Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bertha Dobie and me

If you're a native Texan, chances are you're familiar with the writings of the late folklorist J. Frank Dobie. Or at least you've heard of him. In 2002 or so, I wrote a profile on him for Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. During the process of delving into his life and works, I became better acquainted with the man who's also part of my own family. See, Mr. Dobie and my late grandfather, Dudley R. Dobie of San Marcos, were first cousins. They also looked very much alike. And–like his cousin–Daddy D., my grandfather, was a writer.
Yesterday morning, I joined my Dobie clan–Uncle Dudley Dobie Jr. and Aunt Saza Dobie, cousins Rick and wife Audra Dobie, Rusty and wife Tina and their daughters, Kendall and Drew Dobie–on an outing to Southwestern University in Georgetown. There, we attended a celebration of sorts. In 1910, J. Frank Dobie graduated from Southwestern and then earned a master's degree from Columbia University. At Southwestern, J. Frank also met Bertha McKee, whom he married in 1916. She, too, wrote but focused more on gardening articles for newspapers and magazines.

In honor of Southwestern's historic connection with JFD, Steven L. Davis, author of J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind and interim director of the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, shared about Dobie Saturday. Afterward, Austin writer Sarah Bird talked about her experiences, living as a writing fellow at Dobie's Paisano Ranch. (Read more about the ranch and her time there as a fellow in The Acalde magazine, "A Literary Home on the Range.")

Sarah Bird and me
After the two talks, I visited with Sarah, then wandered over to a table display of J. Frank and Bertha Dobie papers, archived at Southwestern. A tattered brown notebook filled with lined pages of handwriting caught my eye. "That was Bertha's journal," said Kathryn Stallard, who heads the university's special collections at the A. Frank Smith Jr. Library Center. "She wrote every day about an elm tree she could see through a window of their home."

The first page of Bertha Dobie's journal...
I literally froze. "Really?" I asked. "Because that's how I came to start my blog...." I was stunned. Window on a Texas Wildscape....

Back in the car with Uncle Dudley and Aunt Saza, I told them about Bertha's journal. "Oh, yes, I remember that tree," Uncle Dud said. In the 1990s, he and Aunt Saza bought, renovated and saved the J. Frank Dobie House near UT in Austin. Today, the two-story home–now owned by the University–houses the Michener Center for Writers. "It was the great elm under which the Texas literary triumvirate of writers–Dobie, Roy Bedichek and Walter Prescott Webb–spent many evenings, talking," Uncle Dudley continued. "We spent a lot of money, trying to save it. But then a wind knocked it down."

Here's what I could read from Bertha's first page.....

The Record of an Elm Tree and a Back Yard (From a North Window)
Thus, Bertha begins her journal: "On February 9, 1929, the cold morning of the winter, a great flock of goldfinches, handsome and in their sober winter plumage, flew into the tall cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) just beyond the north study window. With them were a few dull-colored pine siskens. Suddenly they flew to the ground with the soft fluttering motion that makes them at a distance scarcely distinguishable from falling leaves..."


Jonni said...

What a charming post! I love that your ancestress Bertha sat at her window and chronicled her observations ... you have a family traditon.Also,having Sarah Bird as a friend is very cool.

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers said...

Well, don't know if I can claim Sarah Bird as my friend, but she did let me have my picture taken with her!! :-)

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