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Hank the Cowdog

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Hank the Cowdog

  • An interview with Hank the Cowdog and his creator, John R. Erickson

Nobody in the literary world would have touched a book narrated by a ranch dog who was five bales short of a full load of hay”

If you love to travel the Lone Star State as much as we do, it doesn’t take much to inspire your next road trip. A photo of a blazing Big Bend sunset. An image of a field of bluebonnets. An illustration of the Alamo, or Palo Duro Canyon. A mouth-watering shot of beef brisket right from the smoker, so detailed you could taste it.

Any of these might make a winning magazine cover.

Since the debut of Authentic Texas in 2016, though, we’ve taken a different tack.

Hank and Drover hitch a ride with Slim as he hits the road looking for a new job

Our team decided early on that our way of representing Texas’s places would be through its authentic faces. Who wouldn’t be eager to go see Monarch butterflies in migration after hearing about their beauty from former first lady Laura Bush? Who wouldn’t be keen to visit the Wheeler hometown of Apollo astronaut Alan L. Bean after learning he was as talented a painter as a pilot? Who wouldn’t love to go hear Little Joe Hernandez play a set after reading his personal story?

Starting with Buffalo Gap chef Tom Perini, we’ve featured 17 Authentic Texans on our covers. They’ve included Christine Nix, the first Black female Texas Ranger. Filmmaker Richard Linklater. Railroad enthusiast Mary Irwin. Architect Karl Komatsu. 

But never have we had an Authentic Dog.

Until now.

When we brainstormed the many, many living figures who might represent the wide-ranging literary heritage of Texas, our whiteboard quickly filled with award winners and best-sellers. Poets, novelists, historians, illustrators, screenwriters, and more—we could’ve populated an entire book festival with this year’s new Texas authors alone.

Author John Ericson and late Hank The Cowdog Illustrator Gerald Holmes

What common denominator, we asked the group, appealed to everyone? What book did every Texan know, regardless of age or interest? What leading character was universally beloved—and maybe even better known than his creator?

We had our answer. A scruffy-mugged, feline-hatin’, adventure-seekin’, badge-wearin’, true-blue-loyal Head of Ranch Security dreamed up by a Panhandle rancher with aspirations to writerly achievement and brought to life by an artist friend. 

Yes, we’re talking none other than Hank the Cowdog, primed for his 75th book appearance this fall after 9 million copies in print. After all, it’s the Year of Hank in his hometown of Perryton, Texas, and Hank looks forward to being featured at the virtual 25th annual Texas Book Festival in November.

We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with this season’s Authentic Person, er, Canine, and his creator John R. Erickson. And we hope you’ll be inspired to get out and see some of the rugged country above the Canadian River that Hank calls home. It’s a landscape Hank has in common with one of Erickson’s other works, the recently reissued memoir Through Time and the Valley. Maybe our favorite cowdog won’t mind sharing the spotlight for a bit after he’s answered a few questions.

AUTHENTIC TEXAS: Hank, if memory serves, you made your first appearance in print in 1982. Now, thirty-eight is an awfully long time in dog years. What could there possibly be for a pup to do these days, that you haven’t already done?

HANK THE COWDOG:  You’d think that after a while, I’d have all the messes cleaned up and all the cases solved, but when you’re Head of Ranch Security, the job never ends. The raccoons keep wrecking the feed barn, the coyotes keep trying to poach a chicken… slurp…please disregard that slurp…and someone has to humble the local cat. It’s exhausting.

AT: If you don’t mind, tell our readers how you entered the imagination of John Erickson all those years ago. Sort of a creation tail, you might say.

HANK: Well, John grew up in the Panhandle. After college, instead of trying to amount to something, he combined two bad habits, cowboying and writing, and went to work on ranches. He wrote in the early morning hours and sent things off to New York publishers. They told him to go get a real job, but he didn’t listen and kept banging out hot-shot literary novels on his typewriter. After fifteen years, he figured it out: they didn’t like him, so he started writing for cow papers in Texas. That’s where we met in 1981.

AT: It was Gerald Holmes who drew your first portrait. How did that come about? Did you have to “Sit” for it?

HANK: When they met in 1976, Gerald was working at a feedlot and John was punching cows in Oklahoma. A smart banker wouldn’t have loaned either one of them a pair of sox. Holmes was ranch-raised and grew up with Ace Reid cartoons taped on the refrigerator door. He could draw a bucking horse and sure knew how to put a face on a Head of Ranch Security—me. Lady dogs all over Texas have been grateful ever since.

AT: All those calamities and commotions over the years! What were some of your most memorable adventures?

HANK: Yes, I’ve had a very adventurous life and have cheated death many times: skunks, porcupines, wild hogs, tornadoes, and the Charlie Monsters. My scariest deal came when I threw up in Sally May’s shoe and she tried to strangle me in the back yard. Lucky for me, her mother-in-law showed up for Thanksgiving. That was a close call.

AT: What do you think accounts for the enduring popularity of your stories? 

<strong>THE SECRET PLEDGE<strong> Hank still trying to unlock Miss Beulahs heart as she has fallen for a bird brained<br>bird dog

HANK: Beats me. Maybe people get tired of reading stuff that ruins their day. Erickson isn’t too smart but he sees the funny things that happen to people and dogs. I seldom do silly things (I’m Head of Ranch Security, don’t forget), but it’s fun to hear about the weird things others do. We might as well laugh about it. 

AT: What do you consider to be your most endearing trait?

HANK: Well, how much time do we have? This could take a while. Tell you what, I’ll cut to the bone and make a short list. Courteous, kind, obedient, reverent, thrifty, brave, strong, loyal, fearless, sincere, brave, strong, loyal, and above all, smart. 

That’s a big one, smart. Of course, if you asked the lady dogs, they’d mention my long cowdog nose. Awesome. They’re always fainting when I come around.

AT: Hank, we’ve heard you pen a verse or two and even howl a tune in audiobooks we’ve listened to. Give us an example of your favorite, um, doggerel!

HANK: There’s wisdom in this one: Never get your thrills from a guy who’s wearing quills. Bet you five you’ll get your fill pretty quick, and you will. Yes, you will.

AT: Most of our readers know about the terrible wildfire in 2017 that burned the ranch where you work (partly because they’ve read your book about it). What was that experience like?

HANK: Well, prairie fires are hard on dogs, clothes, and old men. They’re hot and make a lot of smoke. If they get close to your house, they’ll burn it down. Our cows had no grass and were chasing every pickup that went down the road. We gave ’em feed and they bawled for more. They’re greedy and ungrateful. All they think about is food. Dogs are that way too but…never mind, skip it. 

AT: You and John began collaborating on a series of books about ranching life recently for the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock. What do you enjoy most about this new direction? (Oh, and you’re not going to quit with the main series, are you?!)

HANK: Teaching the kids is a natural part of my job with the Security Division. 

  • Don’t take trash off the cats
  • Brush your teeth once a week 
  • Eat your spinach
  • Don’t eat cookies in bed
  • If you barf, don’t do reruns in front of the ladies, it really grosses them out.

Most mutts don’t know squat about ranch work, but I know a lot. I’ve done four books with the NRHC and they get ’em into the schools. You know how I figured out Jim Brett Campbell, the director of the NRHC, was a genu-wine rancher himself? He wrote it in the contract that I get two scoops of Co-op dog food per book..

AT: Hank, this next one’s for John. What did you aspire to write about Texas, and how did you wind up creating a children’s story series?

JOHN ERICKSON: I grew up in Perryton, a little farm and ranch town in the Panhandle, and it never occurred to me that I could write about such a place. I figured I would have to live in New York and write about “important things.” I tried living in important places (New York, Boston, and Austin) and found, to my disappointment, that everything I wrote was bad: dark, depressing, and ugly. 

Kris and I moved back to Perryton in 1970. I went to work on ranches and began writing about what I was seeing and doing. It wasn’t “important” in the usual literary sense, but it had heart and soul, and it was funny. I was surprised to find that rural Texas had produced some fine authors, including John Graves and Elmer Kelton. I learned from both, had great admiration for them, and tried to incorporate their insights into my writing.

But the Hank stories weren’t an imitation, they were a gift that just dropped out of the sky. It was the kind of blessing that comes after you’ve been looking for something for fifteen years but were never sure what it was. Hank just showed up in a short article I wrote for The Cattleman magazine in 1981 and from the very beginning, there was magic in those stories.

I didn’t plan it or predict it, and never intended for the stories to be for children. 

Nobody in the literary world would have touched a book narrated by a ranch dog who was five bales short of a full load of hay, so I started Maverick Books in our garage in Perryton and published them myself. I had to build an audience from the grass roots, and it has worked out far better than I could have dreamed.

AT: The characters in the Hank books, from Slim Chance to Sally May to Pete the Barn Cat, feel familiar to Texas readers—and so do the scenes and settings, such as the platform dances that people used to attend in Lipscomb to the great ranch expanses of the Canadian Breaks. Are they based on real people and places—and where can fans go to experience Hank’s Texas for themselves?

<strong>ORIGINAL INSPIRATIONS <strong>Hank The Cowdog original illustration from artist Gerald Holmes This illustration was restored and is featured on the front cover

JRE: The Hank stories are a loving portrait of rural America, people who live in little towns and on isolated ranches. They work hard, try to make the world a little better through honest work and good kids, and share their lives with livestock and dogs. They are people who tell stories, funny stories that contain humility and a wonderful innocence. 

You can meet those characters in any feed store, church, or tire shop in West Texas and hear their voices at a wedding reception, funeral, grass fire, branding, or country dance. You can learn about them and their history at the Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, the Haley Library in Midland, or any county museum between Crane and Perryton.

Hank lives in a tiny world…but the odd thing is that those silly little books are popular in China and Iran, countries that aren’t supposed to like us. It tells me that they recognize something dignified and beautiful in the American Heartland.

AT: The Hank the Cowdog books are still published and sold in Perryton—that’s got to be a pretty big undertaking! Did you ever consider a different distribution channel for your books?

JRE: I never expected Hank to become a star, but by the time we had published the first ten books in Perryton, we realized that we needed a more sophisticated distribution system. Gary Rinker had joined me by then, an accounting whiz-kid fresh out of Wayland Baptist University, and he negotiated a deal with Texas Monthly Press to take over the publishing and distribution. Later, we moved the series to Viking-Penguin in New York. When they decided not to renew the contract, we moved it all back to Perryton. 

We have a big warehouse full of Hank books and audios. When you buy a Hank book at a store or on Amazon, it comes from Ochiltree County, Texas. 

AT: The past couple of years have brought great challenge and change for you and Kris—the devastation of the ranch and your original works, and Gerald’s passing. How is your literary career evolving?

JRE: The fire dealt us a serious blow and we learned to appreciate the words of Job: “Naked I came into this world and naked I will leave it.” But we had strong hands and good angels holding us up: family, church, community, and people we didn’t even know. It took us thirty-nine months to rebuild, but we’re back at home on the ranch. 

One of the positive things that came out of the fire was that I wrote a nonfiction book about the wildfires of 2006 and 2017, the biggest fires in Texas recorded history. I had a ringside seat to both. Texas Tech University Press will bring it out in 2021.

It was hard to say goodbye to Gerald Holmes. We had worked together for thirty years and he had put faces on all my characters. You can’t really replace such a gifted artist, and we dreaded the prospect of trying. We planned to audition a list of prospects but discovered that Nikki Earley, our editor who had worked with Gerald on a number of books, had mastered his style of drawing. She showed us some sketches and won the job. She will make her first appearance in book 75.

How is my career evolving? This fall, we’re going to be bringing out a Hank production in a format we’ve never worked in before. It’s going to be a first-class production that will involve a team of extremely talented individuals. 

Beyond that, I get up every morning, go to my little office, and write four hours. I’m still writing Hank books and still enjoying it. I look after my ranch and cattle. I’m an old mule who pulls the same plow every day. That’s what I’m supposed to do. Best of all, I’m still married to the same gal I brung to the dance in 1967.

AT: Hank, we’ll come back around to you for the closing question. If you could leave the ranch in Drover’s capable paws for a day or two, what would you want to go see in Texas?

HANK: Oh, that’s easy. I’d go camping…at the trash bins behind the Ideal Food Store in Twitchell. I’d wait for the butchers to bring out the beef bones, don’t you see, and chew bones until the world looked level. If a few cats showed up, it would add to the fun. I’d give ’em my Train Horns Bark and run ’em up the nearest telephone pole. Wow, what a life!

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