem a bit like a hillbilly or a reject from the old Sanford and Son television show. Duck found herself balancing a tough work schedule and refereeing a three-way battle for supremacy at home.

The boys said they hated Dale behind his back and asked for a divorce. He made Junior, as everyone in the family called the young James in the family growing up and Jughead – a nickname he bestowed on Jonathan because he thought the precocious youngster believed he knew everything and could not be taught anything, work hard doing manual labor and collecting cans for money. It was a sticky situation but Duck made it work massaging egos when needing, making homemade meals every night and still making time to grade papers, do lesson plans and check up on her students.


Yard-by-yard, can-by-can the young Garret brothers eventually learned the value of a hard day’s work from Dale, and their stepfather, who was forced to discontinue his formal education early before serving a stint in the army and doing odd jobs before eventually landing what he called a good job at the power company, conceded that all the time spent with books and playing (as he called anything that did not involve work) may have some value after all. They didn’t always get along, but they respected each other and that respect eventually grew into love.

Eventually they would combine that work ethic with their mother’s insistence to do well. Jughead, who always excelled in the classroom, pushed himself physically to become a good athlete and rid himself of the baby fat that had made him the target of jokes from other kids growing up. Junior a great athlete, who sometimes had trouble in the classroom, pushed himself to study harder and get into college even though he was not sure he would find what he was looking for in life there.

With Duck’s support they both reached their goals. Jughead went on to add college football player at the University of Texas to a long list of academic accomplishments. Junior proved he was more than the class clown, earning entry into Houston’s Texas Southern University.


Much like her writing career, many things in her life probably didn’t turn out exactly as Duck had thought they would as a child in Columbus playing on the railroad tracks next to her house. She never did start that book. Irreconcilable differences took one husband away and time took another after 32 years of marriage. After retiring from teaching Duck, always a social person, returned to work at Wal-Mart but eventually an increasingly fragile body do to the effects of kidney forced her to quit.

Ailing and getting older she doesn’t get out of the house as much as she used to, nor does she smile as often through the pain – but it still comes and when it does it is magic. She believes she has raised her boys well and done her best to help others. Yet, cannot realize totally the huge impact one girl made on a community, her children and mayhap her little part of the world when she decided to delay her dream of writing fame, to help others bring about their dreams by giving them the tools to succeed through education.  The city held a parade in her honor years after her retirement. She was too sick to attend but her eldest son, ,who never got his degree, but pushed himself in college to keep growing intellectually until finding his calling – the boisterous J Mac was the grand martial. Her baby boy did not make it that day either. He was on assignment for a newspaper earning a living as a writer. They are the living embodiment of her wildest desires as a child and the final commentary on her success as an educator and teacher.

If you would like to make a difference in a teacher or students life and preserve the legacy of one who did please read more about the project and donate here. For those who have already donated we appreciate your thoughtful contribution. 

About the Author

Jon E. Garrett



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