Thursday, August 27, 2009

Remembering Elmer Kelton (1926-2009)

I first met Elmer Kelton in the spring of 1967 when my granddad took me to San Angelo to help me find a summer job before I started as a freshman journalism student at Angelo State University that fall.

Granddad took me by the offices of the Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine to see if the editor might need a staff writer. The editor was Elmer, who had been there since 1963 after leaving the San Angelo Standard-Times. As he had when he worked as agriculture editor of the Standard-Times, Elmer spent much of his time on the road in his part of the state. But on this day, he actually happened to be in the office when we dropped by.

Elmer knew my granddad and greeted me graciously when Granddad introduced us. Though understanding a young man’s need to earn some money before and during college, Elmer didn’t have any jobs to offer. Even if he had, he surely realized I was a city boy who didn’t know a rambouillet from a ram, not to mention which end of a cow gets up first.

While he could not help my career at that point, he did later on, as I’ll explain in a bit.

I ended up landing a job as a reporter with the San Angelo Standard-Times, which probably served me better than a job with the Sheep and Goat Raiser’s Association would have.

Other than buying some of his Western paperbacks at the Angelo State University bookstore, I had no other dealings with Elmer until the 1970s. By that time I was a journeyman reporter working in Austin. In addition to covering the news, I periodically reviewed Texana for then book editor Bill Warren and reviewed several of Elmer's novels.

By the early 1980s, I had written a couple of non-fiction books and qualified for membership in the Western Writers of America. At conventions in Santa Fe and Amarillo, I got to listen to Elmer talk about his craft and to visit with him and his wife Anna.

At that Amarillo convention, I taped recorded him at length about his association with Houston Harte, long-time publisher of the San Angelo newspaper and head of the Harte-Hanks newspaper chain.

In 1993, I was elected to membership in the Texas Institute of Letters, which gave me more opportunity to interact with Elmer. Not that talking with him was all that hard to do. As anyone who ever had any contact with him knows, on the affability and humbleness scales, he went off the chart.

He was always happy to sign one of his books for someone, always answered his mail (and later, email) and almost always answered his own phone with a brisk and businesslike, “Kelton.”

As for book signing, as the cliché goes, the rarest of his 60-plus books are the unsigned ones. “I’d drive across town to autograph a book for somebody,” he told me once. Actually, he’d go farther than that.

No telling how many younger writers he helped with favorable blurbs or introductions to their works. In 1997, Elmer wrote the foreword for my book “Texas Ranger Tales” and later wrote a very kind blurb about the first of my two-volume history of the Texas Rangers.

He and I were both among the featured authors at the Texas Book Festival in 1998 and participated in a panel discussion together. Our session was held in one of the hearing rooms in the underground extension of the Capitol.

As we talked, my then four-year-old daughter Hallie squirmed in the audience next to her mom. When our time was up, my wife Linda came up to join me in visiting with Elmer and Anna.

At some point, after just about everyone but us had left the room, Linda realized that Hallie was no where to be seen. Had she decided to leave the committee room and wander off into the 667,000-square foot underground area. Had someone decided she was cute and kidnapped her?

Having raised two boys and a daughter and by then grandparents as well, Elmer and Anna joined us in our search. Just as we were about to call the police, we found little Hallie hiding under a chair in the back of the room.

We all had a relieved laugh about it, and from there on out, just about every time Elmer and I talked with each other, he’d bring that incident up with a smile and ask how Hallie was doing.

The last time I saw Elmer was at the Way Out West Book Festival in Alpine in August 2008. Early on the morning after the last event, he and Anna were up early (in the fashion of most West Texans) for the drive back to San Angelo.

I had some stuff I had intended to donate to the West Texas Collection at Angelo State on my way to Alpine, but had run out of time. Talking in the parking lot of the motel where all the writers had stayed, I asked him if he would mind dropping the material by the library for me—no rush—and he was happy to oblige.

And that, to me, sums up the man. In addition to being a fine writer and gentleman (two traits not always connected), he was always happy to oblige.


Linda Cox said...

Great memories on Elmer as the man he was. And enjoyed the story about the elusive--and rascally--Hallie!
Love, Linda

old guy rambling said...

I am a Wyoming guy but anyone that writes or reads about the west loved Mr. Kelton.

Vaya con dios !

David Werst said...

Great to read your 'Elmer' stories. A lot of us out here in 'Real Texas' crossed paths with Elmer for years. He was a good 'un and will be missed. If you get back out here, stop in Sherwood sometime and visit. I've sold the newspaper and spend most of my time blogging.
David Werst

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