Sherwood's Rules

Sherwood Cryer lost his redneck empire the same way he built it: in a tangle of lawyers, women and country music

Pasadena, when Sherwood arrived after World War II, was "something right out of the Wild West, a wide-open goddamn place."

He came from the piney woods, a little East Texas town called Diboll, where he learned the conflict-management skills he would employ the rest of his life: "If someone called you a sumbitch," he said, "y'all whipped each other's ass till someone agreed."

Sherwood took a job as a welder with Shell and began assembling a rather complicated family life. Nothing was more important to him than family, he said, but he was always practical about it. His first child was born with cerebral palsy, and she couldn't walk or talk or show love, said Sherwood, "and I'd even considered killing this girl." Instead, he asked his wife to move the girl out of their bedroom, and when he was told that he could move out of the bedroom, he walked out of the house and never returned.

He took up then with a lady named Betty. She took off to Yankeeland after another old boy and left him her two sons to raise. Sherwood said, "People don't know how to deal with what they been dealt sometimes, and they do funny things." Many men might have turned to strong drink, but he knew he couldn't be a success and a drunk, too. Sleeping his usual three hours a night, he worked double-time and saved his cash. Eventually, the teetotaler began opening liquor stores and beer joints. He began to prosper.

Sherwood also kept working for Shell. His employment there didn't end until a strike, when he walked the picket line unbudging, and a scab approached in a truck. Sherwood gritted his teeth, stood his ground, and whump -- got run over. He wasn't going to let someone take his job; he gave it away when he didn't like the new contract.

In the early 1960s, Sherwood stood just as firm when a city worker informed him that he could continue to operate his businesses if he split the profits with members of city council. Figuring he couldn't shoot them all, Sherwood told a reporter who had been hanging around one of his joints. Gene Goltz won the only Pulitzer ever credited to the Houston Post. Sherwood got shed of some thieves.

He handled others by himself -- careening down Spencer Highway after some whiskey-stealing boys, banging his car against their car until whiskey, boys and blood all spilled out; waiting on a different evening as the door came smashing down and then unloading a .380 automatic and a shotgun into the bodies of those who would steal from Sherwood Cryer. Somehow, no one died then or ever, he said, but the bullet that traveled through one man's head was lodged in the door for many years.

Sherwood's heart never was completely tamed by Minnie Elerick, and he came to regret that he didn't allow it. She was another man's wife, and also she was Betty's sister. Sherwood put Minnie to work in a liquor store and bought a junkyard and put her husband to work there. Then Minnie began coming to work "with knots on her head regular." Sherwood put a gun to her husband, and that old boy got on down the road. When Betty came back, Sherwood told her to hit the road, too.

"Minnie and I had an association," Sherwood explained, "and we had Cheri Sue."

In every sense except the legal ones, Minnie became his partner. She had an interest in money, and Sherwood never really did. He was a dealmaker, and money to him was only the signal of a deal's success and the capital to start another one. He let Minnie tend the money and watch it grow. She shared his profits; he kept a room in her clapboard house. Cheri Sue was born without defects, and Sherwood brought her wildflowers every morning and hauled her around town in a beer box in his truck. He loved her, and Cheri Sue loved everything she knew about him.

Sherwood named his convenience stores after Cheri Sue, but for most of her childhood, she didn't realize her father was rich. He would never let people take his property, but he often gave them apparent possession. It was illegal to own both liquor stores and nightclubs, and for that and tax reasons, Sherwood always filed his businesses under the names of barmaids and good buddies and anybody hanging around. "All that was shifted around on paper to keep my ass out of trouble," he explained, and everyone knew better than to try to claim what Sherwood really owned.

Minnie wanted to be Sherwood's official partner, but his legal help advised against it, and he never married her. Without a contract, the terms of their relationship continued to expand. More property was listed under her name, and when Sherwood brought her two boys and said they were his sons, she raised them in her home.

Later, Minnie hired Debi Bailey, a pretty young thing, to sell T-shirts at Gilley's. When Minnie found that Sherwood had a child by Debi, they all continued working together. Sherwood said it was like Peyton Place at Gilley's sometimes, but "I always tried to hold my family together."

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