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Collecting a culture

San Antonio Express-News  (07/14/2002)

By Elda Silva

Among those in the know, the story of how the Southwestern Writers Collection came to be at Southwest Texas State University is referred to only half-jokingly as “the creation myth.”

Austin-based screenwriter Bill Wittliff began the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State University. The Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography followed 10 years later.

It began when Bill Wittliff, the Austin-based screenwriter who struck Hollywood gold with 1989’s “Lonesome Dove,” received a call from J. Frank Dobie’s former secretary. She was planning to sell what remained of the author’s estate and was wondering if Wittliff would like to buy Dobie’s desk. As Wittliff was writing a check for the desk, he noticed some 30 boxes stacked in a corner.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Well, that’s what’s left of Dobie’s writing archives,” Wittliff recalls the estate sale agent responded.

Wittliff stuck his fingers in a couple of the boxes and discovered a diary from Dobie’s days at Columbia University, manuscripts and letters. He called his wife, Sally, then wrote another check.

In the weeks and months that followed, the boxes that Wittliff hauled to his office in the back of a pickup gave up an assortment of treasures, including some of Dobie’s favorite books and his white suit.

There was so much stuff that Sally and I talked and said, “This is a great hub for a Southwestern writer’s collection. It ought to be available publicly,” Wittliff says.

The Wittliffs’ search for a place to house the collection led them to SWT, where the Southwestern Writers Collection was established in 1986. The Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography followed 10 years later.

In the years since, the two collections have proven to be a powerful catalyst at SWT. The writers collection in particular spurred the creation of the Center for the Study of the Southwest in 1989, which in turn led to the university’s selection by the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a Southwest Regional Humanities Center.

When Wittliff first approached SWT about the writers collection, the Albert B. Alkek Library was still in the planning stages.

“It was on the drawing board, which was very fortuitous,” says Connie Todd, curator of the writers collection and the photography collection. “(Wittliff) said, ‘If you’ll give me a curator and a place to put these things in the library, I’ll be your acquisitions person. I’ll get material for the collection and help pay for purchases.’ And that’s how it started.”

Wittliff helped design the space for the collections, a warm setting with incandescent lighting, stucco walls, longleaf pine doors, and Saltillo tile accented here and there with chicken and dog tracks.

Todd, a woman with a sparkling laugh to match her eyes and gray hair she wears pulled up into a soft puff, worked as Wittliff’s personal assistant before taking the position at SWT. The two talk daily. Wittliff remains very involved in the collections, she says. He has joint approval on photographic acquisitions with Todd.

“It’s not really quite as dictatorial as all that sounds,” says Wittliff, whose most recent credits include the screenplay for “A Perfect Storm.” “Connie and I make the decisions — and Sally.”

The Wittliff Gallery has between 7,000 and 8,000 photographs. It’s not a huge collection, Todd says, but the gallery roster sounds like a who’s who in Southwestern and Mexican photography: Russell Lee, Keith Carter, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide, Mariana Yampolsky.

The gallery also owns classic images by Edward Curtis and Ansel Adams that Wittliff traded for with his own popular photographs from the set of “Lonesome Dove.” But Todd and Wittliff point out they also make it a point to collect the work of promising photographers.

“There are a number of them that we’re collecting that may not endure as photographers or artists,” Wittliff says. “But we have made a decision early on that we would also collect young photographers that might have it because there’s nothing that inspires the young like their work being purchased and shown in public galleries.”

Likewise, the writers collection is intended to inspire.

“I know had I walked into a place like that when I was 16 or 17 and seen manuscripts from Texas writers I was reading with all the scratch marks and cigarette burns and coffee stains, I would have realized an awful lot of this deal is just work and enduring,” Wittliff says. “And I would have thought then, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ But that’s not what I thought. I thought every book and every piece of writing was something that poured from God to the writer’s fingers.”

The writers collection includes archives in the areas of literature, drama, film, television and music. All but a few of the materials have been donated. Many of the donations are the result of Wittliff’s personal friendships with writers such as Edwin “Bud” Shrake, John Graves and Sam Shepherd.

“People don’t know of Sam’s Texas connections as a youth, but his father worked at one of the Air Force bases in San Antonio and they lived in Seguin,” Wittliff says.

The two became friends when they worked together on the films “Raggedy Man” and “Country.”

“So when I started this, I talked to Sam and told him about it,” Wittliff says. “He showed up one day at the front door in a pickup full of boxes. They’re only two other collections in the world that have original Sam Shepherd material and that’s Boston University and the University of Virginia.”

When Wittliff wants something for the collection, he asks — which is how a pair of Willie Nelson’s New Balance jogging shoes ended up there.

“Our idea, too, is that these people are presented like human beings, not as stick figures,” Wittliff says. “So a lot of stuff that’s in there and that we show is ordinary human stuff, like Willie’s tennis shoes.”

Much of that “ordinary human stuff” is kept in a climate-controlled room adjacent to the gallery space where exhibits are mounted. A saddle used in Wittliff’s TV series “Ned Blessing: The Story of His Life and Times” sits on a cart, waiting to be stored.

“We have various boots and saddles scattered throughout the collection,” Todd says. “You just never know when you’re going to turn something over and there’ll be a boot.”

The cowboy hats worn by Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall in “Lonesome Dove” sit side by side in neatly labeled archival boxes on one shelf. Todd recently showed the hat Jones wore as Call to a “distinguished visitor” she declines to identify and “it was like the grail,” she chuckles.

“That’s one of the reasons, frankly, why we collect iconography,” she says. “There’s something powerful about objects that people have touched and used, and they’re great for exhibits.”

The true Holy Grail in the collection, however, is probably the 1555 edition of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s “La relación y comentarios” purchased from a rare-book dealer in Austin with help from donors.

The small, leather-bound volume stored in a fireproof cabinet still bears the book stamp of a previous owner.

“People come in to see it just out of curiosity,” says archivist Mandy York. “But they have also used this volume for research.”

It is a point of pride with Todd that half of the writers collection’s archives have been processed and are ready for researchers to utilize.

“When you look at recordings or books or films, you really just see the tip of the iceberg,” says Steven Davis, assistant curator of the writers collection. “Like with the ‘Lonesome Dove’ collection we have, you see everything that goes into it and that’s what’s interesting for researchers, to track down the artistic process and see how it unfolds.”

“The whole thing about artistic creation that ends with a product like a photograph or a television series or a book is really the art of omission,” Todd adds. “Most everything has to be left out. But we have all that stuff ... so the process is revealed in its entirety.”

When Jerome Supple assumed the presidency of SWT in 1989, one of his first initiatives was the creation of the Center for the Study of the Southwest.

“It’s one of those things that sometimes people from the outside see things you have in different ways,” says Supple, who retires in August. “I came down here from upstate New York in 1989, and I had never been in Texas and I was just overwhelmed by the power of the culture here. It’s just different from what you see in other parts of the country. I thought a lot of people here might take it for granted, so I started talking about setting up the Center for the Study of the Southwest just to formalize in an academic way the study of the literature and the music and the culture and the politics and the geography, everything that contributes to this part of the world.”

The existence of the writers collection “played a huge role” in his decision, Supple says.

“I’m convinced that helped me believe that not only was this something important to do, but this was something that was important and possible to do at Southwest Texas.”

The center was established in 1990. Supple called in William Ferris, who recently stepped down as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, as a consultant.

“With the idea that his program was so highly regarded, I thought we could develop a program here that was widely regarded in regional study,” Supple says.

Mark Busby serves as director of the center, which just successfully completed a $1.35 million fund-raising effort to qualify for a $450,000 matching grant from the NEH to create an endowment.

When Busby came on board, he created a minor in Southwest studies and started two publications, the twice-yearly “Southwestern American Literature” and the quarterly “Texas Books in Review.”

The center “then led us to becoming the Southwest Regional Humanities Center,” says Busby, looking bookish but laid-back in a black vest over a short-sleeved white shirt, round glasses, sandy hair and a salt-and-pepper beard.

SWT was selected in December over Arizona State University for the designation after a three-year competition, a feather in the cap of the university, now one of nine regional centers in the country. The regional centers are charged with coordinating research and programming in their five-state areas.

“Most universities have as a goal to try to achieve some sort of national recognition whether it’s through their football team or their basketball team or some different programs,” Busby says. “... We’re one of the top 10 regional humanities programs based on this competition. And for a smaller school like Southwest Texas, that’s an important moment in the history of the university.”

Busby credits the Southwestern Writers Collection, the Wittliff Gallery, the Center for the History of Texas Music as well as the university’s Center for Nature and Heritage Tourism and Center for Archaeological Studies as factors in the selection.

“It’s all the result of the strong emphasis we’ve placed on regional studies beginning with the (writers) collection and the (Center for the Study of the Southwest),” Busby says.

Ferris created the regional center initiative during his tenure at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Americans have not taken their own culture seriously,” says Ferris in a telephone interview from his home in Washington, D.C. “They tend to look at Europe as a place where real culture exists and overlook places like the Southwest and this is really not a smart way to run a cultural agenda for a nation like America. So many of our great writers and our wonderful music have come out of the Southwest and we need to understand ... all the rich range of experience that region has produced. This is something that a regional center is ideally equipped to do.”

Originally, each regional center was to receive $5 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities that SWT would match with $15 million from private sources to create a $20 million endowment. When Ferris stepped down, new NEH chairman Bruce Cole substantially scaled back funding to the regional centers.

Now, the Southwest Regional Humanities Center is looking at building a much more modest $1.5 million endowment, Busby says.

Ferris says he still has hopes the regional center will get its due.

“I think if Congress supports anything, they should support these regional centers,” he says. Because what they are about is preserving and celebrating the culture they’re in Washington to represent, and you have some very important political leadership from that part of Texas. We’ve got a Texan in the White House. It seems to me, this is a no-brainer.

“It’s a very modest program in terms of cost and the value that you receive if only looking at the challenge grant.” Ferris adds. “Every federal dollar is going to be matched with three private dollars and the work they will do is going to transform the future generations and how they understand their history and culture.”