his long life, J. Evetts Haley held down some of the best “jobs” a person can
have: Collector of historical documents for a university library, rancher, and
As a young man back in the 1920s, Haley worked for the University
of Texas in Austin. One of his duties
involved traveling the state looking for old letters, diaries, or photos in the
chest of drawers and trunks of old-time Texas families – any document or item
bearing on the history of Texas.
He found a lot of material, arguably saving for posterity a considerable
amount of the state’s history.
If you are interested in yesterday and
all the days before, it’s hard to imagine anything more exciting than getting
a lead on a son or daughter or grandson or granddaughter who has in their possession
their forebear’s papers. There’s the thrill of the chase, the excitement any collector
feels in finding something no one knew about before, and the deeper joy of realizing
that a particular document would end up somewhere safe from fire, bugs and humidity
(yes, some parts of Texas are actually humid.) Haley’s
Austin job didn’t last, but what he
first saw Haley in person in 1983 when he spoke to the Western Writers of America
annual meeting, held that year in Amarillo.
Tears came to his eyes and his voice wavered as he recalled the times he spent
early in his career interviewing pioneer Texas cattleman Charles
Goodnight, a key figure in the history of the Southwest. About a year later,
I visited Haley at the Nita Stewart Haley Library in Midland
to tape record his recollections of San
Angelo newspaper magnate Houston Harte, who had published Haley’s classic
history of old Fort Concho.
Before I could turn on the tape recorder,
Haley insisted on giving me a tour of his library. Not that he had to force me.
My mother was a retired librarian, and I practically grew up in libraries. I have
a deep appreciation for libraries, and credit them with playing a big role in
That trip to West Texas
was the beginning of a casual friendship that lasted until Haley’s death in 1995.
a collector, history buff and writer myself, I understand maybe a bit more easily
than others the mind set of someone in any of those categories. Particularly in
the case of collecting, I have been at it long enough to realize that it, like
most things in life, has a natural progression.
First comes the urge to
possess. Like all youthful passions, it is hard to satisfy. The more you get,
the more you want. But like bluebonnets or new love, it doesn’t last.
Next is the development of maturity, hopefully ever-continuing. A collector becomes
discriminating. Quality begins to trump quantity. You acquire less, either because
you already have most of the items in your particular field, or you can’t afford
the ones you don’t have.
Finally, with the slow development of wisdom
that comes with a succession of birthday cakes, you begin to understand that possession
of something doesn’t mean it will be yours forever. You begin to think about what
to do with your collection: Stipulate in your will that it goes to your estate
or a particular heir; sell it to try to recover its monetary value; or donate
it a library.
To keep your collection intact, in your name, even after
your death, is the collector’s assurance of a certain degree of immortality.
Haley, obviously, chose to convey the bulk of his collection, from unpublished
letters and manuscripts to books to historical artifacts, to the Nita Stewart Haley Library he created. (Named in honor of his first wife following her
That historical herd penned up at Haley’s West
Texas library has produced many a literary calf, from articles to books. It
has helped me and many other writers. And the gene pool hasn’t gone bad yet. More
calves will drop, as sure as spring and rain, summer and drought.
- July 7, 2011
Books by Mike Cox - Order Now|