After publishing one of the last interviews given by Elmer Kelton in the Dec/Jan 2009 issue of American Cowboy, I realized that Kelton’s former hometown of Crane, Texas, which is my hometown as well, had yet to truly honor the man whom the Western Writers of America branded the “All-Time Best Western Author.” With this in mind, I approached the Crane Historical Society and Elmer Kelton. I proposed the idea for creating a large billboard sign to educate travelers heading south on Highway 385 that Crane does indeed have a famous son—the best in his field, as a matter of fact!
The Crane Historical Society loved the idea, and Kelton, humble as always, accepted the proposal, but with a couple of conditions: “Whatever you do with the sign, please make sure you put a cowboy hat on me to cover up this bald head,” he said. “Secondly, I would like ya’ll to put on there that I was a student of Paul Patterson, because I never would have become a writer if not for that man!”
In American Cowboy, I explored the relationship between Kelton and Patterson; the kinship the two shared as student and mentor. At the time of the interview, Patterson had just passed away and Kelton had a lot to say regarding his mentor’s death. My questions to Kelton aimed at helping me understand the unique relationship that the two men shared, and Kelton choked up several times throughout the course of the interview. Little did I know then that the man grieving the loss of his friend would himself be gone in just a few short months.
After the idea was approved, the Crane Historical Society contacted Ray Ifera of Ray’s Signs, in Crane, about creating the large billboard sign. Ifera quickly began work on the project, creating, in the end, a beautiful piece of artwork that dresses up the cleared desert background near the Crane County Airport. When I last spoke with Kelton, I informed him the project was in gear and would be completed in short time.
As much of the news comes one’s way nowadays, I found out about Kelton’s death through a text message stating “I just thought you should know: Elmer died this morning.” The message was from my uncle, a commissioner in Crane who knew the Kelton family. I had heard about Kelton’s health issues from his own lips recently, and just like that he was gone. I was instantly blue in spirit; my feelings of his death mirroring, in a way, those Kelton had felt when Patterson passed. In many ways, I consider Kelton to have been my own writing mentor. And while we did not have the opportunity to grow our friendship more over time, I feel that in the time I knew him, we managed to share a great deal.
Although Kelton did not survive to see the project reach completion, I sent him an email with photos of the sign and its beautiful artwork before it went up, and he promised to attend any ceremony in the future, if he felt up to traveling. He said he wasn’t “feeling great these days.” I could hear in his voice a weakness that was nearly absent in the prior conversations we had shared. He died on Aug. 22, 2009, at the age of 83. The song “Happy Trails” was played at his funeral.
Kelton was a self-deprecating man, the type any person would be glad to know. He expressed a deep, humble thanks when he saw the photos of the sign. The world is a smaller place without him, and I regret that he didn’t get to see the finished project. But, much like the great storytellers of old, Kelton will be remembered for all of the wonderful characters he created and developed within the pages of contemporary western literature. He was a great man, and people build monuments to great men. Perhaps a highway sign is a fitting memorial, and it’s certainly a great way for the people of Crane to reach out and honor one of their best and brightest brothers, but people will surely remember Kelton not for a billboard but for the body of work that he left behind. His words are his legacy.
Crane, Texas, is a small town with a population of approximately 3,000 people. Crane is indeed the place where Kelton did a large part of his study of the rugged west-Texas land and its people.
The people of Crane, as well as the rugged land of the town itself, did indeed provide some of the loveable personalities and scenic backdrops to the locales and characters that populate many of Kelton’s novels.
In fact, when Kelton came to Crane in the late nineties to sign copies of “The Good Old Boys,” he wrote in each book autographed to a Crane citizen: “To one of the real good old boys.” In truth, Paul Patterson and the people of Crane played a sizeable role in the formation of Kelton as a writer and person.
So, if you’re ever traveling Crane way, make sure and take a look at the road-side memorial dedicated to one of western literature’s greatest icons. And do take a moment to say “howdy” to the good folks of Crane!