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Bill Modisett

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J. Evetts Haley: A True Texas Legend
by Bill Modisett   

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Books by Bill Modisett
· An American Masterpiece: Memories of Rosalind Kress Haley
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Publisher:  Staked Plains Press ISBN-10:  0965062317 Type: 


Copyright:  1996

Bill Modisett Enterprises

The life story of the Texas rancher-historian who in 1964 wrote an expose of the sitting president of the United States, titled A Texan Looks at Lyndon: A Study in Illegitimate Power.

J. Evetts Haley was a celebrated rancher, a conservative political maverick who told the truth even when it bore a high personal cost, and a gifted historical writer.

And no one knew the West--its people, its lands, its customs--like historian Haley.

During a literary career that spanned more than half a century, Haley wrote more than 30 nonfiction books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. During the same period, the historian also was instrumental in the development of four outstanding archives--the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, his beloved Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum & Archives at Canyon, and the Nita Stewart Haley Memorial Library and J. Evetts Haley History Center in Midland.

As a collector of historical artifacts he was superb, as an interviewer of wary ranchers and tight lipped lawmen he was extraordinary, as a gifted writer of Southwestern history whose style was called "poetic, insightful and honest," he was both unexcelled and prolific.

However, Haley was no "snooty professor" as some assumed, but rather a rancher and cowman--a true man of the soil who learned his "lessons for life" from the dramatic nature on the Plains of Texas. As a result he mirrored that nature; he was strictly conservative and could be unforgiving, but he could also be gentle, delicate and tender through his writing and mannerisms.

Famed Hollywood cowboy-actor John Wayne once said of Haley, "If the range could talk, the tales it could tell about the great Southwest would be fabulous indeed. And if the range did talk, chances are that the first thing it would say would be 'Get Evetts Haley. He's the one to tell my story.' "

No one knew the West like J. Evetts Haley and he did tell that story in recounting the lives of Charles Goodnight, Jeff Milton, George W. Littlefield and many others.

He rightfully can be called the "Historian of the Southwest."

Professional Reviews

Book told Haley's willingness to take a stand
By Mike Cox
Texana Book Reviews

Texas history is full of examples of gutsy stands -- the Alamo, Sam Houston's delaying the decisive fight with Santa Anna despite heavy criticism from his own men and later, Houston's courageous support of the union when most of the rest of the people in Texas wanted secession as the nation was in freefall toward Civil War.

What the late historian and rancher J. Evetts Haley did after the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas did not change the course of history, but it took a lot of fortitude and nearly cost him his reputation: He set out to write and publish a book containing the truth about Lyndon Johnson, at least the truth as Haley saw it, as the Texan who had become President on Nov. 22, 1963 sought election to a full term in the White House.

The result of Haley's effort was "A Texan Looks at Lyndon," a self-published paperback which became the second best seller of 1964. Only the Bible outsold Haley's book that year.

"A Texan Looks at Lyndon" was not an objective piece of scholarship weighing both sides of the story. It was a double-barreled literary shotgun blast at the President of the United States, one well-respected Texan taking on another.

Even some of Haley's friends said he had gone too far in writing such a book. San Angelo newspaper publisher Houston Harte, an old friend of Haley's (and also a strong supporter of LBJ) said, "Haley can no longer be considered a serious historian."

Midland writer Bill Modisett devotes a chapter to the "A Texan Looks at Lyndon" story in his recently-published biography of Haley, the first booklength study of the West Texas historian to be published since his death at 94 in the fall of 1995. "J. Evetts Haley: A True Texas Legend," was published by Staked Plains Press. The 213-page book sells for $40 in hardback and $26.95 in paper.

The LBJ expose is only one example of the late Haley's strong principles, beliefs which not always made him popular. He successfully defended himself in a libel suit brought in connection with his first book, a history of the XIT ranch, even riding into Mexico in search of an old grave to bolster the evidence in support of one of his points. He ran for governor in 1956, knowing full well there was no way he could win.

There was more to Haley than his politics, of course -- he was a fine writer, successful rancher and devoted family man -- but it is hard to separate the various elements of his life, so strong were his political convictions.

Some of the best writing in this book is not about Haley, but about Haley's favorite country, West Texas:

"There were unexpected pleasures in this harsh land: the muted pastels that painted the sky in delicate hues on spring mornings, the fragile beauty of flowers that adorned the devil's pincushion and prickly pear cactus in a beauty-and-the-beast contradiction, the faintly pungent odor of purple sage catapulted into bloom by an unexpected rainfall, a rare April snow glittering in the bright Texas sunlight. There was a strange attraction to this land. . ."

"J. Evetts Haley: A True Texas Legend" won't be the only book on Haley's colorful, controversial and productive life, but it is the first one out of the chute and will serve as an even-handed overview of Haley's story.

As novelist Elmer Kelton wrote in his introduction for Modisett's book, "History will probably be kinder to J. Evetts Haley than many of his contemporaries have been. History has always favored the leaders, the individualists who blazed their own trails and lived by their own lights, those who chose to be out in front -- alone if necessary -- rather than simply fit in with the crowd. Not even his detractors could ever accuse Evetts Haley of being one of the crowd."

Grantian Florilegium
J. Evetts Haley: A True Texas Legend by Bill Modisett (Staked Plains) details the life and career of one of the most remarkable men of our time. Perhaps best known for his blockbuster political polemics—such as the bestselling exposé of Lyndon Johnson, A Texan Looks at Lyndon—J. Evetts Haley was also the author of several highly acclaimed historical works—including Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman and The XIT Ranch of Texas. In addition, he was a rancher, a publisher, a teacher, a politician, a librarian and archivist, a community activist, an art aficionado, and a museum curator. He was a kind of renaissance man—Texas-style (he once told me that the only thing better than a really good book was a really good barbeque brisket sandwich, to which I joyously replied, "Amen"). Like Dawson and Schaff, he stood against the tide of systemic institutionalism in the arts by refusing to reduce his pursuit of truth to the Gnostic exigencies of either patronizing reductionism or conforming pragmatism. Thus, Mr. Modisett has reminded us once again that the cost of virtue is often high—but is always worth the price.

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