Entertainment

Byrd family, friends celebrate patriarch’s 104 years

Peter Byrd,III, and sister Renee Beaumont gather round their father, Peter Byrd, Jr., who will turn104 on Friday. Saturday, the family invites friends, family and the public to celebrate the centennarian-plus during a drive-by birthday parade from1 -3 p.m. at his church – Fellowship Missionary Baptist in Beaumont. Photo made Monday, September 13, 2021 Kim Brent

There are many kinds of dads. There’s the strict dad, the sports-fanatic dad, the goofy dad, the work driven dad.

Peter Byrd Jr. — he was “the energetic dad, very loud and always laughing. He was a fun dad,” says son, Peter Byrd III.

At 104, Peter Byrd Jr., is still a fun dad, bringing smiles to the faces of Peter and sister Renee Beaumont.

Peter Byrd Jr. was born in 1917 in old Washington on the Brazos to Dr. Peter Byrd Sr., one of Texas’ first and most prosperous Black doctors in the state, and Fredonia Byrd, a school teacher.

The family moved to Beaumont in 1925, which was a one-stoplight town then, he would tell his children. The Byrds settled on Ewing Street in the north end. His father’s practice was in the thriving Black business district on Forsythe Street downtown.

As a child, Peter Byrd Jr. remembers playing baseball in vacant lots with friends and learning to bake with his Aunt Sissy. Baking became a life-long passion that would later create fond memories for his children.

Peter Byrd III remembers his father’s renowned lemon pie with a meringue so fluffy and crests so crisp it could easily rival a top chef.

“Hot dog, that was the day, making that good lemon pie!” exclaims his father, as they relived the memory during a recent visit.

The weekend pies were made better by the homemade ice cream Peter Byrd Jr. made every Sunday, Renee adds.

It was all part of the lesson Peter Byrd Jr. passed on to his children — the importance of family and enjoying life.

“Don’t do too much worrying,” he said. “Just let everything be beautiful.”

It was a philosophy that served him well at Bishop College after graduating from Charlton Pollard High School in 1936.

Peter Byrd Jr. was pre-med, following in his father’s footsteps. But academia wasn’t for him, and he dropped out.

Although he never got his college degree, he did get a wife.

He met and fell in love with Zeola Kennedy, a fellow student, before they married in 1941, then had a daughter, Evelyn. She was Peter Byrd Jr.’s second child. His first, Shirley Woodard, was born in 1938.

As his family life got underway, WWII was raging in Europe, pulling more young Americans into service — Peter Byrd Jr., among them.

He hated the water and couldn’t swim. So, when he enlisted in 1943, “I said Army, and they said Navy,” he remembers — off he went to a naval base in San Diego.

Luckily, Peter Byrd Jr. was assigned to work in the mess hall on base and never set foot aboard a ship.

After nearly two years of service, he came home to his family in Kilgore, where he worked for his father-in-law as a personal assistant and chauffeur; though his children say, he didn’t really need to work at all.

Zeola’s father was one of the wealthiest Black men in Texas.

Peter Byrd Jr. was, as some might say, “Living the Life of Reilly.”

And he lived it for 19 years before the couple parted.

He then moved back to Beaumont, picking up odd jobs and contract work. On Sundays, he would accompany his Aunt Sissy to services at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, where he’d become a member.

There, he met the woman that would become his second wife and mother to his last two children — Peter Byrd III, and Renee.

Melba Byrd remembers her first time meeting Peter Byrd Jr.

It was 1964.

“He’d tip his hat and say, ‘How are you, madam?’” she recalls.

He was ever the gentleman.

When her family began to build a new home, he offered to help and enlisted a crew of co-workers from the Continental Can Co. Peter ByrdJr. loved to help others.

Their relationship began as friends.

Melba called him “cousin Peter,” as he’d become like one of the family, and confided in him about her latest suitors.

Soon, his advice on new boyfriends turned to a question.

“I’d like to take you out. Let’s go to the movies,” she recalls him asking. “That was our first date.”

They’d go to the movies or go out to eat at Charlie’s on Gladys. In time, despite their 20-plus-year age difference, feelings changed. “He was kind and generous,” and “cousin Peter” suddenly didn’t seem like a cousin anymore, Melba says.

The two married in 1970 and started a family.

Decades later, she says, perhaps “he thought he was marrying a young woman that would take care of him in his old age, but it’s just the opposite — he’s taking care of me.”

Peter Byrd Jr., with the exception of eyedrops and the hearing aides he hates to wear, takes no medications.

He’s in good health and is a prostate cancer survivor.

Up until a decade ago, he was still working as a driver for a local blind woman and helping friends who needed rides to their doctor’s appointments.

“He was the oldest of them all, but there he was, pushing their wheelchairs in to see the doctors,” Renee says.

It is that work of which Peter Byrd Jr., is most proud — being of service to his friends and to his community.

And when he wasn’t driving for work or to help others, he was driving purely for fun.

Byrd loved to travel, whether it was short weekend trips to visit relatives or longer family vacations.

“Every summer, we went to different places in the States, and we always drove,” son Peter III, remembers, adding his parents “always wanted us to travel and see how other people lived.”

They visited monuments, national parks and took a cruise to the Bahamas.

His last family trip was at the age of 99 when he, Peter III, and his four grandsons went to Mount Rushmore.

Though he’s turned over his car keys and travel has stopped, especially amid the pandemic, Peter Byrd Jr. still dreams of one more trip.

Peter III, says “he plays the lotto and he still says if he wins, he’s getting an RV and traveling America. He still wants to travel.”

Where would he go? First on the list would be the Smithsonian Institute.

“He loves history and learning about history,” his son says.

Peter Byrd Jr.’s also lived much of that history. He’s seen multiple wars; two global pandemics; and grew up in the segregated Jim Crow South, later witnessing the Civil Rights movement and ultimately the election of the country’s first Black president.

“He’s a history lesson every day,” Renee says.

One of the lessons he’s learned in his personal history is summed up in this, his oft-used phrase — “What’s for you, you will get it.. What’s not for you, I’ll be darned if you’re gonna get it. I got one foot on a banana peel and another foot in the grave, and the Grim Reaper is behind me. So, I got to stay out front.”

And stay out front he has, for 104 years and counting.

On Friday, he, his wife, children, granddaughter and his sister Nettie Jones and her husband, Tom, celebrated the achievement with a special dinner, including his favorites — beans and rice with cornbread. They also watched college football, a favorite pastime.

On Saturday, the celebration continued with a drive-by birthday parade and party at Fellowship MBC, where he is still a member.

Balloons decorated the portico, and a birthday bag quickly filled with cards as the guests came to celebrate his milestone.

But few participants could content themselves with a mere passing wave from their car window, and soon the parking lot was filled with cars as friends and family wished him a happy birthday face to face, many staying to share their Peter Byrd Jr. stories with one another.

“Everybody just loves him,” sister Nettie Jones said. Although she is nearly 24 years younger, born out of their father’s second marriage, Jones remembers, “When I was in college, I just loved coming home. He made me laugh all the time.”

Jones and her family lived in Washington, D.C., for many years before recently returning to Beaumont. And she remembers him driving from Beaumont to D.C. to bring the flowers for her children’s weddings. “I just adore him. He’s a phenomenal gentleman,” she said.

Friend Loretta Victorian couldn’t agree more. She met Peter Byrd Jr. years ago when he was working construction with her husband Joe. They became friends, getting together often to play dominoes — a game he loves and still plays.

Later, he’d go with her on weekly visits to her brother, who was in a V.A. hospital in Houston.

“You still playing dominoes?” Victorian asked as she stopped to give him a birthday hug. “I miss you. I sure do, Mr. Byrd,” she continued.

But perhaps the one person who’s missed him most is eldest daughter Shirley, who lives in Houston and hasn’t seen him since the start of the pandemic last spring.

Byrd’s eyes widened as his daughter and granddaughter Kendra made their way to his chair.

As other guests came and went, Peter Byrd Jr. and Woodard sat side by side, him reaching out time and again to take hold of her hand — the fellowship of family his greatest gift and lasting legacy.

Written by Kim Brent

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