Category Archives: Michael Johnson

THE BOY WITH NO SHOES by Michael Johnson. A story of kindness, hope, achievement and humility.

A great missive to ponder while moving into the freedom of the weekend.


Michael Johnson



                  Had you seen him standing there just shy of 19, him with his

             tattered shirt and trousers, his rope belt and no shoes…what would

            you have thought of him?  And then he says, “I want to come to

            the college here, sir.”
“Have you formal education, young man?”

           “Not much sir.  I was born in Pin Hook, a small community

           north of Paris, Texas.  Our school was only open three months of

           the year, and I didn’t get to attend every year.  My father died when

            I was very young, and I had to help my mother.  But I had a friend

           there…an older man who cut cross ties.  He didn’t read very well

           himself, but he had 25 books and he let me read every one of them.

          Can I come to school here, sir – here at East Texas State Normal


               What would you have said?

               Thank goodness someone said, “Yes, you can come.”

               The young man’s name was William Owens.  The year was 1924.

         William Owens would become one of the most revered writers ever

          to come from Texas, and rise to one of the loftiest heights academia

         has to offer – professor of English and dean at Columbia University

        for over twenty-five years.




               The year was 1966 and I was just shy of 19 myself.  Raised in a

         small East Texas town, I was blessed with a good family.

         Unfortunately, I wasn’t so much so.  After two years of college, I

         had somehow managed to string together 13 consecutive F’s and

         attain the rank of “rodeo bum.”  My father died suddenly, and

         after a period of mourning – a too long period – I decided to make

          amends.  I would return to school and do better.  Little did I know

         I was about to be introduced to that fellow from Pin Hook.  I

        would learn all about the life of young William Owens from two

         legendary professors who taught at that same university who took

        William Owens in when he needed it most.  Dr. James Byrd and

        Dr. Fred Tarpley would do the same for me.  Required English

        classes meant that I had to take them both, and that was one of the

        best things that ever happened to me.

              In 1966 William Owens had just published the first volume of

        his autobiography, This Stubborn Soil: A Frontier Boyhood. And

        even though Owens had experienced success with earlier books,

        Tarpley and Byrd, teaching different classes, both began with

        This Stubborn Soil: A Frontier Boyhood

              I was filled with fear during those first days.  After all, these  

         were two famous professors and I had never experienced a single

          ounce of success in any classroom.  As the days went by however,

         my anxiety drifted away carried by the words of their lectures.

        The bible calls it “The Gift of Exhortation,” and brother, both

         Tarpley and Byrd had that gift.  Their lectures seemed almost like

         some old time gospel song – so comforting to hear.  They both spun

         tales of Owen’s book – a gripping and powerful thing with not one

        vulgar word; just clean and to the bone prose about Owens, his

        mother, and brothers literally trying to claw food out of the ground

       so they could stay alive.  The lectures were an hour and a half.

       Seemed more like twenty minutes, and often when we were

       dismissed, I would walk out on legs so shaky and weak.  And

       hearing from them what Owens went through, the thought began to

       whisper in my mind, “If he can live through all that, maybe I can

       do a little better, too.”  And then in future classes, Tarpley and Byrd

      got even better.

             They told us how after Owens attended East Texas State

      Normal College, he would receive his bachelor’s and master’s from

      SMU in 1932 and 1933 respectively, and obtain his Ph.D from the

      University of Iowa in 1941. 

              In 1953, Owens wrote Slave Mutiny: The Revolt of the Schooner

      Amistad, which provided much of the material for the Steven

      Spielberg  1997 film, Amistad.  Perhaps one of his finest novels,

     Walking On Borrowed Land (1954), would tell the story of a black

      teacher hired to be a principal in the “Little Dixie Section” of

     Oklahoma.  That work would gain Owens The Texas Institute of

      Letters 1954 Prize for “Best First Novel by a Texas Writer.” In

      1973, Owens would write the second volume of his autobiography, A

     Season of Weathering, about his early years spent teaching in small

     schools in Texas, and his words about those days sound so

     surprisingly familiar to the same problems of the modern day

     teacher.  Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song (1983) would be the third

     volume in his autobiographical series describing his time in the

     thirties collecting folklore and folksongs, and teaching at Texas

     A&M University.  In the fourth and final autobiography, Eye Deep

     in Hell, (1989), Owens shares his experiences of World War II in the


            After making his way to the Ivy League university of Columbia

     in 1947, Owens would remain there teaching English and writing

     until his retirement in 1974. He died in Nyack, New York in 1990

     leaving a remarkable body of work and an indelible memory in the

     minds of those who read his words, including Dr. Fred Tarpley, Dr.

     James Byrd, and especially me.  The life of William Owens –

     folklorist, professor, storyteller, and in his early years, a most

     resilient child.

            I spoke with his nephew, Joe Owens, in a phone conversation

     recently.  I will always consider that an honor.  Joe lives in

     California now and has been most kind to our university, Texas

     A&M – Commerce, once known as East Texas State Normal College.

    The place where a young man came long ago and asked if he could go

    to school there, and even though he wore no shoes, thank God

    someone said, “Yes, you can come.”  The people at that institution

    changed his life.  While my writing will never approach the skill of

    William Owens, still I know how he felt.

    They did the same thing for me. 


                                                                       –Michael Johnson


Ed. Note – Dr. Michael Johnson is the author of eight books, and winner of two National Literary Awards.  In 2008, Michael was named a Distinguished Alum of Texas A&M University-Commerce.









































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A great story from Michael Johnson.

We love the missives of Michael Johnson, author of HEALING SHINE and THE TRIALS OF JOE BEN BLACK, CONFESSIONS OF A ROPE HORSE.  Michael is a true friend of Horse and Man.


Michael Johnson


Let me be perfectly honest here…I have no idea.  At one time, I knew all about “fixing” horses.  Then one day, I finally realized no one was telling my horses how smart I was.

No false modesty here.  I just realized what I thought I knew wasn’t real, and none of this is meant to say I know now.  But don’t give up hope just yet.  I think I’m making progress.

Just a little.  My intention is to share what caused this progress with you here, and my fondest hope is that somehow the words helps you…

     Here’s a critical problem that has much to do with our interactions with horses.  When we first encounter that creature, we always (only) ride a horse that our dads, mommas or grandads have ridden many times.  Those adults give us a few instructions and off we go.  Since that horse knows how to impel on cue, turn, neck rein, and stop because of his long prior association with humans, when we ask him to do those things for us, he does them!

After a time, we cannot help but think we are quite the little horseman – (word describes both male and female.)  Then comes the day later in our life when we get our own new and different horse.  He may be familiar with humans, or have no prior interaction at all, but either way, he is new to us and we are new to him.  And we forget our parents haven’t ridden him all those hours before.  That’s when the trouble starts. 

     If you are like me, there is no way this “trouble” could be my fault.  After all, we learned how to “ride” a horse at an early age, for goodness’ sake.  So when I would ask my friends (who had real knowledge and skill) some question about my troubled horse, first they would look away, and then rather reluctantly –as if they didn’t want to hurt my feelings – start talking to me about me!  That was just so irritating.  First of all, it was obvious this person had failed to understand my question.  I wasn’t talking about me – I was talking about the goofy horse causing all my problems!

    Then one day after my friends kept talking to me about me (making me even more irritated) I experienced what we might call a painful psychic jolt.  “Oh,” I said with sort of a sinking feeling in my stomach, “it’s not them, is it.  It’s me.”

     And my friend let out a long sigh of relief and said, “Yes.  Yes, Michael.  It’s not them.

It’s us.”

   “If you would work on your horse, you will find you will have to work on yourself.”

                                                                                                    —  Ray Hunt

As life went on, I began to notice something.  I noticed that it seems some people can reach us more than others.  Some can reach students and some can reach horses, and some have the gift with working stock dogs.  I love those people.  After being around them and watching them for an extended time, I became aware of a different trait they share…

     My wife, Sherry, has a unique way of engaging students in her college classes.  When I ask her, “How do you do that?” she responds like this…

     “Well, uh…I don’t know exactly.  I mean…well, I try something and if it doesn’t work, well…I try something else…oh, I don’t know.  She pauses searching for a way to express her thoughts and says, “I just try to do the right thing, I guess.  I mean after all, what else would work?  I have to listen to the students to see what they need from me to learn what I want them to learn.”

     When I ask my friend Kenneth – a skilled horseman – “What will we do with this horse?” he responds like this… “What will we do?  Hmmm…I don’t exactly know,” he says.  He sits there a minute thinking, then he says something like, “We have to go look at him.  See if we can see him telling us anything.”

     Then there’s Bronc, the person that Kenneth and I often go to for guidance about horses.  You ask him any question about a horse and his first response is silence.  Then after a time, he says something like, “Well, I don’t know exactly the best answer to that question.  I mean it depends on several things.  Can you tell me more about him? 

We need to learn how he sees things.”

  Notice anything just a bit odd here in those responses?  None of these people (and this is true of so many others I know) seem to “know” what to do.  When asked, “How do you do this?” all use some form of “I don’t know” or “I’m not quite sure” to respond.  It’s not that they are hiding information, but rather they have difficulty expressing their answer.  They don’t consider themselves experts and there is no vanity or ego in them.  Instead of “telling” us how to do something, instead of “knowing”…they are seekers.  

And they want us to seek along with them.

  At this point dear reader, you may well be thinking, “Michael changed the subject in this column.  He started off talking about our difficulties with the horse, and now he’s talking about “seekers.  This is confusing.”  I think it is, too.  Confusing, that is. 

But my purpose is not to split from one topic to another, but rather for one to flow into the other.  It is confusing, and the reason for that is…if we would really help our horse, at times how we do that can be quite confusing.  The path to real partnership is not what we think…because we are not aware of what we are thinking.  An example…

     Recently I’ve been riding Blue and Joe Ben Black preparing for spring and coming  ropings.  Blue has been a pleasure.  Light as a feather and responds to the slightest cue.  Joe Ben on the other hand, has been a real pain.  When I execute some turn with him, his head feels like a wheel barrow full of concrete – sooo heavy.  I felt frustration and impatience.  “What’s the matter with you?” I kept asking.  His answer was to snort, swish his tail, and shake his head as hard as he could.  This went on for several days.

(I think you can guess my “thinking” during this period.)  Then, I remembered…

     Standing in the round pen with Bronc and Blue when Blue was so young – almost 15 years ago now.  “His head is just so heavy,” I said.  “I have to pull him around with all my strength – plow him around like an old mule.  What’s the matter with him?  His head is just so heavy.”

Bronc looked away with that look on his face that says, “I have to be careful here not to embarrass Michael.”  After a bit Bronc said, “His head is not heavy, Michael…

your hands are.”

     I quit pulling on Joe Ben.  I tried to make my hands as light as I could like Bronc taught me years ago.  In two days, all the concrete came out of Joe Ben’s head.

It wasn’t Joe Ben.  It was me.

 Some will say all this is too soft.  “Don’t have time for that soft stuff.”  I think men fear this approach not quite as macho as they need it to be.  But there were two who thought this softness a better and even stronger way.  Those two are Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt.

     A number of horse trainers (both male and female) use words like “control” or “respect” frequently and see that as paramount to obtain.  Dorrance and Hunt, on the other hand, use other words like this…

Tom Dorrance – “I’ll be the lawyer for the horse and he will win 99% of the time.”

And he says this, “You have to get the horse on your side.”

And Ray Hunt says this…

   “My belief in life is that we could all get along if we tried to understand each other.  You meet a lot of people in life, but real friends are rare and precious. But every horse can be your friend if you ask this of them.  You can ask the horse to do what you want, but you have to

ASK him.  You offer it to him in a good way.  You fix it up and let him find it.  You do not make anything happen… any more than you can make a friendship happen.”

    I don’t claim to understand every word Mr. Hunt said in that piece, but I believe every word.  This crusty old tough fellow…who would guess he could say something so beautiful?

He wanted us to help the horse.  I do, too.  They give us something in return when we do that – when we help them, when we bond, when they help us do something we didn’t dream we could do.  They give us joy.

                                                                                  — Michael Johnson


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