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Exhibit showcases 'Mr. Texas' and his storied pursuits


Fort Worth Star Telegram (02/08/2006)

J. Frank Dobie was once known as "Mr. Texas," to historians and folklorists in this state. He wrote a legion of books about Texas, which promoted its culture, its native landscape and the stories of the people who settled here.

He was a scholar, but he never succumbed to the trappings. He once wrote: "The average Ph.D. thesis is nothing but transference of bones from one graveyard to another."

It was a stand that made him unpopular with institutions of higher learning -- especially the University of Texas at Austin -- but it kept him grounded and in touch with the stories he loved.

Those stories, many of which were turned into popular books, are on display along with other Dobie memorabilia at Texas State University's Southwestern Writers Collection in San Marcos.

The exhibit is called The Life and Times of J. Frank Dobie: Mr. Texas. It opened Feb. 1, and will run through July 31.

Dobie was born on a South Texas ranch in 1888. He lived there until he was 16, at which point he moved to Alice to finish high school. He went to Southwestern University in Georgetown, then to Columbia University for his master's. In 1914 he joined the faculty at UT.

He died in 1964 after leaving a legacy of literary achievement. His ranch, southwest of Austin, is home to the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, where writers get a six-month stay to work on their projects.

Some of Dobie's titles include: The Mustangs, Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver, A Vaquero of the Brush Country and Coronado's Children.

The Mr. Texas exhibit showcases "artifacts, photographs and manuscripts." Among the more exclusive items on display are Dobie's 1914 diary, which he kept while he was a student at Columbia, his trademark white linen suit, his desk typewriter and items that were on his bedside table at the time of his death.

Dobie was an educator, an author, a historian and most certainly a folklorist. His storytelling included not only books and magazines, but also a popular newspaper column that ran in the Star-Telegram and many other newspapers in the state. He hosted a weekly radio program and appeared on a number of television programs.

"Dobie felt that storytelling was an art," said Steve Davis, co-curator of the exhibit, "and he clearly delighted in capturing the rhythms and cadences of the spoken world."

Dobie's voice is in the exhibit. There are audio recordings of his The Ghost Bull of the Mavericks and Other Tales.

Most of the materials in the Dobie exhibit were donated by Austin filmmaker and photographer Bill Wittliff and his wife, Sally. Wittliff purchased Dobie's remaining literary papers at an estate sale in 1985 and decided to make them the cornerstone of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State in 1986.

In the years since, the collection has grown and flourished, gaining recognition as one of the nation's major repositories for regional culture.

The exhibit is important for any student of Texas history and literature. Dobie's place in those venues has never really been established. Some critics still think of Dobie's works as just good storytelling; others consider them literary treasures.

"That is still debated," Davis said of Dobie's status. "You could say that Dobie didn't write literature, but he wrote the stuff of literature. He made it possible to write about Texas because he brought it to a national audience."

As a public figure, Dobie was known for his outspoken liberal views against Texas state politics and for his long personal war against what he saw as bragging Texans. He campaigned against religious prejudice, restraints on individual liberty and discrimination against African-Americans and women.