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Dee McDonald Ledbetter

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Icon
Sep 6th, 2022
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Living Ledbetter

photography by Kelly Moore Clark
article by Georgiann Potts

Dee McDonald Ledbetter comes by her sense of style honestly. She literally grew up surrounded by dapper dressers. Both her parents (Carol and Jesse McDonald) and her maternal grandparents (Mignon and Arthur Emerson) had a certain style that was obvious at first glance. Dee remembers both her maternal grandfather, a dentist, and her father, an attorney, dressing “to the nines” every day wearing suits with a fedora hat in hand. The women in her family were equally stylish. Dee’s maternal grandmother’s matching shoes, bags, and hats for each outfit left a lasting impression on Dee – so much so that she has a collection of those hats on display in her closet. And everyone who knew Dee’s mother, Carol, knew that she was a style-setter in her own right! Because of her own personal style that is reflected not only in her clothing and accessory choices, but also in her approach to life, Dee McDonald Ledbetter is our September Bayou Icon.

Dee McDonald Ledbetter’s childhood was a happy time – with one notable exception (more about that later). She grew up on Lakeside Drive in Monroe, the home in which her parents lived for almost 52 years of their marriage. Her maternal grandparents lived only about half a mile away, so Dee saw them daily while growing up. She adored them both, but perhaps has a special spot in her life for her grandfather. Grandfather Emerson would come by after work and take Dee and her two sisters away while their mother was preparing supper. “He would take us to see my grandmother, grocery shop, eat ice cream, or skip around the neighborhood singing songs,” Dee remembers with a smile. “Every day with him was a fun adventure. He was a hero in my life!”

Dee’s father, Jesse, was born in Bernice, Louisiana, and was reared by his grandmother. Because he was the only child in his grade, he went to Jefferson Military Academy in Washington, Mississippi. At 16, he entered Louisiana State University and then completed law school there. Her mother grew up in Monroe. She attended Neville High School briefly, and then – as her mother had done before – went to Ward-Belmont School in Nashville, Tennessee. After graduation, Carol attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She transferred to LSU after falling in love with Jesse.

When they married, Dee’s parents made Monroe their home. Jesse established a very successful law practice with Hudson, Potts & Bernstein. Carol ran their home, happily rearing their three daughters, Molly, Dee, and Ainslee. She did not work out of the home until they were in high school and her father needed her help at his dental practice. When the girls were in college, Carol fulfilled a dream and opened her own business – a business centered on style that surely influenced Dee. The company, Backward Glance, featured accessories, clothing, and home goods – all representing Carol’s sense of style.

CHILDHOOD MEMORIES

Dee loved her early years at St. Christopher Day School. A favorite memory is of singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” — a hymn that remains special to her today. When she was attending Lexington Elementary, she and her family would often eat breakfast out on the patio when the morning weather allowed. One morning, they saw a large black streak across their lawn. When they investigated, they found an enormous snapping turtle. “It was mammoth! Guess what I took for Show and Tell?” Dee says with a laugh. “Our principal, Mrs. Roosevelt McDonald, almost had a coronary when she saw him and made me take him home. I guess the old saying is true – ‘Go Big, or Go Home!’ I did both!”

While she was 7 years old, Dee had a terrible accident while trying out Mark Anderson’s new bike. She landed quite literally on her face – with her mother watching! That was about the only unhappy time she had as a child. The injuries were severe – she knocked out 2 of her permanent teeth and broke her maxilla bone. Her grandfather and Dr. Jack Davis, an oral surgeon, “. . . put me back together again” according to Dee. Her full recovery would take years.

Ironically, that bike accident likely played a part in igniting Dee’s interest in fashion. “I was left with a mouth full of metal and an additional apparatus to secure my front teeth,” Dee remembers. “I will confess that I felt very self-conscious. Looking back, I think I probably put more effort into my clothes to distract from my mouth.”

Dee loved weekend mornings in the winter, sitting by the fire in their den. Her mother would be making a “farmers’ breakfast” while her father (aka “Papa”) typed his notes for his Sunday School lessons. “The combination of the glowing, crackling fire which Papa adored, the rhythm of the typewriter, and the aroma of bacon and eggs coming from the kitchen made those mornings very special,” Dee says.

HOLIDAYS WERE MAGICAL

Growing up in a home filled in equal parts of faith and family love meant that holidays were always very special times. Because both of her parents were only children, they celebrated in a big way. They both wanted every Christmas morning to be special for their children. One motivation for this was that when Dee’s father was a child, he had opened and then rewrapped all of his gifts from under the tree days before. Then on Christmas morning, things just weren’t the same – there was no surprise. That lesson was never forgotten.

The magic of the holidays did not end when their children grew up or when they married. “We still kept all of our family traditions such as the Easter Egg Hunt even after we married,” Dee explains. “Our husbands were very intense about the egg hunt. There were yellow eggs with money and finding the nests required strategic planning on the couples’ part!” To help, Dee remembers that the Easter Bunny left an elaborate poem giving clues and directions about the meaning of Easter and the hunt.

PAPA KNOWS BEST

Dee attended River Oaks School for both junior high and high school. She loved the small classes through which she established tight-knit friend groups – many of whom she remains close to today.

A special time during the summer was attending Camp Waldemar for girls just outside of Hunt, Texas. For six weeks each summer from the time they were 7 until they reached 16, Dee and her sisters would go to camp. One summer, something happened that required all of Dee’s beloved Papa’s ingenuity!

The Waldemar tradition is that on the first night that campers arrive, they draw to discover which tribe they will be a member. The three tribes – Comanche, Aztec, and Tejas – are represented by a different color. During Field Days campers wear their tribal colors — and when their families come for Field Days, they are asked to dress in the tribal colors of their campers. “By the luck of the draw, all three of us sisters belonged to a different tribe,” Dee explains with a laugh. ‘This provided a unique opportunity and challenge for my parents.” 

Dee remembers that her mother had no trouble with it – she just adjusted her accessories to represent all three tribes. Dee’s Papa had the bigger challenge, and after some thought, he had a tailor make him a custom pair of pants. One pant leg was orange and the other, purple. “Papa wore those pants with a green shirt and white belt,” Dee says. “To this day, Papa’s pants are on display in the Waldemar Hall of Fame and are often worn in camp skits. The outfit was a hit!”

FINDING TRUE LOVE

After graduating high school, Dee visited an older Waldemar friend who was attending Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. After that visit, Dee knew that Trinity was the university for her. At the two-year mark at Trinity when the career path to become a dental hygienist would have meant a change in schools, Dee decided to remain at Trinity and change her major to Elementary Education.

The summer before her senior year at Trinity, Dee broke off an engagement and returned to Dallas to begin healing. She went to summer school at SMU and lived with her older sister Molly and her husband. Shortly after Dee moved in, Molly and Bob left for a week to attend a convention. After classes that entire week, Dee would cook (a passion of hers). By the end of the week, the refrigerator was full so she called all the people she knew from Monroe who were living in Dallas at the time. “I wanted them to help me empty that refrigerator,” Dee explains. Her 6th-grade sweetheart, Lee Ledbetter, was doing a summer internship there so she invited him to join the group. As fate would have it, his older brother John – whom Dee did not know – was there. She told Lee to bring John along.

Although Dee had known John’s family all of her life, she didn’t know John. Her siblings were the same age as John’s siblings, but John was four grades ahead of Dee. The evening was a success, the refrigerator was empty, and Dee enjoyed being with her Monroe friends. She wasn’t looking for romance, but romance found her.

Two weeks after that get-together, John asked her to a Rangers baseball game. She thought that it sounded like fun, but turned John down because she mistakenly thought he was dating a friend of hers from Waldemar. John quickly corrected her misunderstanding, and she agreed to go to the game with him. “To be frank, I was not excited about the date. I knew he was a nice guy, yet I perceived him to be very quiet and reserved,” Dee says. “I was still on the mend from a wounded heart so my guard was up. I thought I would have to carry the conversation all night.”

Dee’s preconceived notion about John couldn’t have been more wrong. They doubled with another couple and had a wonderful time. That night, the Texas Rangers set a team record for hits. Later, John’s wedding band would have the score of that game engraved inside his wedding band to honor that first date.

The next week they had a second date, and from that point on they saw each other every day for the rest of the summer. Dee was crazy about John, but she was returning to San Antonio to finish at Trinity and John was beginning his first year of medical school in Dallas. Dee was also still “guarding” her heart and she thought that distance and school business would keep them separate. She believed that this was just a summer romance that would fade.

John had other ideas – and a plan. He told Dee to go back to Trinity, date, and have fun. The two of them would stay in touch by phone and see each other every other weekend. “I dated like crazy my senior year, and John and I would have late night phone conversations after all my dates,” Dee says. “We did get together every other weekend and thank goodness I had family in Dallas. We spent our days in the library studying and had fun in the evenings.”

After graduation, Dee moved to Dallas and began her teaching career in the Richardson School District. The next January they became engaged, and on June 20, 1981, Dee became a June bride. They were married at Covenant Presbyterian Church and their reception was at Bayou DeSiard Country Club. Dee’s mom created a sophisticated Fiesta for the reception in honor of Dee’s years in Texas. 

A FAMILY OF THEIR OWN

After four years of marriage, Dee’s first child — a son — Mac was born. They were living in San Antonio as Dee supported John through medical school. They moved “home” to Monroe when John accepted a position with Anesthesia Associates. Dee was expecting their second son — Land — when they moved. They purchased Dee’s grandparents’ home and settled in with their growing family. When the boys were 7 and 9, the family welcomed a baby girl they named Rachel. “I loved being a boy mom, but God knew that this family needed a girl to mix things up!” Dee says.

Not surprising considering how much of their life together was spent in Texas, the Ledbetter family’s favorite cuisine is authentic Mexican. Dee especially loves Mexican restaurants (she collects them like some people collect jewelry and has favorites in every city) – the atmosphere, décor, colorful lights, fresh ingredients, and Mariachi bands!

  Their children are grown now, with families of their own, but the same spirit of faith and family love that Dee experienced keeps them together. With two granddaughters, a grandson, and a new blessing on the way, Dee and John are enjoying the special joy that grandchildren bring as they watch that part of their family grow. “We just play with the grandchildren and do what they want to do,” Dee says with a laugh. “We read books, cook together, and play board games. The older they get, the more there is that we can do together.”

As one would expect, holidays remain major highlights each year. At Christmas, whichever children are home for the holidays will join John and Dee in volunteering to deliver Meals on Wheels Christmas dinners. “We pile into the car with coffee or cider and make our rounds,” Dee explains. “We have met, prayed with, visited, and sung with some very dear people. Each stop we switch up the two people who walk to deliver the meal. That way by the end of the route, we all have different experiences to share.”

MENTORS AND INFLUENCERS

Dee has been blessed by a number of special people in her life who have served as mentors and influencers when she needed them most. Her parents are at the top of that list. From them, Dee saw examples of a living faith, an unwavering work ethic, and a love for the community.

When Dee was in high school, she would go to Papa’s law office after supper to do her homework just to be near him. There she saw his devotion to his work and his love for the rule of law. On occasion she would get to see him litigate in the courtroom. When her mother started her own business, Dee saw her transformation from home-keeper and mother to successful businesswoman.

Both Dee’s father and mother were Christians devoted to their faith and their church, Covenant Presbyterian. Both served as elders and on the Session in a number of capacities. Papa taught Sunday School for decades, and her mother served on the flower guild until she was in her 80s. Papa had a mantra that Dee has adopted for her own life: “Work as if everything depends upon you, and pray as if everything depends upon God.”

Many teachers have also influenced Dee’s life and faith. A high school teacher, Donna Underwood, was a major influence then and remains one – as well as good friend – today. Lia Cannon, Dee’s Yoga and Classical Pilates instructor, has increased Dee’s knowledge of the importance of exercise and fitness in one’s life. When she was young, two Sunday School teachers – Glen Gore and H.D. Touchstone – impressed her as champions of their faith and committed teachers. Recently two others – Billy Foster and Pat Williams – have helped her grow her knowledge of the Bible. Barbara Thomas and Selene Rae lead a weekly Bible Study through which Dee’s life and faith have been enriched. 

ON MATTERS OF STYLE

Three places influenced Dee’s awareness of fashion – two children’s shops in Monroe and a department store in Dallas. Dee Dee’s and Kelso’s were wonderful children’s shops when Dee was growing up. There Dee Dee Kirkland and Vera and Johnny Kelso offered a combination of classic children’s pieces as well as the latest fashions. Dee loved going to both with her mother, selecting just the right outfit.

Neiman Marcus in Dallas was the third place that offered a window into the world of fashion for Dee and her sisters. Her grandmother would take her mother to shop at Neiman Marcus. When she had daughters of her own, Dee’s mother continued that tradition. The family made a weekend of it.

Dee remembers the excitement of lunch at The Zodiac Room at Neiman’s during which models would stroll around the room, modeling the latest offerings. Afterward, Papa would sit as his daughters modeled their own choices for him. If he approved, the clothes came back to Monroe. 

When Dee started developing her own personal style, she coined the term “Classic-Forward” to describe it. She loves classic lines, yet Dee also likes a piece to have an unexpected interest or detail. “I usually keep it simple with clean lines, yet there is usually a subtle twist either in the design or the accessories,” she says. Adding the right accessory can help to pull together future outfits. They are her favorite fashion pieces to buy.

Dee does not have a favorite designer; instead, she adheres to the old saying “Variety is the spice of life”. If something catches her eye and fits well, she will add it to her closet. Known in the past for an impeccable, clean look – often monochromatic — today Dee adds pattern and bold colors to her wardrobe. 

Not all of Dee’s style depends on the “newest” thing. She loves vintage clothing and has a number of her mother’s and grandmother’s pieces that she often wears. She also adores estate jewelry. “I wish those pieces could talk and tell me about their adventures,” Dee says. ‘Where have they been? Who wore them?”

TRAVEL, HOBBIES TAKE THEIR PLACE

Dee’s earliest travel memory is of a family trip to St. Louis. The family drove to Jackson, Mississippi, and then boarded a train for the trip to Missouri. The train trip was as exciting as the St. Louis Zoo. “The conductor, the coal engine, sleeping on the train, dining while moving with the views zooming past us — it was all a big deal in our eyes!” Dee says. “The most fun was standing out on the caboose, waving and experiencing the wind and movement.”

Since that introduction to train travel, Dee has enjoyed many trips. Travel is a love that she and John share. There have been moments, however . . . one time her plane missed the runway; on another flight, her aircraft was struck by lightning that caused what Dee describes as “dramatic effects.” Another time while traveling by bus in Europe, the bus had to be diverted to a road off the main highway so that Yugoslavian President Tito’s motorcade could come through. The time that she was traveling on the Orient Express and crossing the border into Hungary was among her most interesting experiences.  The train was stopped and all of the passengers were ordered off the train by military in full uniform and fully armed! They searched the train before allowing the passengers back on and the train to continue its journey. In spite of that scary adventure, Dee would love to travel to many more places. The south of France, Croatia, Paris, Africa, Alaska, and Israel are on her wish list.

A hobby — and talent – that Dee’s mother loved is evident in Dee’s own life. Her mother loved arranging flowers, studying floral design, and creating lovely floral tributes for others. Dee laughs that she developed her love for flowers “probably by osmosis” because she watched her mother’s passion for it. When Dee began arranging flowers, her mom (a floral design judge for The Garden Club of America) taught Dee about the mechanics of floral arranging, conditioning flowers, and the elements of design. Along with her mother, Dee was also influenced by the talents of Georgie Touchstone, Joy Marshall, Dot Breard, and Julia Trichell. Her affiliation with The Monroe Garden Study League for the past 25 years has aided in honing, defining, and growing her skills.

Whether playing with grandchildren, traveling with John, learning a new floral design technique, or just floating around the lake “chilling” – one thing is certain, Dee Ledbetter will look pulled together and ready for anything! 

“I think your style should reflect your personality, not only in the way you dress, but also in your home,” Dee says. “Since I come from a long line of close family members who were steadfast in their style and enjoyed it as I do, I believe it comes naturally to me.” So do we.