Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Cowhill Council

Cowhill Council meetings are pretty much always offbeat. We don’t keep records, so I have to rely on memory, which is fading.  I don’t expect to be contradicted by any of the council members because their memories are equally poor or worse.  Also, we don’t really have any members – just regular guests. Nobody wants the group to be official.

Cowhill Council had no official beginning.  The seeds were planted back in about 1992, but didn’t really take root until about 1996-1997, with irregular meetings of Jerald Thomas, Pop Thomas, and me. Jerald was and is the nucleus of the group. When Jerald went along on our covered wagon and horseback trip across Texas, the campfire gatherings every night and morning implanted the value of regular meetings back home.

We usually met on what Jerald calls the Five Acres out on highway 24/50, but just as often in his downtown coffee shop. When Pop died, Jerald’s brother Ricky (disabled from a construction injury) moved out to the five acres and the meetings became regular. The Five Acres is known for being cool in the summer with large oak trees and a cool breeze off a small pond.

When cold weather or rain crowded us into a one room house, Jerald dragged up the top half of an old grain silo, installed windows, a brick floor, and two wood stoves (one for heat and one for cooking). My wife Jan made pillows for our chairs. 

The grain bin came complete with black marks similar to ones used to keep score in domino games. We joke that the marks represent stories that have been told more than twice. 

Imagine this – a bunch of well-seasoned gentlemen sitting under oak trees watching ducks swim on the pond or inside a grain silo drinking cappuccinos – the aroma of biscuits cooking on a wood stove – smoke billowing from the stovepipes.

Soon, Jerald was bringing eight to ten drinks a day and cooking biscuits for an erratic crowd. At one point, we decided that the downtown square needed more cars and people and moved back to the coffee shop downtown. One of our members (I won’t say which one) cautioned us to clean up our language since we were no longer in the country. He used four expletives.  We soon moved back to the country life.

The Cowhill Council is, if anything, eclectic.  They say if you build it, they will come. And they did. A plumber, sales manager, housing director, builder and re-furbisher of skyscrapers, a CPA, antique dealer, coffee shop proprietor, teachers and professors, two artists, a tractor and farm equipment dealer, photographers, ministers, a novelist, financial aid director, hall of fame athlete, evangelists,  team ropers, stockbroker, fundraiser, car salesman, financial planner, psychologist, newspaper editor, authors, columnists, wannabe and real cowboys, Harley riders, carpenters, cattle ranchers, a Texas Rehab executive, real estate salesman, champion turkey caller, western wear store proprietor, bankers, lawyers, a world renowned authority on cotton gins and ginning, a drywall and ceiling tile man, a traveling evangelist, a chemical salesman, a trucking salesman, an avid hunter (with bows, arrows, and ammo), a builder of churches on at least two continents, two draftsmen, farmers real and wannabe, and several real and wannabe musicians. We were visited once by a former pro baseball player.

Sound like a big group? Nope. Less than ten guys who had several careers and businesses—trying to find something we were good at. On a good day, five or six of us might show up.

We have been visited (more than once) by two Pulitzer Prize winners, (John Knaur and Skeeter Haglar), dozens of photography students, two syndicated columnists, (one several times), and two radio personalities (Tumbleweed Smith and Enola Gay). At least three of us have been featured in a Tumbleweed Smith column and/or a radio broadcast.

Last year, we lost Ricky and two of us were involved in car wrecks. I know what you are thinking, but other drivers were at fault in both instances.

I walked away unscathed from mine. Paul was not so lucky. A pickup rammed his tractor from behind as he was driving it home after doing work for his church. He was thrown from the tractor and sent skidding down the highway. After two emergency helicopter flights, a couple of surgeries, and a long rehab, he’s back fit as a fiddle. We are thankful that the only council member who has been shot with an arrow and almost died from a deer stand fall is a survivor not just by instinct, but practice (I know you expect to hear a great hunting story about being shot with an arrow. Sorry, but he was shot on an urban street).And he says he didn't fall from that deer stand. The ladder broke.

We don’t do much cooking anymore and the cappuccino was traded for coffee after Jerald closed his coffee shop. Biscuits are cooked elsewhere and warmed in the microwave. Yes, there is a microwave in the feed silo.

Political candidates come (during campaign season only, of course) looking for votes, not advice. A city hall controversy brought the city manager, mayor and council members a few years back.

Some of our meetings are well, boring. Some are even sad. We talk a lot about politics, local, statewide and national. We even venture into religion on occasion, holding the
contrarian belief that those are the two subjects we need to talk about most, not avoid.

Seldom do feelings get hurt. Meetings without a meaningful exchange of worthy information outnumber those where we learn valuable insights. More often than not, when Jan asks what I learned, I say, “Nothing”. Of course, that could be because what happens at Cowhill Council stays at Cowhill Council.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Pied Piper of Writers: Saying Goodbye

I can’t, of course, do justice to the life of this great man today, not even if I had a week. There is not time to list all the titles and offices he has held (usually president) and all the honors he has received from at least twenty organizations (that I know of). He is Professor Emeritus of Literature and Languages at Texas A&M-Commerce, a Gold Blazer and Distinguished Alumnus, a Texas Piper Professor. 

I have had the privilege of introducing Dr. Tarpley on many prior occasions. As I returned to my files each time for his resume, I always had to add a page for his most recent remarkable accomplishments.
Now, I have the honor of saying a final goodbye.  His body may be lost to us, but his influence will last longer than any of us, much longer.  

His insatiable thirst for knowledge led to graduation from high school at sixteen and later becoming the youngest Ph.D. on the faculty of this university, even after serving his nation during the Korean War.

Fred said that he loved practically everything about his public school education except what he was taught about East Texas.  History teachers told him that nothing of note ever occurred in this part of our state.  That sent him on a life-long quest to change that perception. His books, Jefferson: Riverport to the Southwest, and Jefferson: East Texas Metropolis were a good beginning.  

He told me that a lot of academia branded our corner of Texas as a literary wasteland, and that only New England produced worthwhile American reading.  Fred responded with articles on the literary heritage of the region and a traveling photographic  exhibition and lectures featuring twenty-five East Texas writers. I think at least one of those authors is here today, maybe more.  

When academics said that Northeast Texas speech was the most appalling of all American talk, Fred answered with more books, From Blinky to Blue-John: A Word Atlas of Northeast Texas, Place Names of Northeast Texas, and 1001 Texas Place Names.

Another gauntlet for Fred came when people called the bois d’arc a trash tree. He wrote Wood Eternal: the Story of Osage Orange and Bois d’arc, .  the most comprehensive book ever written about the tree that is native to Northeast Texas. He co-founded the Commerce Bois d’Arc Bash almost thirty years ago and was named Citizen of the Year.

He started a literary criticism contest for the University Interscholastic League and directed that contest for a quarter century. 

He manned the Origin of Family Names booth at the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio for twenty-five years. 

Fred Tarpley wrote or co-authored nine books, three media scripts, scores of articles, hundreds of reviews, two one act-plays, six screenplays and numerous academic papers and articles.  He plowed the fertile ground of his home territory  to help others discover the richness of our heritage. Through his writing and teaching, he has preserved for the ages a wealth of information that might otherwise have been lost.  Indeed, much of it was lost until Fred Tarpley came along.   

His own writing is exceeded only by his encouragement and mentoring of other writers (myself included). He guided aspiring authors through editing . . ., teaching writing classes, and leading writing organizations.  He shepherded writers with dreams into the realities of stories and essays, articles, poems and books. He also brought back to life, long-forgotten manuscripts from the estate of Eusibia Lutz, a professor of French at this university. 

In his seventies, Dr. Tarpley told me that he really needed a staff to keep up with his burgeoning career.

In my travels with Fred, I noted that a book in his hands was not just held, it was caressed, as he prepared to feed it into his great, always-thirsty mind. 

He was faculty sponsor of the Tejas Social Club, later to become Sigma Phi Epsilon.  How many fraternal or social organizations maintain close relationships with faculty sponsors for more than a half century?  The lifelong friendships he nurtured are a testament to his leadership. Hosses and Bosses are well-represented here today, every one carrying a wealth of stories about Fred.     

A writing course he taught on this campus several years ago was so successful and well-received that it evolved into the Silver Leos Writers Guild and that led to many, many books and helped to fulfill the dreams . .. of many writers. Most are also here today.

Yes, his list of accomplishments is too long, too complicated. But I think I know what Fred would say to me. “Tell them stories, Jim. People remember stories.”

My favorite story of Dr. Tarpley involves his visit to Washington, DC to continue his research at a library across from the Smithsonian.  He conveyed his needs to a willing research assistant who went back into the canyons of the library and returned with two of Fred’s own books.  In his usual modest style, Dr. Tarpley smiled and pushed the books back across the counter saying, “I don’t believe this author can be of much help to me.” 

Fred taught me Freshman English fifty years ago, but not until I asked for his help with a manuscript almost forty years later did he became my mentor and close friend. I was intimidated during the entire editing process. When he used his influence to get me speaking engagements, I dreaded the hours on the road for our first trip, wondering what I would say to the great intellect with whom I had almost nothing in common. 

I needn’t have worried. He kept up a non-stop lively, interesting, and informative conversation all the way there and back. Every time we crossed a creek with a name, he would tell me its history and rich stories of the heritage of the area.

I learned he was not only a fountain of knowledge about literature, but also history. He also had a lot to say about local events and told a lot of funny stories. I learned that an hour spent with Fred was more informative and entertaining than most books.

For the next decade, we talked four to five times a week and traveled to events all over Texas, most arranged through Fred’s contacts and influence. When I needed credibility, I just mentioned that I came with Fred. It was like traveling with a celebrity.

The only problem was that he kept telling people I was a publisher as well as an author. I would stand behind him, wave my arms, and shake my head. I asked him to quit, worried that people might be misled.  But Fred went on undeterred. That’s when I discovered his tenacious capacity for getting things accomplished. His powers of persuasion were always polite and subtle, but extremely effective. So pretty soon, I found that we were in the publishing business together. We did seven books in two years.

I knew little about Fred’s health problems in the beginning, because he never mentioned them. In all that traveling and visiting and phone conversations, he never once, not once, complained. Even though I learned later that he must have suffered a lot of pain and discomfort.

I never saw him show more than a second or two of mild irritation. He was unfailingly optimistic and enthusiastic even when he was critiquing an event, a book, a movie or a manuscript.  

Wherever I speak to a group, I am always approached by someone who knows Fred—and they all speak of him with the utmost respect, many with awe and admiration. His touch has been far- reaching, deep and profound, immeasurable.

When I decided to switch from writing non-fiction to novels, I found the publishing world unwelcoming and littered with broken dreams. I prayed for a mentor, someone who could guide me through this new minefield. About two years into those requests, I heard a soothing voice as I drifted off to sleep one night. It said, “You are working with one of the giants of literature in this country. What more could you want?” I was ashamed for being late in recognizing the great gift I had been given.

I knew from those days as a freshman on this campus that Dr. Fred Tarpley was a great intellect. What I discovered later was that he was also a great conversationalist, a man of much compassion and unfailing enthusiasm . . .  not just a man with a great mind, but a man with a great heart.

After I had introduced him at one event, someone approached me and said it seemed almost unbelievable that one man could accomplish so much in a lifetime. He said it sounded as if I were describing a fictional character, a perfect man.

Fred wasn’t perfect, of course. Fred and cars, for example, sometimes did not get along. A few years back, he called me on an early spring morning. When I arrived at his house, his car was smashed, the driver’s door jammed, the gear shift hung as a useless appendage from the steering column. And the engine was running at a fairly high speed. Fred stood out in his yard, wiping blood from a few injuries. The crash had apparently triggered an alarm system in the car and I had to speak to him over the sounds of approaching sirens.

We will never know if what happened was an automobile malfunction or a Fred malfunction, but his car had crashed into a utility pole, cutting off power to his house.

When I crawled into the car to cut the engine and try to back it off the pole, I noticed a trail of blood from the front seat to the back door. Fred had extricated himself from the steering wheel, crawled over the seat and out the back door—a good acrobatic maneuver for a man half his age.

But what will always stay with me about this story is what he said and how he said it when he called me . . . while still stuck behind the steering wheel with the engine roaring and the gearshift useless, bleeding profusely, he said, very calmly and cheerfully, “Hello, Jim. I think I may need your help.” He had the gift of what I call effortless serenity.

A few years back, we had a snow and ice storm. Fred had an appointment in Greenville for dialysis. Road conditions were severe, but I told him I could get him there in my four-wheel drive Jeep.  
Jeeps like mine sit fairly high and are not easy to get into and don’t ride like Fred’s Cadillac. But he piled into the passenger seat without breaking conversational stride. 

He kept me entertained on the treacherous drive and helped me to relax a little about road conditions . . . until we reached Greenville. I-30 was backed up—eighteen-wheelers as far as the eye could see.
I didn’t want Fred to miss his appointment and I had an appointment of my own back in Commerce that I really needed to keep.

I said, “Fred, This looks like it could take an hour or more to clear up. What do you think about crossing that ditch and getting on the service road?”

Fred looked straight ahead as if he were enjoying the excitement of sitting in a traffic jam and said cheerfully, “I’m in no particular hurry.”

I shifted into four wheel drive. “Well, I am.”

I looked both directions for law enforcement and headed across the ditch. The Jeep tilted as it went down the side of the ditch, splashed mud and slush when we crossed the middle, and then tilted opposite as we climbed the other side. Headlines flashed through my mind. “Reckless driver injures local legendary professor.”

We made the service road only to find a truck jack-knifed across it. This time, we had to drive down the middle of an even more treacherous ditch. When we finally made it back to the main road, I looked over at Fred, expecting to see a face white with terror. Instead, I saw only relaxed demeanor.

I don’t know what he said, but I realized he had never stopped his lively conversation during two ditch crossings.  Somehow, I think that says almost as much about this good man as all of his books.

Then there was the afternoon he phoned to tell me he had received a call from Horton Foote, winner of the Academy Award, an Emmy, and other little things like the Pulitzer Prize.  Mr. Foote was asking for advice.  There are other stories—stories of renowned author James Michener and other famous people that have been touched by Fred Tarpley, but time does not permit. 

Yes, he was a great intellect and will forever be remembered as such. But I, for one, am now, and forever will be, amazed by his strength, vigor, boundless enthusiasm and good humor in the face of adversity.

I have struggled to sum up the magnificent scope of his positive influence, but know I cannot.  I can say to his children, Ted, Marie, Mark and Colleen, his seven grandchildren, and his sister Dorothy, that he spoke of you often with love and tenderness in his voice and eyes.

No, I cannot do him justice, but poet and author Brenda Black White may have done it as well as it could be done in a card she wrote to Dr. Tarpley during the time we were publishing her last book of poetry.

Brenda, as many of you know, suffered the effects of a debilitating disease for more than forty years. She showed me the card she sent to Fred:

Dear Dr. T.,
There is something inspiring about you that arrests my ebbing energies … something that supports my commitment to transcend my maladies. 
When I talk with you, I feel all things are possible. 
You are kind in a hundred ways . . . sharing your joy for the little treasures you find—a fact . . . a place . . . a deed . . . a book   . . . or a person. 
I want you to know that I appreciate how uniquely wonderful you are.  I am blessed to have you in my life. 

We are all blessed to have had Dr. Fred Tarpley in our lives. 

*The above was written for oral presentation. Any departures from standard grammar and punctuation are intentional and were made for that purpose. (Fred would have advised this notation). Presented at

 Texas A&M-Commerce on March 8, 2014.