As The Texas Observer approaches its 50th anniversary, those old enough to remember its beginnings might justifiably take a moment to, not pay tribute, but simply recall the contribution to the publication of its foremost oddball: Dan Strawn.
Dan died a few months ago, and with his death Kenedy, Texas, his birthplace and home, lost the only reason for its being marked on the map. Not that it deserved much of a mark when he was alive.
Beginning with the January 10, 1955 edition, Strawn wrote 41 pieces for the Observer, which is more than twice as many as Bill Brammer wrote and about two-thirds as many as Willie Morris wrote.
Of course, there was a slight difference in the qualities.
His first piece, appearing under the title “The Texas Mind”, was introduced by this note from Ronnie Dugger:
Dan Strawn is a farmer of sorts, a college graduate of sorts, and a writer of sorts. He has lived in Kenedy all his life. When he reports, he likes to report the truth. For this reason he may shortly be our correspondent from some other state.
Strawn opened his inaugural piece by admitting, “I had previously written an article on the psychiatric treatment of bulls by surgery, but that was unacceptable to the editor because of a lack of social orientation. I think there were some other objections, but it was not clear what they were. He substituted a series of interviews with Kenedy’s least interesting and least amusing citizens, on what they thought about Prohibition.”
Among his other essays was the description of a cattle auction, where a Brahma heifer managed to jump over an eight-foot wall and land in the lap of a woman spectator sitting in the front row. Though squashed to the concrete floor, she was uninjured; the heifer broke its leg. Another essay was about the love life of bulls.
And there was his essay about the discovery of uranium in Karnes County, with the courthouse closing down as officials and clerks bought Geiger counters and went looking for a rich strike. Their hunt was a bust, but one ingenious citizen did build a uranium sitting place. One having two bucks can come in, flop down in a chair, and let the gamma rays course through ones tootsies until one’s nose lights up like a neon tube‚ if he has a couple of hundred years to wait. Some claimed it cured their corns.
Some of his essays had to do with local politicians, such as the judge who always walked around town barefooted; and that wasn’t the only way he was weird. His career ended with three holes in his chest, all in a row, put there by a .45-caliber single-shot pistol. It was ruled a suicide, but from the evidence, Strawn had his wry doubts.
Reading his stuff today, it’s a little hard to understand what Dugger saw in it (even sometimes putting it on the front page). But one must remember that what once seemed quaint, folksy wit and wisdom can, half a century later, seem pretty stale (try reading Will Rogers).
I imagine that Dugger saw more in Strawn’s writing because he knew him personally, and well, and because he recognized Strawn as an authentic hybrid of the sort one seldom encounters: a brilliant bumpkin, a highly educated hayseed. If, as I’ve been told, Strawn earned three masters in science from the University of Texas at Austin, that would not have surprised the folks in Kenedy, who remember him as the smartest kid who ever graduated from that town’s high school.
He grew up in the Great Depression. To earn a few dollars meant riding on the back of his father’s open truck filled with crates of live chickens. By the time they reached San Antonio, he would be covered with shit. In rainy weather, the combination was even worse.
For years, his 600-acre ranch/farm was not very profitable. Then gas was discovered on it. And then he became a millionaire on the stock market. He occasionally checked in with me by phone, but nothing he said indicated riches made him happy. The only benevolence he ever mentioned was giving $50,000 bail for a Kenedy woman accused of some anti-social conduct, and sponsoring a black British woman to visit her husband in the Kenedy penitentiary.
He never married, and if the inside of his Kenedy home (which, on my one effort, he refused to allow me into) was anything like the inside of his auto, it must have been filled with old newspapers and beer cans.
Strawn had something important to do with the production of a movie titled Red Star Over Cuba, apparently an ideological thriller with a clumsily assembled cast of Austin’s wannabe actors. He knew that at the moment I was on speaking terms with a very rich guy named Lou Wolfson, who had helped finance several successful Hollywood ventures. At Strawn’s request, I had Wolfson look at Red Star Over Cuba to see if he would help in its distribution. Wolfson did look and judged it to be the worst movie I have ever seen – Strawn agreed.
When I lived in Austin, Strawn would occasionally visit, always bringing a good cigar for each of us and a bottle of cognac. He would sometimes talk about Greek history, sometimes about the Texas Rangers (he was writing their history; the manuscript was stolen), but since I could contribute to neither of those topics, mostly we sat in silence, broken only by his occasionally asking, Pretty good cognac, eh? or Pretty good cigar, eh?
Strawn considered me a friend mainly because on one occasion he came to Austin with a young dog and had no place to leave it. I kept it in the garage but I could hear it whining after dark, so I went out and slept with it. To Strawn, it was the perfect touch. His longtime best friends, as I understood the situation, were some who got together as The Horse’s Association at the Scholtz Garten. Strawn boasted that he was the permanent chairman. But long before he died, many of his old friends were dead, so he rarely visited Austin anymore. And most people who weren’t his friends considered him pretty obnoxious, which, like a good oddball, he often was.
Speaking of friendship, we come back to the reason Strawn was on hand to help at the launching of The Texas Observer. He had been Dugger’s (accidental) roommate for a while when they were at the University of Texas. And when Ronnie and Jean were married in Washington, D.C., he showed up to be a sort of best man, tuxedo and all. For quite a few years their friendship was green enough that Strawn felt perfectly at ease just popping into Dugger’s home at any hour of the night, boozy or not, and taking over the bed in the back room.
Then Dugger left Austin, and, well, things changed. When I last talked to Dan, he had a pretty low opinion of liberals. But by then he was rich.
Robert Sherrill is a former Observer editor who now divides his time between Tallahassee and Austin. He’s the author of Why They Call It Politics: A Guide to America’s Government (1999) and the remarkably prescient Gothic Politics in the Deep South: Stars of the New Confederacy (1968). He is currently working on a book on the First Amendment and the communist witch hunt.