Last time, we talked about meeting the original Marlboro Man at the Western Heritage Awards Banquet in 1995. Jan and I looked at each other in astonishment as we looked at the folks who surrounded us. Far from being star-struck types, we nonetheless recognized that we were in for a unique experience.
I was astonished as I watched Jan walk two tables over and start a conversation with Michael Martin Murphy, one of our favorite cowboy singers. I can’t recall if wine had anything to do with her bold move. She denies that it did, of course.
I looked behind me and saw Barry Corbin, pretty fresh from his great performance as Roscoe Brown in the best western of all time, Lonesome Dove. Then I saw Bill Wittliff, who wrote the teleplay for Lonesome Dove. Jan and I have part of his photo collection featuring the actors and scenes from the movie in our home.
Richard Farnsworth (maybe my favorite actor of all time) and Ernest Borgnine were also at the next table over along with William Devane. Two tables away from that, I saw a favorite western villain, Jack Elam. Elam had been inducted in the hall of fame of Great Western Performers the previous year. He lost sight in one eye when he was stabbed with a pencil in high school at a Boy Scouts meeting. Few know that he began his career as an accountant.
But there was another couple sitting across from us at our table (beside the Marlboro Man). They were quiet and I had no idea who they were until Richard Farnsworth began the program as emcee.
When Tom Lea was announced as an inductee in the Hall of Great Westerners, I was shocked to see all eyes turn to the elderly gentleman across the table from us. As he stood to receive the award, I waited for ushers to come and tell us we had been seated in the wrong place.
I don’t have the space here to list Tom’s lengthy list of accomplishments. The best summation would be from an award-winning article in Roundup, the official magazine of the Western Writers of America, titled “Tom Lea: The Eyes of an Artist and the Ears of a Writer”. He had previously received the Owen Wister Award (a lifetime achievement award in western history and literature) from the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Five years later, he would be quoted in George W. Bush’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. “My friend, the artist Tom Lea of El Paso, Texas captured the way I feel about our great land, a land I love. He and his wife, he said, ‘live on the east side of the mountain. It’s the sunrise side, not the sunset side. It is the side to see the day that is coming, not the day that has gone. The best day is the day coming.” Tom was weak and blind when the President later requested the loan of his painting “Rio Grande” to hang in the oval office.
During the Great Depression, Tom produced paintings that still hang in post offices from Washington, DC to Odessa, Texas. He illustrated some of the books of the great J. Frank Dobie.
Tom was a war correspondent for Life magazine during WWII and accompanied Allied Forces into both theaters of war, documenting the horrific reality and raw emotion of war in a way that had rarely been seen before.
He was aboard the USS Hornet where he met Jimmy Doolittle. He watched a Japanese sub sink the USS Wasp and later did several paintings of that event. While in China, he painted portraits of Chiang Kai-shek and the head of the Flying Tigers, General Claire Lee Chennault (who hails from Commerce, Texas).
Lea produced six books over the next twenty years, fiction and non-fiction, winning numerous awards, including two from the Texas Institute of Letters. Two of his novels were made into movies. He also authored two volumes on the King Ranch.
His paintings hang in private and prestigious public places all over the world, including the Smithsonian. Yet the man was unassuming and accepted his induction into the Hall of Great Westerners with deep humility and appreciation.
Just wait. There’s more.