Sam Malone Sparked Fascination With Texas History

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Recently, my Beautiful Mystery Companion asked about the time period when Texas was an independent nation – 1836 to 1845. I started spouting off key dates from memory:

  • February 23, 1836: The siege of the Alamo begins.
  • March 2, 1836: Texas declares independence from Mexico
  • April 21, 1836: Texas defeats Mexican forces and captures Gen. Santa Anna in the Battle of San Jacinto.

And so forth. My BMC asked, “How do you know all these dates without looking them up?” I shrugged. Beats me; I just do. There are far more useful mental skills worth possessing that I lack, too many to enumerate here.

My fascination with Texas history got a late start. Since we moved to Longview from New Hampshire just before eighth grade, I missed out on the required seventh-grade Texas history class, which no doubt was taught by a coach. It apparently was a state requirement a half-century ago that all public-school history courses be taught by coaches, who would rather be on the sidelines with a whistle in their mouths, barking commands at players.

After graduation and a year taking night classes at Kilgore College, I enrolled at Stephen F. Austin State University, named for a famous Texian, of course. I majored in history, English and philosophy. This explains why I worked for newspapers for four decades, since I lacked the qualifications to work anywhere else. At SFA, I took history courses in all matter of topics, except Texas history.

My fascination with Texas history was kindled in San Augustine, where I headed after graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin to run The Rambler, a country weekly founded by a cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking old-time newspaperman named Sam Malone. He sold the paper a year before I arrived, and eventually I became the owner-publisher. Sam maintained a print shop in the same building.

He was an autodidact of Texas history and reprinted books and pamphlets that were in the public domain – arcane Texana, for the most part.

It made sense that Sam loved Texas history. He was born on March 2, 1920 – not only Texas Independence Day but the birthday of his namesake, the larger-than-life Sam Houston. While running The Rambler, I leased the local cable-access channel. Rambler Channel 2 was born, arguably the worst television station in broadcast history. Sam already broadcast a daily radio news show, so we simply propped a video camera in the corner and put his show on cable. We also rebroadcast San Augustine football and basketball games. I shot commercials, doing the audio as I handheld the camera. It’s surprising the local bank was willing to sponsor such poor production, but it did.

In 1986, during the Texas Sesquicentennial, Sam and I produced a weekly Texas history show. Sam’s desk was invariably covered in newspaper clippings, stacks of books, cigar ashes and coffee cups. The microphone was propped on top of the detritus. Ventilator, his cat, perched on the back of his chair, occasionally cleaning Sam’s head with his tongue. We would record the 30-minute show late every Wednesday afternoon, after I had recovered from putting out a paper the night before. Sam would get a pair of coffee cups, drop in a few ice cubes and pour generous portions of Evan Williams whiskey into each cup. He then would delve into some Texas topic while I would offer color commentary or perhaps read a clipping he handed me. I was Ed McMahon to Sam’s Johnny Carson.

Thanks to Sam, who became like a second father to me, and my two older daughters called “Grandpa Sam,” I came up with a topic for my long-delayed master’s thesis. The six-year time limit was approaching. I begged for and received a one-year extension from UT but was firmly told that was the most I would get. I began full-bore research into the San Augustine Red Lander, one of the leading newspapers during the Republic of Texas. In 1987, my thesis was accepted and I finally earned my master’s from UT. In the three-plus decades since, researching and writing about Texas history have become two of my great passions.

I’m finishing another sesquicentennial project, for Longview’s 150th birthday, which you can read about in this Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/gary.borders. Now it’s time to revisit that master’s thesis and see if it’s worthy of the next book project. A lot has changed in technology since 1987, of course. From my home office, I can search and access newspapers and other archival material online from the 19th century. Some trips to the Briscoe Center for American History will be required to view microfilms not digitized. That’s fine by me. The Briscoe Center and I are old friends, and I have been doing research there since the mid-1980s. It will be nice to return once again.

Sam died of cancer in 2000, just short of his 80th birthday. He would have thoroughly enjoyed the latestTexas history tome:  Big, Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas, by Stephen Harrigan. I highly recommend it.

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