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Farewell to the “Rambling Boy,” Lonn Taylor

By Joe Nick Patoski, Texas Monthly

What is this word, ‘backstory’?” Lonn Taylor asked a few years back, while I was visiting his wife Dedie and him at their place in Fort Davis. The word clearly irritated him. “There’s the story, and that’s it,” he said. “‘Backstory’ is redundant.”

It’s the story behind the story, I gently argued, foolishly parrying with a serious man of letters. Lonn was unmoved, so I let it go. I shouldn’t have even tried. Lonn, who passed away late in the evening of June 26 in Fort Davis at the age of 79, knew of what he spoke. Lonn was a storyteller.

I was an avid reader of his “Rambling Boy” column in the  Big Bend Sentinel, Marfa’s weekly newspaper, and a close listener whenever I happened to tune in on Fridays to KRTS-FM, Marfa Public Radio, when he read his column on air. Somewhere along the way, we became friends.

Back in 2009, I sought him out for advice. I was applying to curate a high school football exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, and I knew Lonn had experience writing for museum exhibits. He invited my wife and me to Fort Davis. Over a weekend there, I learned what to say and not to say, how to write flat and neutral—not too wordy, leaving out opinion, getting straight to the point. We talked a lot about how to sell a museum on an exhibit, which is what I was trying to do, even though I’d never curated one. At one point, while talking about the culture of football in Texas—meaning the band, cheerleaders, mums, and the rest—he suggested that my proposal make the case that in Texas, high school football is more than just the game. I got the gig, no doubt because I had learned from the best. The 2011 exhibit was titled “Texas High School Football: More Than the Game.”

Dedie and Lonn hosted a Far West Texas literary salon in their home in the shadow of Sleeping Lion Mountain. Visiting friends and strangers alike—many of them writers—mingled with interesting locals. “Lonn and Dedie’s home is one of my favorite places. It’s like another world—walking through the double doors, the rooms full of books, each with a theme,” says Elise Pepple, general manager of Marfa Public Radio. “We were sitting on the porch, and this stranger showed up—a writer. She was visiting the area, and it turns out she had written a book about how to live a meaningful life. This is what could happen at the Taylor home. It was fable-like—a stranger walks in the door with words to say about the meaning of life. And it was fabulous. We talked about everything under the sun. Lonn and Dedie can expound on anything. That night it was monasteries in Kentucky and palm reading. This conversation was bread. I sat on that porch and was fed. This is what spending time with Lonn was like.”

Out in public, you  heard Lonn before you saw him. He possessed the Texan-most voice I ever encountered—loud, booming, and distinct. It carried a ways, but it was also softened by the kind of cultivated drawl you wish you’d grown up with. It carried an intellectual heft easily mistaken for garrulous or jolly, offering hints of having come from a cultured Texas family. The voice was often accompanied by a laugh so hearty and physical and full-bodied you couldn’t help but laugh too, even if you didn’t know what he was laughing about.

Lonn grew up in Fort Worth and the Philippines, where his highway engineer father constructed roads. He was an only child who had “a happy and secure childhood surrounded by books,” as he  told Kay Ellington of Lone Star Literary Life last year. He determined to become a writer in grade school, although he turned out to be a late bloomer.

He graduated from Texas Christian University in 1961 and started graduate work at New York University for a Ph.D. in history. But a summer trip to Austin in 1962 got his head spinning. He dropped out of school and fell in with a bohemian crowd, including his next-door neighbor, a wild folk singer from Port Arthur named Janis Joplin. “I fooled around in Austin for nearly ten years after graduating from college, writing speeches for politicians and sending articles to the  Texas Observer and the  Village Voice,” he told Ellington.

In Austin, Lonn lived in a big two-story house at Rio Grande and 28th streets when H.H. “Pancho” Howze met him in 1964. “He was a serious guy,” says Howze, now a writer for the  Fayette County News. “He didn’t smoke dope. He was living in this house full of bohemians. He was the most bohemian of them all, but he wasn’t a trendy bohemian. His intelligence was of another order. He had an incredible memory for people and dates.”

Lonn’s schooling and interest in all things Texan led to a job at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, writing exhibit proposals for the upcoming HemisFair in 1968. His big break came two years later, when he was hired as curator of the then-new Winedale Historical Center in Round Top, which is associated with the University of Texas at Austin. The project was endowed by Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg, who informed Lonn he’d write a book about Texas furniture from the nineteenth century as part of his position. Texas Furniture: The Cabinetmakers and Their Work, 1840-1880, by Lonn Taylor with David Warren, was published by University of Texas Press in 1975.

In 1977, he became curator of history at the Dallas Historical Society. He jointly directed a series of events at Fair Park’s Hall of State called the Cowboy Heritage Festival with future official Texas state historian Light Cummins, who suggested inviting El Paso artist Tom Lea to speak. “I asked if he knew how we might manage to invite Mr. Lea. Lonn simply picked up the telephone and called the famous artist at his home. Mr. Lea said he would come because Lonn had asked him. He told Lonn it was the first time he’d been back to the Hall of State since he had painted its iconic mural forty-three years earlier, in 1936,” Cummins says. “Lonn and I escorted Tom Lea during his visit to Dallas. We had a memorable day largely due to Lonn’s expansive and gracious personality.”

After two years at the Dallas Historical Society, Lonn moved on to become curator and deputy director of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe for four years. His research on the purposeful remaking of Santa Fe from a red brick commercial district to the adobe (and faux adobe) place it became ruffled more than a few feathers. As much as he and Dedie loved spending time in New Mexico in their later years, he once tried to dissuade a friend from moving there by protesting, “Why? It’s not even a real state!”

He found his place at the Smithsonian, hired as a historian at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. During this period, he met and married Dedie, and published two books, including  The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag That Inspired the National Anthem, which coincided with the restoration of the historic  Old Glory flag.

After his retirement from the Smithsonian after almost two decades, and Dedie’s retirement as a senior editor of the  Chronicle of Higher Education, the couple moved to Fort Davis in 2002, following several extended visits to Far West Texas. Lonn dove into writing books, as well as reading them, and together they explored the towns of the Trans-Pecos and Big Bend, becoming local celebrities in the process. Lonn was the history guy who knew Texas and Texans like no one else, and he and Dedie were fixtures at every literary and cultural event worth staging in the region, the laugh and the voice typically presaging their presence. His book  Marfa for the Perplexed, released last year, was the first published by Tim Johnson of the Marfa Book Company.

Lonn was part of the Hot Dog Club at the Stone Village Grocery in Fort Davis, which convened at noon on Saturdays when hot dogs were two-for-one, just as he’d been a porch sitter 45 years ago in Round Top, listening to old German farmers lapse into their native tongue while telling their own stories. “For a couple of years he was just a figment of my imagination, someone I listened to on the radio,” says David Dickson of Denison. “Meeting him at the Hot Dog Club was huge for me. I have never been one to fawn over celebrities. But meeting Lonn Taylor was as close to being starstruck as I’ve ever known.”

Cummins remembers observing Lonn’s star power at a book signing honoring Nadine Eckhart at Scholz Garten in Austin. “Walking from the side street into the backyard entrance of Scholz’s, I encountered my friend Patrick Cox standing nearby. As he and I visited, I looked across the courtyard to where a large group of people were gathered around a table. Standing around on three sides of the very crowded area, they were all looking down, engaged with the person seated there, but who was obscured from my view. After a bit, I broke off from Patrick, pointed to the knot of people at that table, and said I better go get my book signed by Nadine. ‘Wait,’ Patrick said, pointing to the back doors, ‘Nadine is signing inside. Over there is where Lonn Taylor is sitting.’ Lonn was holding court, surrounded by a cross-section of well-known political leaders, famous attorneys, and prize-winning authors, all of whom were hanging on every word he said. Only Lonn could go to a book signing and draw a bigger crowd than the author being feted.”

Lonn was always encouraging. Before my high school football exhibit at the Bullock opened, he wrote me, “I can tell you that there are few experiences more satisfying than the opening of an exhibit that one has curated. It is even better than publishing a book because you get to watch people going through the exhibit.” I know now exactly what he meant.

On my recommendation, he once spent a Sunday morning in San Antonio hearing accordionist Santiago Jimenez Jr. perform in a  carniceria and ended up breaking down the music and the scene in his “Rambling Boy” column with a keen descriptive eye before going on to explain the deep history of Texan-Mexican music to readers:

“One of the guitar players was a big, hulking man wearing charro pants with silver conchos down the side of the legs, a white shirt and a black vest, and the other was a skinny fellow with a straw cowboy hat, a sport shirt, and blue jeans. Jimenez, who is 72 years old and was named a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow in 2000 for his contributions to traditional Tex-Mex conjunto music, was wearing a blue sport shirt and a pair of khaki pants and played a button accordion for 3 hours, singing along with the music. Occasionally he would be joined in a duet by the owner of the restaurant, Luis Almanza, a gentleman a few years older than Jimenez who approached the mic with a shuffling dance step. There were some pretty tough customers in the audience, including a six foot tall woman who weighed over 300 pounds and had a glittering tiara in her hair, which was jet black down to her neck, and purple the rest of the way to her waist. She was at a table with two equally large women. Across the room was a barrel-chested man with a completely shaved head wearing a black tank top with a Mexican flag on it, black shorts and a fresh surgical dressing that covered most of his right arm. But everyone in the room was all smiles while Jimenez was playing.”

He was also the father figure of Marfa Public Radio. “He took great interest in each individual on our team,” Pepple says. “Last winter, Sally [Beauvais] and I traveled to his home in Fort Davis to record a special episode of the ‘Rambling Boy.’ Before Sally could interview Lonn, he turned to her and in his characteristic drawl said, ‘Now Sally, tell me about you.’”

His last book , Turning the Pages of Texas, from TCU Press, was his guide to Texas books and writers, as told by the “Rambling Boy.” One of his last columns eulogized  Bill Wittliff, whom he described as “one of the most talented and creative people I’ve ever known.” It wasn’t just the novels, movies, photography, and  Lonesome Dove. Lonn  praised Wittliff as the only person he knew who’d graduated from the University of Texas School of Journalism without taking a typing course, observing that whenever Wittliff entered the journalism department building, he wore his arm in a sling.

That’s what I used to call a backstory, until Lonn Taylor corrected me.

It’s a story—no prefix required. Lonn had a bunch of stories and told them better than anyone.

Thankfully, more than a few remain in his ten books. As for that voice and that sonorous laugh, I recorded it and can play it back anytime I need. Plus, Marfa Public Radio has his  “Rambling Boy” segments archived. Still, I keep thinking about the note my wife Kris and I left for Lonn and Dedie when visited Fort Davis in February, even though they were in Fort Worth at the Texas Philosophical Society annual meeting: “We had a great time staying at your place, but it’s not the same without you.”

Marfa Public Radio is making an audio memorial to celebrate Taylor. If you have a memory you'd like to share, you can stop by the station, or leave a voicemail at 432-242-1896. If you call, please tell us your name, where you're calling from and how you knew him.