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This Week in Texas History: ‘Old Yeller’ author could not handle success

By Gary Borders

At the peak of the “Old Yeller” craze, the Palace Theater in Dallas invited dogs and their human companions to a special showing of the film version of the best-selling book on Jan. 11, 1958.

Frederick Benjamin Gipson was born on a farm near Mason in 1908.  Life on the western edge of the Hill Country was more hardscrabble than idyllic, but to the young boy it was a rustic paradise that made a deep and lasting impression.

Gipson was in the tenth grade, when he saw his written words in print for the first time.  A short story about two lads, who tracked down a cattle rustler, was the sophomore’s modest contribution to The Branding Iron, the Mason High yearbook.  He did not consider it a particularly noteworthy achievement, but his classmates and teachers sure did. 

While the teenager enjoyed all the attention, it failed to ignite a burning desire to become a writer or even an interest in higher education.  He watched the more ambitious members of the class of 1926 go off to college but chose to stay put after a bookkeeping course in San Antonio soured him on schooling.          

After seven years of working odd outdoor jobs in the sweltering heat and freezing cold, Gipson decided to tag along when his younger brother left for the University of Texas.  In the “big” city of Austin surrounded by a sea of younger faces, he felt like a fish out of water until he found his place in the journalism department.

Gipson had his freshman English professor to thank for that.  The instructor recognized raw talent when he saw it and regularly read the older student’s essays and stories to the class.  It was at his urging that Gipson switched to journalism and joined the staff of the campus newspaper The Daily Texan.

Over the next three years, Gipson blossomed into the shining star of the UT journalism department.  He wrote a popular column “One Thing and Then Another” that ran on the editorial page of The Daily Texan, and one of his folksy fiction pieces appeared in Southwest Review, the literary quarterly published by Southern Methodist University, which rewarded him with the princely sum of ten dollars. 

If Gipson had hung around the university for another semester or two, he could have departed with diploma in hand.  But there was a job waiting for him at The Caller-Times in Corpus Christi, where the publisher happened to be a big fan.  Following a farewell dinner attended by his many friends and admirers, he left Austin for the Gulf Coast in the winter of 1937.

Instead of starting out as a cub reporter chained to a desk, Gipson roamed the countryside writing about whatever he wanted.  The dream assignment was right up his alley and within months the roving columnist had a large and enthusiastic readership.

During his travels, Gipson met a high school senior in San Angelo by the name of Tommie Wynn.  

Despite the 14-year difference in their ages, they married with the blessing of the bride’s parents in January 1940.

Gipson had no sooner combed the confetti out of his hair than he was out of work.  His benefactor at The Caller-Times had died, and the new publisher insisted the gypsy journalist punch a clock like everyone else – and for less money.  He objected to the cut in pay and was fired on the spot.

Gipson moved back to Mason with a pregnant wife and no prospects.  For as long as he could remember, he had toyed with the idea of earning a living as a freelance writer.  The time had come to make that dream a reality.

Six lean years and two children later, the struggling author published his first full-length book The Fabulous Empire: Colonel Zack Miller’s Story.  

The editor of Southwest Review had given Gipson the idea for a biography of the colorful Wild West showman and even talked Miller into letting the unknown Texan write his life story.

Sales of The Fabulous Empire were respectable, but it was Hound-Dog Man three years later that put Gipson on the literary map.  The Book-of-the-Month selection sold more than a quarter of a million copies in its first 12 months in print. 

With the wolf forever banished from his door, Gipson was free to focus on what he did best – write.  The result was five books in as many years:  The Home Place (1950), Big Bend: A Homesteader’s Story (1952), Cowhand: The Story of a Working Cowboy (1953), The Trail-Driving Rooster (1955) and Recollection Creek (1955).  

In Gipson’s eyes, the book that came out in 1956 was his best, and the public concurred.  

Old Yeller flew off bookshelves to the tune of three million copies in the celebrated creator’s lifetime, and Walt Disney paid the Hill Country storyteller a king’s ransom for the privilege of turning the sentimental saga into a big-screen classic.

Fred Gipson had only one more book left in him, the sequel to Old Yeller entitled Savage Sam also made into a Disney movie.  It was success not poverty that got the better of him, as drinking, drugs and depression ruined his career and life prior to his death in 1973 from a cerebral hemorrhage. 

 “Murder Most Texan” is a must read for fans of true crime and Texas history. Order your copy for $24.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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