Texas History Minute Bridges: Few knew how to tell a story like J. Frank Dobie

Ken Bridges
Dr. Ken Bridges

Great storytelling is an honored tradition across the South and the Southwest. Texas, with its long history of engaging characters and adventures, has produced many tales to tell. Perhaps one of the most respected storytellers was writer and professor J. Frank Dobie.

Born James Frank Dobie on Sept. 26, 1888, a love of literature and the open prairie was instilled in him from birth. The family lived on a modest ranch in Live Oak County in South Texas. Dobie was the oldest of six children, and he worked the ranch with his family from a young age. In the evenings, after the day’s chores had been completed, his father read to him and the other children from the family Bible while his mother read classic works of literature to them.

In order to finish high school, Dobie moved in with his grandparents in nearby Alice in 1904.  After his 1906 graduation, he enrolled at Southwestern University in Georgetown. Armed with an education, life moved quickly for Dobie.  After earning his bachelor's degree, he began writing for a number of newspapers for a year before accepting a teaching position in 1911. Two years later, he left for Columbia University in New York City to pursue a master's degree in English. He returned to Texas in 1914 and began teaching at the University of Texas.

Dobie enlisted in the army as the United States entered World War I in 1917. After serving in the artillery for two years, he returned to the university in 1919. After his military experiences, he began expressing himself more with the written word and began publishing stories and studies of aspects of folklore in 1919. He joined the Texas Folklore Society to preserve folk tales and stories of the unique culture of the Southwest, rising to secretary of the organization by 1922. 

His first major work was a short, clever booklet titled "Weather Wisdom of the Texas-Mexican Border" in 1923, noting how rain is never a subject far from the thoughts of Texas ranchers and farmers. Dobie wrote, “Everyone knows and quotes the saying, ‘Nobody but a fool or a newcomer will prophesy the weather in Texas’ – a saying vaunted before strangers but never remembered in their absence.” The tome was filled with stories of how watching different animals can foretell the weather as well as his own stories of growing up in South Texas before closing with the warning, “Be it remembered, all Texans have a saying, ‘In dry weather all signs fail.’”

Dobie also played a role in preventing longhorn cattle from disappearing. He had been part of the university for several years when students chose the longhorn as the mascot in 1917. However, longhorns had fallen out of favor with ranchers and steadily fewer were being bred. Dobie grew concerned about the deteriorating numbers of the longhorn, and he started writing about them in 1920. He persuaded several ranchers and benefactors to buy a number of longhorns to stock at state parks starting in the 1920s and 1930s. As a result, more attention began to be brought to the iconic creatures, and their reputation as a symbol of Texas and reputation as livestock steadily increased. He completed a book on the life and legends of the breed in The Longhorns in 1941.

He wrote on his most famous works, the award-winning Coronado’s Children, in 1930. The book amassed tales of treasure-hunters and lost treasures.  Ultimately, Dobie would publish more than 20 books in his lifetime, including "Tales of the Mustang" in 1936 and "The Roadrunner in Fact and Folk-lore" in 1939.

By 1939, he had a weekly newspaper column in which he not only discussed Texas culture but railed against the political injustices of the day. The state legislature became a frequent target of his barbs. He openly called for integrating the University of Texas in the early 1940s, leading him to clash with numerous state leaders. His fame grew to where he was invited to teach American History at Cambridge University during World War II. In 1944, while still overseas, he angrily protested the firing of a fellow UT professor for his liberal views, leading to his own dismissal by 1947.

Later in his life, a new generation of Texas leaders came to appreciate Dobie’s work and influence. On Sept. 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Dobie in honor of his long career. The award from a fellow Texan was a great affirmation of his writing and the controversial stands he had taken throughout his life. The ailing Dobie died four days later. A large crowd gathered for his funeral, which was held on the University of Texas campus.

Dobie was honored after his death. A number of books have been written about him. A post office in San Antonio was named for him as well as the Dobie Center at the University of Texas. Dobie High School opened in Houston in 1968. Middle schools in Cibolo and Austin as well as an elementary school in Dallas now honor the famed writer.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at drkenbridges@gmail.com.