Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"

Throwing My Loop…    

By:  Michael Johnson  



     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 down?”
     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 English department.”
     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. Well done.”

     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 your story.”
     “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... “day-noo-maan.'”
    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 o'clock class.”

     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 few...
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, Texas.
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 lives.

In memory of Dr. Fred Tarpley

1932 – 2014

-- Michael Johnson                      


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