The Sunset Heights streets of Haynes' boyhood were not so mean as they were tough and demanding. The people who called the north Houston neighborhood home--including the parents of heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley and network anchorman Dan Rather--fought a constant battle against two-dollar tribulations and second-lien woes. So hard were times for his construction worker father in the '30s that for a while the young Haynes was sent to San Antonio to live with his grandmother. It was, he reflects, a blessing.
From age 2 to 10, he was cared for by a petite, energetic lady who rolled her own cigarettes, read to him from Shakespeare and the Bible and taught him to write and do arithmetic. By the time Richard Michael Haynes was ready to attend school, he was able, without help, to fill out the paperwork required to skip the first and second grades.
He was viewed as something of a prodigy, and the local paper published his picture. "Years later," he says, "Granny would tell me the homeschooling she gave me was the worst possible thing she could have done. She said, 'It got your picture in the paper for the first time and you've been in love with that idea ever since.'"
Far from publicity shy, Haynes had little room for argument. "Still," he says, "in everyone's life there is a great teacher, a great influence. My grandmother was mine."
When the Haynes family finances took a turn for the better, Richard was called home to the little white frame house on 26th Street. By the time he was ready to graduate from Reagan High School, he had earned a reputation as one of the city's premier amateur boxers and an excellent student whose teachers were encouraging to consider studying medicine. If, however, Haynes was going to afford higher learning, it would only be with the help of the GI Bill. Thus, barely 17, he joined the Marines and spent 1944 through '46 in the South Pacific.
For his heroic actions during the assault on Iwo Jima, pulling two wounded and drowning Marines from the cold February waters, he earned the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. "What I'm most proud of," he says as an impish grin crosses his face, "is the citation that read something like 'with unselfish concern for his own safety.'" Then he comes to the punch line: "That's the only time in my life I've ever been called 'unselfish.'"
A man of famed dark humor and good ol' boy self-deprecation, Haynes admits there was precious little humor to be drawn from his World War II days. "You grow up pretty fast sitting in a foxhole," he says. He would quickly learn that the battlefield offers no safe haven. "We had this fella we all called 'Pops' because he was about 10 years older than most of us. He was married, had a couple of kids back home and had already seen more than his share of combat. So, on the day we assaulted Iwo, the commander told him to remain aboard the troop ship out in the bay.
"We later learned that Pops had been walking out of the ship's mess hall when a stray Japanese shell killed him."
From that day, Haynes says, he's remained keenly aware of the frailty of life. He reaches across the mounds of paperwork piled on his desk and picks up a small vial filled with volcanic ash and sand from the Iwo Jima beach. "I keep this," he says, "to remind me of people like Pops and how lucky I was to get back home in one piece."
Says Huntsville's Jack Kerr, former Sam Houston State professor, product of the Heights and friend of Haynes for more than 50 years, "The unique thing about Richard is his genuine concern for and understanding of people. He's been that way since we were kids. Becoming wealthy and famous hasn't changed that a bit."
Every Wednesday, Kerr says, Haynes and old buddies from the Heights gather for lunch. "On those days, with all the reminiscing and storytelling that goes on, you wouldn't even know he's a lawyer."
When he enrolled at the University of Houston in the fall of '46, paying his way with a government loan and partial athletic scholarship from the basketball and track coaches, it was with the long-range plan to become a doctor. "That," he says, "didn't last long. I got me a part-time job at the medical center and immediately saw the frustration that the work offered. There were so many patients that no one could seem to help. There was no way to stop them from dying or, in some cases, even ease their pain. I knew I wouldn't be able to handle that."