The William Henry Winstead Two-for-One Special

Earlier tonight, I attended a memorial service for my uncle, William Henry Winstead. It was almost two weeks to the hour after I’d found out about his death. He lived in Mandeville, Louisiana, and his body was cremated there, the ashes then shipped to my aunt, his last surviving sibling, in Wilson County, North Carolina. Tonight’s service concluded with the scattering of some of his ashes at a pond on our family farm, a place that he loved and that he always said he’d come back to one day.

As part of the memorial service, I gave a (an?) eulogy for my uncle. Before I knew I was going to have that opportunity, though, I read a different eulogy for him at the end of one of my recent podcasts. The two cover similar themes — they are, after all, about the same man — but they were built for different constraints and for different audiences. The eulogy today was written to deliver to his family (my family, too) and his friends. The one I read on my podcast was written to deliver to an invisible audience of my friends and, if any listened, total strangers.

I’m posting both of them here because I want more people to have at least some sense of who my uncle was. It’s important to me, not because I wrote these words, but because they’re about him.

#1 – Transcript from The Eastern Shore #4, 6/9/14

(To listen to original, head to 1:44:03 on this recording.)

You probably noticed, if you looked at a clock, that I ended the normal program a little early today. That’s because I needed a few minutes to do something personal. I’ve asked Jonathan to leave the studio. He did a great job, but this probably would’ve been a bit much for someone I just met. So it’s just you and me.

Last Thursday night, I learned that my uncle, William Henry Winstead, had died. We found out that day, Thursday, but it appears that he’d been dead since Monday or Tuesday. His body was found by police when they were called to do, I guess it’s called a welfare check at his home in Mandeville, Louisiana.

He’d shot himself.

Mandeville is the city opposite New Orleans, at the other end of the very long causeway bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. New Orleans is at the south end. Mandeville is at the north end. That area, those parishes on the north side of the lake, that’s called the North Shore. I know this show is called the Eastern Shore, so I hope you’ll forgive me for changing direction for the next few minutes.

William Henry Winstead was the fourth of the four children of William Winstead and Myrtle Wiggs, my paternal grandparents. His older brother Dan was my father. William Henry – and that’s what we always called him, both names, because we’re from the south and that’s what we do – William Henry was the youngest and the strangest of the bunch. Not that he was all that strange, really, but of course, in families, that sort of thing is relative, which sounds like a horrible pun, but that’s the word.

William Henry was the black sheep of the family. He lived exactly as he chose to, and the other Winsteads – who were and are generally a buttoned-down, bottled-up bunch of Baptists – viewed him with a mixture of head-shaking bemusement and worry and occasional frustration. I think they never really knew what to make of him and his life choices. They cared about him. It was hard not to care about him, to like him. He had the easy charm of a youngest sibling.

But William Henry was the one of the four who didn’t take what the family would have considered a traditional path through life. He was the closest thing to an artist that family produced. He spent longer just finding his way in the world than the others. He made a lot of plans that he never followed through on. And he had more fun than the others.

He was also – and these are all related – he was also the only one of the four siblings who ever moved any real distance away from the eastern North Carolina farmstead where they were raised (and pretty much where I was raised, too). He wound up on the Gulf Coast because he found work and what would end up being his career as a SCUBA diver on oil rigs. I don’t know what divers on oil rigs actually do, but whatever it was, he did it for several years. And when he aged out of that physically demanding work of diving itself, he moved on to managing diving operations and teams. He’d spend weeks at a time out on some rig in the Gulf, where, in addition to his official duties, he also often cooked for the crew, something he was good at and proud of and known for.

Over his years in the oil diving work, William Henry bounced between Louisiana and Texas a few times, but he’d been settled in Mandeville for a good while now, I don’t really know how many years. He had a little house not far from the lake, and a boat, and neighbors and friends – friends everywhere he went; again, he was charming guy. I got to see all that when I visited him there, a few years ago. My wife had a work event in New Orleans, and I tagged along. One afternoon, the three of us did some New Orleans sightseeing together. We tooled around the North Shore on his boat, had a great time.

And one day, he and I, just the two of us, we took a trip to Mississippi, where he’d bought some property outside one of the little coastal towns that just about got wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina. We had a long truck ride on the Interstate, over bayous and through patches of forest. We talked. We had lunch in Bay Saint Louis, at a little restaurant called Butter Cup, where he was friendly with all the employees. He bought a bunch of shrimp right off the dock from some fisherman he’d gotten to be friends with. We took a look at his property, and he talked about his plans for it. Plans I knew he’d never follow through on. But that’s okay. It’s fun to have big dreams. It’s fun to share them with other people, like your nephew.

He also traveled a fair bit. Over the last few years he’d gone to the Philippines several times. He’d met a woman there named Ruth. They seemed to genuinely and deeply love one another. I’m glad they shared that. Though in all of this, the person I feel the worst for, actually, is Ruth, halfway around the world, alone.

Through all his travels, and even though he moved away for work and he found a lot to like about Louisiana and the Gulf Coast – despite all that, William Henry loved the place he was from, the family farm in North Carolina. He always regarded it as home. And he always said he was going to move back there one day and live on the farm. The rest of us in the family were all pretty sure it would never happen. We knew how he was with plans. But we didn’t think this would be the way it didn’t happen.

He lived as he chose, and now he has died as he chose. None of us would have ever predicted suicide for the easy-going, easy-smiling youngest child of the family. It really came out of the blue for us, and we don’t get it. All my life I have hated not knowing things. And the only thing worse is not being able to know something. But I think this is one of the things I just don’t get to know.

My uncle William Henry and I were hardly the same person – I don’t have nearly the easy way with people he had, for one thing – but we were alike in some important ways, things I don’t have in common with other family members. And I had enjoyed getting to know him as an adult. I wish, of course, that I had done more of that. That’s not a terribly original regret on my part.

At first I thought I would say something here about dedicating this show to my uncle – and I kind of did with some of the music choices. But the more I thought about it, that didn’t really seem right. This is a nerdy little show about Oakland, California; it doesn’t have much to do with his life, with the things he cared about. Well, he cared about me, and I think he was happy I was doing this because it was something I wanted to do, and he was all for that. But really, as far as the content goes, it didn’t have a whole lot to do with him.

So I think it’s more accurate and more appropriate to say that I have dedicated at least some small part of my life to his example. Like him, I have lived my life so far as I have chosen to, at least as much as any of us ever can. And like him that has sometimes bewildered and worried and occasionally frustrated my other family members. Like I said: he and I were alike in some important ways.

Everybody grieves differently. I do it with words, which I guess is how I do everything that matters. So thank you for listening to my words.

This has been the Eastern Shore. I have been and continue to be Brock Winstead, proud nephew of the late William Henry Winstead of Mandeville, Louisiana – but really, in his heart, of a 115-acre family farm in Wilson County, North Carolina.

And to that dust he will return.

Thank you for listening. Talk to you again soon.

#2 – Delivered at Memorial Service, 6/19/2014

This isn’t the happiest of occasions, but I’m glad you’re all here. It’s good to see some people I haven’t seen in a long time. Some of you I don’t think I’ve ever met. But we had somebody in common. And I’m glad you’re here.

Every one of us knew a different William Henry Winstead. I don’t mean he had multiple personalities — any more than all of us do. We all show different faces to the world depending on a lot of things. Depending on who we’re talking to. Depending on what side of the bed we got up on this morning. Depending on where we are — where we are physically, and where we are on the journey of our lives. And you all knew William Henry at different points on his journey through life.

Some of you knew him as a boy, the boy who grew up on this farm. He learned to love this land and never forgot how to love it. He carried that love of this place with him all his life. He carried that boy that you knew inside him.

Some of you knew William Henry as a young adult – the young man who took a while to find his way in the world. He did that on his own terms. He looked for adventures; sometimes he found them. He had a lot of fun. At times, I’m told, that could cause a certain amount of frustration or worry for the people who cared about him. But he was going to do what he wanted to do. He carried that with him all his life, too. He lived as he chose.

Those of you who knew William Henry as a brother or a cousin or a classmate or a lifelong friend over those decades – I’m a little bit jealous. Like I said, I’m told that relationship could bring certain frustrations or worries. He made a lot of plans and he didn’t always follow through. He was searching for a path through life that made sense for him, and sometimes it can be hard to love someone who’s on that kind of search.

But eventually he did find his place and his way in the world. He settled down — as he defined that.

And that was William Henry the man. With a job – a career, in fact – and friends and a love of cooking. And a boat.

That’s the William Henry that I knew best. I wasn’t around for William Henry the boy. And when I was a boy, I couldn’t really understand William Henry the young man, searching for his path in the world. I had gotten to know him better as an adult — once he was one, and as I have become one. Or at least as I’ve tried to.

None of us is defined entirely by who we were when we started out in life. Thank goodness. We’re not defined by who we were at a moment in our youth, or even yesterday. Because every day of our lives, we become. We all hope that what we become — who we become — is better than who we were when we started, or in our youths, or even yesterday. We try to get to a good place.

I think my uncle William Henry succeeded at that. He had a good life, with good people in it — like you. He had a good time. He had a boat.

And now here he is in another good place: on this land that he loved so dearly. He always planned to come back here. Like I said, like we all know, he made a lot of plans he didn’t always follow through on, and this isn’t how any of us would have wanted to see him make good on that plan.

I’m sad that I didn’t have more time with my uncle William Henry the man, the young man, the boy. He remains all of those things in our memories. But I’m glad I had the time I did. And I’m happy that I could be here, and that you’re all here, to welcome him back home. It’s what he would have wanted. Thank you for being here.

The Eastern Shore #4 – Walking & Biking in Oakland

On The Eastern Shore this past Monday (June 9), I spoke with Jonathan Bair, board member of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, about making Oakland a safer, easier city to get around on foot and bicycle. We also talked a little about Oakland politics, Jonathan’s history as a DJ, and his still-growing record collection.

Also, I devoted the last 15 minutes of the program to a remembrance of my uncle William Henry Winstead, who died last week.

You can read more about the program, listen, and subscribe to the feed over on my Podbean site.

The Eastern Shore #3 – The Business of Food in Oakland

On The Eastern Shore for June 2, I talked to food writer Sarah Henry and restaurateur Jay Porter about the recent restaurant boom in Oakland, what it takes to open and run a restaurant in our city in these times, and what role restaurants can or should play as centers of community and places to earn a living wage. Sarah and Jay did great (and I tried to keep up). Give it a listen and subscribe.

The Eastern Shore #2 – Surveillance and Privacy

On the May 19 episode of The Eastern Shore, I talked with Ali Winston of the East Bay Express and Cyrus Farivar of Ars Technica about the expansion of local law enforcement surveillance in Oakland the East Bay. We dug into the surveillance technologies that have already been deployed in our cities, what might be on the horizon, and what it all means for our privacy and our relationship with government. It was a great talk. Check it out.

The Eastern Shore #1 – The Oakland Wiki

If you missed the debut show of The Eastern Shore, my conversation with Marina Kukso and Gene Anderson all about the Oakland Wiki is available for download in two different versions now. You can grab the raw two-hour recording, complete with music breaks. Or you can visit the show’s Podbean page and hear the trimmed down 1:18 version: no music, a few clean-ups. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed there to have future shows delivered to your digital doorstep. iTunes syndication coming soon, for those of you who are into that.

The Eastern Shore, Coming to Your Ears May 12

Prepare your ears. I’m starting an Internet radio show/podcast.

On Monday, May 12, I’ll be launching “The Eastern Shore” on BFF.fm, an online radio station based in San Francisco. The topic of the show will be, broadly speaking, what’s happening in Oakland and the East Bay. I’ll have guests on to talk about current events, big issues facing the area and how people are tackling them, and cool stuff that’s going on (according to my definition of “cool stuff”) in and around Oakland.

We’ll talk for a while; I’ll play some music; we’ll talk some more. And so on. 1 Before you know it, two hours will have passed, and you won’t remember where you are, or who you are, or what you’re doing holding that tractor headlight assembly.

The show will stream live at BFF.fm from 2:00 to 4:00 (Pacific) every Monday afternoon. It’ll be available for download immediately thereafter. You know, like a podcast. But if you listen live, I’ll like you more.

Next week, I’ll have more to share about the specific topic & guests for the first show. For now, mark it on your calendars: Mondays from 2:00 to 4:00, starting May 12. Listen to me learn how to do radio … in real time! It promises to be, at a bare minimum, an aural curiosity.


  1. If you heard my guest appearance a few weeks ago on Burrito Justice Radio, then you’ll recognize the format. It’ll be a lot like that. 

The Place I Pretend to Own, Part Five

Parts one, two, three, and four of the history of where I live covered from the Ohlones to 1899. You don’t have to read them, but it probably helps.

As the 19th Century neared its end, the place where I live now had taken on a form that I would have recognized. The old farm and ranch plots north of Oakland, first carved out of the Peralta Rancho in the initial wave of Gold Rush settlement, had been further subdivided into suburban lots. Streets were cut through and named according to the subdivider’s fancy. Small-scale developers and individual owners had erected middle- and working-class houses along those new streets — though lots of gaps remained between the houses, empty lots whose owners could afford to sit and wait.

Golden Gate, a community about three miles north of downtown Oakland, had gone from a sparsely settled farming district to a full-fledged streetcar neighborhood in under 30 years. The land had been tamed and named — and in the process stolen, then stolen again with a bit more legal complexity, then bought and sold several times over in ever-shrinking slices. The land baron still had a future in Oakland, but for the next few decades, Golden Gate — my neighborhood — would be shaped largely by those who dealt in smaller pieces of land, and by one event that affected all of the land.

Eliza Donahue had purchased one of those small pieces of the Golden Gate neighborhood: a 50′ x 91′ patch of land identified in public records as Lot 8 of Block D of the Gaskill Tract. Donahue lived in San Francisco with her husband Henry and children — five in 1887 when she bought the lot; ultimately nine. They were no doubt more than enough to keep her busy while Henry sold sewing machines, but she found some time in the 1890s to oversee the construction of a small house on the western side of the lot. It was about 11 feet wide and 30 feet long, smaller than most of the other houses on the block, but it provided the Donahues with a bit of rental income.

The address of Eliza Donahue’s rental house was 1073 Sutter Street, but after the neighborhood’s 1897 annexation to Oakland, the city changed the street names to conform to its preexisting numbered system. Eliza Donahue was now the owners of a place called 1073 56th Street.

More was changing in the area than just street names. Golden Gate owed much of its allure to its transportation connections. (Transportation was in fact the chicken, not the egg, in the area’s development process.) Golden Gate had experienced its first subdivision boom after the construction of a rail line that connected residents to San Francisco via ferry, then a horsecar line to downtown Oakland. The horsecar line originally stopped a bit south of the neighborhood at the property of Joseph Emery (as in Emeryville), who built the line to provide easy access to the lots he was selling. Cable cars replaced the horsecars in the 1880s, and the line was extended northward into the heart of the neighborhood. The impetus for the extension had come from Charles Klinkner, an early developer in the area who had attempted to have it named Klinknerville.

Shortly after annexation, the San Pablo Avenue rail line was electrified under the hand of Francis Marion “Borax” Smith. His nickname derived from the same source as his fortune: borax mining in Nevada and southern California. In the 1890s, Smith turned his millions toward real estate — as is so often the way of things in the Bay Area — and to transportation. He began buying up the area’s many privately-owned streetcar lines, including the San Pablo Avenue line, while also working with other investors to buy up cheap, still-undeveloped land in the East Bay. He modernized and expanded his transportation holdings, including a new ferry link to San Francisco, competing with the Southern Pacific railroad. Within a few years, Smith would give his combined transportation network a new nickname, based on the shape its main lines and hubs outlined on a map: the Key System.

The Donahues didn’t have a mining fortune to invest, and their empire was not growing. Henry Donahue died on February 19, 1900, leaving Eliza to manage the household with the nine children — though some were hardly children anymore, ranging in age from 21 to 3. At the time, Eliza was renting 1073 56th Street to two local stablemen, William Dingle and Vincent Perkins. The rent was probably her only direct source of income, though her older sons were already working outside the home. John was a salesman; Henry Jr., a day laborer; 15-year-old Andrew, a photographer’s apprentice.

These were not easy times for the Donahues. The next year, in March 1901, Eliza’s youngest son Joseph died, a month shy of his fourth birthday. Eliza continued to rent the house for a few more years; different tenants cycled through. The 1903 Oakland directory shows it occupied by John Gilmore, a laborer. In 1905, the occupants were George R. Sharp and Frank D. Wilson.

Sharp and Wilson would be the last tenants. That year, Eliza Donahue decided to get out of the rental business. She sold Lot 8 of Block D of the Gaskill Tract and the house known as 1073 56th Street on July 20, 1905.

The buyers were a couple: John and Johanna Kavanagh, 53 and 52 years old, respectively. (The last name sometimes shows up as Kavanaugh, with a “u”.) John Matthew Kavanagh was born in Ireland and had come to the United States in 1864. Johanna was Canadian by birth, immigrating in 1867. John was a long-time employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad, working in 1905 as a gateman. They had two sons, John F. (called John Jr.), who was 16, and Matthew, 13. Both worked in printing shops, one for the now-defunct Oakland Herald newspaper. For several years prior, the Kavanaghs had been living in rented houses around the Golden Gate neighborhood.

The Kavanaghs’ 1905 purchase put them just ahead of the next great boom in East Bay property values — a boom even less predictable than usual. On April 18, 1906 (108 years ago, to the day, as I write this), a powerful earthquake struck San Francisco. The quake toppled buildings, buckled streets, and leveled great stretches of the city. But it was the fire — four days of it, sweeping through the center of the city — that finished the job the quake had started. The quake and fire together destroyed 80% of San Francisco and left over a quarter-million people homeless. Many of the refugees fled the flames and the rubble by boarding ferries east.

Fleeing East on Ferry

Fleeing East on the Ferry (from Calisphere)

Before the earthquake, the East Bay had been a mostly sleepy set of small towns, suburbs, farms and ranches. Oakland had some claim to the status of city, but even prosperous neighborhoods like Golden Gate still had plenty of relatively cheap, undeveloped land. The East Bay had been damaged in the quake, but no firestorm had followed, so the area had fared much better than San Francisco.

200,000 San Franciscans moved east in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Three-quarters of them ended up staying for good. Oakland, Berkeley, and other towns built rapidly to accommodate these new residents, and the Golden Gate neighborhood was caught up in that wave. (For a bit more about the East Bay’s post-quake, read Kevin Fagan’s San Francisco Chronicle article, published for the earthquake centennial in 2006.)

The Kavanaghs, as we might say now, happened to be in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, if Eliza Donahue — who survived the earthquake and stayed in San Francisco — had held onto the lot for just a year longer, her fortunes might have been considerably improved. Real estate markets are hard enough to time, even before you introduce the possibility of geological cataclysm.

1911 Sanborn crop

1911 Sanborn Map

When the quake hit, the Kavanaghs were still living in the small house that Eliza Donahue built at 1073 56th Street, which only occupied part of the western half of the lot. In late 1907 or early 1908, John Sr. built a bigger, more modern five-room cottage on the eastern half. The new house was roughly twice as large as the old, but still quite simple in layout: living room, dining room, and kitchen down one side, two bedrooms on the other. It had a front porch, just big enough for a couple of chairs or a bench, overlooking a small front yard and the street. The 1909 city directory lists the Kavanaghs at their new address: 1071 56th Street.

The Sanborn Map update published in 1911 shows the lot in this state: Donahue house on the west (left), the new, larger Kavanagh house on the east (right).

After their move, the Kavanaghs brought in a little money by renting the old 1073 house. From 1909 to 1911, Louise Bernatas, a widowed refugee from San Francisco, lived there with her three children. Another tenant, Leon Bertin, is listed there in the 1912 directory — but the directories lagged behind both building and moving.

Building permits and tax assessor’s records show instead that in 1911, John Kavanagh tore down the small house at 1073 56th and built a new one to replace it. He re-used the plans from his previous project, and built on the western half of his lot an exact twin of the house he’d put up on the eastern half: the house so nice he built it twice. These two identical houses, each about 750 square feet, nearly filled the 50′ width of the lot, save a narrow passage of not quite three feet between them. This second John Kavanagh house is the one I live in now. (When my wife and I bought our house three years ago, the date of construction was listed incorrectly as 1905. We thought it had survived the 1906 quake, and we felt pretty good about that. We don’t anymore.)

By 1913, the continued infill development of the neighborhood — spurred by the post-earthquake boom — had added enough new houses that they had to be renumbered. The Kavanaghs’ two houses were relabeled as 1077 and 1079 56th Street, the numbers they still bear today.

The 1915 city directory shows all the Kavanaghs living at 1077, with Matthew working at the Pacific Manifold Book Company, a relatively new factory at Powell and what is now Doyle Street in Emeryville. Every time I walk to my favorite local bar, I recreate Matthew Kavanagh’s walk to work. That site is now being redeveloped into a large apartment building, though they have preserved the factory’s eastern brick wall, including the window openings and the arched doorway you can see in this photo from around 1917.

Pacific Manifolding Book Company

Pacific Manifolding Book Company

The older Kavanagh son, John Jr., found time around his own printing job to be active in his local chapter of the Native Sons of the Golden West, the “Claremont Parlor”, Number 240. The Native Sons are a fraternal order for men born in California, whose primary mission is to preserve the history of the state. His parents were both immigrants from other countries, but John Jr. embraced his Californian identity with gusto. He served as President of the Claremont Parlor in 1913, the year he turned 24.

Among John’s brothers in the Native Sons chapter was a man named William C. Boehm (himself the son of German immigrants). Boehm had a younger sister named Marie, who lived nearby and worked as a telephone operator. Marie Katherine Boehm and John Kavanagh met, likely introduced by her brother, and married around 1916. As might be expected, John moved out of the family home at 1077 56th. The newlyweds started their life together in a house of their own — next door, at 1079 56th.

The 1920 Census gives us a picture of the Golden Gate Kavanaghs. John M. (68), Johanna, (67), and Matthew (29) lived at 1077 56th. John Sr. listed no occupation; he had retired from the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1919, after 35 years and 4 months of service. Next door at 1079 56th were John F. (30), Marie (24), and their two sons, William (3½) and John (2½) — yes, another John.

The Kavanaghs were on a real tear on 56th Street in this period. Just to the east of their twin houses was an older house, dating from the 1890s — complete with water tower and windmill, which was the style at the time. Around 1920, Matthew Kavanagh bought that property from its long-time owners, the Pendletons. Within a couple of years, the old house and the water tower came down. John Sr., with some time on his hands post-retirement, built a new house, larger than the twins he’d built next door. That new house was given the number 1073 56th. (You can imagine the knots I tied myself into during the early phases of this research when I was trying to track the Kavanaghs across several changing house numbers, one of which repeats.) 1073 would eventually acquire a carriage house at the rear of the lot, though I haven’t yet figured out the year of its construction.

1079 56th on 1951 Sanborn

The three Kavanagh houses

After construction, John Sr., Johanna, and Matthew moved in to the new, larger house at 1073. John Jr., Marie, and their young sons swapped in to 1077. (Because they wanted to hurt future researchers like me.) And the family began renting 1079 — where I live now – to a succession of tenants. The Sanborn map to the right shows the Kavanagh holdings. This one family was now responsible for three out of the 13 houses on their side of the block.

John Kavanagh was no Borax Smith, but he had nonetheless shaped this neighborhood. He wasn’t motivated by a desire to name the place after himself or to make a fortune. He was motivated to provide for his family.

Kavanagh and other small property owners like him gave my block of 56th Street the built form it has today. Nearly every house on the block was built before 1925, the majority (including mine) between 1906 and 1913. They had help from a terrible earthquake — an unusual antecedent for a real estate boom, surely, but the 1906 quake pushed up land values and housing demand in Oakland in the same way the previous, man-made booms had done. The quake tore (or burned) down buildings in San Francisco, and it built my neighborhood.

By 1930, John Kavanagh and his family (and the earthquake) had already left their legacy in the Golden Gate neighborhood. But I’m not through telling their story, or the story of this place. More of both in Part Six.