Flamboyant but frank. A super salesman who used his talents to sell his city on progress.
Such was Col. Gabriel Augustus Bodeneheim, longtime mayor of Longview and for a lifetime a tireless booster of Longview and Gregg County.
The colonel, known as G.A. or “Bodie,” was said in his day to have compiled a professional record that may never be equaled:
With a Dallas financier, Mike Thomas and three New Orleans men, he cornered the New York cotton market.
He was a millionaire “three or four times” and “flat busted” in between.
Depression days found him setting records in insurance sales and even at the age of 82, two years before his death, he managed to write more than a half million dollars in insurance.
He first became mayor of Longview in 1901, when the city was little more than a wide place in the road with a population of 3,500. The city, when he stepped into the mayor’s spot, had an assessed valuation of $907,000. Ten years later it was considered the most progressive city in East Texas.
Longvlew’s buildings were small and mismatched. The town had no sanitary or health departments and could get no more than a third class insurance rating. It lacked sidewalks, street paving, waterworks, sewerage system, fire department and street lighting.
Bodie had been mayor less than 10 years before Longview’s city limits had been extended, its assessed valuation had jumped $4 million and it had become the most progressive and thriving city in the region.
Bank deposits increased during the 10 years from $200,000 to $1 million and a large number of new and modern buildings were erected, including two new bank buildings costing, respectively, $75,000 and $50,000.
Longvlew had a city inspector and a health officer and two assistants. The government purchased a lot for a $50,000 federal building.
“Get Bodie to do it,” was said to be the expression residents used when the job was a tough one.
Born in 1873 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, he went to work at 12 but was said to discontinue his education at 14 to help provide for his widowed mother, four brothers and a sister. His first money earned was from pushing loaded wheelbarrows of seed, but he soon decided he could get ahead quicker in other work and became a cashier in a dry goods store.
In 1890 the Bodeneheims moved to West Baton Rouge and two years later to Shreveport and Bodie moved into the cotton buying business, working for Herman Loeb. Longview became his home in 1898.
Bodenheim was always a wheeler-dealer. Within a few years he was making record cotton deals and eventually had offices that occupied the entirety of the third floor of the First National Bank, requiring a staff of 65 buyers and officer workers.
But Bodenheim was observant and, he told the Longview Morning Journal in later years, “I got out of the cotton business because I noticed most of the big operators die broke.”
The switch to insurance was a lucky one. In one year he wrote as much as $2.5 million in policies. It took him only three years to find the right girl to become his wife, Miss Willie Bass, daughter of the district clerk.
Their two sons, Roland and Edwin, followed in his footsteps in the insurance field after earning college educations and serving in the military.
The colonel respected their knowledge of the industry and once told a newspaper columnist, “That boy of mine in there knows 10 times as much about insurance as I do. I’m not an expert. I’m a super salesman.”
Taft couldn’t say no
That was borne out during World War I, when former President William Howard Taft visited East Texas to tour several military camps. No speech was planned, but when Bodie wanted something, even a former president couldn’t say no.
In the afternoon of Feb. 7, 1918, Taft’s train stopped at the Longview Junction depot just east of downtown, on its way to Arkansas. During the layover, Taft stepped out of his coach to stretch his legs. An official of the Young Men’s Christmas Association drove him to the central business district.
“Mr. Taft ... walked to the Palace Hotel (at Cotton and Fredonia streets), hoping to avoid recognition, but several people recognized him,” reported that day’s edition of the Longview Daily Leader.
Pretty soon, a growing number of residents “followed him to the hotel and many stopped to shake hands with the distinguished visitor,” said the Leader.
Waiting at the Palace Hotel was Bodenheim, who recently had vacated the mayor’s office. A dynamic promoter of the city, Bodenheim convinced Taft he needed to make a speech, then drove the 27th president to the Texas and Pacific depot not far from the hotel.
Bodenheim introduced Taft to the small crowd that had gathered.
“Your ex-mayor seems to think that the task of making a speech is very simple; that all that is necessary is to open the nozzle and let ‘er run,” Taft told his audience. “I have so far on this tour refused as much as possible from making speeches. However, I am glad of the opportunity of greeting your most hospitable people.”
Regarding his public appearances, the record speaks for itself. One earlier report of a talk by the mayor to a group of neighboring citizens was described in the Gilmer paper thusly:
“Judge Briggs presented Mayor Bodenheim, who gave a most entertaining resume of how he ‘put Longview on the map.’ Mr. Bodenheim possesses that happy faculty of making a dull subject agreeable, and fact and figures that cause the average person to yawn kept the big audiences in a state of hilarious laughter and applause.”
In 1935, he was appointed a colonel on the staff of Gov. James V. Allred. With the appointment, Longview had three men on the governor’s staff.