J. Frank Dobie

September 26 (1888) is the birthday of J. Frank Dobie. He was an historian (really a folklorist), a newspaper columnist, a writer, and the author of many books focusing on the American Southwest, especially West Texas. His particular passion was keeping alive the legend and reality of a passing era. 

James Frank Dobie was born on a ranch in Live Oak Country, TX. His father read to him from the Bible, but his mother frequently read stories to him from classical works like “Ivanhoe”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”, and “Swiss Family Robinson”. At 16 he moved to Alice, TX to live with his grandparents and finish high school. He graduated from Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX in 1910. There he discovered English poetry, and a professor recognized and encouraged his writing talent. 

At the university Dobie also met his future wife, Bertha. They were married in 1916. She lived to survive him. 

After graduating from the university he worked for several newspapers in Texas, studied for and was awarded a master’s of arts degree at Columbia University in New York, taught at the University of Texas in Austin briefly, and joined the Army during WWI. He served for two years. He was discharged in 1919. That same year he started publishing articles. 

He started writing articles about longhorn cattle and the American Southwest. He left teaching to manage the cattle ranch owned by his uncle, Jim Dobie, north of Laredo. That solidified his desire to write about life in West Texas, the Southwest, and the folklore and creatures of the area. It became his life-long passion. 

He spent only a year on the ranch and then returned to the University of Texas. In 1922 he became secretary of the Texas Folklore Society, and he held the position of secretary–editor of the society for 21 years. In 1923 he moved to Oklahoma A&M University as chair of the English department, but he was back in Austin at the university in 1925 with a promotion. 

He published his first book, “A Vaquero of the Brush Country”, in 1929, but that book was mostly written by someone else, John Young. Eventually the book carried the names of both authors. But the book also established Dobie as a prominent voice on Texas culture. 

In 1930 he published “Coronado’s Children”, a folklore collection. The 1930s saw seven more books. And in 1941 he published “The Longhorns”. That book is considered a classic about the longhorn cattle industry in Texas in the 19th century. 

He was promoted to full professor at the University of Texas in 1933, even though he did not have a PhD. He took a leave of absence during WWII to teach at Cambridge, England. And he continued in Europe for a while after that. It was his time in England that led him to develop his liberal attitudes toward civilization and complete individuality.  

But his ardent and vocal liberal views did not sit well with the administration of the University of Texas, and he was dismissed from the faculty in 1947. A “Dobie rule” was established, limiting leaves of absence to no more than two years. Dobie devoted himself to his writing. 

But Dobie’s reputation just continued to grow as his publishing record grew. On September 14, 1964 President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas politician, awarded Dobie the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil award. Dobie died just four days later on September 18, 1964. His funeral was held in the Hogg Auditorium on the campus of the University of Texas. And he was buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. His place in Texas history and esteem was secure. 

A postal station is named after Dobie in San Antonio. There are several schools named after him, and the Dobie Center is a residence hall for the University of Texas in Austin. 

I own four of Dobie’s books: “The Longhorns”, “The Voice of the Coyote”, “The Mustangs”, and “Rattlesnakes” (published posthumously in 1965). I enjoyed reading all four of them very much. 

I have always liked this endorsement of Dobie’s books by Martin Shockley, Professor of English at North Texas State U and former president of The Texas Folklore Society, given at an annual meeting of the society in Austin, March 31, 1961: “A Texan not by birth but by choice, I came to Texas with about average ignorance and prejudice. I had always considered the coyote a pesky varmint, a cunning chicken thief, a sneaky villain best seen over the sights of a 30-30; then I read a book by Frank Dobie and learned that the coyote is a noble creature with a proud and independent spirit and a fierce love of freedom. I had always considered the longhorn a stupid cow critter, all bone, gristle, and stringy meat, mean, vicious, and hard to handle; then I read a book by Frank Dobie and learned that the longhorn is a noble creature with a proud and independent spirit and a fierce love of freedom. I had always considered the mustang the sorriest specimen of horseflesh, hammer-headed, wall-eyed, ewe-necked, sway-backed, broom-tailed, ornery and dangerous; then I read a book by Frank Dobie and learned that the mustang is a noble creature with a proud and independent spirit and a fierce love of freedom. Now they tell me Frank is writing about RATTLESNAKES, and I anticipate an agonizing reappraisal.” 

That tells you how good his stories and his writing were. Try some of his books. They make great reading.