Being my day to read to fourth graders, I walked into Mrs. Stehling’s classroom looking for a copy of “Old Yeller.” She handed me a well-worn and appropriately dog-eared hardback from the shelf behind her desk.
This was no ordinary copy of an American classic. It was signed by the author. Twenty-five years later, I still remember holding that treasure in my hand and thinking this was as close as I would ever get to Fred Gipson, the writer and one of my heroes.
Gipson’s parents, Beck and Emma Gipson, came to Mason County from deep East Texas in a horse-drawn wagon. Before leaving the Piney Woods, Beck Gipson carefully packed an alligator egg in a wooden chest. The egg hatched not long after the family reached the Llano River — what must have been the first and maybe the only alligator hatched in Mason County.
Fred Gipson was born in Mason County in 1908. He didn’t care for school, but like his father, he had an uncommon curiosity about the natural world. He liked to fish and hunt with his dogs. He heard old-timers tell stories about Mason County and developed a remarkable understanding of the Hill Country and its people.
Gipson graduated from Mason High School in 1926. He studied journalism at the University of Texas but left after three years to work as a newspaperman.
Then in the 1940s, Fred Gipson took a giant leap of faith. He quit his regular job, and the regular paycheck that went with it, to write magazine articles and fiction.
He made $150 his first year as a freelancer.
“If I knew then what I know now,” he told a friend, “I would not have had the nerve to have tried writing.”
But daring and persistence paid off. Beginning in 1946, Fred Gipson published a string of successful books, including “Fabulous Empire,” “Hound Dog Man,” “The Home Place,” “Cowhand,” “The Trail Driving Rooster,” “Recollection Creek,” “Big Bend,” “Old Yeller” and “Savage Sam.”
Gipson wrote a gentler style of fiction than most modern-day Texas novelists. Walter Prescott Webb compared Gipson to Mark Twain. Both men wrote stories with universal appeal.
J. Frank Dobie doubted Gipson’s talent, but Dobie came around.
Gipson wrote “Old Yeller,” his masterpiece, in three months. The coming-of-age story of a young man, an old yeller dog and little Arliss swimming naked in the drinkin’ water was an instant best-seller.
For years “Old Yeller” sold more copies than any book written by a Texan. It is a rare and authentic story that continues to entertain and touch hearts over half a century after Gipson wrote it.
Four of Gipson’s books became movies. The movie “Old Yeller,” produced by Walt Disney and starring Dorothy McGuire, Fess Parker and Tommy Kirk, premiered in San Angelo in 1957. The story takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride.
“We blubbered through the whole dang thing,” said Kerrville cartoonist Ace Reid after seeing the movie. “Six people drowned in the first three rows.”
But literary and financial success did not bring happiness to Fred Gipson. His life wasn’t easy. With each new book, he worried he might never be published again. His son died tragically.
He turned to Scotch to comfort a broken heart. He was always ornery and opinionated, but when he drank whiskey he was really hard to get along with.
His first wife left him. His friends and neighbors shunned him. Alcoholism, depression and lack of confidence haunted him the rest of his life.
It is sad and ironic that this man who brought so much joy and meaning to my life spent his last years bitter and alone.
He died Aug. 14, 1973 at his Recollection Creek Ranch on the Llano River. He is buried on a hillside in the State Cemetery in Austin next to his friend, Walter Prescott Webb.
I still remember the thrill of holding that autographed copy of Old Yeller.
But the real treasures Fred Gipson left us are his timeless stories of West Texas. They are hilarious, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful.
Michael Barr is a retired teacher and principal, living in Fredericksburg where he spends time writing books, columns and magazine articles. Contact him at email@example.com.