A great missive to ponder while moving into the freedom of the weekend.
THROWING MY LOOP…
THE BOY WITH NO SHOES
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.
A FRONTIER BOYHOOD
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
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.
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.