Robert E. "Bud" Mims - Master's: English, 1961

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In January 1959, I became an enthusiastic graduate student at The University of Texas.  I was a semester late, having missed my scheduled June 1958 graduation date because of a lightened course load during my year’s tenure as editor of The Daily Texan.  For me, a two-year MA program in the English Department, via a thesis in creative writing, would give this West Texas country boy a chance to spin out all those short stories that had been lurking somewhere in my head since high-school days.

It also was an opportunity to be a part of small-group seminars taught by legendary professors.  Tom Cranfill’s Shakespeare was a must and lived up to its reputation in our weekly in-class exchanges and our end-of-term gathering at his apartment, where we were treated to the operatic version of “Othello” on the then new technological wonder – the stereo.

Having been introduced to the wonders of displaced-Texan Katherine Anne Porter in a Great Novels seminar, I was overwhelmed to learn that she would be trekking to UT later in 1959 and teaching a seminar in the fall.  I was determined to be one of the few chosen to attend.  Alas, she had a spat with Harry Ransom and never appeared.

The English Department was blessed with many outstanding teacher-scholars, among the most memorable to me:

  • My mentor and friend Fred Eckman, who taught a “mean” James Joyce seminar and made Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus and the Blooms come alive. I am grateful to him and his fellow colleagues for introducing me to the novels of Joyce Cary and Virginia Woolf, whose unique characters still are with me.
  • E. Bagby Atwood, the truly gifted and nationally known linguistics professor, who could tell in a five-minute conversation – or via a one-page classroom questionnaire and his amazing isobars – exactly from whence you and your ancestors came.
  • John C. Watson, my thesis advisor, a modest man of considerable writing talent whom I discovered on the recommendation of my friend Carolyn Osborn, who for some years has been a published, well-reviewed short-story writer. 
  • And Gordon Mills, who served on my thesis committee – I think it was he (during a seminar on the modern American novel) who patiently explained to his naïve class, the political messages lurking in the popular comic strips of the day, especially in Little Orphan Annie and her Daddy Warbucks.

Not all the stars of the English faculty shared Dr. Mills’ great sense of humor.  I got into real trouble when I took Mody Boatright’s noted Life and Literature of the Southwest seminar.  It was the era of Gunsmoke on radio and TV, followed by the likes of Rawhide and Bonanza.  In my first paper for him, I made the near-fatal mistake of suggesting rather off-handedly at the end, that his beloved Andy Adams and Big Foot Wallace might be proper fodder for a new TV series with a comic touch.  Back came a nasty note, in red ink and exclamation points – NO! NO! NO!

My most memorable graduate seminar, however, was not in the English Department.  Just few years earlier, Walter Prescott Webb had written The Great Frontier, a nationally recognized, prophetic historical treatise that picked up on themes he developed in his earlier work The Great Plains.  My Tejas Club compadre Harley Clark, who as head cheerleader introduced us to the Hook ‘em Horns sign, suggested that we both brave the long waiting list and take Dr. Webb’s seminar to learn what the Frontier fuss was all about.

Words are inadequate to express my disappointment and frustration during virtually all of the semester.  Dr. Webb’s book was brilliant and challenging, but the seminar sessions were the exact opposite.  Our reading assignments were dull, repetitious and largely a waste of time, since in his text, Dr. Webb already had extracted the meat from them in dozens of helpful footnotes on every third page or so.  As for the weekly sessions, there was no personal interaction or group discussion of ideas.  As I recall at these gatherings, Dr. Webb (or more often, his TA) simply had us read silently the assigned background segment for that week’s segment.  Very soon, less than a handful of the 20 or so class members bothered to show up.  I think I went most of the time, somehow afraid that my final grade would be based on attendance.

All that changed on the last class day.  Dr. Webb walked in, sat down, leaned back in his chair and talked directly to us – it felt like one-on-one – about his Texas and academic history, the genesis of his ideas, and his concerns for our nation, other countries, and for us, amid a society that was closing once again, and its fierce tensions among the issues of work, individualism, democracy, wealth, land, resources, windfalls, rapid population growth, and mushrooming corporate organization in all sectors of society – business, government, and religion. To me, Dr. Webb’s last lecture remains a true miracle.  As a true Texan he was a spinner of stories and tales, as were his good friends J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek.

Moving ahead 50 years, in January 2010 I suggested to Judge Harley Clark that we revisit the Frontier.  His immediate e-mail reply:  “As for Webb, you are correct that his message is very relevant today.  I would be very happy to jump back into Webb with you.”

As I write this, I have only a chapter and a half left to go.  Indeed, the ideas Walter Prescott Webb chronicles in The Great Frontier are perhaps even more relevant in 2010 in an age of global and economic tensions, especially his colorful recounting of three speculative investment bubbles that changed nations forever.

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