Herman: More on the Burnet Road mystery tree marker

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017 Opinion

A couple of weeks back, in a tale of whimsy and mystery, I told you about the wonderful big tree at 4412 Burnet Road. More specifically, I told you about the marker at the base that tells us it was planted by Joe Swan Lusby in 1927.

And I told you how Kristine Kovach had contacted me to find out who he was. She’s interested because “Joe Swan Lusby” became the Kovachs’ password when they lived in the neighborhood and often walked by the tree and marker.

The Kovach kids now are in their 20s and the family no longer needs a secret password. But something got Kristine, the mom in the family, thinking about who he was. So she submitted to me a “What Is That?” request that really was more of a “Who Was That?” request.

READ: A family’s password and a mystery man. Who was Joe Swan Lusby?

In the previous column, I told you that a file at the Austin History Center told us Joe Swam Lusby was a landscape guy and his wife Annie Kerbow Lusby was a piano teacher. He died in 1991 at age 91, and she died in 1995 at age 92. The house in which they lived for many years now is an office.

But what I was unable to find out was who placed the marker. We’re glad that somebody did, because it’s a nice note about a great tree. Every great tree in town should have a marker noting who planted it and when.

Several readers contacted me with info about Lusby and the tree. Joann Traver of Austin told me her late parents Robert and Gladys Reynolds were friends of the Lusbys. “I remember Abbie especially when I was just a little girl and she always called me ‘Pigeon,’” Traver told me, adding that her daughter later took piano lessons from Abbie Lusby, who called the daughter “Little Pigeon.”

“I remember he had injured one of his legs but I don’t know how,” she said of Joe Swan Lusby.

But Traver had no info on who placed the marker and why. “As long as I can remember the tree and the marker have always been there,” she wrote. “I am now 82 years young.”

Reader Gay Chargualaf’s interest was piqued by the mystery, did some research and was able to find out the Lusbys are buried at the Cook-Walden Capital Parks Cemetery in Pflugerville.

Donna Bradshaw in Burnet sent me (by U.S. Mail!) some great research about the Lusbys, including a 1930 U.S. Census page showing Joe Swan Lusby then was living in Delta County in Northeast Texas, making his 1927 planting of an Austin tree somewhat improbable. His occupation was listed as “farmer.” A 1940 Census entry placed him at 4412 Burnet Road and listed his occupation as “landscape gardener.”

David Perl, a self-professed “sucker for biographic sleuthing requests,” came up with a photo of Joe Swan Lusby and emailed it to me with the message, “Here’s your Joe Swan Lusby, looking right atcha.”

Perl added: “During my brief search, I found nothing about the tree or his hoe.”

That latter reference was to Lusby’s business card, which is in the Austin History Center file, that says, “For complete landscape service. See Joe – ‘The Man with the Hoe.’”

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There was this intriguing input from Sue Hahn Saathoff: “I took piano lessons with Abbie Lusby in the ‘60s. She and Joe never had children. But there is a nephew here in town. Head over to the Catfish Parlor and ask for the owner Kerbow. You should have all your questions answered.”

So I planned to do just that but didn’t have to thanks to a subsequent email that came in from Dave Catfish.

“Joe was my uncle,” he told me. “Aunt Abbie was my father Frank Kerbow’s sister. I spent a lot of time with them and ate many meals in that house. My sister Karen and I have several photos, one good color one of Joe and Abbie.”

Turns out Dave Catfish is the nom d’email of Dave Kerbow, the founder of the Catfish Parlour restaurants. I arranged for a meet-up at the tree so Kovach could get more information about Joe Swan Lusby. Kerbow, his sister Karen Kerbow Baker and Dave’s son Billy Kerbow showed up to chat with her.

“Every time we’d come Aunt Abbie would have a coconut cake,” Dave Kerbow said. “That was her signature dish and it was really good.”

In addition to the cake, he remembered the cane that Joe Swan Lusby, who had childhood polio, used.

“My dad was an attorney. He had a lake house and my dad didn’t like to fish. Uncle Joe loved to fish and so he and I spend many days, just he and I, at the lake house fishing,” Dave Kerbow said, perhaps offering a glimpse as to how he got in the catfish biz.

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Kovach and I enjoyed hearing the family memories from the family members who think the 1927 date on the marker is incorrect. As a newspaper guy, I’m here to tell you typos happen.

The only blank to be filled in seemed to be about who placed the marker to note the tree was planted by Joe Swan Lusby. The family has no doubt.

“He did,” Dave Kerbow said. “Joe did. … He told me.”

“I don’t know who else would,” he said.

Was he the kind of guy who’d do that?

“Oh, yes,” Karen Kerbow Baker said without a pause. “Definitely.”

That’s good enough for me, and I’m sticking with that until someone proves otherwise.

As the conversation wound down, Kovach said this about her family’s long-ago walks past the tree and marker back when a Lusby or two probably still lived there: “I wish we’d have just gone up and said, ‘Hey, tell us the story of this tree.’”

“And they would have done it,” Karen Kerbow Baker said.

Today’s lesson: A question asked today can prevent a mystery to be solved later.

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