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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Only one comment so far...

  1. Charles Edward Owens

    A great story of the life of “Uncle Bill”, a younger brother of my dad Monroe Owens who was 8 years old when Charley Owens, their father, was dying in one room and Bill was being born in another. He had just returned from war in the Philippine Islands, and came to visit the John Monroe Owens family in Brookston Texas in 1946. It was the end of August and I had no plans for college and he asked “Charlie, would you like to go with me to Texas A & M with me ?. I’ll be teaching English and you can go with me.” I had not dreamed of that, and although I was woefully unprepared, there was no way I could refuse that opportunity, and so two day later we took bus an train to College Station. Now at almost 94, I’m still reaping rewards of the opportunities that have been given to me. ..and I have been tutoring still.

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