Texas Treasures The Bentley Exhibit

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Photos by Libby Rogers

District Judge Bascom Bentley had a foolproof security plan in place. He filled his office with hundreds of footballs, helmets, and deerskins…knowing that no one with bad intentions would go looking for the Judge in that mountain of memorabilia!

You have just come face to face with the vibrant personality of the late Judge Bascom Bentley III of Palestine, Texas. Welcome to his world, which was overflowing with quite an enviable collection of memorabilia, one which he was apparently using to his advantage! More on that after we learn about this extraordinary man.

The honorable Judge Bascom Bentley III grew up in Palestine, earned a BBA from the University of Texas and graduated from the University of Houston Law School in 1976. Over his career, he served as the Palestine City Attorney, the Anderson County Attorney, the Anderson County Court at Law Judge, and as Judge over the 369th District Court until his retirement in March 2017. During these years, he received numerous accolades and recognitions and was deeply loved and respected. Cliff Johnson, a former member of the Texas House of Representatives and lifelong friend, remembers their first day together in kindergarten. “Bascom marched in wearing a ‘Cisco-Kid’ outfit, riding a stick-pony, and sporting a cowboy hat with a bolo string-tie. I knew, right then and there, that he was going to be trouble!” We could go on about the illustrious Judge, but it is time to uncover the secret to his safety, what is now known as “The Bentley Exhibit.”

The Bentley Exhibit is currently on display in the Museum for East Texas Culture, housed in the old Palestine High School building at 400 Micheaux Avenue in Palestine, Texas. A trip to view this vast accumulation of memorabilia is well worth your time and effort! Director Daniel Dyer is responsible for the well-organized display, which covers almost half of the top floor of the building and contains thousands of items spanning sports and political areas of interest, as well as a large collection of wildlife heads, horns, racks, and skins. Board President and Archivist for the museum is Bonnie Wolverton. This massive collection was formerly housed in at least two of the Judge’s district offices and two or three warehouse units before being transferred to the museum. According to Dan, cataloging the collection would have taken two years if done item by item, but videoing the display resulted in a much more efficient way of recording the thousands of items of memorabilia.

TEXAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL

The first collection that catches your eye as you enter the exhibit is a huge array of football helmets. These helmets were transferred from Judge Bentley’s office in a landscape trailer, filled to the top.

•Over 400 football helmets from high schools across the state are on display. Visitors delight in searching for the helmet from their own hometown team and are usually successful in finding its inclusion in the exhibit.

NCAA FOOTBALL

Judge Bentley, a University of Texas alum, was hoping Adrian Peterson would play for UT, as evidenced by the Judge’s quote in the New York Times when Peterson signed with the Oklahoma Sooners: “It would be like your wife running off with Brad Pitt. You understand it, but it still hurts.”

Jerseys (many are autographed)

•Adrian Peterson’s autographed University of Oklahoma jersey

•Michael Singletary (Baylor), Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson (Auburn; Heisman Trophy winner), Joe Montana (Notre Dame), Andre Ware (Houston; Heisman Trophy winner), David Dickey (Arkansas; sweater and helmet), Earl Campbell (Texas; Heisman Trophy winner), Tommy Nobis (Texas; jersey and signed Life magazine cover), Roosevelt Leaks (Texas), William Edward “Rooster” Andrews, Jr. (Texas), Steve Wooster (Texas), Vince Young (Texas).

Footballs and Helmets (autographed)

•Darrell Royal, Mack Brown, Charlie Strong, Duke Carlisle, Ricky Williams, Doak Walker

•Helmets from every major NCAA football team

NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE

As Dan headed into Judge Bentley’s office one day, he rounded a corner and saw a jersey hanging on a nail. He had to check it out. It was an autographed jersey belonging to Johnny Unitas!

JERSEYS (Autographed)

•Troy Aikman, Bill Bradley, Sammy Baugh, Raymond Berry, Terry Bradshaw, Len Dawson, Brett Favre, Otto Graham, “Mean” Joe Greene, Forrest Gregg, Michael Irvin, Jim Kelly, Tom Landry, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Bob Lilly, Dan Pastorini, Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers, Emmitt Smith, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Johnny Unitas, Randy White (includes a personal note to the Judge)

FOOTBALLS

•Dozens of footballs with autographs, including Hall of Famers: Jim Brown, Tom Landry, Walter Payton, and Gale Sayers

NCAA BASKETBALL

Basketballs (autographed)

•John Wooden (UCLA), Dean Smith (North Carolina), Rick Barnes (Tennessee), Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Tom Penders (Texas)

MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

Jerseys (autographed)

•Roger Clemens, Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, Pete Rose, Nolan Ryan

PROFESSIONAL BOXING

Gloves (autographed)

•Curtis Coates, Roberto Duran, “Sugar” Ray Leonard

PHOTOS, MAPS, MAGAZINES AND MORE

Framed and adorning the walls of the exhibit are covers from several well-known magazines including Texas Monthly and LIFE. These publications would frequently portray the image of a prominent sports figure of the time. One such cover in Judge Bentley’s collection is truly a very rare find. This is a November 23rd edition of LIFE Magazine. The prominent sports figure being celebrated on the cover photo was Roger Staubach. The seven million copies with his image were never distributed. The year was 1963. The day before the publication was to begin selling in newsstands, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. According to an employee at LIFE, the magazines being printed at the four U.S. plants were recalled, the covers were ripped off and new covers displaying a close-up photo of Kennedy were added. Apparently, a few with the Staubach cover survived, and one is now on display in the museum.

In addition to magazine covers, visitors can also view a wide assortment of sports posters and programs, newspaper articles, photographs and hundreds of novelty items depicting famous people, places and events. Here is a small sampling of what is in store for you to see:

• Photograph of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, autographed by both players (certified authenticity)

• Autographed photos of Pete Rose, Woody Hayes, Mack Brown, Ray Nitschke (including a personal note to Judge Bentley), President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush, Governor Rick Perry, and many more!

• A celebrity quilt including squares autographed by the cast from “Frazier,” Alex Trebec, Nicolas Cage, Robert Stack, the “Today Show” group, Jerry Jeff Walker, Leslie Neilson, KD Lang, Lena Horne, Sally Field, George Strait, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and others

• United States map with Governors’ signatures from several states, including that of Arnold Schwarzenegger

• Photo of Gov. Rick Perry when he played drums with ZZ Top

• The massive carved wood seal from Rick Perry’s office when he served as Agriculture Commissioner. Several other items from his office are on display.

According to Dan, Judge Bentley could have kept a taxidermist in business for years! The extensive assortment includes moose, antelope, deer, hogs, a cougar, several fowl, and a 12-foot alligator from Victoria, Texas. The Judge was a busy man!

The Bentley Exhibit is testimony to a man who, as one acquaintance put it, “made a friend out of everyone he met.” Many of these acquisitions were from sports figures and politicians who were personal friends of the Judge. And, according to Bonnie, it is a well-known fact that he did not shy away from asking for things!

THERE’S MORE AT THE MUSEUM!

Once you have taken several hours to peruse The Bentley Exhibit, don’t leave! You have only toured a portion of the top floor of this precious landmark! There is much more to see including:

• The Railroad Room, the Black History Room, the Fire Department Room, the John H. Reagan Room, the Knox Glass Exhibit, an old Barbershop, the medical and pharmacy exhibit, a working iron lung, old cameras, and business machine exhibits and Governor Campbell’s carriage from 1904-1908.

• The John H. Reagan Room contains a table made from 1 million pieces of wood by inmates in the Texas prison system around the year 1898.

• The Hudson Log Cabin: this is a vintage log cabin from the Civil War era, which was disassembled piece by piece, then reassembled in the gymnasium area of the museum.

• Plans are being made for a military exhibit when funds are available.

The Museum for East Texas Culture is sure to be a treat for all ages. The citizens of Palestine have preserved a monumental collection of memorabilia that is almost beyond description and has placed this treasure trove within the walls of an equally impressive structure. And, as with all such endeavors, funds are needed for further improvements and preservation of these treasures. For information on making donations or to plan a trip to the museum, call 903-723-1914 or go to their website at www.MuseumPalestine.org for details on hours and fees.

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