Theodore "Cigo" Crews

Theodore Crews

My father was born Theodore “Cigo” Crews on February 8, 1947, in Oklahoma City, one of ten children. A deaf child with a genius IQ, his hearing family had no knowledge of sign language. His early years were spent trapped inside a body without adequate access to language. At age four, he was sent away to live and study at the Oklahoma School for the Deaf until he graduated at age nineteen.

Dad was wildly popular, especially with the ladies thanks to his athletic prowess, knack for storytelling and wicked sense of humor. Toss in some excessive good looks and he could charm the skin off a snake. But one girl at school held his heart, my mother Christy. 

After graduation, Mom and Dad married and had my brother Kevin and me, Kambri, and settled in Houston, Texas. An engineering savant, Dad rose through the ranks as a construction worker, eventually being named foreman—remarkable of for a deaf man in the 1970s.

When I was seven years old, our family set out on an adventure, trading city life for a one-room tin shack deep in wilds of Montgomery, Texas. My father led the expedition, developing the snake-infested plot with his bare hands, providing us with running water, plumbing and electricity. 

Look, I could write a book about my father’s life, but I already did. In 2012, Random House published Burn Down The Ground: A Memoirin which I came to terms with my love for an imperfect man who spent his last eighteen years of life as an inmate with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

Telling our story helped Dad embrace sobriety and come to terms with the traumas of his past. “Bad behavior is the language of the wounded,” I told him. We worked on healing.

Generous with his affection, he lavished family and friends with hugs and kisses and declarations of love. He was a voracious reader, gifted artist and admired as a source of arcane knowledge by his fellow inmates. If they needed settle a dispute on any topic ranging from science, sports, or history, they knew exactly where to go for the answer.

"Let's go to Cigo University," they would say. 

A fierce advocate for inmates’ rights behind bars, Dad earned the moniker “Warrior for the Deaf”. He helped others research and write court filings and for 18 years helped an illiterate deaf inmate by filling out paperwork and interpreting the captioning on TV shows. Just weeks before his death, he was quoted in an exposé in the Marshall Project revealing abhorrent food conditions at TDCJ during the pandemic. COVID-19 was the least of his worries. He was starving to death, as were the men around him. 

Like most men his age, he was ready to retire to a simple life. He planned on living in the woods near my cabin in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains. Like a deaf Rip Van Winkle, Dad would be waking into the future, a world full of video phones, live captioning and A.I. translators. I wondered how we could prepare him for such a culture shock. 

“Can you take a class?”

“Nah, I’ll go to ‘Kambri University’,” he joked. 

He had taught me how to use power tools, drive a stick shift and roll a joint. Now it was my turn to teach him the Internet, FaceTime, and, most importantly, how to clear his browser history.

In a cruel twist, Dad was approved for parole but remained inside thanks to apathetic pencil pushers as COVID-19 raged around them. Through years of neglect and outright malice, I’ve no doubt TDCJ hastened Dad’s passing and robbed our family of the reunion we deserved.  

Due to COVID-19, Dad’s final days were spent in hospital isolation without an ASL interpreter or in-person visitation. He finally learned to FaceTime after all when we said our final goodbyes in a five-minute phone call.

The TDCJ did its best to strip his humanity, but as his wide circle of family, friends and fans can attest:

You can’t cage charisma.

Cigo leaves behind son Kevin and his wife Heather; their daughters Kaelyn and Kathryn; daughter Kambri and her husband Christian Finnegan; thousands of letters and artwork chronicling his life lived and lost.

An online memorial will be scheduled. If you are so moved, please donate to The Fortune Societyin Cigo’s memory. Build people, not prisons.