A Good Ol’Boy Back Home

"I guess," W.O. Bankston says, "you could say I have led a colorful life."

W.O. Bankston made an unlikely candidate for the Super Bowl set when he first appeared in Dallas. Bankston didn’t travel by Learjet then. He arrived in a boxcar.

Fate and a freight train brought the 19-year-old Bankston to Dallas on a cold January day in 1932. By then he was a veteran job hunter. He had dropped out of school to help support his family several years before, when his father was injured in a railroad accident.

Bankston lost his job as an undertaker’s assistant in Temple, Texas, on Christmas day, 1931. He decided to hop a freight to Dallas, hoping to find a job at the Ford plant that was opening in the city.

Bankston’s first accomplishment was merely to stay in town and out of jail. At the railyard he was nabbed by a 31-year-old constable named Bill Decker. Decker, who would later become sheriff of Dallas County, had the job in those days of seeing that hoboes who got off the train in Dallas got right back on.

In an early display of salesmanship, W.O. talked Decker out of putting him back on the train. “I told him I had a dollar on me and I knew I could get a job,” Bankston recalls.

Apparently convinced, Decker told Bankston to wait in the railyard till the young constable came back. Bankston waited. Decker came back making his rounds a few hours later and was surprised to find Bankston still there. “What in the hell are you doing here?” Decker asked. “You were supposed to disappear while I was gone.”

Bankston’s naivete apparently convinced Decker that W.O. needed help to survive. He took Bankston to the constable’s office and fed him coffee and doughnuts. Decker also helped Bankston find a job selling newspapers. A lifelong friendship began.

After several odd jobs in his first weeks in Dallas, Bankston landed the one he wanted on the Ford assembly line. It paid well by Depression standards – more than a dollar a day. At the time, the company was only hiring metalworking specialists. So he said that he was one. It took his supervisors a week to find him out and fire him.

But Bankston soon found a place for himself in another part of the automobile industry – sales. On his first day of work at a used car lot, he showed up an hour before the lot opened; by the time his boss arrived, W.O. had sold a car. “The reason 1 sold that particular car was that it had a price written on the window, $395,” Bankston says. “It was the only car on the lot that I knew the price of.”

Soon Bankston was top salesman on the lot. By 1941 he owned his first car dealership. Now he owns three – Bankston Lincoln-Mercury, Bankston Datsun, and New Datsun.

Until Decker’s death in 1970, W.O. spent a good deal of his spare time playing sleuth. Partially because of his friendship with Decker, Bankston turned into a police groupie back in the Forties. He spent his nights cruising around in a squad car, or in his own car, which was fitted with a police radio and siren.

“Used car dealers sometimes have tc deal with shady characters,” Bankstor says. “It never hurt for the word to be oul that I ran around with the law.”

Did he ever. One July night in 1941, W.O. was cruising with Decker, then chief sheriff’s deputy, and Dallas detective Will Fritz, when the trio spotted Tom Hutcheson, the number two man on the FBI’s Most-Wanted list. They chased the fugitive to the edge of Fort Worth, where his car gave out. The man jumped from the car and ran. Bankston ran after him, caught him, and wrestled him to the ground. Bankston got a letter of congratulations from J. Edgar Hoover for his efforts. He cherishes it to this day.

Not all of Bankston’s adventures with the police have had happy endings for him. Once a deputy friend took a swing at a prisoner and hit Bankston instead, breaking his nose. On another occasion, the pistol Bankston was carrying went off and shot him through the stomach. He spent 18 days in the hospital recovering from the wound.

Another violent incident put Bankston in the hospital for 33 days. In 1956, Bankston fired one of his salesmen; after many telephone calls from the ex-salesman, Bankston agreed to go to the man’s house to discuss the termination.

“The guy was sitting around his house with his wife and a couple of friends, just cussing me,” Bankston recalls. “When I came into his house, he jumped up, threw off his glasses and started toward me. He said, ’There’s the son-of-a-bitch that fired me and I’m gonna whip him.’ “

As the man started toward him, W.O. saw an opportunity and took it. “I hit him before he had a chance to hit me,” Bankston said. “I knocked him halfway across the room.”

Just as Bankston threw his punch, the salesman’s wife hit Bankston on the head with a large metal lamp. The blow sent W.O. crashing to the floor. It also fractured his skull.

Not knowing he had a fractured skull, Bankston got up and pulled his gun. ” ’If you sons-of-bitches don’t want to die,’ I told them, ’then you just better back off. Lady, if you take one more swing with that lamp, I’ll forget you’re a lady and blow your head off.’ ” Bankston recalls.

“I guess,” he says, “you could say I have led a colorful life.”

Bankston likes to tell his cops-and-robbers stories. But he doesn’t like to remember one that happened in 1960.

W.O. and one of his police friends had a few drinks at his car dealership one night before going out to eat. They jumped in Bankston’s car and went cruising down McKinney looking for a restaurant. At the intersection of McKinney and Lem-mon, they ran a traffic light. And hit a Volkswagen. Bankston was jailed for driving while intoxicated.

“I’ll never quite figure out why that little gal in the Volkswagen didn’t see my car and avoid it,” Bankston says. “After all, I had my siren on the whole time.”

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