Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"

Throwing My Loop…    

By:  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 ddn't get to attend every year. My father died when I was very young you see, 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 College?"
     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.
     Willam 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. 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.
     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 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 PhD 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 Philippines.
     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. 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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