Today’s “What Is That?” melds the mysterious and the whimsical. And what melds better than mystery and whimsy?
So, together, let’s delve into a local family’s curiosity about a man’s name that became the family’s secret password: Joe Swan Lusby.
The Kovach family adopted that name as its secret password in the early 1990s from a marker under a great tree in Rosedale. The Kovaches, with the kids all grown up, no longer need the password, but now they want to know who Joe Swan Lusby was.
Here’s the query from Kristine Kovach, the mom in this family:
“There’s a substantial tree in the front yard of a home very near the intersection of Burnet and Medical Parkway — about two houses south of Stinson’s coffee shop, next to the west side of the Taco Shack. I lived in Rosedale for 23 years, and, on our evening walks, my family often stopped to look at a very lovely marble marker at the base of the tree, which states it was planted in the ’20s by Joe Swan Lusby.”
Kovach told me her family used his name as its secret word. “You know, like if there’s a reason to hide out and we needed a password. If an envoy/operative came slinking up to us and said, ‘Joe Swan Lusby,’ anyone in our family would know they were legit. Or, more practically, if you needed to have someone get the kids from school in an emergency, that’s the password they’d use.
“We also have a zombie apocalypse escape plan that involves Port Lavaca, too long and complex to divulge,” she told me. “I’m really just curious about my old ‘hood and the Lusby Mystery.”
We’ll leave the Kovach family zombie apocalypse plan for another day. Today, we’ll try to help them solve The Mystery of Joe Swan Lusby.
I started with a visit to the tree at 4412 Burnet Road. It’s quite a tree. Go take a look. And look at the marker at its base: “THIS TREE PLANTED 1927 AD BY JOE SWAN LUSBY.”
I shot a few photos of the tree and the building, now an office. Psychotherapist Bernard Fleming works in the building.
“It’s magnificent,” Fleming said of the tree. From afar, he said, “it’s like, holy smokes — that’s a big grove of trees. But when you get close, it’s just one tree.”
He does not exaggerate. Psychotherapists are not allowed to exaggerate.
Ryan Richardson bought the building in 2008. He’s been curious about Joe Swan Lusby but hasn’t found any info about him. Richardson loves and cares for the tree. Its extensive root system caused some plumbing challenges that caused some expensive repairs in 2015.
“It’s a mystery to me,” he said of the tree’s history. “The only thing I know about the tree is I’m the carekeeper of it.”
Local historian Karen Sikes Collins wrote about the tree in 2011 in a “Rosedale Rambles” posting, referring to it as “this beautiful spreading oak tree.” She noted deed records show Joe and Abbie Kerbow Lusby had the house built after buying the lot in 1937.
That, of course, raises questions about the claim on the marker (placed by an unknown person at an unknown date) that Lusby planted the tree in 1927.
“Neighbors say the tree was 15-18 feet tall with a large root ball when it was planted,” Collins wrote. “Perhaps the date 1927 refers to the actual age of the tree. Joe Lusby worked at the Blind School in the 1930s in yard maintenance. He later worked for the University of Texas and for the State of Texas at the Capitol greenhouse and as a groundskeeper.”
Abbie Kerbow Lusby was a longtime Austin music teacher. The house sold out of the family in 1995. And thanks to the Austin History Center we have some more info, all in a box, about the Lusbys. The “biographical note” about the Abbie Kerbow Lusby papers says she was born in Delta County in 1903 and died in Austin in July 1995 after living here for 60 years.
The bio says Joe Lusby moved to Austin from Mississippi in 1929 (another possible hitch in the marker’s designation of 1927 as the year he planted the tree), served in the Navy and was a gardener and landscape architect. He died in October 1991.
The stuff in the box is great, though silent about the tree. There are handwritten letters (Memo to younger readers: Ask your parents about handwritten letters), piano recital programs, and First Baptist Church bulletins (including one with the somewhat-unBaptist headline “Young People Want Action”).
There’s also a 1952 American-Statesman clipping of a “Comings and Goings” column noting “Mrs. J.S. Lusby has returned from New York where she attended the summer session of the Dalcrosse School of Music, studying improvisation, harmony and piano.”
Another newspaper clipping (Memo to younger readers: Ask your parents about newspaper clippings), was headlined “Oilers Add Kerbow, Off for NY Today.” It noted that Houston Oilers rookie Randy Kerbow, a former Rice University quarterback, had been activated for an upcoming game in 1963. We’ll assume he was related to Abbie Kerbow Lusby.
And I found lots of photos, almost all of which had no identifying information with them. Ugh. I’m sure some are of Joe and Abbie, but I can’t be sure. But we do know she bought a rebuilt piano from J.R. Reed Music at 805 Congress Ave. for $688.56 on June 5, 1952.
On the back of a photo of a woman seated outdoors is a handwritten note saying, “Abbie Lusby 1950.” Another photo shows a woman clutching a purse, standing in front of a 1940s car. Somebody wrote, “Abbie Lusby,” on the back. Another photo says, “Joe Lusby,” on the back, but there’s nobody in the photo, just a Lewis Nursery pickup truck (also 1940s vintage, I’m guessing). And there’s a photo of two sailorsbut all that’s on the back is a rubber stamp that says, “Passed by Naval Censor,” and handwriting that seems to say, 01JAX.
And one photo, with nothing on the back, shows a man, shovel in hand, on his knees, working in a yard. Joe Swan Lusby? We don’t know. But we do know what he called himself. It’s on his business card in the box at the Austin History Center: “For complete landscape service. See Joe — ‘The Man with the Hoe.’ Landscaping, spraying, pruning.” The phone number was 2-5811.
I’m sure they’re out there, but my efforts to find Lusby relatives dead-ended. My phone call to a Randy Kerbow in Houston ended abruptly when, not immediately picking up on the mystery/whimsy of this tale, he hung up when I told him I work for a newspaper.
Armed with what I’d learned about Joe Swan Lusby, I met with the Kristine Kovach, her daughter Ava, 28, and son Severin, 25, under the big tree. Kristine, a lactation consultant, recalled moving to the neighborhood in 1989 (she moved away in 2011) and how their daily walks would take them by the tree and marker.
She said her kids were young when the Joe Swan Lusby password officially was adopted by the family — “kind of like if there’s ever a great scattering and you end up somewhere and it’s a disaster and someone comes to claim you, … tell them they have to know the secret password.”
Fortunately, the great scattering never happened and the password never was used. But mom’s never lost her curiosity about the unknown-to-her man who unknowingly provided it.
“I still think about it,” she said as she stood with her now-grown children under the tree. “Like, who is Joe Swan Lusby?”
We all now know a bit more about him. We know his wife was Abbie Kerbow Lusby and she gave piano lessons to many Austinites. We think we know somebody in the family played football at Rice. We’re pretty sure Joe Swan Lusby planted the tree, but can’t be quite sure when it happened or who placed the marker.
And we know Joe was “the man with the hoe.” Today’s Austinites still benefit from the efforts of past Austinites with hoes and other garden implements.
Thanks, Joe Swan Lusby, for this great tree.
Feels like there is more to know about Joe and the tree and marker. Somebody out there can fill in the blanks. Let me hear from you.
See video with this column at mystatesman.com