Amid the noisy 2000 election aftermath, Graves brought peace to the Capitol

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 31, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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kennedy (Published Nov. 14, 2000).

One of the noisiest weeks in the history of the state Capitol ended with soft words from a gentle Texas man.

As protesters outside a window chanted for a recount, author and Fort Worth native John Graves delivered his victory speech Saturday before Texas first lady Laura Bush and a standing-room-only crowd in the Texas House chamber.

Quietly — and as modestly as ever — Graves, 80, accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Texas Book Festival, an annual literary celebration that filled the Capitol halls with as many as 40,000 book lovers.

Outside, TV reporters rushed to interview young Al Gore voters who brought their complaints to Texas ground.

Graves was more interested in the Texas skies.

“The last few days, I've noticed the massive flights of sandhill cranes,” he said, whisking the crowd's imagination away to the Somervell County farm of his 1974 book, Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land. “This norther is beginning to push them south.

“I remember, years ago, looking up at those wonderful birds and saying, ‘I hope they will outlast me.’

“At this point, it looks like they will.”

Graves' most famous writings are about Texas birds, and Texas wildlife, and the Texas limestone of Somervell County, and everything in nature that is Texan. His most famous book, Goodbye to a River (1960), is a eulogy for canoe trips on the grand old Brazos River, a once-natural waterway now blocked with man-made dams and lakes.

His new works are as rare as new Van Cliburn performances, and every bit as anticipated.

“He takes language — which we pour out in torrents — and he just spills it carefully, with an honesty and a simplicity sublime,” said former Texas Monthly editor William Broyles Jr., introducing Graves.

“We don't have nearly enough of his writing. What we have, we cherish.”

This is not Graves' first day in the spotlight at the Book Festival, a fund-raiser for Texas public libraries started four years ago at the urging of Laura Bush, a former elementary school librarian.

The first festival starred Robert James Waller, at the time newly known for Bridges of Madison County. But Graves' autographed works brought higher prices at a benefit auction, and the wait for his autograph was 31/2 hours.

Maybe he was dreading a repeat performance. I saw him walking into the Capitol early Saturday morning and asked him what he expected from the busy day ahead.

He grinned and replied, “It's something to be gotten through, I suppose,” as if he were talking about his years as a Marine lieutenant in the Pacific during World War II, or his teen-age years on Hillcrest Street and at Arlington Heights High School.

Then he stopped and turned to make a point: “I feel very good about this festival,” he said. “I think it's a wonderful thing what Mrs. Bush has done for the state of Texas.”

Laura Bush has also done a wonderful thing for John Graves. At Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign stops all over America, the first lady has been naming Goodbye to a River as one of her three favorite Texas books, along with Stephen Harrigan's Gates of the Alamo and Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street.

In a written introduction read by a festival official, Laura Bush praised Graves' writing as "powerfully emotional but never excitable."

Later, with the protests growing louder outside, a festival guest offered Graves a chance for political comment. If George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore took a canoe trip, the question was, would they “settle on this thing,” or would only one come back?

Graves grinned and replied, "No comment on that."

Laura Bush laughed. For a few minutes, perhaps, her thoughts had drifted away from elections and recounts, away to the sandhill cranes and John Graves' patch of Texas.

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