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Miss Katie: Ennis’ First lady

This is the conclusion of the Ennis Daily News’ four-part tribute to Ennis-bred folk heroine Katie Daffan (1874-1951).
Railroads and cotton fields may have put Ennis on the map economically but it was the distinguished career of “Miss Katie” Daffan –– author, lecturer, and political dynamo –– that gave cultural clout to the city during its boom years.
“Miss Katie needs no introduction to Texas people,’ wrote an editorialist in the Dallas Morning News in 1907. “Her acknowledged superior intelligence and statewide popularity entitles her to occupy the place she does in the hearts of her friends.”
A hundred years later, the Ennis woman’s friends are gone; only a handful of local senior citizens remember her at all. Young when she was old, they weren’t interested in the faded little lady who sat in a booth at Miss Pearl’s Café, sipping her coffee alone, or who stood in a line of teenagers waiting to see the latest movie at the Plaza Theatre. The brilliance of mind and warm sociability of the once noted figure known simply as “Miss Katie,” had given way to eccentricity and alienation in her last years, so that her odd habits, dress and expressions are all that people now recall –– that and her peculiar death, struck down by a speeding car as she crossed W. Baylor St. in the middle of the night.
No one is old enough to remember the beautiful, high spirited young woman whose books of history, romance and poems first captivated the public, whose charm made her the toast of Houston high society and Austin politics, whose speeches on feminism, children’s education and veterans’ issues alternately shocked and inspired
The daughter of Col. L.A. Daffan, transportation superintendent for the Houston and Texas Central Railway, Miss Katie first rose to fame as a journalist in 1900 when a travel story she wrote about Mexico was syndicated internationally. The success of the article, still in print 10 years later, opened the literary door for the aspiring writer. Moving to Houston in 1905, Daffan contributed weekly historical pieces to the Houston Post, poetry to the Galveston News, feature articles to The Southerner Magazine (now Southern Living), and a women’s rights column for the Dallas Morning News. She topped off her long publishing career as literary editor of the Houston Chronicle and president of the Texas Women’s Press Association.
In addition to her journalistic work, Miss Katie authored eight books, the best known being Texas Heroes, adopted as a state textbook, and Woman in History for which she won several awards. “A pleasant and forceful writer,” a national review lauded her, and although her books are rare now, their titles reveal her versatility. The Woman on the Pine Springs Road, published in 1910 contained sage, if controversial, words of advice to young women seeking a career.
“A marriage that is not based on equality is unstable and miserable,” Daffan opined, providing possible insight into the dissolution of her own short-lived marriage to Texas Assistant Attorney-General Mann Trice in 1897. In the same book she also urged women to seek independence.
“Don’t be a drone in the hive of life,” she wrote. “Don’t just occupy space. Live and move. And don’t be content with giving a little when you are capable of giving so much, and so much that is best.”
Miss Katie’s only book of poetry, As Thinketh a Woman, released in 1912, is also autobiographical. Of her decision to remain unmarried, she referred to herself in one verse as “a soul alone in its temple.” But cold or lonely she was not, as her poems attest. In the introduction to her volume of poems, she wrote that “more than all things do I love companionship –– that quick, sympathetic fellowship of the heart.”
Her closest friendships were with other women, such as fellow Texas writers Anna Pennybacker and Mary Hunt Affleck (on whom she based the title character in The Woman on the Pine Springs Road). These attachments gave rise to rumors that Miss Katie was lesbian, and although some of her poems about women could be construed as having a romantic undertone, there is no proof that her female relationships were sexual in nature.
Writing was her forte but Daffan left her greatest mark on education and politics. As vice-president of the Texas State Teachers Association and one of the first women appointed to the State Textbook Board, she campaigned for the betterment of rural schools and reduced taxation of smaller school districts. She also chaired the department of history in the Houston ISD and later directed the literature department at Howard Payne College. She was progressive in her belief that the emotional and social welfare of students was as important as their academic tutelage.
“Character first, scholarship second,” Miss Katie wrote in a 1908 article for the Galveston News.
Daffan likewise applied her common sense approach to social and political reform at a time when few women in Texas wielded any public power. In the closing years of America’s Gilded Age, she was the favored daughter of the Lone Star State, officially representing Texas at regional and national events. At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Miss Katie presided as hostess of the Texas Pavilion, greeting thousands of visitors. As crowds swirled around her, an Associated Press photographer snapped her picture, capturing her smile and the state pride she displayed in the bouquet of bluebonnets tucked into her sash. The same year, when the Daughters of the Republic of Texas lobbied the legislature for the purchase of the Alamo Mission in San Antonio, Daffan was front and center in the organization’s fundraising campaign. And in 1909, during President William Howard Taft’s visit to Houston, it was she who formally presented him to the city and the state. From the balcony of the Rice Hotel, overlooking a throng of thousands, Miss Katie welcomed the President.
“We are glad to have you in Texas,” she said with some effort to be heard over the cheers from below. “We are glad because you are the president of the South as well as of the North. And we extend to you a hearty, wholesome welcome.”
The throng exploded in applause as Daffan stepped forward to pin to the president’s lapel a badge of the Confederate colors.
The gesture was an important statement at the time, and Miss Katie, then head of the Texas division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was no mere figurehead. The group’s mission of memorializing the heroes of the South constituted a deeply held political position some 40 years after the end of the Civil War, and Daffan (who served five times as state president) was unrelenting in her support of veterans’ issues, lobbying the Texas Legislature to “make sure our dear old soldiers’ voices are heard and their needs met.”
From 1896, when the Daffan-Latimer Chapter of the UDC was established in her hometown of Ennis, Katie was devoted to the cause. Inspired by her father’s heroism as a 16 year old soldier attached to Hood’s Texas Brigade (he fought at Gettysburg and was later taken prisoner by the Union Army), Miss Katie was a powerhouse of eloquence when she spoke to audiences across the state in behalf of veterans’ rights and welfare.
“Her sympathies were deeply rooted with the southern cause of state’s rights,” wrote Andrea Webb in her 1984 monograph of Daffan. It is not known, however, what her beliefs were as to racial equality; in her addresses she did not support the Ku Klux Klan but she did not criticize the organization either.
Daffan, referred to in the press as “first in the heart of veterans” for her dedication to the “Southern cause,” won accolades from the United Confederate Veterans Association, then a potent political block.
In appreciation of her advocacy, Daffan was twice appointed State Sponsor to the general reunions of the UCV, elaborate ceremonial affairs at which veterans received her like a visiting queen surrounded by her court. She also received from the association the signal honor of “Sponsor to the South” in 1913. The honor was, according to the Houston Chronicle, “the highest social distinction enjoyed by a Southern woman;” underlining the esteem in which Miss Katie was held, the position was previously offered only to wives or daughters of Confederate government officials. When news came that Daffan was made Sponsor to the UCV convention, the Texas Legislature interrupted session to pass a resolution thanking the organization for honoring the state and Miss Katie with the post.
The most momentous work Miss Katie accomplished as state president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was the campaign she led to have the Confederate Woman’s Home at Austin adopted as a state institution. This was accomplished in 1911 after six years of petitioning the Legislature. At the forefront of the cause, Miss Katie charged delegations of women to deliver the UDC’s message to Austin lawmakers; on one occasion Daffan’s deputation was admitted into the House chamber where her colleague and close friend Mary Hunt Affleck became the first woman to speak from the floor of the Texas Senate. Affleck’s appeal and the media blitz Miss Katie orchestrated soon won their case.
“Now is the time for the Legislature to do its plain duty and provide for the Confederate Woman’s Home,” Daffan said pointedly in a 1909 interview in the Houston Post.
And it eventually did. Not only was the state constitution amended in order for the facility to be maintained by the government, but the law prohibiting women from presiding over a state-maintained entity was rescinded so that Daffan could serve the home as superintendent under its new status. Becoming the first woman elected to head a state agency, Miss Katie’s political power could no longer be denied.
To assume her duties as Texas government’s first woman executive, Daffan moved to Austin from Dallas, where she had been living at 843 Ross Ave since resigning from the Houston school district in 1907. She would serve two consecutive, four-year terms as superintendent of the Confederate Woman’s Home, during which time she pushed for and was granted state funds to construct substantial additions to the site, including a memorial library and a three-story, state-of-the-art hospital.
Following completion of her last term in Austin in 1918, Daffan returned to live in Ennis briefly where she served as a substitute elementary teacher at the Alamo School House. The late Tina Beth Mulkey was one of her students. Though only six years old, Mulkey recalled Miss Katie’s “partiality for wearing pink ribbons in her hair.” She also remembered that the great lady was ‘always lost in thought. She’d sit there writing and then stop and stare out the window.”
Daffan’s restlessness propelled her back to Houston where she lived for 11 years beginning in 1921, resuming her writing and the educational work she had begun there nearly two decades earlier. In addition to her editorship at the Chronicle, Miss Katie was a board member of the Houston Public Library and the Houston Board of Recreation; she also co-founded two literary organizations, Houston Pen Women and the Houston Storytellers’ Club.
Politically she was more active than ever. Though in her 50s, Daffan threw her “bonnet into the ring” for public office twice during her years in Houston, coming close to winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1922. Campaigning for “fewer, better and simpler laws,” Miss Katie was the first woman in Harris County to run for the Legislature.
Daffan even campaigned for Governor of Texas in 1930 with enthusiastic and widespread support from veterans, farmers and women.
“A voice in my heart says, ‘Go on,’” she said when she announced her bid for governor. “I accept the call and offer myself, my service, my heart’s strength and life work to my state.”
But Miss Katie dropped out of the race when her candidacy threatened to split the Democratic vote. Had she stayed in through the election, some pundits said, she might have won; her ambitious platform of exempting from taxation farm houses and homes owned by widows had been popular and “could have carried her into the Governor’s mansion.”
The death of her mother and one of her brothers brought Daffan back to Ennis in the 1930s to look after the family home at 308 N. Dallas St. No longer wealthy, Miss Katie rented rooms out to boarders like George Graves, now 88, who recalled the famous lady’s graciousness and elegance as well as her increasing eccentricity. When Graves saved her house from burning after a water heater caught fire, she was euphoric in her gratitude, but a few weeks later she evicted the young renter in order to have the wallpaper replaced in his room.
Daffan did her best to acclimate to Ennis life; she formed the Ennis Writers Club, endowed the Daffan Memorial Cup to recognize local students’ literary talent and wrote an advice column for the Ennis Daily News. She also held biweekly public reviews of new books in her home, attended by groups that varied in size according to the notoriety of the selection.
Nancy Rider, 84, and her mother Frances Wilkerson, 106, were regular attendees. When Miss Katie was reviewing “Forever Amber,” a sexually explicit romance novel of the time, the town turned out in force.
“My, my, what a crowd,” Daffan greeted her audience. “I can see where the minds of Ennis are.”
But nothing Miss Katie did in her declining years was more amusing to Ennisites than the odd way she drank her coffee. It has since become a local legend.
“She would ask for two cups and emptied one into the other until she had cooled it off enough for her to drink,” Graves explained.
Rider also recalled Daffan’s coffee drinking ritual. After dancing at the Ennis Country Club, she and her friends would stop by Miss Pearl’s Café on Dallas St. for a late snack.
“And there sat Miss Katie and her cups of coffee,” Rider laughed. “I always wondered if they charged her for the second cup.”
Daffan’s coffee may have been all that kept her going after her older sister, her last and closest immediate relative, died in Houston in the 1940s. Despondent, she wrote to a friend, Ida Brookshire that “deep loneliness is upon me. I find it difficult to adapt myself to the condition of going on with life and duty without my beloved sister.”
She told other friends that her home was no longer a happy one; it only reminded her of happiness. Now in her mid 70s, Daffan had gained weight, perhaps due to her depression. She found it hard to sleep and passed the long nights sipping her favored coffee at Miss Pearl’s, the only 24-hour diner within walking distance of her house. People who recalled her overnight pitstops said she usually stayed until dawn; they also said she usually wore only a navy blue housecoat over her nightgown when she walked down the street to Miss Pearl’s.
So what was it that lured her away before daylight on May 17, 1951? What awaited her in the old house she loved but hated for its memories of loved ones? A book she must finish reading? A letter she wanted to write to a much-needed friend? Whatever it was, Daffan left Miss Pearl’s about 3 a.m., alone as usual and for the last time –– her long dark coat flapping in the pre-dawn breeze.
Down N. Dallas Street she walked, crossing W. Knox. As she neared the center of the block, she may have glanced across the street to the offices of the Ennis Daily News.
The corner of Dallas and W. Baylor was coming into view. Miss Katie quickened her pace. Her house was in sight.
Situated in the middle of the next block, the old family mansion was dimly outlined by streetlights which may have touched off some pleasant memory of its former glory as she stepped off the curb.
In her reverie, she didn’t notice the car coming toward her.
“Just a little ways more,” she may have thought, “and I will be home.”

NOTE: Katie Daffan died of her injuries at Ennis Municipal Hospital five days later. The driver of the car that struck her left the scene of the accident but was later identified as Vesta McClain, wife of Ennis merchant Allen McClain. Charges of manslaughter were filed against her but later dropped. Although no longer active socially or professionally, Daffan still rated an entry in America’s Who’s Who at the time of her death and the Texas House of Representatives moved a resolution to honor her on receiving news of her passing. The Dallas Morning News eulogized her as “a tireless enthusiast for the progress of her native state. The Texas newspaper field, the Texas legislatures, indeed Texas at large knew and loved her as ‘Miss Katie.’ They just thought of her that way.”

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Posted by on Feb 28 2007. Filed under Sports. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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