I’d Like to Meet – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Sometimes, I have to think for a while until I get a good idea for this 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks blog – which ancestor I would like to talk about for the theme of the week. Sometimes, as soon as I see the topic, I just know who I will write about. (You see, I am trying not to reuse the same set of ancestors that I already know about. I want to find out more about others each week.)

And then, there are times when, regardless of what you had planned on writing, someone else forces their way to the front of the line and demands to be written about. This week is that week.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. day. It’s a day off work for many, but since I have early morning meetings in Washington, DC, I had to travel. I was looking over my Facebook feed on the plane and saw that a cousin had posted a quote by MLK. Since his father was very active politically in the 1960s, I asked whether or not he had ever met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then it struck me that I needed to write about him this week as the ancestor I would like to meet.

Thomas Dunn Finney, Jr. was born 20 Jun 1925 in Idabel, McCurtain County, Oklahoma to Thomas Dunn Finney and Bettie Higgs Finney. Bettie’s family had come to Idabel in 1911. I am not sure when Tom, Sr.’s family first arrived in the area. It must have been after Aunt Bettie’s family, since his WWI draft card was filed while he still lived in Tennessee in1918.

Tom Jr. was Tom Sr. and Bettie’s only child. In fact, among Bettie’s siblings, there were not a lot of children. Her sister, Lida, had a single son in 1926. Her brother, Jere Will, had just one son in 1927. And her sister Mary had just two daughters, considerably later than the three boys. I have a number of pictures of the boys together as little guys, playing around their grandmother’s home in Idabel.

Tom Finney, Sr. was a prominent trial attorney in Oklahoma. He served for a period in the state legislature, as well. Tom Finney, Jr. served as an officer in the U.S. Navy toward the end of World War II. After that, he attended the University of Oklahoma and went to work as an attorney in his father’s firm.

From 1952 to 1955, Tom served with the Central Intelligence Agency in Copenhagen, Denmark. In 1957, he moved to Washington, DC as the administrative assistant to Senator A.S. Mike Monroney (D. Oklahoma). In 1963, he joined the law firm of Clifford, Glass, McIlwain, & Finney in Washington. He practiced law as a partner there until near his death in 1978.

During his time in Washington, Tom was both a witness to and an influencer of history. He was a person that many household names of American politics went to for counsel and advice – Presidents John F. Kennedy & Lyndon B. Johnson, Senators Adalai Stevenson, Edmund Muskie, Eugene McCarthy are only a few. He counted among his circle of contacts people like Walter Mondale (future Vice President), his law partner Clark Clifford (Secretary of Defense), and Eleanor Roosevelt.

(I was going to put an image here, but it’s a stock image from ShutterStock. So, if you want to see a picture of Tom Finney, Jr and Curtis Gans working on Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign, click here. Tom’s son also has a really nice photo of Tom with President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson.)

Tom was very involved in a number of presidential campaigns, serving in different capacities. If you search for him at the JFK Library, you will find many of the big names of the day talking about how he was very influential behind the scenes. You’ll even find some sort of dirty tricks that Walter Mondale played on him to defeat his candidate in one Democratic convention.

Tom Finney was an advisor to President Kennedy for the Trade Expansion Act, for Foreign Policy and Foreign Trade Policy. In 1964, President Johnson asked Tom to go to Mississippi to investigate the murders of the civil Rights workers, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney and to monitor the registration of black voters. He was one of the key people to work out the agreement that seated the Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic Convention.

This is all a pretty amazing resume for someone that you have probably never heard of! When he died in February 1978, Senator Edmund Muskie provided a wonderful tribute to Tom Finney for the Congressional Record. It included tributes from Senator Adali E. Stevenson, Clark Clifford, and W. Devier Pierson. This is preserved as a part of Senator Muskie’s papers at Bates College. Obituaries for Tom appeared in both the New York Times and the Washington Post that recounted his career.

And just to prove that Tom made it to the big leagues, I even found him mentioned on some sites discussing conspiracy theories on the assassination of John F. Kennedy! (I’m not linking to them so as not to encourage that kind of thing!)

Tom Finney, Jr. married Sally Van Horn and raised a family. I knew Tom’s parents. Well, I knew his mom, my Aunt Bettie whom you met in previous posts. Uncle Tom Finney, Sr. died when I was not quite five years old, so my memory of him is pretty dim. I know Tom and Sally’s children, his two living daughters and his son. I get the impression that they carry on his deep concern about people and their interest in politics as a way to help people and help our common situation.

But, I never met Tom Finney. I would love to hear what he would have to say about how our nation has progressed since the 1970s. I would love to hear what he thinks about the current state of deadlock in our nation and around the world. I would love to talk to him his work for civil rights and about the changes in attitude from those his grandfather expressed in his newspaper, or those of his great-grandfather who owned slaves.

And I wonder if his reputation of being a person who could find a way for people who were not only at odds, but at each others’ throats, to find a way to move forward. I wonder if we would be in the same place now that we find, ourselves if death had not claimed him far too soon.

So, Susie, Deedie, and Todd, that’s why your dad is the ancestor I would like to meet and get to know.

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Nice – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Nice. Some people are just naturally nice – optimistic, caring, considerate, polite, and full of an inner joy. Others know how to make their way through, doing and saying the right things. But it’s just not the same. I think the key to “nice” is the inner glow and sense of caring that you can feel from a nice person.

Bettie Higgs Finney (b. 24 Nov 1903, Arkansas, d. 2000, Oklahoma) – Be sure to zoom on that cute face.

When you think about your ancestors, “nice” is likely lost a lot sooner than “naughty”. We just don’t spend as much time passing down the stories of the person who, day in and day out, cared about folks in very ordinary ways. But, the naughty ancestor? There are *always* stories about them that come down the years.

Maybe we need to do a better job of telling the stories of the nice people in our families.

One of my nicest ancestors is my great-aunt Bettie. Bettie Higgs was born 24 Nov 1903 in Dequeen, Sevier County, Arkansas. In 1911, her family moved the 50 or so miles to Idabel in the new state of Oklahoma where her father was editor of a newspaper. And there, she stayed.

Bettie married Thomas Dunn Finney on 15 Mar 1924 in Idabel. Uncle Tom was an attorney in Idabel. He served for a time as the assistant Attorney General for state of Oklahoma in the 1930s. And in the 1940s, he served for several years as a state senator in Oklahoma. And then, they came back to Idabel.

Aunt Bettie and Uncle Tom had a single son, Tom Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps and became an attorney, active on the national stage. They had four grandchildren, three of whom are still living.

Of course, my experience of Aunt Bettie came later in her life. I barely remember Uncle Tom. He died in 1968, while Aunt Bettie lived another 32 years. She died in 2000. It’s hard to believe that it has been that long.

But, Aunt Bettie was always cheerful and nice when I was around her. “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul! And forget not all His benefits” was something I heard her say over and over. That and “Oh, foot” as her multi-purpose punctuation mark saying.

Aunt Bettie lost her father when she was a teenager. Her mother worked as a teacher and things were not very easy for them in those days. Living in southeastern Oklahoma wasn’t easy for anyone, especially not then, and especially not for a widowed mother with five children. But Aunt Bettie, by my experience, always had an inner joy about her that allowed her to persevere.

Bettie Higgs Finney, 1989

Aunt Bettie lost her father when she was a teenager. Her mother worked as a teacher and things were not very easy for them in those days. Living in southeastern Oklahoma wasn’t easy for anyone, especially not then, and especially not for a widowed mother with five children. But Aunt Bettie, by my experience, always had an inner joy about her that allowed her to persevere.

In the 1980s, Bettie had a stroke while visiting her sister, Mary. She worked hard to regain all of her mobility. She would carry her cane around and forget it places since she really didn’t need it.

I remember driving Aunt Bettie from Idabel, Oklahoma down to Plano, Texas to visit my mother. As we crossed over the Red River in to Texas, Aunt Bettie exclaimed, “There’s old Red!” and said that that was what they always said in her family as they got to the river and crossed over. She told me stories along the way of being a young person in that part of the country years ago. Very cool day.

It’s funny, though. When we think about how someone is, and our experience of someone, everybody knows a person in different ways. Last January (I think), I was in New York City and was able to have dinner with Deedie, one of Aunt Bettie’s grandchildren and my second cousin. After dinner, Jenny, Deedie’s spouse of thirty years, met us for dessert. Jenny asked what memories of Aunt Bettie we had in our side of the family that might be different than the experience of their part of the family. I said how she was so nice and positive. Both Jenny and Deedie laughed a bit at that, I guess Aunt Bettie had a bit of fire in her, too. The niceness only would go so far! That’s certainly the case with her younger sister, Mary, my grandmother, too.

Aunt Bettie had a great letter that her grandfather sent her the day she was born, but more about that another day. I think that this is a good place to stop. Part of being nice is not overstaying your welcome! I hope we can all remember to share our stories of Nice ancestors instead of just the naughty ones.

Until next time, Merry Christmas!
–SCott