Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Tribute to Elmer Kelton

Elmer Kelton, a giant in Texas literature and a truly decent human being and a good friend, has died at age 83.

He died peacefully in his sleep early Saturday morning, Aug. 22, 2009. He had struggled with health problems all summer.

Elmer had won so many awards he hardly had room for them in his spacious home office in San Angelo. Yet, it wasn’t the awards that drew people to him and his books. It was his writing, his humility, and his graciousness.

I got to know Elmer in December 2002. I was driving to work one morning at McWhiney Foundation Press at McMurry University, and the thought popped into my head: “I wonder if Elmer Kelton has written a Christmas book.” I Googled “Elmer Kelton, Christmas” and two stories popped up. I looked them up in the McMurry library, and of course they were excellent stories – one about Christmas at the ranch as a young boy and one about Christmas before going off to fight in World War II.

So, I took the next step. I called Elmer, who didn’t know me from Adam. It would be the beginning of a deep friendship.

I introduced myself and told him we were interested in publishing a book of his Christmas stories.

“I’ve only written two Christmas stories,” Elmer replied.

“Well, that’s all I had been able to find. If you could write one more, I think we could make a small book out of them.”

I suggested that the third story might be the Christmas he took his beloved Ann back to her home country of Austria. He had referred to that in another piece.

A few days later he wrote the third story and we had a small book, just 64 pages but with a gorgeous cover painting by H. C. Zachry and a foreword by the Texas poet laureate, Walt McDonald.

Christmas at the Ranch sold well the next Christmas, 2003, and Elmer and Ann and my wife Carol and I became friends. Ann smiled and told me it was the first book of Elmer’s she had read.

The next year Carol and I opened a Texas book and gift store – Texas Star Trading Company – in downtown Abilene. Of course, one of the first book signings we had was with Elmer Kelton. We had many more over the years, and we became good friends with Elmer and Ann. Ann baked a special Austrian dessert for us the past two Christmases.

One thing we quickly noticed at these book signings was how reverently his readers felt about him. A common occurrence: An older man and woman would get in line to have a book signed. When they would get to the front, the man would hand Elmer the book to sign and his wife would ask if they could have their picture taken together. The man would stand by Elmer and the wife would snap their picture. It was like the couple had finally had a chance to meet their hero – not a sports star or an astronaut or a politician, but a writer. A writer who touched something in their common experience.

Elmer would stay as long as people wanted him to sign books. We usually scheduled his signings from 1-3 p.m. on Saturdays, but rarely did he finish before 3:30 or 4. One reason his signings ran long was because so many people would want to tell him that his book, The Time It Never Rained, must have been written about their father or uncle or grandfather.

I heard Elmer say on several occasions that The Time It Never Rained was his favorite of all the books he wrote. And it was the favorite of most of his fans as well. Several years ago I included it in my list of “10 Great Books for Your Texas Library.” You can see the full list at

A funny story: The first Saturday of December in 2007 Elmer and Ann were at Texas Star for a book signing. It was a huge day. People not only bought his books but other things in the store as well. By mid-afternoon, it was clear that this would be the biggest sales day in the history of our store, eclipsing the sales record set by the iconoclastic Kinky Friedman, who had run for governor on the ticket, “Why the hell not?”

“Elmer,” I said, “you have just set a record for sales in our store, even more than Kinky Friedman. Maybe you ought to consider running for governor.”

Elmer immediately deadpanned, “Why the hell not?” and everyone broke up.

Elmer’s writing, his wonderful stories, will live on for years to come. But, oh, how we will miss his wry wit, his smile, his humility, his character, his great spirit. He was truly one of a kind, a Sandhills boy from West Texas who touched many, many lives.