A remembrance of John Graves a year after his passing

By Julie Gutierrez

Texan News Service

John Graves wrote 10 books in his lifetime before he died in Glen Rose at age 92 last year on July 31 last. His books moved people, especially his most famous one, Goodbye to a River, about the Brazos River and the impact it had on his life.

Originally published in hardcover in 1960, the book remains in print and has become a Texas classic. Graves was described by many critics as one of the most important writers in Texas and the United States. In addition to writing books, he contributed articles to many magazines.

John Graves courtesy of The Wittliff Collections, Texas State University

John Graves photo courtesy of The Wittliff Collections, Texas State University

Graves was born in Fort Worth in 1920. He received his education at Rice University and at Columbia University. During World War II, he served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Following the war, he lived in Mexico, Spain, and for a short period of time served as an English professor at the University of Texas.

He was married to Jane Graves and had two daughters, Helen and Sally, and several grandchildren. He contributed articles to many different magazines.

Many people interviewed John Graves about his writings and about his life. I have the privilege of knowing someone who knew him for almost 40 years. That person is my father, Gilbert Gutierrez. His knowledge of John Graves is more of the man than of the writer. In the following interview, I asked my father about his impressions of Graves as a man, an author and, most importantly, as his friend.

How did you meet John Graves?

When I graduated from Tarleton State, I took a job teaching science in a small Texas town near Glen Rose. Each day as I drove to work, I passed a Nubian dairy farm owned by Honzie and Eulene Rogers, friends of John and Jane Graves. One day in 1974, I dropped in on the Rodgers and inquired about purchasing some milk goats from them. All of their stock was already sold for the year, but they had sold some goats to John Graves’ wife. The Rodgers took me over to John and Jane’s ranch in Glen Rose and introduced them to me. I purchased three goats from the Graves. (See the bill of sale Graves 40001.)

The milk goat that Gilbert  Gutierrez bought from Jane Graves. Photo courtesy of Gilbert Gutierrez

The milk goat that Gilbert
Gutierrez bought from Jane Graves. Photo courtesy of Gilbert Gutierrez

One of the first things John said to me was, “Gutierrez, one of your ancestors gave broom weed its scientific name. It’s named Gutierrezia dracunculoides.” John knew the scientific names of almost every wild plant and animal that lived on his ranch. His home was a simple white, framed house with a very large screened in porch at its entrance. To the right of his home, was a barn that contained his office. At the time I met him, John had around 30 or 40 Angus cattle, several milk goats, lots of Spanish goats, and bantam chickens. After talking for a while, I asked him why he had a bed on his back porch and he told me…” I love to sleep on the back porch and fall asleep to the sound of the birds, the cows, the goats and the chickens and I love to wake up to those same sounds and the beautiful sunrises.”

What is your fondest memory of Graves?

Gilbert Gutierrez holds his favorite John Graves books. Photo courtesy of Gilbert Gutierrez

Gilbert Gutierrez holds his favorite John Graves books. Photo courtesy of Gilbert Gutierrez

My fondest memory of John is that the man you first met was exactly the man he was. I rarely thought of John as Texas’ most famous author. To me, John was just a friend. He was a warm, kind man, full of wisdom. Some of my fondest memories of John are when he would drop in at the ranch with Jane and the girls to visit the goats I bought from them. Goats, to those who have never owned one, are really like the family dog. They all have very distinct personalities and you learn to love them. John loved his goats. Unfortunately, they tie you down to your farm or ranch. Luckily for me, John had to sell his milk goats and that is how I met him and his wonderful family.

How often did you write John Graves and how fast did he reply?

 As I said earlier, I met John and his family in 1974. I didn’t really begin to write him, until I moved away from the area in 1982. I moved to College Station to work on post-graduate work at Texas A&M University. It was at that point that I began to write him. I can’t tell you how many times we wrote each other, because I only saved a few of his letters. As to how fast he replied, most of the time it was several months before he had time to answer my letters. I remember one letter, which he answered a year after I wrote him. He was a very busy man but because we were friends, he always answered my letters.

In 2003, a mutual friend of ours died, and John wrote me and said…”I have reached an age when good friends drop fairly often, and there’s not much point in dwelling on such things.” When John Graves died, the world lost an iconic figure, and Texas lost one of its most famous writers. But, I lost more than an iconic figure. I lost a friend.

What did you have in common with Graves?

 We were both born in Fort Worth and we both loved the Brazos River, ranching, conservation, Texas and its past history. The part of the Brazos River that John navigated when he wrote Goodbye to a River is the same part of the river that my brother and I would camp along during the summers of my youth. For some unknown reason, I loved the peace and quiet of rural areas, and like John, they became a part of my soul. I loved where John built his home in Somervell County. The way he built his home at the foot of the hills on his ranch was so serene and beautiful. When you visited John, it was like going back to a time, which was more peaceful. The world and its pressures seemed to disappear when you spoke with John and Jane.

What is your favorite book by Graves?

 Like many other people, my favorite book by John Graves is Goodbye to a River. There are many reasons I love the book. I’ve read the book over 30 times. I know that sounds like an excessive number of times to read a book. Other than the Bible, I’ve never read a book that many times. I like the way that John describes the river and its surrounding country I love the stories he tells about the people who once lived along the river and it reminds me of my youth. A few years ago, I told John how many times I had read his book and how much I liked it and he replied, “I am delighted that my river book has meant something to you through the years. hat is what one hopes for when one writes, that the result will speak to some good people out there. Or at any rate, it’s what I hope for….” John wrote that to me in 2001, when he was 81 years of age.

Graves inscription in Gutierrez's copy of Goodbye to a River

Graves’ inscription in Gutierrez’s copy of Goodbye to a River

I always admired that he had the courage to navigate the river alone. When John traveled down the river, there were no cell phones, and he traveled the river, during a time, when it was a solitary place and prone to flooding. He could easily have drowned, become ill or broken a limb. I always thought it must have taken a brave man to travel such a long distance, without many provisions or contacts. When I was a young man, my brother and I would go down to the river, below Possum Kingdom dam. We would take a tent and provisions and spend the weekend on the river. You could leave your car near the dam, and two or three days later it was still there, unharmed. I’m not sure you could do that these days. At any rate, when I read John’s river book, those memories come back to life.

What did Graves think about technology and did he love writing all of his books?

 John wrote most of his works in the barn next to his house. His desk was positioned so that he could look out of a window at his beloved ranch. He worked on an old-fashioned typewriter, even after computers were technologically easier to use. The letters John wrote to me, even as late as 2004, were all written on a typewriter. One of his 2004 letters was corrected with white out. John was not impressed with technology. I once wrote him that I thought the cell phone and computers were two of the best and two of the worst technologies ever invented. I told him that they took away our freedom and privacy and he wrote back, “I fully share your resistance to ‘progress’ as usually defined these days, and both Jane and I are grateful to be finishing out our time in the relative isolation of these cedar hills.”

But he wasn’t always pleased with all of his books. He once told me that he was not really pleased with his book Hard Scrabble. He felt that he had been forced to finish the work too rapidly and he wasn’t really pleased with the results. I, however, loved the book. His book Hard Scrabble fully describes the joy of living on a Central Texas piece of land and I found it quite enjoyable.

One passage in the book describes one of the many things I admired about John. John was an electrician, a plumber, stonemason, farmer, rancher, botanist, historian and an outstanding writer. In his Hard Scrabble he writes, “The book is concerned with my part of the world insofar as I have a part, and I know a few things about it and into some subjects have dug deeper perhaps than most people have. In none am I truly expert…” John later told me that the book was an attempt to convey to people what a small patch of land meant to him. I believe it meant a great deal to him because it was a great part of his life. To me, living in the country is like living in a peace of heaven on earth and I think John felt the same way about his ranch, “Hard Scrabble.”

Back to your original question, did John love writing all of his books? At the age of 81, he wrote me…”I am still writing, of course: in fact am afraid to stop, since I don’t want to end up watching TV with my mouth open.” After writing Goodbye to a River, John wrote several more books. I enjoyed reading all of them and to answer your question, yes, my friend loved writing his books.”

Julie Gutierrez is a student journalist at Tarleton State University. The Texan News Service is a project of Tarleton’s Department of Communication Studies. Please visit www. texannews.net to see more stories, broadcasts and podcasts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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