Pen Pals

For decades the triumvirate of Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb ruled Texas letters. Here’s the tale of a lifelong friendship wholly dedicated to intellectual pursuits—and the ultimate dirty joke.

CERTAIN CITIES COME TO mind when one thinks of public statuary: Paris, Rome, Barcelona. Austin, the capital of laid-backness, home of Hippie Hollow and high-tech brio, is not one of them, but the city can claim its share of public statues, and none is more emblematic, more “Austin,” than the installation in Zilker Park, just in front of the famed Barton Springs swimming pool. Designed by noted Santa Fe sculptor Glenna Goodacre and put in place in the fall of 1994, the statue commemorates a trio of writers—J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb—who did as much as any in Austin’s history to define the city’s special qualities. In the rich synergy that developed among the three men over many decades of public life and private friendship, they became the spiritual godfathers of Austin.

Although regional aficionados of Texana remember them, and many of their books remain in print, to a large number of Texas’ 18.4 million people, their names are either unknown or known in a blurred, confused manner. The old men of the statue belong to Old Texas, and as a recent governor was fond of saying, we live in New Texas. Who are those guys? the curious must ask, the newcomers, the Californians, the outlanders who’ve earnestly pedaled their trail bikes to Zilker Park to bask in a day of spring-fed bliss before some corporate baddie upstream pollutes the purest fountain of Austiniana ever created by God or man.

Finding a student among the current generation at the University of Texas who has the faintest conception of these once-revered figures is rarer than spotting a golden-cheeked warbler at a tractor pull. In a recent section of my Life and Literature of the Southwest class (which, by the way, Dobie invented back in 1930, praise be to his ornery old white male self), I polled my 165 students to see if they knew who Dobie, Webb, and Bedichek were. About 95 percent said they hadn’t the foggiest. The shrewder ones guessed that Dobie Mall was named after Dobie, and one student who had attended Bedichek Middle School in Austin recognized the name but did not know why the school bore it. The more-detailed the identifications, the more erroneous. Said one student: “J. Frank Dobie—infamous businessman involved with UT who hated the UT Tower.” Part of that is true. Dobie wasn’t fond of the Tower. Trading on an old joke, he called it “[ UT president] Battle’s last erection,” and he said it ought to be laid on its side and a porch put around it, like a ranch house. Another student had another idea about the man who in his lifetime was called Mr. Texas: “J. Frank Dobie—the man after which Dobie Mall is named. He was, I think, a Texas Ranger with some authority. He was an outspoken Racist. I learned that in a class, The History of Mexican Americans in the U.S.” The confusion of Dobie with Webb (who wrote a book called The Texas Rangers), the thorough mishmash of error, and the politically correct misinterpretation contained in this statement are sobering. Alexander Pope was right: A little learning is a dangerous thing.

A visit to the statue is a helpful introduction to these men. A plaque identifies them, and three other plaques contain passages from their works extolling the recuperative splendors of nature. The official name of the sculpture is Philosophers’ Rock, after a limestone shelf of rock that once stood along the banks of the springs. In its day, the rock was also known as Conversation Rock and, more frequently, Bedichek’s Rock or Bedi’s Rock. Close friends of the three men always associated it with Bedichek. Wilson Hudson, a University of Texas English professor and member of the Dobie-Bedichek-Webb inner circle, called it Bedichek’s Rock and in a 1967 tribute wrote, “Let Bedichek’s rock remain, unaltered in any way, unmarked by a bronze inscription.” Nature took care of this sentiment some years later by sweeping the rock away in a flood, but what nature hath wrought, the sculpture hath corrected. Situated in front of the entrance to the swimming hole, it is a large, looming presence. It depicts three old men engaged in a circle of voluble discourse. Bedichek and Dobie are wearing swimming trunks, and Webb, who did not swim, is standing alongside the rock with his trousers rolled up, like a resolute Prufrock (“I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”). The likenesses are in the eyes of the beholder. To me, the statue’s Dobie looks a bit like Babe Ruth, and Webb, with his large bald dome, like an alien from a Star Trek episode. Bedichek is closest to the mark, bearing some resemblance to an elderly John Mackovic, UT’s head football coach. The enormous feet of all three are a problem, but then I think that feet in sculpture usually are. My favorite detail in the statue is a cigarette that Webb, an inveterate smoker, is holding in his right hand. It is surprising that the Austin City Council permitted this violation of the anti-smoking ordinance. It sets such a bad example for our youth. Not far away is a playground called a “playscape.” Children bored with the playscape come down and romp on the sculpturescape, though there is a sign prohibiting romping. The tactile quality of the sculpture proves irresistible to children, who climb into the laps of Bedichek and Dobie, kindly bronze grandfathers.

The triumvirate, as they were sometimes grandly called, were intellectuals and writers who asserted the values of the life of the mind at a time when other pursuits tended to dominate the energies of a still-close-to-the-frontier society: agriculture, oil, mercantilism, football. Dobie was the most famous of the three and the most prolific writer. Besides his many years of industrious labor on behalf of the Texas Folklore Society, he published, from 1929 until his death in 1964, a continuous flow of books. Many of them dealt with critters—there was one each on Longhorns, mustangs,

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