the rambling boy
Falling in love with one man’s Texas
By LONN TAYLOR
Sometimes inspiration produced by complete absorption in a subject will result in a superb book, but after the book is published and lauded the author sinks into obscurity. This was exactly what happened with Sue Flanagan’s Sam Houston’s Texas, published in 1964. Flanagan was not a historian, but as a single woman in her mid-30s she fell in love with Sam Houston and it shows on every page.
Flanagan was a newspaperwoman, born in San Angelo, Texas in 1926. She graduated from the University of Denver in 1946 and then spent a year at the New York Institute for Photography, and returned to San Angelo in 1947 with the ability to write limpid sentences and compose beautiful photographs. She had a series of humdrum journalistic jobs for the next 11 years: reporter and photographer at the San Angelo Standard-Times; managing editor of the Sheep and Goat Raisers Magazine; public relations person for a furniture store. She did break loose for a year in 1952 when she was awarded a Rotary International scholarship to study English literature at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland (her father was president of the San Angelo Rotary Club), but when she came home she went back to work for the Standard-Times. In 1958 she was serving as volunteer coordinator for the All-Faith Chapel at McKnight Tuberculosis Sanitarium and she invited Texas Attorney-General Will Wilson to speak at the dedication of the chapel. Wilson was so impressed by Flanagan that he asked her to come to Austin to join his staff as an administrative aide, and she finally made her break with San Angelo. She later told a friend, “I had to get out of San Angelo because people there kept trying to marry me off and I didn’t want to do that.”
In 1961, while she was working for Wilson, Flanagan had a chance to examine some original letters written by Sam Houston. The experience transformed her. “I was impressed by his sense of humor,” she later told Derro Evans, a reporter for the Amarillo Globe-Times. She borrowed Wilson’s copy of the 8-volume Writings of Sam Houston – the loan lasted 3 years – and read everything in it, as well as the 46 published biographies and every contemporary newspaper article about him that she could find. She became obsessed with Houston. She told Evans that she was “drawn to his magnetic personality as a man of vision, an egotist, a man of humor and eloquence.” She realized she could use his writings to plot all of his travels across Texas from his arrival in 1832 until his death 31 years later, and she started taking weekend trips with her Rolleiflex camera, photographing places he had visited, trying to capture them as they looked when he was there. She soon realized that she had “a bear by the tail,” as she told Evans, and arranged to take a 9-month leave of absence from her job. During those 9 months she zig-zagged 7,300 miles across Texas following Houston’s tracks and shot over 1,000 pictures. The result was Sam Houston’s Texas, published by the University of Texas Press. The book included 113 of Flanagan’s black and white photographs, printed by the Meriden Gravure Company, the finest photographic printing company in America.
Sam Houston’s Texas received ecstatic reviews. Virginia Gambrell of the Dallas Historical Society, writing in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, called the book “a visual delight”, “a real contribution to Texana,” and praised “the vast amount of scholarly research [that] went into it.” Bill Poole, a crusty professor of history at what is now Texas State University who did not bestow praise lightly, told readers of Arizona and the West that it was “an unbelievably beautiful book” which was “a milestone in southwestern history” and that it “must rank among the most remarkable books ever published in the field of Texas history.” Exhibitions of Flanagan’s photographs were organized at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the San Antonio Public Library, and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library at the Alamo. Flanagan went on a statewide speaking tour to promote the book. It was so popular that the University of Texas Press reprinted it in 1973.
One immediate result of Sam Houston’s Texas’s publication was that in 1965 Flanagan was commissioned to do a photographic book on the historic Texas cattle trails north. Her work on that book was interrupted by a special assignment from Governor John Connally, and it did not appear until 1974, under the title Trailing the Longhorns, published by the Madrona Press, a small press in Austin. It was not as successful as Sam Houston’s Texas. Flanagan was not as passionate about longhorns as she was about Sam Houston and the book was, frankly, dull. It lacked the immediacy of the Sam Houston book. Instead of quoting from the letters and diaries and memoirs of trail drivers Flanagan relied heavily on two secondary sources, Wayne Gard’s Chisholm Trail and J. Evetts Haley’s Charles Goodnight, and the reviewers faulted her for that. Her photographs were not well treated by Madrona’s printers, the Whitley Company of Austin; they were muddy and murky, and the reviewers pointed that out, too.
By the time the book was published Flanagan was serving as director of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville, a post to which she was appointed in 1972 and held until her retirement in 1981. She died in San Antonio in 1993.
Flanagan left Texans another legacy besides her two books. Her 1966 assignment from Governor Connally was to help the Texas Tourist Development Agency develop a plan for the exhibit that would represent Texas at HemisFair ’68, the San Antonio World’s Fair. That exhibit became the Institute of Texan Cultures, now part of the University of Texas at San Antonio. Even though Henderson Shuffler of the University of Texas’s Texana Program was appointed as first director of the Institute in April 1967, the Institute’s papers in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library in San Antonio show unequivocally that it was Flanagan who conceived the museum’s basic program, with its emphasis on the various ethnic groups of Texas and its 56-screen “dome show” that enabled all Texans to find their place in the ethnic mosaic. Her memoranda to Governor Connally reveal her as an astute and meticulous thinker with a clear understanding of the emotional power of exhibitry and imagery. Had she not been a woman, she might well have become the first director of the Institute of Texan Cultures.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.