I gradually became aware as a child just how small our town of Tyler where I partially grew up was. If we wanted to go shopping, we had to drive to Dallas. When family flew in, we had to drive a hundred miles to Love Field to pick them up. My father found fine dining at Johnny Cace’s in Longview about a half hour away, especially when his mother came to visit.
Kilgore, was another small town only thirty minutes away where Sunday drives found us surveying the oil wells there. They were everywhere. They were in church yards, back yards and downtown. They were in a word, ugly, their greasy pumps always humming and pumping, pumping for oil in the hopes of hitting paydirt.
Yet there was something else in Kilgore that loomed taller than those oil wells, higher than Johnny Cace’s located on the second floor of an old
downtown building and definitely did not hum. There was someone who struck oil of a different sort.
Van Cliburn. It was my mother’s mother in Alaska who sent me a book that made me aware of him just a Sunday drive away. The book was
The Van Cliburn Legend. He was a legend to me as we never saw him. After reading the book I became aware everyone was excited that this twenty-three year old Texan had won the Russian Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. We laughed and smiled over the photo wire of the vertically challenged Khrushchev hugging this very tall Texan. “Why are you so tall?” he asked him. His reply, “Because I’m from Texas” the story goes. Such was this tall Texan’s manner that warmed the world during scary times when Cuban missiles pointed at our American Gulf Coast.
This past week, at the age of 78, Texas lost this favorite son. In the years that passed after reading that biography, I noticed any mention of him. But the mentions were few and far between. Still I remembered the cover photo of him from the book, sitting high on the back seat of a convertible, handsome with his large gifted hands waving to the crowds with ticker tape falling all around him in a NY parade celebrating his triumph. He retired early in the 70′s from concert performances, but I always returned to the thought that at least there’s the Van Cliburn piano competition that was founded with his name that could unveil future talent. He died in his home of Fort Worth just over a hundred miles away from Kilgore and about two hundred miles west of his birthplace of Shreveport, Louisiana.