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John R. Erickson - March '16


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John R. Erickson - March '16

  1. 1. Deep in the heart of Texas, where cows still roam, ranchers still bale hay, and cowdogs still get into mischief, John R. Erickson is busy writing. He is not writing about faraway places or conjuring up sorcery like several popular authors today, but rather he is writing about real places, real people, and occasionally real events. Erickson, who grew up listening to old cowboys tell wild and witty tales about ranch life, has learned the art of spinning a yarn in just the right way. What he has found, in writing, is that simple is often best, truth trumps fairy tales, and laughter is always preferred to tears. Written By: Rebecca Canfield | Photos Courtesy Of: John R. Erickson
  2. 2. The love of simplicity is a pattern that has played out in Erickson's books, and it is a trait that possibly began in his elementary school years. Because he grew up loving the works of Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were his first ventures into the world of enjoyable reading. A struggling reader in his younger years, Erickson did not really care for reading until he found Twain. Then, for the first time, Erickson began to read not because he was being forced to by a teacher, but merely for pleasure. Erickson says what drew him to Twain was his appreciation for Twain’s use of regional dialects, his habit of playing with words, and most of all, the fact that Twain allowed the reader to laugh. It was the missing ingredient necessary for Erickson's love of literature to blossom. It was also, though unbeknownst to the future author, the start of something big. Even today Erickson swears that keeping his writing simple, funny, and entertaining is what has kept readers continually coming back to read more about his loveable mutt, Hank the Cowdog. In an age where violence has blanketed American television with zombies and werewolves, and popular characters must be either smart, funny, or heroic, Erickson’s famous cowdog is unlike other characters. In spite of the fact that there is nothing very spectacular about Hank, the smelly and troublesome protagonist, he has still managed to find his way into the heart of America by being relatable, innocent, and truly hilarious. “I take very seriously the trust that parents and teachers put in me. They are giving me custody of the spirits of small children and I take that very seriously. I've been a father to three children and I'm a grandfather to four, and so giving children something that nourishes their spirit is a part of my job.” In fact, Hank has taken Erickson from a pile of rejection letters in the early 1980s to the award winning author he is today. To date, Erickson has authored seventy-five books, written over six hundred articles, and boasts a colossal eight and a half million books sold. In addition to this, Hank the Cowdog is currently being translated into several languages including Spanish, Chinese, Danish, and Farsi. What started out in Erickson’s garage, has blossomed into sixty-six Hank the Cowdog books and today is nothing short of world-wide phenomenon. BYGONES & YESTERDAYS John R. Erickson was born on October 20, 1943 to Joseph W. and Anna Beth (Curry) Erickson. A fifth generation Texan, Erickson’s family history has found its way into the Texas history books. Although his paternal grandfather Charles Erickson emigrated from Sweden, his mother’s side of the family has been rooted in Texas back to the state’s very beginning. In fact, Erickson’s great-great grandmother, Martha Sherman, was murdered by the Comanche Indians in 1860. Sherman’s murder actually sparked Sam Houston, who was then Governor of Texas, to pursue the Comanche due to public outcry over the barbaric nature of the attack. Even more noteworthy is the fact that the pursuit was led by famous Texas rancher and cowboy Charles Goodnight who was the group’s tracker. Additionally, when the skirmish was over, an Anglo woman with green eyes named Cynthia Ann Parker was found living among the Cherokee. She had been captured at age nine, and was then returned home, though she was never able to readapt well to her former life. Her son, Quannah Parker, was the last Cherokee Indian Chief in Texas. Ironically he and Charles Goodnight would become fast friends in later years. Additionally, a different set of Erickson's great- grandparents were Quakers who worked as ranchers and established the town of Esticado, Texas in 1879 as the first white settlers on the Staked Plains near what is now Lubbock. SCHOOL DAYS FOR THE FUTURE WRITER Although Erickson himself was born in Midland, the family moved to Perryton when Erickson was three. He graduated from Perryton public schools in 1962, where he ran track, played football, sang in LIFESTYLES
  3. 3. the choir, and learned to play the bassoon, drums, and the banjo. Erickson did not discover his knack for writing until his senior year of high school when he had to write a poem for English class. Erickson's English teacher, Annie Love, liked his writing and encouraged him to write more. By the end of his senior year, Erickson's affinity for poetry developed into a love of writing. However, Erickson still says that his best writing teacher was his mother, who was herself a gifted storyteller. In his book Story Craft, Erickson reiterates something his mother said to him when he was only five that had a profound impact on his life. “God has given you a talent. You must guard it and use it wisely,” he recalled his mother saying. Years later, he would write, “Maybe that's something every mother says to every child, but I believed her.” CIVIL RIGHTS IN THE 1960S Following high school, Erickson attended the University of Denver for a year. In college, he discovered that life in Perryton was very different than life in Denver. For instance, prior to college, Erickson had never met an African-American before. However, life in a religious Southern Baptist home had taught him to treat everyone with love and respect, so this new development resulted in Erickson swiftly joining the Civil Rights Movement. In March of 1963, Erickson and a mixed race group of civil rights activists took a trip to Mississippi, a dangerous thing to do in the 1960s. On the trip, they visited the White Citizens' Council, met Governor Ross Barnett, and spent an afternoon with the director of the Jackson office of the NAACP, who just happened to be Medgar Evers . “He was a very impressive man,” said Erickson. “We saw bullet holes in the plate glass in the front of that building, and they were put there recently, so he was a man who lived in a dangerous time in a dangerous place.” The following June, Erickson was working a summer job at a Methodist Church in East Harlem, New York, and as he was riding the subway to work one morning he read in the New York Times that Medgar Evers had been assassinated in his own front yard. “It was a big loss. He was the kind of man this country needed to work our way out of that great sin.” ERICKSON RETURNS TO TEXAS Although Erickson greatly loved his time in New York, and even thought of living there, he eventually chose to return to his studies. He transferred to the University of Texas at Austin (UT) where he finished his bachelor's degree. At UT, Erickson studied literature and wrote and produced screenplays as well as a weekly editorial column for The Daily Texan. His senior year, though, was the most notable because Erickson met a beautiful young girl from Dallas named Kristine Dykema whom he later married. Although this was a great time for Erickson, his elation was somewhat dimmed in August of 1966, when Charles Whitman went on a shooting rampage on the UT campus and killed more than a dozen people. Both Erickson and his then girlfriend Kristine were present for the horrible event. Doing their best to put that horrific day behind them, Erickson married Kristine and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he began studying at Harvard Divinity School (HDS). Erickson considered becoming a minister, but later decided against it and pursued writing instead. He left HDS just three credit hours short of receiving his master's degree in May of 1968. Upon returning to Texas, Erickson began working at an inter-racial church ministry in Austin, but returned to Perryton in 1970. He began working a series of odd jobs, before moving to Oklahoma in 1974 where he worked as a ranch cowboy. No matter how often Erickson worked or how hard, he always began each day with four hours of writing at his computer. He wrote novels, shorts stories, articles, plays, and even book reviews. Erickson did manage to publish a few books including Through Time in the Valley, Panhandle Cowboy, and Modern Cowboy, but it was not enough to make a living. In 1982, all but exhausted LIFESTYLES 24 | March 2016
  4. 4. from rejection letters, Erickson was about to give up on writing when he heard that Ace Reid, a cowboy humorist, self-published his own calendars and own books. “In 1982, I got tired of collecting rejection slips and decided that I had to do something different or quit. The fact that Ace had done it gave me a little courage that I could do it too.” THE BEGINNING OF SOMETHING BIG When Erickson finally decided to self-publish, he began by borrowing $2,000 from the bank, after which he and his wife started their own publishing company in their garage. The first book published was The Devil in Texas and Other Cowboy Tales. It was a collection of fourteen funny stories about life as a cowboy. “The Devil in Texas was important for me because I wrote those stories in about two weeks. I was not giving much thought to what I was doing, I was just writing as fast as I could and writing things that were funny, and it turned out to be a turning point in my writing,” said Erickson. After the first print was finished, Erickson's next step was marketing. He publicized his work by going to civic clubs, garden clubs, and virtually any organization that needed a free program, and he would read his stories aloud. The reactions to Erickson's books were phenomenal. The original printing sold out in just six weeks. Still, of all the stories that were in the book, Confessions of a Cowdog stood out the most among readers. When Erickson would read that particular story, audiences would just howl with laughter until they cried and then tell Erickson over and over that he needed to write more about that dog. Listening to his readers, The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog book was written and published in 1983. It was a resounding success. The first printing sold out in just a few weeks, but amazingly not to children. Erickson's original audience was adults, and in that market, the books did amazingly well. Spurred on by the success, the book was followed by The Further Adventures of Hank the Cowdog, and later, book number three entitled, It's a Dog's Life. HANK THE COWDOG TODAY Today the worldwide phenomenon that is Hank the Cowdog has children and adults from all over the world begging for more adventures. The books are also sold in an equally popular audio format. Because Erickson's stories are all designed in an oral storyteller format, and are read word for word on the audio CDs, they are often a hit among teachers and librarians who use them to help struggling readers learn how to read their first chapter books. Because kids can follow along with the audio, they can get a sense of how words are formed, and then later turn the audio off when they get more confident with their reading, explained Erickson. Even more amazing, however, is that Erickson performs the voices for all one hundred-fifty Hank the Cowdog characters himself. Originally, Erickson started doing the voices on his own because he could not afford to hire someone else to do them. Now, over thirty years later, Erickson is still doing it successfully. Today, Hank the Cowdog is a family operation, though Erickson says it has been one from the start. His wife, who has worked behind the scenes as editor and photographer, and who has followed Erickson without complaint down many a winding path with no sure end, deserves much of the credit, says Erickson. His youngest son, Mark, who was born the same year that Maverick Books began, is involved with Hank the Cowdog, and has worked alongside Erickson to develop a Hank the Cowdog screenplay which they are attempting to turn into a feature length animated movie. Mark Erickson has a law degree from University of Texas as well. Today, in addition to writing, John Erickson and his wife Kristine travel all over the United States appearing in schools from Alaska to Florida reading his Hank the Cowdog books aloud to delighted children and performing the accompanying songs, all self written, as well. Additionally he is also a popular speaker among librarians, teachers, and homeschoolers. John and Kristine Erickson still live in Perryton, Texas today. They are the parents of three children, Scot, Ashley, and Mark, and the grandparents of four. For more information about Hank the Cowdog and John Erickson, visit w w w . h a n k t h e c o w d o g . c o m LIFESTYLES