Madness in Muenster
Although Jerome Pagel would eventually end his business relationship with the couple, he was one of those who became lifelong friends with Ernest and Margaret. Their popularity with others in Muenster increased as the local guest list for their parties grew.
“There wasn’t a tuxedo owned in the whole community before they came,” John said. But if you wanted to go to the Medders parties, “You had to dress the part. So there were a lot of people who went out and bought tuxedos so they could make the parties.
“I think everybody thought they were kind of hillbilly country bumpkins, you know,” he said. “But they could put up with that” in return for the good times.
The good times extended far beyond the parties. The Medderses were a boon to many local businesses and workers. Although she became a favorite customer at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, Margaret also shopped for clothes in Muenster’s best stores. There was liquor and food and livestock feed to buy. Plus, the couple hired honest-to-God cowboys to help them in their ranching enterprise. And ironically, they also drilled 18 oil and gas wells on their 1,200 acres, so roughnecks were in demand. The money spread all across town.
John said that, in addition to the roles of friend and builder, his father also occasionally acted as chauffeur to the quirky couple. Jerome drove the Medderses to places like Mexico City for a visit to the Basilica de Guadalupe, on a trip out west, and even to Mishawaka, Ind.
That last one wasn’t a pleasure trip. Ernest and Margaret were having trouble paying the bill for his construction work — one of the first signs that things weren’t quite what they seemed.
“Sometimes Medders wouldn’t have the check,” John said. “And my dad would say, ‘Well, let’s go get in the car and go get it.’ And I think there was a time or two when there was a question about whether or not there was going to be any more money. And I think that was one of the occasions when they went back up to Indiana to assure [the nuns] that the [oil] money” was on its way.
Jerome also had major disagreements with the couple from time to time. Margaret “was just pushy,” John said. “She would demand something, and [Jerome] would tell her no. They would sit across the table and cuss each other like two dogs.
“She was set in her ways,” the younger Pagel said. “She would say, “I’ve got money, and I want to have it my way.’ And Dad would say, ‘No, you can’t have that. You can’t do it like that, and we’re going to do it the right way.’ Or, at least, his way.
“Margaret was pretty demanding. But she met her match when she met Jerome Pagel.”
His father even kicked Ernest and Margaret out of their own car once, on a trip to Fort Worth.
“He made them walk,” John said, still chuckling over the memory. “I don’t know how they got home. They had gotten into it over some detail about the house. He said, ‘All right, if you don’t like what’s going on, just get out.’ And they got out.
“But that was their relationship. It was sort of like a marriage, so to speak. You fuss. You fight. You get back together.”
John Pagel is one of those who remains convinced that the Medderses were legitimate heirs to the Spindletop money — or, at worst, that they believed they were.
“They had the nuns convinced that the money had been set aside in escrow accounts until the proper division orders had been placed,” John said. “They may have had a legitimate claim. Either that or they were duped by some attorneys who convinced them that that money was theirs.”
A devout Catholic, John Pagel also places some of the blame for the debacle on the Poor Sister themselves.
“They were showing as much greed as everybody else around here was,” he said. “And if I could get $10 million for a [$2 million] loan, I’d think about it too.”
For 32 years, Rufus Henscheid ran the Muenster Building Center, and when the Medderses stopped doing business with Jerome Pagel, they turned to Henscheid. A tall, muscular man with red hair, Henscheid looks like he knows his way around a two-by-four. Both he and his wife Betty, a small attractive brunette, could pass for 15 years younger than their 80ish ages.
They knew Ernest and Margaret professionally and socially and at Sacred Heart. But Rufus takes a darker view of the couple than John Pagel does.
Like Pagel, they found Margaret’s overbearing ways and the couple’s wasteful lifestyle, with its ice sculptures and lime trees, hard to take.
But what most bugged Rufus, as well as some of his Republican friends, was the couple’s liberal politics. Ernest and Margaret were Democrats; they wore their politics on their sleeve and gave large sums of money to the Democratic Party.
They attended White House dinners and were even escorted to one function by Secretary of State Dean Rusk. They flew on Air Force One. A star-struck Ernest had a trophy case full of Democratic Party mementos, including a pair of cufflinks given to him by LBJ.
Additionally, like many in the Democratic Party, the Medderses were backers of the civil rights movement that was spreading through the United States in the early 1960s. Indeed, they were the first people in Muenster to hire blacks for their household staff, a fact that did not go over well in an almost completely white town. Even today, blacks hardly register in demographic breakdowns of Muenster’s population.
The Medderses’ efforts to desegregate the city were met with resistance. Signs including the “N” word popped up in their front yard overnight. And each morning Margaret would march defiantly out into the yard and pull them up.
That defiance and the Democratic leanings particularly irked the late A.V. Grant, an attorney and staunch Republican.