A Quiet Texan, Dead 10 Years, Is Suddenly the Prime Suspect in a Ww Ii Theft of Priceless Medieval Art

updated 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The good people of Whitewright, Texas, a fanning community 65 miles north of Dallas, never knew quite what to make of Joe Meador. Joe ran the hardware store, kept to himself and, 10 years after his death at 63, is best remembered for his avocations. A bachelor, he grew thousands of orchids in large hothouses behind his home. And he loved art. In a town so small they have yet to put up a traffic light, Joe was respected as a man with a special eye for beauty.

Folks have since been shocked to discover just how special was Joe Meador's eye for art. Last week a historic Lutheran church in Quedlinburg, East Germany, filed a lawsuit in Dallas seeking the return from the Meador family of priceless medieval artifacts that Joe allegedly stole while an Army officer at the end of World War II. The president of the town's First National Bank has admitted that at least some of that art is squirreled away in the bank's vault. And the brouhaha, set off by a New York Times investigation, suggests that mild-mannered Joe Meador pulled off one of the biggest art thefts of the century.

In April 1945 Meador was a lieutenant in an Army unit that occupied the ancient castle town of Quedlinburg and was responsible for guarding artifacts removed from a church and hidden in a mine shaft for safety. Within a few days part of the cache disappeared, and for four decades there was no trace of it. But after Meador's death, his brother Jack and sister, Jane Cook, who are not talking publicly, are reported to have quietly sought appraisal of two medieval manuscripts. Then last April, in Switzerland, a private West German cultural foundation paid $3 million to an intermediary linked to an unidentified American seller to recover a bejeweled 10th-century manuscript of the Four Gospels missing from Quedlinburg; another manuscript was recently offered for sale by the intermediary for $500,000. Stashed in the Whitewright bank may be the rest of the loot, including jeweled reliquaries and gold crucifixes. And now it appears that for years Joe Meador actually led a double life.

He had always been aloof. "He didn't go to the coffee shop or to the soda fountain, like some do," recalls town barber Joe Griffis. After leaving the Army in 1946, Joe eventually joined Jack in the hardware business started by their father. "Joe was a real likable fellow," says Lloyd Bryant, a longtime employee of the store. "He was quiet, but I've always said still water runs deep." In fact, Joe commonly slipped away to Dallas to attend orchid society functions—and in an apartment there he quietly maintained a gay life-style. Lee Cadenhead, an auditor, was a frequent dinner guest. "Joe needed an escape out of Whitewright," he says. "Not only because of his life-style, but because he needed a lot more than chickens and church."

Cadenhead never saw any artifacts himself, but he says Joe admitted "he had brought back some beautiful treasures from the war in Germany. He never did say exactly what they were. I think he was scared he might go to jail."

Perhaps from worry about his two secrets, Meador began drinking heavily. "Joe had a terrible time toward the end," says Cadenhead. "I sensed that he was trying to hold his little world together in Dallas, and his little world in Whitewright. And it was becoming just too much for him to handle." Eventually, ill with cancer, he was admitted to the Whitewright Nursing Home. "His family," says Cadenhead, "let us know they wanted none of Joe's Dallas friends to visit him."

His secrets still largely intact, Joe Meador died in the nursing home on Feb. 1, 1980. Ten years later Whitewright Mayor Clarence Tillett offered him this informal tribute: "Joe just liked beautiful things."

—David Grogan, Kent Demaret and Barbara Wegher in Texas

From Our Partners