Dr. Fred Tarpley
passed away on March 1st,
2014. When asked to provide some remarks at his memorial
service, like all those whose lives he touched, he has been
the dominant thought in my mind for days. What a brilliant
splash of color he was on our lives.
No...what a brilliant splash of color he is –
and always will be - on our lives.
Ever wonder what life would have been like had Dr.
Tarpley gone into a different occupation other than being a
professor and a writer? I've been thinking about that and I
have decided regardless of profession, Dr. Tarply would have
been much the same. How about psychotherapy, for example?
If Fred Tarpley had chosen to be a therapist, can't you
just see him in his Dallas high-rise office (beautifully
decorated, of course) listening to some patient lying on the
couch? This person would be sharing all their struggles,
anger, trials overcome, and angst, and suddenly, Dr. Fred
would lean forward and say, “Say, that is a fascinating
story you have there! Did you ever consider writing that
And the patient would say, “What? Me, a writer?”
“Absolutely!” Dr. Tarpley would say. “Why, if we
carved, and polished and sanded that story of yours, your
words might just help someone through a trial more difficult
than the cross you had to bear.” And the patient would feel
self-esteem rising, become involved in positive work, and
suffering would be diminished. All the things good
therapists do – and those are the very things Dr. Fred
Tarpley did for us. He made us feel like we had value and
worth – that our story was important, too. Most people are
only interested in their story. Dr. Tarpley was
interested in our story.
Fred Tarpley always reminded me of the great horseman –
most all of whom wear spurs. The true horseman never uses
spurs to cause pain. Since he/she knows the horse can feel a
fly on their back there is no need to jab, but to use only a
feather-light touch to guide and direct. But the horse
always knows his rider is, in fact, wearing spurs. And Dr.
Tarpley would remind you on occasion he was wearing them,
too. Like this...
Jim Ainsworth arranged for Dr. Tarpley to edit one of
my books about an emotionally disturbed horse. When I
presented the manuscript to Dr. Tarpley, he asked, “Well,
what do you think?”
“I don't know,” I answered. “I don't know if this is
something profound about the horse...or just a bunch of
horse manure. I'm lost.”
Dr. Tarpley replied, “Well, I'll read it, and then we
won't be lost.”
Several days later, he called and said, “Okay, I've
read your manuscript.”
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Lot of work,” he answered.
“Yes,” I said. “I did a lot of work.”
“No,” he said. “I mean 'remaining!'”
And I felt the light touch of his spur.
A short time later, he brought several people
to my farm in Oklahoma. Of course, he had the entire day
choreographed – as Dr. Tarpley was prone to do. He
instructed me to have Shine – the horse in the book –
saddled and ready to go.
“Our guests will stand here in the arena,” he said, as
we were about to begin. “You are on Shine between us,
Michael, and I will be off to the side. Please begin the
maneuver on Shine when I give you your cue.” We began, and
in a short time, I felt the thing called awe.
On that brilliantly sunny afternoon as I rode Shine
through his paces, I listened as this man narrated huge
portions of the words I had written verbatim. He never
missed a beat. On and on he went. You would have sworn he
was reading, but he wasn't. He was reciting whole paragraphs
from memory, and at last, I stopped...
“Dr. Tarpley, how on earth can you dictate whole
passages from a book you have read one time, that
is 350 pages long?”
Dr. Tarpley stared at me for a moment and said,
“Actually your book is only 333 pages. Please continue the
maneuver on Shine as I'm not quite finished.”
For a man of such intellect, he never lost
patience with the rest of us mortals. Sherry and I took him
to dinner one evening. Our waitress was young woman named
“Bubbles,” and she was majoring in Agriculture. (Does it get
any better than that?) I said, “Bubbles, this is Dr. Fred
Tarpley. He's a Professor Emeritus at A&M Commerce in the
Bubbles said, “Boy, I wish I'da knowed dat – but now, I
done done all my English.”
Dr. Tarpley said, “I am so proud of you, Miss Bubbles.
I received a letter from him once suggesting
that I “...strengthen my denouement.”
I called him immediately and said, “I'm going to get on
that right away.”
“Good,” he said. “I think you will agree it improves
“One other question before I let you go?” I said.
“Sure,” he said.
“What exactly is a 'dee – NOO – ment.' ”
He chuckled a bit and said, “It's at the end of a play,
drama, or novel – it's an explanation of what happened. It's
how we make everything clear to the audience or the reader.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “I know what a 'dee-NOO-ment' is.”
“I'm sure the pronunciation you are using is quite
common in Oklahoma,” he said.
“But let's use the French version, if you would...
What a guy.
He had a gift, you know. Fred Tarpley could
make us feel like he preferred to be talking and working
with us above all things. The reason that behavior generated
such loyalty and affection from all of us was because...
he really did prefer talking and working with us above all
things! I always said about Dr. Tarpley, “If Christ came
to take us all home, Dr. Tarpley would run out there to
greet all the angels and say, “I'm so glad to be going to
glory...and I'll be back as soon as I get out of my three
He included us. He included us in his world.
He considered us his “friends.” When you think about that,
that is a remarkable privilege because this man had a set of
friends we can only describe as “extraordinary.” Here are a
Horton Foote – who wrote the screen play for To Kill a
Mocking Bird, and so many more.
William Humphrey – from Clarksville, Texas and the author of
Home From the Hills.
William Owens – from Pin Hook, Texas and the author of
This Stubborn Soil, the subject of a six-hour interview
by Bill Moyers on PBS, and long-time professor at Columbia.
James Michener – when Michener wrote Texas, he insisted that
only Fred Tarpley squire him around the city of Jefferson,
Elmer Kelton – seven-time Spur Award recipient. Voted “Best
Western Writer of All Time” – by his peers in the Western
Writers of America Association. On each of the many
occasions Elmer Kelton came to speak at Texas A&M
University-Commerce, he always requested that Dr. Fred
Tarpley be his contact.
And so many more. And this man cared about each of
those friends with great fondness – and we all know he cared
about us just the same - if not just a bit more.
When I was a young man, I lost my father.
That loss caused me to fall in a dark spiral – a pit so deep
I had real trouble climbing out for the longest time. So
many years later when I lost my mother, I handled that loss
much better. During the passage of all the years between
those two deaths, I learned something – I came to know (my
internal 'knower' knows) I will see them again. There is no
need to be permanently sad because we will see them again.
And Dr. Tarpley will be there...
and won't that be a fine fine day.
What a brilliant
splash of color he was on our lives.
No. What a brilliant
splash of color he is - and always will be – on our
In memory of Dr. Fred Tarpley
1932 – 2014
-- Michael Johnson