Former Orange resident reflects on life in memoir
Former Orange resident Elzie Odom’s life reads like a book.
He grew up in the country in Newton County, married 65 years ago, he has two children, moved to Orange, worked for the U.S. Postal Service and he was the first African-American elected to the school board of trustees in Orange for the first chapter of his life. The second chapter is just as interesting — becoming a postal inspector, moving to Los Angeles, Calif., back to Texas in San Antonio, and then Arlington where he was elected to the city council and eventually mayor.
Maybe that’s why Odom wrote a memoir titled, “Counting My Blessings” about his life. He returned to Orange last week to talk about the book, sign the books and reminisce with old friends.
He also donated five books to the Orange Public Library.
He began his presentation by saying, “What you become started from where you were,” meaning what one becomes started from where they begun.
Odom’s story begins in Shankleburg in Newton County. His grandfather, Jim Shankle, was a slave on a plantation in Mississippi. Winnie, his grandmother, was a house slave there. They married.
She already had three children when they married.
Winnie and the three children were sold in a slave auction and sent away from Shankle who remained in Mississippi.
Odom said his grandfather wanted badly enough to reunite with his family so he ran away. He discovered they were on a plantation in East Texas. He traveled the back country, lived off the land and swam rivers including the Mississippi River.
The master of the plantation purchased Shankle and the couple would have six more children together.
They settled in Shankleburg after he purchased 4,000 acres of land.
The old homestead is part of the National Registry of Historical Places. There are only six in Texas and the Shankleburg home is the only African-American one in the state.
Odom was born in 1929.
He said everyone knew everybody else there and everyone got along. They never went hungry and they helped each other out.
He married his wife Ruby at age 18. They both started life with $8 between them. His brother was living in Orange and Odom moved there for a better opportunity. He was hired by the post office in 1949.
Odom said Orange, like the South at that time, was racist. He knew he would have to persevere through it if he wanted things to change.
He and others also organized what he called a kindergarten for coloreds. He added he and his wife tried to center their lives around their children.
Once on a family vacation, the family stopped in a restaurant in Pennsylvania to eat. They were never served. His son asked him, “Daddy, why didn’t we eat?” Odom knew he had to fight to change things.
He ran for the school board in 1964 and lost the first time. He ran again in 1965 and won. That year the board desegregated schools and abolished the Orange ISD.
Odom became a postal inspector in 1967 after waiting for three years. He left Orange for California to work. Other than visiting his brother until his death last June, Odom would be away from Orange for 45 years.
He transferred to San Antonio for eight years and finally to Arlington in 1979. He retired from the postal service in 1987.
Odom spent three years as a volunteer at his church before he ran for city council in Arlington in 1989.
Once again, he lost the first time but he looks at it as a learning experience.
He ran against a well known obstetrician the next year and won. He was elected mayor of the city in 1997 and served three terms. While on the city council and as mayor, the Rangers Ballpark, Cowboys Stadium and freeway improvements would be built or planned to be built.
Odom said a young man once asked him why he wasn’t bitter from his past experiences. He answered him that his father told Odom hate was like acid- it damages the container within more than what it’s poured on.
Looking back, he said his greatest achievements was making a difference on the school board and accepting the opportunity to be a postal inspector.
Odom said he didn’t want to boast of his accomplishments but to show how he has been blessed throughout his life.