Yesterday's news is Dallas man's current occupation


by By SAM HODGES / The Dallas Morning News

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:44 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 11:23 AM

If the phone rings, and it's a man trying to sell you an old newspaper clipping about some deceased family member or something odd that happened a long time ago at your house or business, don't be alarmed.

W.K. Jeffus sifts through old newspaper clippings to piece together a chapter of history, which he then sells to strangers and friends alike.

It's only W.K. Jeffus, who lives in the past and makes a modest living there.

When not haunting flea markets and estate sales, Mr. Jeffus, 61, can usually be found in the dilapidated two-story Oak Cliff house he uses as an office, poring over his vast collection of Dallas paper memorabilia and making calls to potential customers.

W.K. Jeffus holds a 331/3 rpm recording of On Wings of Song, one of many local treasures he has uncovered and sold. Dallas' tendency to discard riles up Mr. Jeffus, so much so that he's made it his mission to preserve the past.

Not long ago, he had circus buff George Mixon Jr. on the phone, offering a Dallas Times Herald clipping with a photo of clown Paul Jerome of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"This is not a photocopy," Mr. Jeffus assured. "It's the real McCoy. It's not stained. It's not torn. It looks like it was printed an hour ago, and this was printed Sept. 17, 1939, and if you want it, it's $40 plus tax, and I can mail it today."

Mr. Mixon did want it, as he has wanted various Dallas circus-related clippings for a scrapbook he plans to pass onto his grandchildren.

Others who have bought yesterday's news from Mr. Jeffus include real estate heavyweight Harlan Crow, who got clippings about the old Parkland Hospital and other buildings his company owns, and about the 1939 German U-boat sinking of the S.S. Athenia, which his mother survived.

"He's a good, honest guy who has a weird but worthy occupation," said Mr. Crow, who is worth millions, of Mr. Jeffus, who usually makes around $12,000 a year.

Mr. Jeffus admires Mr. Crow but does not envy him. Just as Thoreau had his cabin by Walden Pond, Mr. Jeffus has his house full of old papers. The many hours he spends there, accompanied only by his red heeler, Stranger - a rescue dog - pass quickly.

"I love this stuff. I'm from here," he said. "Every time I open a paper I learn something new about Dallas."

Preserving the past

Mr. Jeffus is stocky and speaks with a broadcaster's diction. He's tightly wound but seems at peace at that tension.

One thing riles him - the tendency in Dallas to discard.

"Dallas has this thing about history. They hate it," he said. "They're tearing everything down."

In particular, the demolition of old homes for new ones chips at Mr. Jeffus' heart, since he's sure that attics' worth of valuable, Dallas-related papers get hauled to the dump.

Mr. Jeffus grew up in Oak Cliff, son of Mac Jeffus, a top engineer for WFAA radio. His father's stories of 1930s and '40s Dallas quickened young Wayne Kelly Jeffus' interest in history, as did getting pulled out of class at Sunset High to help with a teacher's personal genealogy project.

At Texas A&M, Mr. Jeffus majored in marketing but returned to Dallas before graduating. He began a long career doing collections, skip tracing and private investigations.

But in the early '90s, having quit his job in a dispute with a supervisor, he began to see if he might profit from his hobby of collecting "old things" about Dallas.

He tried to sell a local art supply company one of its 1936 catalogs. Mr. Jeffus recalls being nervous as he sat in the owner's office. But he got $15 for the catalog.

"That kind of lit the fire," he said.

Lean living

Since then, Mr. Jeffus has contrived a livelihood finding and selling paper memorabilia. Lean years alternate with even leaner years. But the never-married Mr. Jeffus lives frugally, driving a beat-up Lincoln and getting a free room in DeSoto at the home of an elderly friend for whom he prepares meals.

His Oak Cliff house/office has no running water, air conditioning or computer. His electric bill ($1.85 last month) owes mainly to a hot fluorescent light under which he types invoices on a 1948 Olympia manual typewriter. One need not be an English major to find symbolism in the stopped clocks on the wall.

The house may be listed in "very poor" condition by the Dallas Central Appraisal District, but Mr. Jeffus has filled it with treasures. Mountain ranges of old newspapers lean against foothills of phone books, city directories and magazines.

There are hundreds of photographs of Dallas buildings and a pile of 45 rpm records made by local groups during the '50s and '60s.

"The Pitmen," Mr. Jeffus announced with joy, holding out a disc and explaining that the band got its name from playing the Pit Club, a music venue attached to the famed Bronco Bowl.

All in the details

Mr. Jeffus' enthusiasm for the details of Dallas history - buildings, streets, schools, businesses, families - impresses customers.

A.B. Thomas bought a clipping of an advertisement picturing the old Joe Yee Restaurant on Columbia Avenue. (Mr. Thomas' father built the building.) He and his wife met Mr. Jeffus at Caf Brazil in Oak Cliff to pick up the memorabilia and chat about Dallas history.

"We walked in and he said, 'This used to be Piggly-Wiggly,' and he started showing us where the produce used to be, where the meat used to be," Mr. Thomas said.

Mr. Jeffus has a few steady customers, such as Woodbine Development Corp., which is restoring Union Station and has him looking for clips about it, and Smith Protective Services, founded in 1903 as Smith Detective Agency and Nightwatch Service.

Mostly Mr. Jeffus deals with strangers, cold-calling them after finding their family name or home or business address in his papers.

It took a few tries, but he recently reached Gail Natale of Wichita Falls and sold her a 1937 clipping describing her father's high school football prowess.

She was so pleased that she hired him to look for some clippings about a late friend of hers. More projects for Mr. Jeffus may be in the offing.

"He's in my Rolodex," she said.

Personal history

Some time back, Mr. Jeffus found a 1951 copy of The Tin Can, the employee magazine of the local Sherwin-Williams paint company operations. It was in an envelope dated that same year, addressed to Farrell Loftin at Fort Chaffee, Ark.

The magazine featured a photo of Mr. Loftin, a Sherwin-Williams employee on leave for Army duty.

Mr. Jeffus wondered if Mr. Loftin might be alive and interested in having this long-lost magazine. He reached him in Rockwall County and sold it to him for $40 plus tax. His own mail.

"I was glad to get that," Mr. Loftin confirmed.

And W.K. Jeffus, after reading the magazine and learning more about Dallas history, was glad to provide.