black-and-white photograph shows a chubby little boy wearing a “Leave
it to Beaver”-style baseball cap reposing on an un-carpeted floor
with an African lion’s front leg draped cozily over his shoulder.
The lion’s wearing a cap, too.
From nose to tail, the female lion is longer than the boy is tall.
Though the lion was perfectly capable of sudden instinct-driven violence,
the eight-year-old snuggled next to the seemingly docile animal looks
quite at ease. But that’s only because he didn’t know any better.
The lion’s grownup owner had assured the kid and his grandfather that
the big cat was tame as could be and back in 1957 youngsters grew
up believing they could always trust an adult.
| I was that
My grandfather L.A. Wilke, then editor of the Texas Game and Fish
Magazine (now the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine) took that picture
of me with the lion, a somewhat worn snapshot-sized print I still
have. Granddad was in Port
Isabel to cover the Texas International Fishing Tournament and
had taken me along.
Until recently, about all I could tell anyone about that old photograph
was that it had been taken by my granddad at the Rio Grande Valley’s
venerable Yatch Club Hotel the summer before I started fourth grade.
More than 50 years later, with a nod to the late radio commentator
Paul Harvey, I learned the rest of the story.
Graham doing research
for a book on cowboy stuntman Dean Smith, who grew up in the area,
I got invited to supper at a ranch in Young County owned by Anita
Evans. Her grandfather, Charles Edward Hipp, had been in the oil business.
Texas has had no shortage of colorful
oilmen, and Hipp, though lesser known than many of his wheeler-dealer
contempories, rises near the top of the oil drum.
Born in the backwoods of Arkansas in 1904, Hipp had to grow up in
a hurry. His mother did not survive his birth and four years later,
his father died. The child’s grandparents took him in and later he
lived with family friends, but at 12 Hipp ran away to join a circus.
With only six years of schooling, the youngster got a secondary education
in the real world while working under and around the big top. And
early on he developed an affinity for the exotic animals that helped
draw the crowds.
The nation’s exploding energy industry lured Hipp from the circus
world to another kind of carnival, the oil patch. Hipp worked on cable
drilling rigs for a time in Oklahoma before marrying and coming to
Texas in 1934. Considered one of the
best cable tool drillers in the business, four years later he began
an oil well service company in Graham.
Hipp made good money in the oil business, but he was a born showman.
A good trick rider, in the early 1950s he started putting on rodeos
in Graham and elsewhere
in West Texas. Before long his rodeo traveled the national circuit,
even performing in Madison Square Garden.
we talked about Hipp, his other granddaughter, Cynthia Morrison, handed
me a 1955 copy of Life Magazine that contained a spread on her dad
and the family pet, a lion named Blondie. The headline on the piece
pretty much said it all: “Living Room Lion – Blondie, A Docile 200-Pound
Texan, Becomes A Member of the Family.”
Hipp bought the lion from the Dallas
zoo in 1953 when she was a 12-week-old cub. By the time the Life article
appeared, Blondie was a familiar sight in Graham.
She travelled in their station wagon, boated with the Hipp’s on Possum
Kingdom Lake and even shared their bathtub.
Looking over the article, I told Hipps’ daughters about my encounter
with a tamed lion when I was a kid. Then it struck me.
“I wonder if your dad ever took Blondie down to Port
Neither granddaughter knew for sure, but both said he certainly might
have. After all, Hipp had hauled Blondie to New York City to be on
the Garry Moore Show. He took the lion a lot of other places as well.
Back in Austin, I did some online research and soon found the answer
to my question.
On July 25, 1957, an Associated Press story said that Hipp and fellow
oilman F.J. Reed of Graham
intended to enter five-year-old Blondie the lion in the TIFT’s children’s
competition. Whether Hipp succeeded in getting Blondie registered
in the fishing tournament wasn’t reported, but a follow-up story said
he definitely took her to Port
Blondie never caused any problems for Hipp, but another of his pets
A leopard named Randy mauled his then two-and-a-half-year-old grandson
Charles “Bubba” Hipp at his grandfather’s house in Graham
in 1962. The boy recovered, but still bears the scars of the attack.
Devastated, the oilman sold off Randy and most of his other animals,
but he just couldn’t get rid of Blondie. She died of old age in 1968,
a beloved member of the family. The man who had raised her and made
her famous lived until 1984, only four years after he staged his last
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October
7, 2010 column