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The three-hour Texas Ranger

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Oscar Warnke spent more than half a century in law enforcement, but his career as a Texas Ranger lasted only three hours.

As a bread wagon driver (actually, he drove a Model T Ford but it had not been all that much earlier that horses pulled bread delivery wagons and that's what most folks still called them) for San Antonio Richter's Bakery in 1925, young Warnke had no notion of becoming a peace officer. Warnke's route covered all the downtown cafes and hotels, including the Southland Hotel at 105 1/2 South Flores St. Unknown to him, that's where the Texas Rangers happened to have their San Antonio office.

On his afternoon run one day, Warnke stopped at the Southland to replace bread sold earlier in the day and collect the bakery's money. Inside the hotel, he ran into Ranger Sgt. Dan Coleman. The state lawman had known Warnke since he was a boy growing up in Karnes City, where everyone called him "Punkin."

More than fifty years later, Warnke recalled what Coleman said that afternoon:

"Say, Punkin, we've got a vacancy on the Rangers. Wouldn't you like to join?"

That struck the young man as a tremendous career advancement over driving a bread truck.

"I couldn't say 'Yes' quick enough," he recalled. "Coleman took me over to Captain Will Wright and told him all about me. Wright called Austin, got me accepted, and I signed up. By that time it was between 4 and 5 o'clock."

The veteran Ranger captain told Warnke that he and some of his men would be leaving San Antonio that night for a scout along the Rio Grande out of Laredo.

"I didn't have a pistol so they took me down to a pawnshop and I bought a single-action Colt .45, the gun all Rangers carried," Warnke said.

Then he drove the Model T bread wagon back to the bakery, turned in the day's receipts, and announced his resignation as a truck driver, effective immediately.

From the bakery, Warnke rushed home to tell his wife Clara the good news, that she was no longer married to a lowly bread wagon driver. Her husband was now a Texas Ranger and right proud of it!

Warnke figured she'd be impressed, but Mrs. Warnke broke into tears which he quickly realized were not tears of joy.

"She thought my joining the Rangers meant that I was signing my death warrant," Warnke remembered from the vantage point of five decades. "Her mother was there and joined in the protests."

Warnke's wife and mother-in-law would not listen to his assurances that he would be safe with the other rangers. Finally, Mrs. Warnke put the situation in perspective: If he left for Laredo that night, she would not be home when he came back -- assuming he lived to come back.

"She insisted that I resign at once," he said. "I told her how embarrassed I would be to have to face the rangers and resign and asked her if she wouldn't go to town and tell them I was quitting."

If Warnke were man enough to be a ranger, she said, he was tough enough to tell them thanks, but no thanks.

"So I headed back to the hotel, turned in my still unloaded pistol and quit the Rangers," he said.

By then it was about 7 o'clock in the evening. He had been a Texas Ranger roughly three hours.

Early the next morning, "Punkin" showed up at the bakery to explain that he had had a sudden change of mind and really preferred bread delivery to rangering. Fortunately for him, he got his job back and went to load the bread "wagon".

Warnke never got to wear a Ranger badge, but he did go on to a long law enforcement career in Bexar County, starting with a job under one of the county's constables. He spent eight years as a motorcycle patrolman, later working as a vice officer with the San Antonio Police Department and then as a deputy with the Bexar County Sheriff's Department. For many years, he served as chief jailer. After retiring from the county in 1969, he worked as head of security for the San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Clara Warnke clearly adjusted to the idea of her husband carrying a badge and gun. When the veteran officer died at ninety-one in 1989, the couple had been married for sixty-five years.



Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - January 28, 2016 Column

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