Sunday, September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day, and those of us who have lost someone to depression or mental illness know that raising awareness by telling our stories is key to preventing another tragic loss. I was made aware within hours of moving to Elmwood that there had been an accidental overdose in our house some years prior, which, combined with the loss of my own brother, inspired me to write this.
While doing research for the elmwoodna.org history page, I came across a beautifully written letter from 1974 about an Elmwood neighbor, Mrs. Phyllis McGee, who sadly took her own life. The message from Sue Johnston of 1915 Lansford to the new owners of Mrs. McGee's former home, the Vaughns, was for no other reason than to share “remembrances” about her and the house she loved (unidentified in this story out of respect for current occupants). The eloquent way in which she describes our neighborhood creek and its wildlife is a tempting reason to share it, but its purpose best serves as an opportunity to talk about suicide prevention.
Letter from Sue Johnston to Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn
June 11, 1974
"Legend" tells us that the old house so beautifully restored by the Vaughns was originally a night-club. That was back in the days of Prohibition and the speak-easy. The Elmwood Boulevard side of the property was then considered the front.
In front of the patio and the old water well there was a deep pond of water. The pond had been created by damming the creek. A heavy wooden bridge crossed the pond and connected with wooden steps leading up to the bank of the creek to Elmwood Boulevard. Owners and customers of the nightclub came and went by means of this bridge and the flight of steps. Arrival and departure after dark must have been quite an adventure. And a sudden departure even more!
Inside the building, the large area now used as a living room served as the clubroom. The maple floor was perfect for dancing. Music played and drinks were poured. But eventually the nightclub ceased operation.
Mr. and Mrs. McGee were separated for some while. During this time Mrs. McGee (Phyllis) bought the property and the old nightclub building. Phyllis said she bought the place, including, I believe, an acre and a half of land, for about three thousand dollars. She said the streets were so bad she often had to park her car some distance up the street and walk part of the way home after work. Lansford Avenue had not then been paved. It was not paved until most of the houses on the street had been built.
The property was heavily wooded with all its original trees. There were masses of vines and bushes. Roller pigeons occupied a cote located near where the Van Slyke home now stands. The pigeons were snow-white. They were a beautiful sight, flying high into the air then making their descent back to the cote by rolling over and over. Peacocks strutted and shrieked as if defying the approach of new houses and people.
After Phyllis had bought the property and established a home for herself and her daughter, she and her husband, Lawrence, were reunited. They were married a second time. So the McGees were together again, Phyllis, Lawrence, and Little Phyllis – all so very beautiful, and seemingly happy.
But as I became further acquainted with Phyllis and grew more and more fond of her I saw a change come over her. She appeared to be suffering from depression. I knew her marriage was becoming shadowed again with problems. Sometimes she would come up to my house and we would have a cup of coffee, and I could tell that she was not happy. Yet Phyllis never said much. Probably she never said much to anybody. Maybe if she had…
One day Phyllis got in her car and died from asphyxiation. In her arms she held her little Cocker Spaniel she loved so much. The little dog was found dead with her. She had not wanted to leave it alone.
Phyllis loved flowers, too. After her death I would walk my dog to the property and I would see there beside the creek the beds of iris and jonquils Phyllis had planted. I would see the clusters of watercress and mint further down the creek bank. I would remember Phyllis’ saying “Help yourself to the watercress and mint. I don’t have to be here, but watch out for the snakes.” I thanked her, but I didn’t help myself to the watercress and mint many times.
Lawrence McGee had moved away from the home soon after the death of Phyllis. Their daughter, Scottie (the neighbors called her Little Phyllis), was married and was living in Dallas, but we seldom saw her. The house was vacant much of the time, but occasionally was rented to this one and then that one. No one stayed long. The house showed signs of deterioration. Hilma Henderson, who rented the little cottage at the side, took good care of the part of the place she occupied. She watered the fig trees and saw after some of the beds of flowers. There was not much she could do for the rest of the place, though. She said she was not able to get any help from Mr. McGee in making repair to her little cottage. She made the repairs.
Then came the news that Lawrence had died. He had remarried and had seemed happy enough, even bringing his new wife to the same church he and Phyllis and Scottie had previously attended. He did not live long after his remarriage. Tragedy again had come to the family. And I am crying as I write this.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. 800-273-TALK or suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Editor's note: Phyllis 'Scottie' McGee (Little Phyllis) graduated from Sunset High School in 1952 and lived in Dallas until her death in 2012. The Texas Legislature passed a resolution in her honor.