One-Man Google

W.K. Jeffus hunts down history the old-fashioned way, without a computer.

FINDER, KEEPER: Jeffus has never owned a computer.

There was something compelling about the stranger’s voice. The man who called Lindsey Miller told her that he had some information about the house that she lived in. “Since we were renting,” she says, “I wasn’t particularly interested.” But the man then told Miller that he knew her maiden name was Wootton, and he asked her if she was related to the Woottons who had owned downtown restaurants in the ’30s and ’40s.

Breaking every rule she’d been taught since childhood, Miller told him yes. That’s when the stranger on the phone brought to life a history of Miller’s family as told through the news stories, advertising, public records, and other items he had found in old Dallas newspapers. She was rapt. “My children were yelling for dinner, my husband was looking at me like I had gone crazy, but the history buff in me had kicked in, and we talked for almost two hours,” she says. “By the time it was over, I felt like I’d visited a museum.”

As a result of that conversation, her husband Michael became interested in purchasing some old posters and architectural renderings of Highland Park Village to give to his grandfather, Henry S. Miller Jr.

“I told Michael that they should hire this guy in the family real estate business. He can sell anything.”
The guy in question is Wayne “W.K.” Jeffus, an anachronistic blend of detective, ascetic, scholar, promoter, Luddite, and conservationist of local history. He spends long, monkish days in a shambles of a house that he owns on 10th Street in Oak Cliff, sifting through old newspapers, magazines, programs, photos, and other yellowing ephemera of bygone Dallas. His detective work is as simple to describe as it is painstaking: he combs through issue after issue of the newspapers that take up every inch of floorboard, clipping story after story, ad after ad. Jeffus acquires his raw material at estate sales, antiques sales, and from donations by people who are moving or cleaning out their garages. By his estimate, Jeffus has more than 3,000 complete or partial newspapers stacked by year, dating back to 1899.

Using city directories, the phone book, and every other non-digital means of research, he connects a person or business or building from the past to a person or business or organization that exists today. Then he makes a phone call and starts selling, using his nerve, knowledge, considerable charm, and his secret weapon: the fact that just about everyone is interested in history when it’s their history.

Developer Harlan Crow became a customer when Jeffus called to leave word that he had information from 1936 on his home. Crow himself called back to ask if Jeffus had any material on the old Parkland Hospital, on the corner of Maple and Oak Lawn, which Crow is renovating. Jeffus did. Crow bought the material, some $1,000 worth, and then asked for information of a more personal nature. In 1939, Crow’s mother, Margaret Doggett, then a Hockaday student, was a passenger on the cruise ship SS Athenia, which was sunk by a German submarine. Jeffus was able to provide an entire file on the event and the rescue.

“When you’re dealing with details, you find details,” Jeffus says. “Just as in life, one thing meanders into another.”

Jeffus’ own life has been a little less meandering than one might expect. He seems to have spent it preparing for his present work.

SIGN OF THE TIMES: A pre-World War II  ad for Pappy’s in Oak Cliff used the euphemism “sepia” to describe its black comedian.

Born in Dallas in 1947 (although his youthful looks and energy make this birth date difficult to believe) and raised in Oak Cliff, Jeffus graduated from Sunset High School and then attended three colleges before “coming close to graduating” from Texas A&M as a marketing major. Returning to Oak Cliff, he worked for a time as a collection agent for Levitz Furniture and then as a “skip tracer” for Republic National Bank. “That’s where I started honing my skills as a researcher,” he says.

While at Levitz, Jeffus ran into a college friend who worked as a polygraph operator for a detective agency called Texas Industrial Security. An assignment led to a full-time job with the company and, later, with the large security firm Wackenhut. “Suddenly, I was a P.I.,” he says, “a job very similar to and, if anything, less glamorous than the one I have now.”

In 1979, he bought the house at 430 West 10th. “I rented parts of it out for a while, but a combination of bad tenants and my growing collection of newsprint caused me to give up on being a landlord.”

To Jeffus, a newspaper is far more than the information it contains. “It’s history that you can hold in your hand.” For that reason, even though three people interviewed for this article referred to him as “a one-man Google,” he has never owned a computer. “A computer is against everything I stand for,” he says. “There is simply nothing like the genuine artifact.”

The sentiment brings to mind Nicholson Baker’s book Double Fold, a beautifully researched diatribe against libraries’ practice of converting newspapers and books to microfilm and then trashing the originals. Baker writes that newspapers “have a visual exorbitance, a horizon-usurping presence that microfilm’s image (which one observer in the ’70s compared to ‘kissing through a pane of glass’) subverts and trivializes.”

Of course, for Jeffus to preserve a newsprint artifact for a client, he has to use a razor blade. One day’s paper could easily yield a sale to two or more different customers. For his clients, Jeffus performs surgery on a cluttered worktable lit by a fluorescent bulb.

Monte Anderson owns and operates Oak Cliff’s Belmont Hotel, which he restored. He bought a 1948 Dallas Times Herald article about the Belmont, as well as some photos from Jeffus. “What a character! It’s amazing the way he can find stuff,” Anderson says. “He moves around those stacks of papers and comes up with exactly what you’re hoping for and then charges a fair price.”

Dale Wootton is an attorney and restaurateur who owns The Garden Café on Junius. He’s also Lindsey Miller’s father. “Lindsey didn’t know this, but I’ve been buying pieces about our old family restaurants from W.K. for more than 20 years,” Wootton says. “There’s no one on earth like him.”

Danielle Mitchell of Woodbine Development Corporation, a development company affiliated with Hunt Realty Corporation, says that the company has populated its hotel properties with articles from Jeffus’ collection that emphasize local art and history. Their Hyatt Regency DFW has displays dedicated to the artists known as The Dallas Nine, who were nationally prominent during the ’30s and ’40s. The hotel also features articles about the Fort Worth Circle, a group of artists from the same period. Their Hyatt Regency Dallas displays newspaper stories about the Texas Centennial of 1936 and various Dallas Morning News anniversary editions devoted to Dallas history.

Tom Garrison, proprietor of the Stoneleigh P, purchased from Jeffus a 1934 Dallas Morning News ad offering 25-cent Kleenex, 10-cent Palmolive Soap, and 5-cent Camay from when the establishment actually was the Stoneleigh Pharmacy. The Stoneleigh Hotel itself, currently being renovated, will display articles, recently purchased from Jeffus, about the historic building.

Not all his clients are businesses. Jeffus tells of finding a 1939 story about a wedding. He called a family with the same unusual last name and told the man who answered about the piece. “The phone went dead still,” Jeffus says. “Finally the man said, ‘You have information that my sister and I have been looking for for 60 years.’” Thus did siblings find details of their father’s first marriage.

Of a piece with his work and personality is Jeffus’ hobby: collecting old automobiles. “I have five Lincoln Zephyrs, two Continentals, and two Fords, all from 1938 through 1941. These are important pieces of automotive art,” he says. The cars are in storage. “If I can, I will restore them, but these are to be cherished and observed, not traded like pieces of meat, so I’ll never sell them.”

Restoration may be unlikely, since, according to Jeffus, he earns about $12,000 annually, all of it derived from his newspapers. “But I’m single and frugal, and having stuff doesn’t mean that much to me. I’ve made a lot of friends through my work. Research may be hard work, but I love it.

“And how many people do you know who love their jobs?”

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