The face of poverty never escaped his moment of fame

jcheves@herald-leader.comNovember 16, 2013 

INEZ — In hindsight, Tommy Fletcher wished he hadn't become the face of American poverty.

Fletcher, then 38, was startled on April 24, 1964, when a pair of Secret Service agents appeared in his yard along Route 3 in Martin County. They asked whether the Fletcher family would be willing to receive President Lyndon B. Johnson and his entourage.

Sure, Fletcher said.

Hours later, leading a small army of politicians, aides and reporters, the president climbed onto Fletcher's porch and squatted on a lumber pile to hear his life story. Fletcher never finished elementary school and could not really read. The places where he had labored — coal mines, sawmills — were closed. He struggled to support his wife and eight children.

Johnson described Fletcher in his memoirs: "He regretted more than anything else that his two oldest children had already dropped out of school, and he was worried that the same fate would overtake the others. So was I."

As Johnson strode away from the porch that afternoon, he declared, "I have called for a national war on poverty. Our objective: total victory."

The press corps shot pictures of the world's most powerful man listening for a half-hour to the jobless miner. Published worldwide, they soon became synonymous with the War on Poverty. Fletcher, too, became a symbol.

"My determination was reinforced that day to use the powers of the presidency to the fullest extent that I could, to persuade America to help all its Tom Fletchers," Johnson wrote in his memoirs. "They lived in the hollows of Appalachia and the hill country of central Texas, in swamp and desert, in cane brake and forest, and in the crumbling slums of every American city and every state. They were black and they were white, of every religion and background and national origin. And they were 35 million strong."

News reports the next day described Fletcher's small home as "flimsy," "ramshackle" and "a tarpaper shack," which greatly offended him, because he thought his house was in fairly decent shape.

For a few years, though, the encounter brought rewards.

Americans took pity and sent donations to Martin County. Fletcher was placed on one of the federal government's "Happy Pappies" road crews, a make-work project in which jobless fathers were paid to pick up litter and clear brush. He studied auto mechanics in the new Manpower Development and Training Program. As part of that, he received $42 a week, which he used to buy new teeth for himself and his wife.

Ultimately, though, Fletcher never got back on his feet.

One bad event led to another — more downturns in the local economy, a broken leg, illness. By the 1990s, Fletcher was still sitting on his porch, drawing $282 a month in disability payments. Some of his children had a hard time finishing school, holding regular jobs or staying out of legal trouble. His first wife died of breast cancer.

His second wife, Mary Porter Fletcher, 40 years his junior, was convicted in 1992 of murdering their 3-year-old daughter and attempting to kill their 4-year-old son.

She gave the children overdoses of prescription drugs in an attempt to collect on their burial insurance policies. She is scheduled to remain in prison through 2017.

"We just needed the money 'cause we's fixing up the house, putting a bathroom in, water in and everything," Mary Fletcher told police in her confession. The crime made national news, in part because it was so horrible and in part because it involved the War on Poverty guy.

Celebrity magnified his misery. Every five years after Johnson's historic visit, journalists and academics made their way up Route 3 to his yard to take his picture and ask if he still was poor despite all of the welfare and government outreach.

Yes, he still was poor. He did not enjoy these interviews.

"I'm getting tired of it," Fletcher told an Associated Press reporter in 1994, the 30th anniversary of the War on Poverty. "After all this time, I'd think they would be letting it go."

Fletcher died in 2004 at age 78. One of his sons moved into the famous house.

His surviving relatives remember him fondly.

"It was done to death, the whole poverty thing," said Delsie Fletcher, a daughter-in-law. She works for Martin County's Head Start, a War on Poverty program that feeds and educates poor children to prepare them for kindergarten.

"People thought he never came up in the world," she said. "But he worked hard for his kids and to take care of his place. He was a very loving, a very kind-hearted person."

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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