I was touched with a sense of both sadness and regret when I read that Elmer Kelton had died at his home in San Angelo.
Kelton was kind to me when I functioned as a kid reporter on the San Angelo Standard-Times back in the early-1960s, and I was saddened that he had departed this earth at the age of 83 from what his wife Anna described as “multiple causes.”
My big regret is that I didn’t get to know Kelton better, for he was to become the greatest western novelist of all time, and a Texas legend-in-the-making who will surely grow in death to be bigger than the “Staked Plain” and “Spindletop” combined.
Elmer’s great novel Buffalo Wagons was in the book stores, and he was functioning as agriculture and livestock editor for the San Angelo newspaper when I arrived at the Standard-Times, green as a Kimble County gourd and dumber than an oyster in matters of import which didn’t interest me at the time.
A bunch of drunks
More than half of the newspaper’s editorial staff members were drunks, and I was to happily join their number, drinking beer in the Red Rooster Inn and playing cards until past daylight in first one apartment complex and then another before moving to San Antonio and the Express and News.
But during those two years that I wrote for the West Texas newspaper, I was intrigued by Kelton and drawn to this quiet, humble, and non-assuming wordsmith who was to pen more than 60 novels over a career which saw him transcend the genre. While the Western Writers of America Association was to proclaim Kelton “the greatest western writer of all time,” novels like The Good Ole Boys and The Time It Never Rained were to propel Elmer into a broader literary landscape with other such Texas authors as Larry McMurtry.
I never knew a person who didn’t like Elmer Kelton. And from all I have read and heard, his humility and concern for his fellow man prevailed until his death.
When asked out for a beer or a card game, he politely declined. When asked about his singleness of purpose as a western writer, Kelton once told me that he spent three or four hours a night working on his books. A graduate pf the University of Texas, Elmer had studied under J. Frank Dobie, and his background included a childhood growing up on the McElroy Ranch near Crane, Texas where his father, Buck Kelton, was a foreman.
Always wore a hat
I never saw Elmer Kelton when he wasn’t wearing either a straw hat or a silver belly felt.
After his stint as agriculture editor for the San Angelo daily, Kelton became editor of the Sheep and Goat Raisers Magazine, and later went on to become associate editor of Livestock Weekly in San Angelo where he worked until his retirement in 1991.
I have read just about every novel that Kelton ever wrote, and I can testify that there isn’t a more accurate and true to his subject matter author than Elmer. He is a student of western and West Texas history in particular, and every Kelton novel is a history lesson in itself.
Kelton was also a church-going Christian who chose to reach rather than preach, and I can recall the blush on his cheeks as a state editor by the name of Kelly Crozier good naturedly chided him about his description of a big-tittied saloon girl in one of his earlier westerns.
Elmer had described her as having “more than adequate upper mammary facilities.”
While Kelton didn’t put many rough swear words in the mouths of his hard scrabble West Texas cowboys, his writing has always been as believable and historically perfect as mesquite bushes and salt pork floating in a camp pot of pinto beans.
Kelton was believable
Elmer was always believable. And his honesty could never be questioned.
Three of Kelton’s novels have appeared in Readers’s Digest condensed books. Four books have won the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City–The Time It Never Rained, The Good Old Boys, and The Man Who Rode Midnight. Seven Kelton books have won the Spur Award from Western Writers of America for best novels of the year–Buffalo Wagons, The Day The Cowboys Quit, The Time It Never Rained, Eyes of the Hawk, Slaughter, The Far Canyon, and The Way of the Coyote.
Kelton has received the awards and honorary doctorate degrees from MIdwestern and Texas Tech universities. He was given a lifetime achievement award by the National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock. The Texas Legislature proclaimed an Elmer Kelton Day in April of 1997.
Since 1996, Kelton has been an honorary member of the German Association for the study of the Western, headquartered in Münster, Germany. This organization presents the Elmer Kelton Award for Literary Merit.
McMurtry Center award
In 1990, Elmer received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western Literature Association. In 1998, Kelton received the first Lone Star award for lifetime achievement from the Larry McMurtry Center for Arts and Humanities at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls.
The novelist served two years in the U.S. Army–1944-46, including combat infantry service in Europe, He and his wife Anna, a native of Austria, were married for more than 50 years.
Kelton was called to speak at literary events or to aspiring writers all over the country, and his book The Good Old Boys was made into a TNT cable network movie. Tommy Lee Jones produced the film and also appeared as the starring actor.
Strange as it may seem, Elmer Kelton carried through with almost his entire career as a novelist in what he considered his spare time.
When I?first asked him about the book writing business, he said anyone entering the trade should hold on to whatever regular job he might have. And he was still saying as much when he retired after 22 years with the Livestock Weekly.
I believe Elmer Kelton left this world a bit better than how he found it. I wish I had known him better.