The late public historian and master storyteller Lonn Taylor is the subject of this week’s History Club, Thursday, April 8th at 10 PM ET.
Recently I learned that Texas historian and marvelous storyteller Lonn Taylor passed away in June 2019 at the age of 79.
I never met Lonn in-person; he lived in Fort Davis, Texas, a 90-minute drive from the Mexico border. I lived half-a-continent away in Washington, D.C. Yet we maintained an email correspondence from 2014 to 2018 after being introduced through a mutual friend. For five years I admired and emulated his wit, charm and prose, weaving history and storytelling together as few writers could. Then I got married, bought a house, got distracted by work and life and fell out of touch. When I reached out to reconnect, his widow told me he had passed. He’d died in her arms nearly two years earlier.
I was introduced to Lonn through Richard Rabinowitz, a famous historian and museum curator that Lonn and I both knew. Richard and Lonn met in 1972, when Richard worked at Old Sturbridge Village. Richard was a faculty member; Lonn was attending a 10-day seminar. They became fast friends.
Richard was one of my mentors; I worked for him in New York, curating exhibits at New-York Historical Society. After moving to Washington, Richard continued to look out for my best interest. During a catch-up conversation one evening, he casually mentioned an email he received that was the best piece of historical writing he read each week. I asked Richard to sign me up.
Richard was right. Lonn’s weekly column, which I received from January 2014 until June 2019 was consistently the best history writing I read anywhere. Called “The Rambling Boy,” it was published each week in the Big Bend Sentinel, emailed to colleagues and friends, and read aloud on KRTS Marfa Public Radio (an NPR affiliate). It showcased the colorful lives of quixotic Texans, weaving their stories into larger narratives of the frontier and a changing United States. They were full of humor, humanity, insight and wisdom, brimming with character and characters. They included:
· Miss Ima Hogg, the Houston philanthropist who, as a young girl, drank tea with Jefferson Davis’s widow;
· William Marsh Rice, namesake of Rice University, a Texas cotton tycoon murdered in his New York apartment by his attorney and valet;
· Emily Keene, a Texas-born department store executive reputed to be the best-dressed woman in Denver;
· Charles Otis Finley, who with John Z. Means killed the only Grizzly bear ever found in Texas and donated the skull to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum; and
· Jose Policarpo Rodriguez, who in the years before the Civil War served as a hunter, scout, and guide for the U.S. Army in West Texas.
Each week was a different adventure, skillfully and superbly narrated, a perfect blend of story and sentiment, always punctuated with analysis and profundity. Each week in my inbox, Lonn reminded me why I’d wanted to become a public historian: to one day be as good a communicator as Lonn was.
Lonn’s gift for storytelling may have come from his own life story, which had its share of unlikely twists. He was a fifth-generation Texan; his folks arrived in San Augustine in 1830. His father graduated Texas A&M in 1924 and served in the field artillery, which in those days meant cannons and caissons pulled by horses. When he died in 1993 at the age of 89, he was one of the few men left who knew how to harness six horses to a 75-millimeter cannon and then climb on one of the lead horses and drive the team.
Lonn’s father studied engineering, yet despite his Texas roots Lonn was born in South Carolina, where his father was a highway engineer with the federal Bureau of Public Roads. When Lonn was seven the family moved to the Philippines where his dad worked as an advisor on highway planning to the Philippines president. Lonn sailed to Manila across the Pacific Ocean on a 27-day trip. When they lived in the Philippines, Lonn’s Dad got up at 2:00 A.M. to listen to Aggie games on the short-wave radio. Lonn once wrote a column about his father that included a black & white photograph of his father in a dapper suit standing next to a map. “Lonn, this was a great column,” I emailed him. “Your father sounds like he was a wonderful man.” “Jason, Thanks,” Lonn wrote back. “I always think of that photo as ‘My Father the Colonialist.’”
Lonn returned to Texas and graduated from Texas Christian University. His career as a public historian began with jobs at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio; the Winedale Historical Center in Round Top; the Dallas Historical Society; and the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. He worked on the U.S. bicentennial in 1976. In 1980, he was a guest curator at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Eventually, he found his way to the Smithsonian, serving as a curator at the National Museum of American History. Among his many projects was a restoration of the Old Glory Flag that inspired the Star-Spangled Banner.
Lonn retired to far west Texas in 2002 and spent the remainder of his life writing, hosting and telling stories about the world. His ten books included Texas, My Texas; Texas People, Texas Places; and Turning the Pages of Texas, a collection of 64 essays about Texas books, Texas writers, Texas book collectors, and Texas bookstores illustrated with woodcuts by Texas artist Barbara Whitehead.
By the time I met him virtually in 2014, Lonn had lived a life and career that I’d dreamed might be possible for myself. I emailed Lonn many times to tell him so. I invited him to come to Washington and re-visit the Library; he invited me and my wife to West Texas to stay in his and his wife’s guest room with parlor, bath and porch. He never made it to D.C.; we never made it to Fort Davis.
The last column I received from Lonn was on June 26, 2019. It was about Bill Whitliff, the screenwriter of Lonesome Dove who wrote everything in longhand because he never learned to use a typewriter. Six days later Lonn died at home in his wife’s arms, taking countless stories, memories and characters with him.
One day, my wife and I will make it to Fort Davis. In the meantime, what better tribute to a mentor, friend and brilliant writer than a column about a larger-than-life character from Texas whose name will no-doubt go down in the history books.
Join us in History Club this week as we read some of Lonn Taylor’s “The Rambling Boy” columns, Thursday, April 8th at 10 PM ET.