Friday, August 28, 2009

Eulogy for Elmer Kelton

The following eulogy was delivered at the funeral of Elmer Kelton Thursday afternoon by the Rev. Ricky Burk, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church.

In his autobiography, “Sandhills Boy,” Elmer says he discovered America on April 29, 1926, at Horse Camp on the Five Wells Ranch a few miles east of Andrews, Texas. His mother often told him that it was a wet, stormy day and the first few weeks were equally stormy for Elmer and his parents. Elmer was born prematurely, and his mother kept him in a shoebox and often in the oven in order to keep him warm and help him survive those first perilous weeks.

Although he grew up on a ranch, Elmer and horses never connected. He said it might have begun before he was even able to walk. His father was working half-broken horses and his mom was sitting on the fence holding him and watching her husband. Dad decided it was time for Elmer to have his first ride, so he placed Elmer in front of him in the saddle. The bronc immediately began to pitch while Dad held on to the reigns with one hand and Elmer with the other. He calmly worked the bucking bronc around to where mom was seated on the fence and handed off Elmer like a quarterback handing off a football. Elmer said that from that day forward his relationship with horses went downhill.

The family showed me a picture of the last time Elmer was ever on a horse. He was in the Big Bend area and posed on a big, beautiful palomino for a picture. You can tell by looking at both Elmer and the horse that neither was sure what would happen next. Elmer never mounted a horse again and, years later, when plans were made for the library statue now in progress, he made the artist promise to place him next to a fence, not on a horse!

Growing up in the midst of cowboys and horses, it was always his dream to be a cowboy like his Dad. But, in addition to his lack of confidence in riding, he was seriously nearsighted. It often caused him to mess up the cattle drive by getting lost or turned around. But soon Elmer made two great discoveries: glasses and books. He was a voracious reader, immersing himself in any available print.

He missed most of fifth grade due to a mild form of tuberculosis. Forced to stay in bed most of the time, he read, wrote, and did imaginary radio broadcasts. He even made his own movies by drawing pictures on long strips of paper, then pulling them through slots in a large piece of cardboard, one at a time. From behind the cardboard he would voice the dialogue. His God-given gift was beginning to surface.

As he faced graduation from high school he began to work up the nerve to break the news to his father about his intended career. Elmer finally told him that he wanted to go to the University of Texas, study journalism and become a writer. His dad, a hard-core rancher to the bone, didn’t take it well. Elmer said, “He gave me a look that would kill Johnson grass and said, ‘That’s the problem with you kids these days, you all want to make a living without working for it.’” Elmer was never certain what his father thought about his career.

Soon the drums of war began to beat in Europe and Elmer decided to do his part and enlist in the Navy. They turned him down due to flat feet. That was no problem for the Army and when he turned 18 they accepted him. His basic training was at Fort Bliss, near El Paso. He graduated around Christmas time and was given holiday leave to a base near Gainesville, Texas. It was there he began to attend a Methodist Church. He was given a New Testament which he carried overseas and always kept in his pocket. Shortly before he shipped out he attended a service which concluded with the hymn “Just as I Am.” He said the words burned into his memory and brought him comfort during the many difficult times ahead.

Once as I visited Elmer in the nursing home I felt the need as his pastor to ask about his relationship with God. Had he made peace with God? Did he have the assurance of his salvation? Although he was lying flat on his back, he propped himself up on both elbows, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Oh yes, Preacher. I took care of that a long time ago.” I’ve always wondered if that commitment was made at that Methodist church service as he listened to the words of “Just as I Am.”

During the war Elmer was dispatched to the little Austrian town of Ebensee. There he would meet the love of his life, his wife for 62 years, Anni Lipp. In “Sandhills Boy” he says, “the course of one’s life may hinge on a chance moment, an unanticipated coincidence. It was by pure chance that I happened to be at Ebensee’s boat landing the evening of Oct. 14, 1945, and met Anni Lipp. She had a little boy named Gerhard, then four-going-on-five and without a father. By the time the relationship became serious I was deeply attached to him.” Anni would always lovingly say that Elmer was a like a stray pet: “I fed a soldier apple strudel and he kept coming back.”

But soon the war was over and Elmer was sent back stateside. He promised that he would return for Anni and Gerhard. Every day, for more than a year, he wrote her a letter. Anni said that she could read very little English but it didn’t matter because each letter meant that he would keep his promise and return for them.

Elmer finally fought his way through the red tape of government bureaucracy and brought Anni and little Gerhard home to Texas. They were married in his grandmother’s house in Midland. There was no honeymoon, only work to be done. About a week after her arrival, Elmer took Anni to Pecos to introduce her to the thrill of a rodeo. It was hot, dusty, windy, and a far cry from the beauty of Austria. She’s never been to a Pecos rodeo since.

Little Gerhard adjusted quickly. He picked up English easily from the cowboys. The only problem was that most of them were four-letter words he couldn’t repeat! The cowboys decided that Gerhard was too foreign-sounding, so they began calling him Gary for short, and Gary it still is.

Elmer, Anni and Gary soon moved to San Angelo, and he began working for the San Angelo Standard-Times. That was his day job. At night he would work on his writings, slowly enjoying success. He would eventually write over 60 books (two will come out in the near future) including “The Time It Never Rained,” “The Good Old Boys,” which Tommy Lee Jones turned into a movie, “The Wolf and the Buffalo,” “The Day the Cowboys Quit,” “The Man Who Rode Midnight” and many others I’m sure you would call your favorites.

Through the characters of his writings Elmer taught us a lot about life. His books were about basic human nature, the struggles we all face. In “Sandhills Boy” he wrote “I try to avoid superheroes, for I have never known any. The people I have known have for the most part have been common folks struggling to get along, meeting life’s obstacles with the best that is in them, or in some cases giving up and going down in defeat. Not all stories have a happy ending. Life is not that kind to us.”

In “The Time It Never Rained” he wrote, concerning his characters, “They are not the traditional Western fictional heroes, standing up to a villain for one splendid moment of glory. They are quiet but determined men and women who stand their ground year after year in a fight they can never fully win, against an unforgiving enemy they know will return to challenge them again and again so long as they live. They are the true heroes.”

In “The Good Old Boys” he writes about Hewey Calloway (his favorite character), stating “Hewey, like all of us, faces the necessity of painful choices, knowing that every choice will bring sacrifices. He knows, as we all know, that we cannot have everything we want in this life. To fulfill a wish we often must give up something of equal or nearly equal value. He cannot have it all; nobody can. In this respect, Hewey Calloway is all of us.”

To read Elmer Kelton is to understand the world itself. He recognized the human dilemma as few of us do and articulated its reality with such clarity that anyone could learn from him. He was one of life’s greatest teachers.

Elmer was named the greatest western writer of all time by the Western Writers of America. Seven times he was awarded the Spur Award for the best novel of the year. He received four Western Heritage Wrangler awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, and countless awards and recognitions too numerous to list.

Yet, Elmer always said his proudest moment was when he broke the story about Billie Sol Estes to the national press in the early ’60s. The Estes scandal shook the Pecos area like an earthquake, triggering a rash of bankruptcies, at least a couple of violent deaths, the derailing of political careers and a prison sentence for Estes.

At one point it was rumored that Estes had fled the country. Estes’ attorney wanted to put that rumor to rest and decided to choose two journalists — out of hundreds — to accompany him to his hotel room where Estes was staying. One of the chosen was Elmer Kelton. Elmer wrote repeated articles about the Estes scandal and always felt it was then that he did his best work because both sides were mad at him!

As it has already been stated, history will record that Elmer didn’t write westerns — he wrote western literature. When you opened a Kelton novel you knew it would be clean enough for any member of the family to read, always historically accurate, and inspirational. He was loved by his readers; a gentle, unassuming, humble man always willing to talk to anyone, sign a stack of books, or offer advice to want-to-be writers.

And, I believe that history will also record that even though he was a great writer, he was even greater in character. To rub shoulders with Elmer Kelton made you want to be a better person and leave this world better than you found it. I will never cease to be amazed how he could achieve such fame, popularity, and, no doubt, the wealth that came with it, yet never let it change him. In a world where success is harder to handle than failure, Elmer remained untouched.

Elmer Kelton. Today we say goodbye to one of the giants in literature. He has changed our lives and made our world better. Although he has left us, we are left with the treasures of his writings.