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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

A Lion and a Boy

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The 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.

A Lion and a Boy
Photo courtesy Mike Cox

I was that boy.

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.

In 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.

As 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 Isabel?”

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 Isabel.

Blondie never caused any problems for Hipp, but another of his pets sure did.

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 rodeo.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October 7, 2010 column

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