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"There isn't anything you can't do something about."
- H. F. Fenton

by John Troesser
Sheriff Fenton
The Murder Weapon
(Triple homicide, Novice, Texas)
Courtesy Shawn and Lisa Fenton

Nine Years a Special Texas Ranger and thirty-two years a Sheriff, H. F. Fenton's record will stand a long time. If someone were to surpass his time in law enforcement, it's doubtful they could equal his war record.

Even if somehow they could equal his war record, they still couldn't equal the man, because they don't make them like that anymore.

Fenton enlisted at the age of 16, lying about his age. He received training at nearby Camp Brownwood and he and his unit (Co. B, 142nd Infantry, 36th Division) landed at Salerno, Italy and fought their way to Germany via Monte Casino.

He was awarded two Purple Hearts. One by being shot through the torso under one arm with the bullet emerging under the other arm, missing his heart by a fraction of an inch. He received a battlefield commission and filled every rank in his company from Private to Company Commander. Only one other man from his original company made it through. Fenton told of capturing a coastal village from the Germans three times. He said they went back the third time "because there was no place to go except the ocean."

Despite such intensive combat experience, Sheriff Fenton never fired a gun during his forty-one years in law enforcement.

He won the Distinguished Service Cross and both a Bronze Star with cluster and Silver Star with cluster. For younger readers, these are the military's highest awards given, just short of the rarely bestowed Congressional Medal of Honor.

It's personalities like the Fentons that help us understand the times as they were. As Sheriff, he got free housing. That sounds good until you find out it's the bottom floor of the County Jail. If you had nightmares about monsters under your bed as a child, think of the three Fenton children (Ginger, Judy and Shawn) with a whole ceiling full of scary characters just a few feet away. Besides the prisoners there were rats, bats and snakes. Shawn Fenton added to the zoo by raising pigeons on the jail's roof.

While many men today think of camping as a boy, they remember boy scouts singing around a campfire. Shawn remembers camping on the Mexican Border waiting for goat rustlers with no fire, lest it reveal their position. Shawn always had an interesting essay for "What I did this summer."

Sheriff Fenton and wife at wedding
Sheriff H.F. and Loretta Fenton
Wedding photo 1950
Courtesy Shawn and Lisa Fenton

But there were benefits too.

Shawn learned to catch from a trustee, when chasing escaped prisoners kept his father away. He later attended this prisoner's wedding and the prisoner attended his. Shawn's sisters would have trustees push their swings for them and Ginger once told a prisoner that if he didn't push harder, she'd have her daddy "put him back upstairs."

Drawbacks of living in a jail included being called "Jailbird" at school, although there was never a shortage of classmates who wanted to spend the night with the Fenton children.

Before the children came, Loretta would accompany her husband on calls. There was no backup, and Loretta would often fill in with her "do- right" stick. She once pulled her gun from her purse when the Sheriff was facing uneven odds. It scared the villains, but it also scared H. F. to the point he took the gun away. Sometimes H. F. would be pulling a reluctant prisoner up the stairs and Loretta would be prying the prisoner's fingers from the iron handrail.

Loretta eventually became a Reserve Deputy and a Certified Jailer, after she had been performing both jobs for years.

Bible with gun
Soft hearted doesn't mean soft-headed. Sheriff Fenton knew that fate could sometimes reverse the positions of the players. That's why he kept a .38 Derringer in a hollowed out Bible on his desk.

When you visit Coleman County and you drive the 8 miles between Coleman and Santa Anna in your comfortable air-conditioned car, you'll be taking the same road Sheriff Fenton took on his first emergency call. But in his case it was a freezing night and his wipers were frozen to the windshield. There was no defrosting device and he had to drive with his head out the window. When he got to the "emergency" it was a man that had a pack of dogs under his house and he wanted them out.

County Sheriff meant the WHOLE County. H.F. needed to know he had settled a "domestic disturbance" in Trickham for the rest of that evening, because he didn't want to have to drive all the way back from Novice to settle things again.

Sheriff Hiram Frank Fenton Jr. passed away in 1990, a few years after he retired.

Loretta Fenton still lives in Coleman.

Our special thanks to Shawn and Lisa Fenton for their interview, photographs and correspondence.

More on H.F. and Loretta Fenton can be found in the entertaining and well-written book: Texas High Sheriffs by Thad Sitton, Texas Monthly Press. Although out-of-print, Mr. Sitton has a new one coming out this fall from the University of Oklahoma Press entitled: The County Sheriff - Lord of the County Line.

This article was written from interviews with Shawn and Lisa Fenton, from information obtained from Mr. Sitton's interview with H.F. Fenton for his book Texas High Sheriffs , and Sammy Tise's excellent book Texas County Sheriffs.

deputy Shawn Fenton
Shawn with portrait of his father
TE photo

June, 2000
John Troesser

Reader's Comments

The feature on Sheriff Fenton is great! ...We've been sending this site to everyone! Everyone thinks it's wonderful! ... - Lisa F July 03, 2000

Sounds like a stay in their jail was much nicer than many jobs I've worked at. ....... I just wish I had been born a little earlier and had the good fortune to get caught stealing chickens or running whiskey through Coleman County. Who knows what good fortune I might enjoy today as the result of helping a youngster feed his pigeons on the jail roof. - PJH September 1, 2000

Related Article:

"The Texas Sheriff : Lord of the County Line" by Thad Sitton

Coleman, Texas
Coleman County

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