I was sitting in my office at the Sheriff’s Office back in 2020. It was a normal day at the Atascosa County Jail – well, as normal as could be. I received a visit from Nelda Rentz. I brought her to my office. She seemed like a normal person; except she brought a large binder with old papers sticking out. I knew this visit would be fun, but I had no clue what a wonderful ride it would be with its ups, downs, disappointments and, ultimately, grand success.
Mrs. Rentz introduced herself as Deputy Sheriff Meister Coward’s daughter. I knew the history of Meister Coward. He was shot at the old county jail in 1952 by Frank Landrum as he arrested a man from Charlotte and was bringing him to the jail. Deputy Coward returned fire on Landrum and both men died from their injuries. That was the history I knew. That binder held by Mrs. Rentz contained a more elaborate story with details nobody knows unless you have spent your entire life digging for answers of your father’s death. Mrs. Rentz spoke and I recognized that she deserved not only my attention but also the attention of everyone in Atascosa County. She spoke with meaning and a desire for information.
Mrs. Rentz was 10 when her father died and she spoke in meticulous detail of her recollections before his death. She had researched so much that her father was posthumously inducted into the South Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame. During his rodeo days, Meister served as a movie extra in the 1927 film “Rough Riders” in San Antonio. Her father was more than a deputy sheriff that lost his life in the line of duty. He was a rancher, a rodeo man, a father, a husband, a brother and friend to many.
The only visual I had of Meister Coward was that of him with his cowboy hat tilted back and a big smile on his face in a photo hanging at the Sheriff’s Office. Mrs. Rentz pulled back the curtain and showed me a different side of her father with some family photos. Sorrow hit me like a punch in the gut. These photos showed the same smiling man holding his children and his wife. In the photos, he was dressed like he had been working or ranching. Although he looked tired and sunburned, he was happy, and his family was too.
When our visit was over, empathy took over. I knew that something had to be done to allow Mrs. Rentz and her surviving siblings to use their lifetime of research to educate the public about their father. After applying for an Undertold Marker with the Texas Historical Commission, the request was denied. A marker exists at the old jail and a new one was rejected. I felt terrible and I was dreading the call to Mrs. Rentz to advise her. She was not upset but I knew she was disappointed. I promised her I would do something to honor her father. After consultation with Commissioner Gillespie and Judge Hurley, we created a committee to develop a memorial for the entire Coward family. An engraved metal bench was selected, and we were off to the races!
A Facebook post about the Coward family turned up another family member. Shana Henry, someone I have known for a long time, informed me that Meister Coward was her grandfather. It was perfect timing for her and Mrs. Rentz to be added to the planning committee. Fast forward a few months, and a few setbacks, and we were ready for a Bench Dedication Ceremony on December 29, 2022.
About 25 members of the Coward family showed up. The energy was high and the family was thankful. This was a success- ful project and Atascosa County finally has something to remember the Coward family’s contributions.
The Cowards named on the memorial bench are Avant “Meister”, Henry “Halff”, and Erastus Athelone “Ras.” These three men were only three of 12 boys born to John Russell and Mary Matilda (Pierce) Coward. Most of the Coward children are interred in Atascosa County Cemeteries, along with their mother Mary Matilda. Like I mentioned during the dedication ceremony, “These Cowards… they’re a tough bunch and we owe them a debt of gratitude.”