Students of Southwestern culture usually link Walter Prescott Webb with J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek into a triumvirate whose accomplishments have encouraged a sort of literary renaissance in Texas. This is one instance in which popular appraisal withstands critical analysis. Dr. Webb first rose to eminence by writing of the windmill, the barbed-wire fence, and the six-shooter as they relate to the occupation of the eternal plains where, in Coronado’s time, there was “nothing but cows and sky.” He became the country’s authority on the history of the area and one of the major analysts of the westward movement. Yet to his classes he appeared to be constantly seeking new discoveries, always implying, “There is much in our field yet unknown. Come in, and help.” He had a quality which drew young men with aspirations into his orbit. When he was director of the Texas state historical association, youthful doctoral candidates vied which each other, even in performing menial tasks, to help him. They arranged chairs in meetings rooms, took up tickets at luncheons, escorted visiting dignitaries to their hotels, and served as auctioneers at the association’s annual book sale. A witty comment or a chuckle from the bald, bespectacled professor was reward enough. For a few days each spring from 1939 through 1944, I was closely associated with Dr. Webb. He selected me to assist him in getting the newspapers of Texas to devote some space to the annual meetings of the association, held then, usually, in the Driskill hotel. At the time I was a teacher of English and, in an extra-curricular capacity, publicity director of North Texas Agricultural College. He sometimes invited me to eat with him at a place called Toonerville, where he was fond of the hamburgers, and once he took me to play poker with him and some of his croniesformer Texas Rangers and professors. Not one cent of money was involved, but never did I encounter such intense competition. I was regarded as a bumpkin indeed when I declared jacks, queens, kings, aces, and jokers wild. After this crude pronouncement, Dr. Webb appeared glum. In the evenings after the meetings there was usually good talk in our hotel rooms. In those far-off, trying times, Dr. Webb, tired from a long day of acting as host, would usually sit quietly as Frank Dobie and Evetts Haley talked of Charles Goodnight or tending cows in a blizzard. Sometimes Roy Bedichek, as well as Maury Maverick, Herbert Gambrell, Her b e r t Fletcher, and other well-known and gifted Texans called in. Duncan Robinsbn is chairman of the department of English at Arlington State College. 14 The Texas Observer Finally some of their lore rubbed off on me, and in the mood of Huck Finn I yearned to “sweat out” something on a Texas subject myself. After consultation with Bailey Carroll, Dr. Webb suggested that I write a biography of Judge R. M. Williamson, widely known in the early days of Texas as “Three-Legged Willie”a noted editor, lawyer, and judge. Generously Dr. Webb offered to ‘read my manuscript and give me his comments. It was then I learned that Dr. Webb had a keen critical faculty, as well as a droll ability to pull one’s leg. I mailed him parts of my manuscript, and he fired the pages back with terse marginal comments: “too Old, frail. Using a cane, and wearing a pinstriped suit slightly too large for him, along with a big Stetson hat. This is how I first saw Dr. Webb as he entered room 101 of Texas’ business and economics building for the first meeting of his history course based on and named for The Great Frontier. I was trying hard to be impressed, to see the greatness which I had always heard ascribed to the man, which I had felt while reading Divided We Stand, and which had prompted me to enroll in the course. But there was no aura about him, and my disappointment increased when his first lecture was almost directly quoted from his first chapter. Dr. Webb was not a man who impressed people at the first meeting; he put on no show. He was the most thoroughly honest person imaginable. He said that the members of the class had undoubtedly signed up for one of two reasons: either to catch the old man before he kicked off, or to take a crip course. Webb’s philosophy of teaching became evident as the course progressed: he was not interested in lecturing; the material was available; those who wanted to could learn a good deal; those who did not could have their easy grade. At the age of 74, when most educators, if not retired, are only repeating the knowledge they have learned over a lifetime, Dr. Webb was pioneering. There was much talk of the value of educational television, but one lecturer taping a course, and the TV set then just acting as a stand Jack Cargill, Jr., graduated from the University of Texas this year with high honors, and with special honors in history, the subject in which he undertakes graduate study at the same university this fall. flowery,” “pedestrian,” “too dull,” “what is thisa dissertation or a biography ?” On a poem quoted as Williamson had published it in the Texas Gazette, Dr. Webb wrote, “Can’t you omit some of these awful lines?” I rewrote whole chapters, eliminated adjectives, trimmed superlatives, and finally got the manuscript into what I thought was a moderate state of objectivity. I then sent the completed work to Dr. Webb, who arranged to have it printed by the historical association. When the book was issued, I was surprised to read in it a passage I had not writtenone as flowery as any he had ordered expurgated. It reads, “Suspicion of the Northern mammoth disturbed the Latins in their dreams . . . the growing strength of the Texas Colonists led Mexican officials to imagine revolutionists lurking everywhere beyond the purple sage brakes of the Nueces River.” The author was Walter Prescott Webb. in for him, was of small benefit. A TV course, under this system, was inferior to an ordinary lecture course: questioning and spontaneous give-and-take were sacrificed, and no added feature counteracted the loss. Webb envisioned a type of course that was feasible only through the medium of videotape. Through his prestige and the wealth of the Ford Foundation, the groundwork was laid for Topics in American CivilizatiOn, a course wherein top American historians from all over the country were to record a lecture or set of lectures on their specialties. The result was to be a course too broad in scope for one teacher ever to have covered, yet with a measure of depth, because each field was to be discussed by a specialist. As one of the twelve students, given permission to view the first semester’s tapings, I came to see at first hand the greatness of Webb. He demanded personal thought and personal responsibility when we answered his questions; he was unsparingly truthful in discussing his eminent colleagues with ushe even showed us a very revealing letter sent him by Samuel Eliot Morrison which showed selfishness in the character of that admittedly great historian ; he described some of the speakers’ books as frankly boring; and he generally showed us the humanity of great men, himself included. When, on the night of Friday, March 8, 1963, Webb was killed, he had not yet taped the lectures on his specialty. But his enthusiasm has inspired others, and the leadership of his project has been assumed by his colleague, Dr. Joe B. Frantz. His plans will thus be carried out, and the good that he did will not be interred with his bones. ‘Come In, and Help’ Duncan Robinson He Put On No Show Jack Cargill, Jr.
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