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Back to McAllen: Mike Cox attended the 1964 and 2014 Texas conferences

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BY MIKE COX

Earlier this year, in one of the seemingly endless meetings apparently no bureaucracy can function without, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department videographer and OWAA member Karen Loke said something that jolted me from my semi-stupor. OWAA, she announced, would be having its annual convention in McAllen in May. Maybe some of us in the agency’s communication division would like to attend?

While great news for a state agency with only limited funds for out-of-state travel, that information had far more meaning for me than anyone else in that conference room. That’s because I just happened to know that OWAA had met in McAllen once before, in the early summer of 1964. I was there, a soon-to-be 10th grader who already knew he wanted to be a writer.

My granddad was L.A. Wilke, a longtime outdoor writer who two years earlier had retired from the old Texas Game and Fish Commission, predecessor of the agency I work for now. A former newspaperman and chamber of commerce manager, Granddad sat on the OWAA board and in 1964 served as convention chairman for the McAllen meeting. At that gathering, attended by 160-plus members from across the nation, Granddad pressed me into service as his gopher. My name tag read, “Mike Cox, Wilke’s Legman,” referencing the old news term for a news-gatherer too green to be a full-fledged reporter.

Fifty years, five decades, 600 months — however you figure it, a half-century is a long time, but I still remember the tropical ambiance at the old Fairway Motor Inn, a classic 1960s resort motel that advertised it was “100 percent air-conditioned” with free radio and TV in each room. That hotel is now gone, as is the convention center where we had our sessions. McAllen has grown from 30,000 people to more than 130,000. People — especially writers — drank much more and with far less social stigma attached to it. Women were still “the ladies” and not active members and the conference ran a full week an event with so many speakers, sponsors and swag local TV stations and newspapers covered the event.

The conference kicked off with an 8 a.m. director’s breakfast on Sunday, June 20. The program reminded members, “Attend Church of Your Choice.”

When sessions began on Monday, it warned members naps were not allowed. The luncheon was for men only, with the ladies off on a bus tour of the valley and shopping in Mexico.

The third day of the convention was at the beach at Padre Island and followed up by a cocktail hour and shrimp dinner. That evening, Daniel Beard, regional director of the National Park Service, spoke about plans to develop a large chunk of the barrier island as a national sea shore.

OWAA members spent Wednesday testing new outdoor products and then attending a three-hour afternoon session called “There’s Money in Moonlighting.” That night members partied at “Una Noche en McAllen del Valle Magico,” the program promising that no one would ever forget it. The next morning I saw a visibly hung-over Carol Abbott, a former weekly newspaper editor from Kerrville, Texas, who was on Gov. John Connally’s staff, walk slowly into the restaurant. Declaring he had just made it back from Mexico, he turned his pants pockets inside out to show how generously he had helped stimulate our sister republic’s economy the night before. That, or he had gotten rolled.

Abbott’s boss, the governor, gave the keynote address at the annual banquet that night. When the governor arrived in McAllen that afternoon, Granddad had introduced me to him. He seemed well recovered from the bullet wound he had suffered only five months earlier when President Kennedy had been killed in downtown Dallas. Connally graciously signed a copy of the convention program for me, and I still have it along with my “Wilke’s Legman” nametag.

Before the governor took the podium, Dr. Hans Christofferson, introduced as Denmark’s tourism director, spoke to the group. Earlier, the distinguished-looking European gentleman, who spoke English very well despite a pronounced Nordic accent, had milled around among the members soliciting insight into the culture and politics of Texas and the U.S. His talk began seriously, but soon became bizarre until he revealed he was actually Cactus Pryor, an Austin, Texas TV personality and friend of President Lyndon Johnson.

Granddad was friends with Col. Homer Garrison, head of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Through that connection, he had arranged for a Texas Ranger to show up at the meeting for the benefit of all the out-of-state members who had never had a chance to meet one of the state’s legendary lawmen. Tall, lanky Ranger Jerome Preiss, then stationed in nearby Harlingen, brought his horse along and soon made national headlines when he was photographed afterward leading the critter through a McAllen car wash.

Over the years, for business or for fun, I have been to McAllen many times. But my trip last spring was different. Not to get too philosophical, but attending the 87th OWAA convention amounted to a grown me getting a chance to reunite with his teenage self.

Being the only person who had been there for the 37th meeting, I felt like the last man standing.

That said, I will not be an old fogey. Like most Baby Boomers, I am younger at 65, mentally and physically, than my granddad was at that age. Though the passage of that much time constitutes a major reality check, being at the 2014 convention actually brought a nice sense of satisfaction.

Fifty years ago, I was a teenager who aspired to be a writer. I became someone who earned a living putting words on paper, from newspaper articles to magazine stories to books. Some of those hundreds of thousands of words were arranged amateurishly, some were placed in workman-like order, and some, I hope, were set forth pretty darn well and will last a long time.

To give this rumination a bit of socially redeeming value, my advice for younger OWAA members is that if you want to be a successful writer, take advantage of any chance you get to grow in your craft. Media platforms will change, but not the importance of being able to communicate well with words written or spoken. Here’s hoping that 50 years from now, wherever OWAA meets, you’ll be there. ♦

— Mike Cox has written more than 20 non-fiction books and hundreds of articles over a 45-plus year career. Inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters in 1993, he has received numerous awards for his writing, including the A.C. Greene Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. His day job is news and information team leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in Austin.

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