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My Friend, Elmer Kelton

The evening before he passed, I had my last conversation with Elmer. I had stopped for a visit with him at the care center where he’d been undergoing rehab for about two months. He was propped up in his hospital bed and as he shook my hand, he admitted to being “a little tired” from his exercise workout that day. His family  was present, and after awhile our conversation turned to the evolution of his writing career.  He told us he remembered he was paid one and a quarter cents per word for his first short stories.  “It didn’t take long for me to figure that a twenty-thousand word novella was better than a five thousand word short story.” He talked about his earliest books published in paperback and how his first two novels – Hot Iron and Buffalo Wagons -- were also issued in a very limited run of hardbacks mainly for library distribution. He mentioned he was paid about $1,500.00 for those novels, “good money for those days.”  And he remembered how elated he was when he entered the “big time” when his first major hardback, The Day The Cowboys Quit,  was published in 1972..  He recalled his relationships with his three major publishers, Ballantine, Doubleday, and Forge Press. And how pleased he had been with Forge. It was an engaging and enlightening conversation, with no hint of what was to come early the next morning. As I was leaving, he smiled, waved two fingers at me, and said, “Thanks for coming by, Felton.”  A few hours later, he died peacefully in his sleep…

Elmer Kelton was the quintessential “good old boy” who truly appreciated his many fans.  He was always willing, even eager, to sign a stack of books for a fan.

Some folks think he was just another western writer. Some who’ve never read his works inevitably ask if his books are “like Louis L’Amour’s?” They aren’t, of course. I tell people Elmer Kelton didn’t write ‘westerns’—he wrote western literature.  When you open a Kelton novel, you know beforehand that it will be clean, historically accurate, and entertaining. And somewhere on those pages will be a subtle message. Sounds simple.  But his writing was so much more than that.  You’ll just have to read a Kelton novel to discover what I learned so many years ago.

Regretfully, he didn’t live to see the life-size statue of him that will be placed in the new Tom Green County Library sometime next year. His last public appearance was at the “Toast to Elmer Kelton” held in May at the Fort Concho Commissary. It was a catered event and all seats were filled—people showed up from around the state.  At that event we presented he and his family with a bronze miniature replica of the statue and a bronze bust of Elmer. At least,  he died knowing the statue is on its way to completion. And that it is being done by artist Raul Ruiz, who comes from a Tom Green county family that Elmer knew intimately for many years.

One of my life’s greatest treasures is a signed copy of the book he had dedicated to me – Texas Vendetta.  The dedication page of that book reads: “To Felton Cochran, bookseller extraordinaire.” 

I will always remember Elmer as “friend extraordinaire.”

Felton Cochran