In more than 30 years of community journalism, it was my privilege to meet some pretty cool people.
Sometimes when I do a school program, the kids will ask me, “Who was the most famous person you ever interviewed?” I did get to talk to a few famous people (Ray Charles, George W. Bush, Rick Perry, Trevor Brazile, etc.) but the most interesting people I interviewed were not famous. They were just regular people with amazing stories, fascinating points of view, experiences that left the rest of us shaking our heads in slack-jawed awe.
I have a big, framed photo of one of them — an old gentleman in khaki pants and shirt, sitting in a beat-up kitchen chair leaning against the paint-peeling wall of an old house, eating beans and barbecue out of a tin plate. His hat, which looks like it has worn out 12 cowboys, is tilted back on his head as he sops up sauce with a piece of bread. People think he must be my grandfather.
He’s not, although there’s an uncanny resemblance. His name was Ellison Tom and he was a rancher in Andrews County, where I spent some of the most eventful years of my early career. The picture was part of a story and photo essay I did on The Roundup. Mr. Tom had surface rights to 100 sections or so of that part of West Texas, and twice a year he and a bunch of neighbors and friends would round up the cattle on horseback, because that was the only way to do it.
My wife’s landladies when she had been single were sisters, retired school cafeteria workers. They would fix lunch for the cowboys during The Roundup and drive it 20 miles out into the country, in a Ford Pinto wagon, so the guys didn’t have to come in. One day I went with them, did my story and took that photo.
A friend encouraged me to frame the picture and enter it in the Andrews County Art Show. I did, and it won — not just first place in its category, but Best of Show. I think it won because people around there had so much love and respect for Mr. Tom, and the photo just captured him.
I remember his words, too, although it wasn’t easy getting him to talk when the competition was a plate full of barbecue. He said I shouldn’t be overly impressed by the 100 sections (that’s roughly 64,000 acres) that he ranched. “You can put more cows on 100 acres in East Texas than I can put on 100 sections out here,” he laughed.
But I also remember him telling me he wasn’t really a rancher. “I’m a grass farmer,” he said. He said when he drove around his place in his old pickup, he always carried a little hand spade and a full water can. When he spotted a clump of coastal Bermuda grass, he’d pull over, get out, walk over to it and get down on his knees. He’d gently pull the runners outward, cover them with dirt and water the whole thing down with the water from the can.
That mental picture — an old rancher carefully nurturing clumps of grass on 64,000 acres of shinoak that gets 10 inches of rain or less a year — stuck in my head. In fact, it became my definition of optimism, hopefulness and persistence. Some people, no doubt, laughed — but he was deadly serious. What seemed like a waste of time to many people made perfect sense to him.
My wife was carrying our first child when I did that story, and although he never knew it, Mr. Tom’s example impacted the life of that little girl and those who came after her. If he could take that much time to encourage grass to grow, imagine the time and effort I should be able to expend to nurture my kids. I decided being a dad was probably a lot like being a grass farmer.
No matter how long my day had been, how trying, how filled with conflict and deadlines and mind-numbing repetition — I tried not to let anything prevent me from getting down on the floor with them, wrestling, tickling, reading, singing and laughing. What was more important? As I remembered from my own dad, those times were like drops of water on a child’s thirsty soul.
It’s easy to look out over the vast world of school and media and friends, think of all the things that influence your children every day, and downplay the role you play as a mom or dad. Don’t do it. Instead, take that few minutes when you first get home, that lazy Saturday, that ice-bound evening you’re stuck in the house, and use that time to nurture and encourage your kids. It’s worth the effort.
Then just imagine those brave clumps of green grass growing and thriving, spreading waving in the breeze, as far as the eye can see, brushing the bellies of the horses as the cowboys ride.