June 30, 2014

Collins’ real Alamo gift: Inspiration

British rock star gives artifacts worth far more than the money they cost.

On Thursday, a person not native to Texas — who doesn’t even live on the same continent — gave us a great illustration of why Texas is such a special place.

Phil Collins reminded us that the story of Texas and its message of independence, sacrifice and courage, is a powerful one. It’s a story with such timeless and powerful themes that it can reach across the ocean to rural England and capture the imagination of a 5-year-old boy who later grew into a worldwide rock star.

The artifacts Collins collected over the last 25 years are indeed valuable. A truly humble Englishman, he is hesitant to discuss the amount he spent on his obsession, but begrudgingly admits it’s in the seven figures.

As extremely generous as that is, the value of these artifacts comes not from their worth on the free market, but their priceless ability to inspire.

As we saw last year with the brief return of the Travis Letter to the Alamo, Texans (and those who wished they were) are inspired by the genuine article.

A reproduction of the iconic Travis “Victory or Death” letter might have garnered passing interest from those who happened to be wandering through the Alamo, but the real letter, penned by Texas Lt. Col. William Barret Travis, caused visitors from around the world to wait in line up to five hours for just a glimpse.

People yearn to be inspired. Inspiration comes from seeing items touched by patriots.

Many at the exhibit left the Alamo in tears, moved by the courage and determination seen in the pen strokes of Travis, who wrote the letter while encircled by the enemy, facing almost certain death, but choosing to stand his ground.

At the end of the Travis Letter, he added a footnote about the providential acquisition of 30 head of cattle and 90 bushels of corn and moving it to the Alamo compound before the siege.

The IOU for those very cattle, hastily written by Travis, is owned by Phil Collins and will now be donated to the Alamo.

This scrap of paper is not iconic, but it represents the reality of Travis’ life as he penned words that would become famous. This is the kind of artifact that shows Travis as a real human being — hardly a hero — in 1836.

And the Collins donation has hundreds of similar artifacts. One of his favorites is another receipt, this time for the saddle of Alamo courier John Smith, one of the few brave men who carried Travis’ letters to the outside world and spread the word of the dire situation.

These items transport viewers directly to 1836, a time when men and families faced life-or-death decisions every day, when the world was changing before their eyes.

With such a glimpse into perilous times, we can perhaps get a sense of the kind of person who survived those times. And perhaps we might learn something about ourselves.

That is the true value of Collins’ donation. It is a gift that will be enjoyed for generations.

Rather than sitting in a basement in Switzerland, or a private museum, these “bits of metal” as Collins calls them — all ties to the past — have been entrusted to the place most prepared to care for them.

The Texas General Land Office knows about preserving the legacy of Texas for future generations. With an archive of 35 million documents, some dating back to 1720, and responsibility over the Alamo, the Land Office will ensure these artifacts are preserved, but also exhibited responsibly so they can continue to tell the story of the Alamo and of Texas.

Jerry Patterson is the commissioner of the Texas General Land Office. www.glo.texas.gov

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