In West Texas, everyone knew Lonn Taylor. Whether through his weekly essays in the local paper, his books, or his Friday segments on the radio, his words – and voice – stood out.
The Rambling Boy, as he was known, seemed to speak to us directly from another era. From state holidays and famous battles, to local legends and oddities, he wrote Texas history like a storybook.
Here are quotes from some of his work:
“Going to Pecos in July to buy cantaloupes from roadside stands used to be an annual West Texas ritual.”
“At night, he would build a campfire, feed his prisoner, lay out a bedroll for him and handcuff him to the buggy wheel.”
“A vat of squirrel gravy – it is made from squirrel fried in lard, simmered in milk and flour and seasoned with salt and pepper.”
His columns appeared in the Big Bend Sentinel for almost 15 years. Robert Halpern was the paper’s long-time owner and editor.
“We were as honored as could be to have his work in our paper,” Halpern says. “I would go to Lonn and say, ‘Lonn, what’s the history of this business or what’s the history of this family?’”
And Taylor would always have the answer.
He came from a family of Texans, and his stories were often rooted here. But it took him a while to get to the Lone Star State. Taylor was born in South Carolina, and spent much of his childhood in the Philippines where his engineer father built roads.
But his grandmother, a Texan, kept the family plugged in to home. Here’s Taylor on Marfa Public Radio in 2019:
“She subscribed to two Texas newspapers. And they arrived, of course, by ship, and were always three or four weeks out of date. So I got a big dose of Texas even growing up 10,000 miles from there,” Taylor said.
Taylor finally landed in Texas for his senior year of high school, in Fort Worth, where he also went to college. He then began graduate school, but while taking a summer course in Austin, his plans got a bit derailed.
“I made a huge mistake,” Taylor said. “I rented an apartment next door to Janis Joplin.”
She was sharing a huge space with about eight other musicians.
“And they had a jam session every night right under my bedroom window. It went on until about 2 a.m.,” Taylor said.
Taylor loved folk music, and he started hanging out with the group. And as a result …
“I never finished the course. I never went back to graduate school, I never got a Ph.D. and I spent five wonderful years hangin’ around Austin trying to make a living as a freelance writer, running around with musicians and politicians and other disreputable people,” Taylor said.
Taylor eventually found his way to a distinguished career as a museum curator and historian. But he never lost that bohemian streak, says writer Joe Nick Patoski who befriended Taylor later in Taylor’s life.
“He wasn’t stuffy, you know? He didn’t come off as an academic,” Patoski says. “He came across as a plain-spoken guy that you could just walk up to on the street and talk to.”
And many people did. It’s one of the things that made him a great historian: he made friends everywhere he went. And he absorbed their stories into his writing.
“The depth – I can’t quantify. It’s just, no one knew what he knew, and [he] could articulate it and make it not just informative, but entertaining,” Patoski says.
It was during his time at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where he met the woman he’d spend the rest of his life with: Dedie. He was 48 when they got married.
“I told everyone when we got married that it was her first marriage and my last one. The fact is that I had never really known love until I met Dedie,” Taylor said.
As the story goes, it was Thanksgiving 1984. He was invited to a friend’s house in nearby Arlington for dinner. He got into the elevator, and that’s when he first laid eyes on her. He told the story at a Marfa Public Radio live event in 2017.
“And Dedie said, ‘Well, when you get back, why don’t you come up to my apartment for dessert?’ She said, ‘I’m having about 30 people over.’ And I thought, ‘Wow. Not only is she beautiful, she’s rich!'”
He arrived at a smaller-than-anticipated apartment with guests crammed into every possible space, including the bathtub.
“And I thought, ‘Well, she may not have the biggest apartment in the building, but she has the biggest heart,'” Taylor said.
In 2002, the pair retired and moved to Far West Texas where they were by each other’s sides for many a memorable life event, like in 2014 when he got a call to appear on national TV. But he didn’t know quite what he was getting into.
Late-night host and satirist Stephen Colbert brought Taylor onto his show to talk about his research on “The Star Spangled Banner,” and other national songs.
“Well, I have to confess that since my wife and I do not have a television set, and I have not really watched television in about 15 years, I had never really heard of ‘The Colbert Report,’” Taylor said.
Taylor and Colbert bantered about his research.
“We had rather patriotic songs: ‘Yankee Doodle,’ ‘Hail Columbia.’ As a matter of fact, the band at Fort McHenry played ‘Yankee Doodle’ at the end of the battle when they raised that flag,” Taylor said.
“Really? They played ‘Yankee Doodle Went to Town?!'” Colbert asked.
“Yes,” Taylor exclaimed. Then they started to laugh.
His laugh, like his voice, was completely unique. But what really stood out about Taylor was his insatiable curiosity about people. Here he is in his last interview with Marfa Public Radio, about his book, “Turning the Pages of Texas”:
“I enjoy finding out how people do certain things. You know, how does a garbage man learn exactly how to swing those garbage cans? Well, of course they don’t do that anymore. But there are techniques and a vocabulary that go with every occupation, and I’ve always been fascinated by that,” Taylor said.
Throughout the last 15 years of his life, Taylor was working on a memoir about his childhood in the Philippines.
“And I desperately want to make time to finish that, and when that’s finished that’s the one I’m going to be most proud of,” Taylor said.
Lucky for all of us, he finished the manuscript before he died.
Lonn Taylor, the Rambling Boy, was one of the great treasures of West Texas. He will be missed.