Thursday, August 27, 2009

Burying Elmer Kelton: West Texas Treasure

The funeral for Elmer Kelton will be held today. He was a Charter Member of the San Angelo Writers' Club. A small group met yesterday evening at Johnson's Funeral home. Rev. Travis Monday and Rev. Monte Jones prayed, as the group held hands. Ross McSwain noted the powerful role Kelton played in his life, part father, part brother.

The SAWC is collecting memories of Elmer. Judie Oberheuser will compile them in our upcoming newsletter. My contribution is below:

As VP-Programs I nervously called Mr. Kelton about doing a program for the club. Elmer said “I’ve been meaning to speak to that group for a while." By the time I hung up, the call seemed like his idea. He graciously treated us to a preview of Sandhills Boy. Elmer Kelton, such a fine gentleman and talented writer.

Dr. Preston Darby had this to say about his friend and former patient:

“There’s no one I’d rather talk about than Elmer Kelton,” said a smiling Preston Darby. “He epitomized niceness.” Dr. Darby should know. Mr. Kelton was his teacher and patient.

Pres Darby became the student in 1997, taking Elmer Kelton’s course at Angelo State University. His classmates included Ross McSwain, Kevin Barry, and Fazlur Rahman. Pres admits he might have been the least experienced writer in the room. Yet, his awful short story produced his most prized possession. Darby said, “I got back a one page critique signed by the greatest Western writer of all time. Who has that? He said it was bad, but Elmer was so gracious in his criticism.”

Mr. Kelton was careful to read aloud student’s work without attributing the author. He read Darby’s subsequent short story to the class. Elmer stated, “The only suggestion I have is this be submitted for immediate publication.” Dr. Darby said he was sure his head swelled, so much so, that it filled the room.

The good friends loved to tell stories that involved each other. Dr. Darby recalled the day Elmer came to his office, looking ashen. An EKG showed Kelton having a heart attack. A call to the ICU revealed no available beds. Pres finagled one. He didn’t want to be the physician responsible for losing West Texas’ treasure. “Otherwise, I’d have to move to the moon, so many people would’ve been after me,” quipped Darby.

Pres said Elmer frequently returned the favor. Kelton told of readying to go home from a hospital stay, when Dr. Darby showed up with several books to autograph for his daughter. After the author signed, Pres said, “Thank you, Elmer, now I’ll take my foot off your oxygen hose.” If Elmer Kelton felt any pressure, the public had few signs.

Dr. Darby fondly recalled his last visit from Mr. Kelton, New Year’s Day 2009. Pres said, “Who visits on New Year’s Day? Most people are hung over. Not Elmer. He took time to spend with me. It helped my spirits. His visit gave me a burst of stubbornness to hang on for a while.”

When asked what they talked about, Pres noted books, travels, & family. “I told him I knew he had more books in him. It was a delightful visit. Elmer could talk to a stick and enjoy making it feel welcome. He typified the word ‘gentleman.’ Elmer’s the best person I’ve known. We’re losing civil discourse as a society. I can’t think of a better role model.”

Darby shared a few writing tips that Kelton offered:

1. If you ever write a book and have a character you don’t know what to do with, kill him.
2. On writing dialects: It’s like seasoning on a stew. A little improves it. Too much ruins the whole batch.
3. On using harsh language: It’s your character speaking, not you. If he’s despicable, he’d speak despicably. Once again, don’t overdo it. A little goes a long way.
4. Never write a book you don’t want your grandchildren reading.

Dr. Darby said Elmer’s class was the best class he’s taken, adding “it surely was the most enjoyable.” He summed up his relationship with Mr. Kelton. “Millions have known him by his stories, writings and presentations, I’ve known him as a professor, as my patient and my friend. Elmer’s gone. He was the Pope of niceness. We lost a lot.”

Mr. Kelton is surely smiling from heaven, as it rained the day of his interment.

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