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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

What Stanley Walker Saw

by Clay Coppedge
Stanley Walker, the legendary journalist and editor from Lampasas, was a man ahead of his time. Though he lived and worked in a time far removed from ours, his perceptions and comments hold merit more than 40 years after his death.

Walker made a nationally recognized name for himself in New York but his roots were firmly set in Lampasas. He grew up on a ranch north of the city and attended the Unity Community Country school where part of his responsibilities included taking care of his blind grandfather.

Anita Walker Howard, Walker's niece, shared her memories of Walker at a January meeting in Lampasas dedicated to the man and his work. She said the seed of her uncle's lifelong interest in journalism was planted by Walker's grandfather, who sent the young Walker out to take a walk and report back on what he had seen.

Once, when the grandfather asked Walker what he had seen and the boy replied "I didn't see nothin,'" his grandfather replied that the boy must have seen something - birds, a new calf, trees - a lot of things. He told Walker, "Don't ever come back here and tell me you saw nothing."

Walker never did, and even took to embellishing some of what he saw just to satisfy his grandfather. As an editor at the New York Herald Tribune, he often asked his reporters what they had seen, much as his grandfather did. As far as anyone knows, none of them ever told him they hadn't seen anything.

By the end of World War II and following the death of his first wife, Walker decided he had seen enough of New York. He returned to Lampasas County, where he lived the rest of his life with his second wife, Ruth Alden Howell. Ms. Howard said the Walkers lived a life of "genteel poverty" at the ranch.

Writer Jay Dunston Milner met Walker in Lampasas in the 1950s and remained friends with him until Walker's death. Milner wrote about Walker in his 1998 book "Confessions of A Mad Dog: A Romp Through the High-flying Texas Music and Literary Era of the Fifties to the Seventies." He described Walker as "a slightly built man with a hawk nose and a pipe forever in his teeth."

"The Walkers appeared to live a somewhat Spartan life there, but they ate like discriminating millionaires," Milner wrote. "They grew most of their own vegetables and drank good wine with their meals. It was a good life, and greatly simplified and lacking little they regarded as important.

"Many Americans say they long for the simple life the Walkers achieved, but very few vigorously go after it."

When Walker first wrote Milner with directions to the ranch, he thought it fair to give his visitor an idea of what he might expect when he got there.

"We have some fruit flies. Also house flies, horn flies, screw worm flies, bottle flies, horse flies and so on. At the moment we seem to have aphids in rather alarming numbers. We have hummingbirds, great horned owls, rattlesnakes and many other wonderful things."

Walker first left Lampasas to attend college at the University of Texas, and then as a reporter for the Austin American and Dallas Morning News. He went to work for the New York Herald (later the Herald Tribune) in 1920 and was appointed city editor of the paper in 1928. He wrote at length about the newspaper business in his 1934 book "City Editor," a book that is still required reading in some journalism schools.

After his return to Texas, Walker wrote often about his home state. He was in Lampasas County during the drought of the 1950s and wrote about it for the New Yorker, where he was briefly a staff writer. "Every afternoon it clouds and begins not to rain. It's like a tea-totaler who goes to a party and begins not to drink."

Two of his books, "Home to Texas" in 1956 and "Texas" in 1962, were about his home state.

Walker was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 1962. He met with some old friends at the Driskill Hotel and told them he was dying. He wrote cryptically to Milner that he had "demons in the vortex" and urged Milner to hurry for a planned visit.

Walker committed suicide at his ranch on Nov. 25, 1962, leaving behind a legacy that is recognized with the Stanley Walker Memorial Award for literary excellence in Texas daily and weekly newspapers and an award by the same name by the School of Journalism at the University of Texas for excellence in reporting.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"

February 15 , 2007 Column

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