It’s been a while since I’ve tackled a cemetery like Sparkman/Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery. But you can’t write about Dallas cemeteries without mentioning it. While we’d already spent a hot day in the Uptown Neighborhood visiting three different cemeteries, I knew I couldn’t leave Dallas without visiting Sparkman/Hillcrest. We actually went twice, once for the outside and another for the mausoleum. The latter was closed the first time we visited.
Covering about 88 acres, Sparkman/Hillcrest is currently owned by Dignity Memorial, a large conglomerate operated by Houston-based Service Corporation International (SCI). Although it was founded in 1962, SCI didn’t introduce the Dignity Memorial Brand until 1999. As of 2015, they owned 1,435 funeral homes and 374 cemeteries in America. That’s a big chunk of the death care industry.
Information on the cemetery itself is spotty. In more than one place, I read that some of its graves date back to the 1850s but I didn’t see those. One source said the cemetery was created with land donated by William Barr Caruth, an early Dallas settler. The Caruth Pioneer Cemetery is located within Sparkman/Hillcrest near the front the cemetery but we didn’t know about it at the time.
A Gangster’s Funeral
A native of Jackson, Tenn., William Sparkman relocated his funeral home business to Dallas’ Belo mansion on Ross Avenue in 1926. I don’t know what year they sold it but the mansion is currently a wedding/event venue. The Sparkman funeral home is on the grounds of what used to be known as Hillcrest Cemetery now.
Even before gangster Clyde Barrow (of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde) died in 1934, his father had already asked the Sparkmans to handle Clyde’s funeral. He knew what was going to happen eventually. After Clyde died in a shootout with police, it was the Sparkman hearse that brought his body back to Dallas from Louisiana. Thousands came to see the criminal’s corpse. While Barrow is buried in another Dallas cemetery, his funeral put the Sparkman name on the map.
Most of the graves we saw were from the 1970s up so the styles were accordingly more modern.
A Texas Sports Legend
One of the first graves I went hunting for was for a name even non-sports enthusiasts probably know. If you’re from Texas, it’s pretty much required knowledge. Dallas Cowboys football coach Tom Landry was the first coach the team had when it came into being in 1960. He is revered as a football coaching legend.
I’ve never been a huge NFL fan. But even I knew about the Dallas Cowboys/Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry during the 1970s. During out trip, we visited AT&T Stadium (built in 2009 to replace Texas Stadium) and took a tour. The giant statue of Landry that was placed at Texas Stadium in 2000 after Landry’s death is there.
From 1966 to 1982, the Cowboys played in 12 NFL or NFC Championship games. They also appeared in 10 NFC Championship games in the 13-year span from 1970 to 1982. Landry led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl appearances in four years between 1975 and 1978, and five in nine years between 1970 and 1978. They won in 1972 and 1978.
But the Cowboys’ performance faltered in the 1980s. There was a great deal of fan outcry when Landry was fired by new team owner Jerry Jones before the 1989 season. Landry’s last work in professional football was as a “limited partner” of the San Antonio Riders of the World League in 1992.
Life Before Football
One thing I didn’t know about Tom Landry was that before he himself played pro football, he’d experienced some tough times. He interrupted his education at the Univ. of Texas at Austin after one semester to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps (later known as the U.S. Air Force) during World War II. Landry was inspired to join in honor of his brother Robert Landry, who enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
While ferrying a B-17 over to England, Robert Landry’s plane went down over the North Atlantic. Several weeks passed before the Army was able to officially declare Robert Landry dead. While serving in the Army Air Corps, Tom Landry completed a combat tour of 30 missions, and survived a crash landing in Belgium after his bomber ran out of fuel.
After the war, Tom returned to college. He earned his master’s in industrial engineering in 1952. He’d spent a season with the New York Yankees (a former pro football team) in 1949, and when that conference collapsed, he moved on to the New York Giants. In total, he spent six years playing professional football before moving to coaching.
Landry died on Feb. 12, 2000 at the age of 75. His wife, Alicia, died 10 months later on Dec. 21, 2000 at the age of 70. They are buried beside each other. A large monument is behind them with a replica of the familiar fedora Landry was known to wear on the sidelines when he coached the Cowboys.
Career of a Controversial Ex-Senator
Until I began doing my research on who was buried at Sparkman/Hillcrest, I didn’t realize that Texas Senator John Tower was buried there. His plot is not too far from Tom Landry’s.
Born a preacher’s son in 1925 in Houston, John Tower served in World War II. He worked on the 1956 presidential campaign of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Tower lost Texas’s 1960 Senate election to Democratic Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. With the Democratic victory in the 1960 presidential election, Johnson vacated his Senate seat to become Vice President. In the 1961 special election to fill the vacancy caused by Johnson’s resignation, Tower narrowly defeated Democrat William A. Blakley. He won re-election in 1966, 1972, and 1978.
In the 1960s, Tower was fairly conservative but that began to change in the 70s. Starting in 1976 with his support of Gerald Ford rather than Ronald Reagan in the 1976 Republican primaries, Tower began to alienate many fellow conservatives. He became less conservative over time, later voicing support for legal abortion and opposing President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative in 1982.
Tower retired from the Senate in 1985 amidst allegations he’d acted as liaison for Robert Maxwell, a British publishing mogul and super-agent for Mossad, to the White House and to U.S. government operations. Tower served as chief negotiator of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks with the Soviet Union and led the Tower Commission. The commission’s report was highly critical of the Reagan administration’s relations with Iran and the Contras.
In 1989, incoming President George H. W. Bush (also a Texan) chose Tower as his nominee for Secretary of Defense. In an almost unheard of move, his nomination was rejected by the Senate. The largest factors were concern about possible conflicts of interest and Tower’s personal life, in particular allegations of alcohol abuse and womanizing.
Tragic Plane Crash
On April 5, 1991, John Tower’s plane crashed while on approach for landing at Brunswick, Ga. The crash instantly killed everyone on board, including Tower and his middle daughter, Marian, the astronaut Sonny Carter, and 20 others. I visited Sonny Carter’s grave at Gainesville, Ga.’s Alta Vista Cemetery some years ago, never expecting I would later visit two graves of his fellow passengers.
John Tower was 65 when he died and daughter Marian was only 35. Tower’s wife, Lou, died at the age of 81 in 2001. The thee are buried together at Sparkman/Hillcrest.
I’m going to close out this post with a monument that definitely stood out from the rest.
Born in Chicago in 1898, Welville Fred Vehon moved to Dallas with his family later in life. He owned a men’s clothing store. He died at the age of 67 in 1965.
I can only surmise that perhaps the statue on top of the marker is based on an original done by someone else. The only thing I could find out about it was that the statue was originally a nude but the cemetery would not allow it until discreet draping was added.
I’ll be back next time with more from Sparkman/Hillcrest Memorial Park.