John R. Erickson
|John Richard Erickson|
October 20, 1943 |
Midland, Texas, USA
|Residence||Perryton, Ochiltree County
|Education||Perryton High School
University of Denver
University of Texas
Harvard Divinity School
|Occupation||Western writer: Hank the Cowdog series|
|Spouse(s)||Kristine Dykema Erickson (married c. 1967)|
John R. Erickson (born October 20, 1943) has written and published 75 books and more than 600 articles, and is best known as the author of the Hank the Cowdog series of books, audio-books, and stage plays. His stories have won a number of awards, including the Audie, Oppenheimer, Wrangler, and Lamplighter Awards.
The Hank the Cowdog series began as a self-publishing venture in his garage in 1982 and has endured to become one of the nation’s most popular series for children and families. The Hank books have been translated into Spanish, Danish, and Chinese, and have sold over 8.5 million copies.
- 1 Biography
- 2 Life as an Author
- 3 Bibliography
- 4 References
- 5 External links
John Richard Erickson was born in Midland, Texas, on October 20, 1943, to Joseph W. Erickson and Anna Beth Curry Erickson. The youngest of three children, he had a brother Charles and sister Ellen Sparks.
His paternal grandfather, Charles Erickson, immigrated to the United States from Sweden at the age of twelve, settled in the Kansas City area, and operated an independent grocery store until his retirement.
The Curry side of the family had deep roots in Texas history. A great-great grandmother, Martha Sherman, was murdered in 1860 near the Parker-Palo Pinto County line, west of Weatherford, by a band of Comanche Indians led by Chief Peta Nocona. To avenge the death of Mrs. Sherman, Governor Sam Houston dispatched Captain Sul Ross and his Texas Rangers to pursue the Comanches to the Pease River watershed, near present-day Crowell.
After a brief skirmish, the Rangers captured a green-eyed woman who had been taken captive as a child, and whose story is well known to students of Texas history: Cynthia Ann Parker, the mother of Quanah Parker. The scout for the mission was young Charles Goodnight, later to become famous as the founder of the JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon.
Another set of Erickson’s great-great grandparents were among a colony of Quakers who established the town of Estacado in 1879, the first Anglo settlement on the Staked Plains near present-day Lubbock. Anna Beth Curry’s grandparents began ranching in Crosby and Lubbock Counties in the mid-1880s, and later, her father, Buck Curry, operated a ranch near Seminole in Gaines County. [For further reading, see Erickson’s Prairie Gothic]
Erickson’s parents left Midland in 1946 and moved to Perryton in the Panhandle, the farthest-north county seat in Texas, 550 miles northwest of Austin. There, Joe Erickson established his own business on Main Street, dealing in insurance, real estate, and abstracting. He was also a classically-trained pianist and played the organ at the First Baptist Church.
Anna Beth devoted her time and talent to the home and her family. She made a serious study of nutrition and food preparation, and often read Bible stories to John when he was young. In his book "Story Craft", Erickson credits his mother for being his first and best writing teacher, even though she never wrote anything longer than a letter. She was a gifted storyteller with a gentle, earthy sense of humor, and nourished his imagination on tales about the ranchers and cowboys in his family.
When he was five years old, she told him something that stayed with him throughout his life: “God has given you a talent. You must guard it and use it wisely.” Decades later he wrote, “Maybe that’s something every mother says to every child, but I believed her.”
John grew up in an old two-story house on Amherst Street, and enjoyed an uncluttered childhood during a period of American innocence. Television had not come to town, so he and his friends spent most of their time outside, playing cowboy, pirate, Rob Roy, football, and World War II, and surrounded by dogs, cats, chickens, and rabbits. Around the age of twelve, he began working on farms and ranches, a passion that has stayed with him all his life.
John started first grade in the Perryton school system and graduated from high school in the class of 1962. He ran track and played varsity football, sang in the choir, played bassoon in the band and drums in the stage band, and taught himself how to play the five-string banjo. He participated in speech events (debate and extemporaneous speaking), and played lead roles in one-act play and senior play. He had little interest in grades and has described himself as “a lazy student.”
He was also a slow, reluctant reader.
- "My parents placed a high value on reading, starting with the King James Bible, and one whole wall of our living room was filled, floor to ceiling, with books. But I was an outside kid and didn’t have the patience to be a reader. That changed, briefly, when I discovered The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in the fourth grade. That was the one book I truly loved. I read it several times, then read Huckleberry Finn. I was fascinated by the way Twain played with language and used regional dialects. But what amazed me most was that Twain allowed the reader to laugh. Reading didn’t have to be drudgery. Twain didn’t allow it."
His talent for writing went unnoticed until his senior year in high school. “Our parents and teachers had been preoccupied with trying to survive droughts, the Great Depression, and World War II. It never occurred to them, or to us, that a kid from Perryton could aspire to being an author.” But in his senior year, his English teacher, Annie Love, made the class write an original poem, and Erickson found that it was easy for him. For the rest of the year, he stayed up late at night, listening to Bach recordings and writing poems for Mrs. Love.
“They were dark, brooding poems on the meaning of Life and Death, and I would be embarrassed if I read them today. But Mrs. Love saw a spark of talent and nurtured it with praise. At certain times in a writer’s life, it’s extremely important that somebody says, ‘That is really beautiful!’ She did that with me and it gave me a reason to continue writing. I wrote for her.”
John took his first year of college at the University of Denver. “I wanted to get out of Texas and see a bigger world.” At DU, he shared a dorm floor with boys from Long Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New England; Christians and Jews, fraternity boys, atheists, socialists, and the first Afro-Americans he’d ever encountered. On weekends, he did volunteer work with a poor family in Denver and at a mental hospital in Pueblo.
By the middle of his freshman year, John had gotten involved in the Civil Rights movement, which was just beginning to stir. In March 1963, he joined a racially mixed group of students who spent a week in Mississippi. They visited the offices of the White Citizens’ Council, met Governor Ross Barnett, and spent an afternoon with the field secretary of the Jackson NAACP. His name was Medgar Evers, and three months later, he was assassinated in his front yard.
John spent the summer of 1963 working in a Methodist church in East Harlem, and returned in 1965 to work in a church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn. “I loved New York and was awed by its size and energy. I felt comfortable in New York, and admired the toughness and resilience of its citizens. At that time, I thought I would end up living there.”
In the fall of 1963, he transferred to the University of Texas at Austin.  “At UT, I was forced to study for the first time in my life. I somehow managed to get accepted in the Plan II honors program, and it was a difficult course of study. I had to work very hard to maintain a B average.” He studied philosophy under John Silber, classical literature under William Arrowsmith and Donald Carne-Ross, history under Paul F. Boller, Jr., and William Goetzman.
He also found opportunities to develop his writing skills and did well in courses that required essays. He took writing classes, wrote and produced several plays, composed poetry at night, and wrote a weekly editorial column for The Daily Texan. “I had not evolved into a disciplined writer, but I was writing.”
In his senior year of college, he met and began dating a beautiful young lady from Dallas, Kristine Dykema, whom he married a year later. They were both taking summer courses in August 1966 and were on campus the day Charles Whitman went on his shooting rampage and murdered more than a dozen people on the UT Mall.
After graduating from UT in August 1966, John moved on to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and attended Harvard Divinity School on a fellowship from the Fund For Theological Education. At Harvard, he took courses under Krister Stendahl, Gordon Kauffman, H. Richard Niebuhr, Harvey Cox, and David Riesman. After he and Kris took their marriage vows in Dallas, they drove to Boston and John continued his studies at HDS. He was accepted into a small class on fiction writing, taught by Professor Theodore Morrison, and began his first attempts at writing short stories.
John had considered going into the ministry, but by the end of his second year, he had begun to suspect that that theology was not his natural language, and that his future lay elsewhere—perhaps as a writer.
- “My marriage to Kris brought discipline and meaning into my life. I took a year-long course on fiction writing at Harvard and began writing every day. What I wrote wasn’t good and none of it has survived, but the discipline of writing every day was the first step toward becoming a professional. Professional writers have professional habits.”
Back To Texas
John left HDS in May 1968, three hours short of a master's degree, and he and Kris moved back to Texas. In Austin, he worked for two years in an inter-racial ministry with churches in North Austin. In June 1970, they loaded their possessions in a two-wheel trailer and drove north to Perryton to visit his parents. “Somehow, we never got around to leaving,” he recalls. John took a job as a farm hand, tended bar in the local country club, and worked for a cattle-feeding operation. Every morning, he went to his office in the garage and wrote for three or four hours.
During the years 1974 to 1981, John worked as a ranch cowboy in Oklahoma and Texas. There, he found a balance between hard physical work and the intense, concentrated effort of writing. Every morning between 4:30 and 5:30 he walked to his office in a bunk house, and put in his three or four hours at the typewriter. He wrote novels, short stories, articles, plays, essays, and book reviews. When he sent them off to publishers, most came back with rejection slips. He spent an entire year writing a thousand-page historical novel that has never been published.
After enduring hundreds of rejections, Erickson finally found a home for Through Time and the Valley, a nonfiction account of a 150-mile horseback trip he made down the Canadian River valley in Texas. (Shoal Creek Publishers, 1978). This small success was followed in 1980 by Panhandle Cowboy (University of Nebraska Press) and The Modern Cowboy (University of Nebraska Press, 1981).
He also found an outlet for his articles (mostly about cowboying and ranch life) in such non-literary journals as Livestock Weekly, The Cattleman, Prorodeo Sports News, Texas Highways, Western Horseman, and The Dallas Morning News. At last he was drawing some income from his writing, but the four novels he had finished continued to harvest a crop of rejection slips.
Life as an Author
Hank the Cowdog
By the winter of 1982, he had reached a dead end.
- “I was working in the snow as a carpenter’s assistant. I had a wife and two small children, and Kris was pregnant with our third child. It seemed that everyone who knew anything about ‘literature’ was sending a message that I should find another line of work. A sensible man would have followed their advice. I decided to start my own publishing company in our garage in Perryton, Texas, a town that didn’t even have a bookstore.”
He quit his job, borrowed two thousand dollars from a local bank, and brought out a collection of fourteen short stories he had written for The Cattleman and Western Horseman, a thin trade paperback called The Devil In Texas and Other Cowboy Tales. To find an audience, he ran ads in livestock magazines and read his stories aloud to any audience that needed a free program. He set up a booth at rodeos, county fairs, trade shows, saddle shops, and livestock auctions. At every stop, he sold books. The first printing of The Devil In Texas sold out in six weeks.
One of the stories he read aloud to audiences was called “Confessions of a Cowdog,” the very first appearance of Hank the Cowdog. Audiences loved that story and began telling the author, “You need to do more with that dog!” The thought that there might be a kind of magic in this ranch mutt and his dingbat companion, Drover, had never occurred to Erickson, but he followed the advice of the people who were buying the books. He wrote The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog, and brought it out through Maverick Books in the spring of 1983.
Again, the first printing sold out in a matter of weeks, but not to children. “In the beginning, I wasn’t doing programs in schools and never intended the story to be for children. My original audience consisted of adults, most of them involved in agriculture. I knew nothing about children’s literature, and still don’t.”
Hank was a hit from the beginning, in a tiny world composed of small agricultural communities in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, and once again, the audience said, “You need to do more with that dog!” Erickson had never thought of writing a series and was unsure whether he could come up with a second book, but he gave it a try. He wrote the second Hank book, The Further Adventures, in two weeks. The book sold well and Erickson wrote the third Hank episode, It’s a Dog’s Life.
From the start, Erickson intended for the stories to be read aloud, and one of the unique features of the series is that he has done them all in the audio-book format, performing all the character voices himself and composing two original songs for each episode. “Ours was a small, boot-strap, family operation. I couldn’t afford to hire actors or musicians, so I had to learn to do it all myself.” In 2015, a fan of the audio books reported that he had counted 150 character voices in the series.
The Hank series has become the longest-running series of children’s audios in America, and in 1996 the author won the Audie Award for the best children’s audio book of the year, beating out titles from Disney, Random House, and the biggest audio publishers in the country.
Kris played an extremely important role in the John’s career from the start. In the early years of their marriage, she encouraged him to follow his dream of being a writer and never complained that, for fifteen years, it produced very little in the way of income or worldly possessions. She had an extraordinary gift for transforming any humble dwelling into a home filled with love, warmth, and meaning.
She had no fear of the unknown and untried. When John needed extra cowboy help, she saddled up and rode. When he needed a photographer to illustrate his articles and nonfiction books, she bought a camera, learned how to use it, and developed her own pictures in a homemade darkroom.
When he needed an editor, she accepted the thankless job of saying, “This isn’t as funny as you think.” She served as his partner in the early days of Maverick Book: filling mail, answering the phone, and handling book sales at his public appearances. When he began recording songs for the Hank audio books, she taught herself how to play the mandolin, sang harmony and solo vocals, and performed with him on stage.
John often tells an audience of school children, “If you love the Hank books, you should give my wife a hug, because without her, there wouldn’t be any.”
John and Kris have three grown children: Scot (1974), Ashley Wilson (1978), and Mark (1982).
Although the Hank books began as a regional phenomenon, CBS television heard about them and brought out a thirty-minute cartoon of the first book. It aired in May 1985 as part of a series called “CBS Storybreak,” with Bob Keeshan as the host. Naturally, Erickson was delighted to get the national exposure.
Only later did he notice that the “Storybreak” presentation removed all traces of the family that is central to his stories: Loper, Sally May, and their two children, with Slim Chance working on the ranch as a hired hand. “I was stunned. Why would they take the family out of my story?”
This was his first exposure to the social-political agendas that are often embedded in popular culture: the rewriting of a work of literature so that it delivers an almost-invisible political message, one that the original author never intended. For more on this subject, see Story Craft: Reflections on Faith, Culture, and Writing.
The success of the Hank series brought growth to Maverick Books, and with it the usual problems of a small business: bigger facilities, more employees, and financing an inventory that grew larger with each new title. In 1986, Erickson hired a young accounting major, Gary Rinker, who had just graduated from Wayland University, and Gary took over the day-to-day operations of Maverick Books.
One of his first tasks was to analyze a 32-page contract from Disney Pictures, which might have led to a feature-length animated Hank movie, a very exciting prospect—except that it would have given all rights to the characters to Disney, with the author receiving no royalties whatever. Young Rinker and John’s father said, “No way.” Erickson agreed, and the dream of seeing Hank as a Disney movie gave way to the routine business of selling one book at a time.
Hank the Cowdog as a Series For Children
It was around this time that Maverick Books began getting calls from teachers and librarians, who reported that children were bringing the Hank books to school and loved reading them. Like Mark Twain, who never considered Tom Sawyer a book for kids, Erickson learned from his audience that he was the author of a children’s book series.
After he did a performance for a thousand librarians at Sam Houston State University in 1986, word spread rapidly, and the circle of Hank readers moved far beyond its original home in the Texas Panhandle. Hank became a staple in school libraries, not only in Texas but in other parts of the country as well.
Hank was becoming a star and Maverick Books was not set up to meet the growing demand, so Gary Rinker negotiated a contract with Texas Monthly Press in Austin, making TMP the publisher and distributor of the books. Several years later, Gulf Publishing Company bought TMP and Hank’s home moved to Allen Parkway, just west of downtown Houston. In 1998, Erickson moved the series to Viking-Penguin in New York.
In 2011, Hank returned to Perryton and a new warehouse on the west edge of town. “I never wanted to put my fate into the hands of any publisher or entertainment company,” says Erickson. “The Hank books started out in a small community in the heartland, and we brought them back home.”
Today, Maverick Books serves as World Headquarters of Hank the Cowdog, and maintains the official Hank website www.hankthecowdog.com, with a complete on-line store, a blog, and links to social media sites.
Hank and the Schools
For more than thirty years, Erickson and Hank have maintained a close relationship with parents, librarians, and teachers. “I’m a father and grandfather, a citizen of a small community, and a member of a church. I don’t write trash for other peoples’ children, and we’ve established a brand name my readers can trust. We don’t ‘push the envelope’ or peddle hidden agendas. Innocent laughter is a rare commodity in the postmodern world, and that’s what we try to achieve.”
Educators were quick to note this quality in the Hank series, and also that children loved reading the stories, even kids who thought they hated to read, including children with autism and reading disabilities such as dyslexia. Erickson began getting invitations to do author visits in schools and has appeared in thousands of schools, from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Key West, Florida. He has also been a popular speaker at conventions of teachers, librarians, and homeschoolers.
Hank Musical Comedies for the Stage
In 2002, Erickson realized that it was only a short step from the kind of performances he was doing in schools (songs and readings) to musical comedies performed on stage by a cast of actors, and he adapted the Hank stories into eight musical comedies: “Calling Earl,” “The Curse of the Incredible Priceless Corncob,” “Lost In the Dark Unchanted Forest,” “Every Dog Has His Day,” “Thank You, Lord, For Making Gals,” “The Missing Cat,” and “Scardy Cats.”
The plays have been performed by theater groups in Arlington, Houston, Plano, San Antonio, Amarillo, Round Rock, Perryton, and Snyder, Texas; Ashville, North Carolina; Butler County Community College in Kansas; Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and Dollywood in Tennessee. In 2010 and 2013 Houston’s Main Street Theater  did a traveling show and performed Hank plays in hundreds of schools in the Greater Houston area.
In 2014 an entertainment company in China asked Erickson to write a play based on the first book. It will be translated into Mandarin and performed in Beijing and other cities in 2015.
Information about the plays can be found on the Hank website.
Who Is Hank?
Hank the Cowdog has become an enduring and beloved character in American literature, and just as Arthur Conan Doyle was asked about the sources for Sherlock Holmes and Mark Twain about Tom Sawyer, Erickson is often asked, “Who is Hank, and where did he come from?”
The original model for Hank was an Australian Shepherd that lived on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma. “He had a good heart, he wanted to help with the cattle work, he thought he was Head of Ranch Security, but he wasn’t very smart and never understood why the cowboys were mad at him all the time.” Over the years, Hank has acquired traits of other dogs that have shared the Ericksons’ home, and the author is emphatic that “Hank is a dog, not a human dressed up in a dog suit. Humans share some of his flaws, but I get my ideas from watching dogs.”
Books by John R. Erickson
As of May 2015, there are 65 books in the Hank the Cowdog series, 71 audio titles, and two CDs of music from the audios. Those titles can be viewed on the Hank website, www.hankthecowdog.com. Erickson has also written a number of non-Hank books that have lived in Hank’s shadow and are not as well known.
- Through Time and the Valley (1978). Shoal Creek Publishers, Maverick Books, and University of North Texas Press.
- Panhandle Cowboy (1980). With a preface by Larry McMurtry. University of Nebraska Press and University of North Texas Press.
- The Modern Cowboy (1981). University of Nebraska Press and University of North Texas Press.
- The Devil in Texas and Other Cowboy Tales (1982). Maverick Books and Gulf Publishing Company.
- Cowboys Are Partly Human (1983). Maverick Books and Gulf Publishing Company.
- Alkali County Tales (1984). Maverick Books and Gulf Publishing Company.
- The Hunter (1984). Doubleday and Company.
- Ace Reid: Cowpoke (1984). Maverick Books.
- Essays on Writing and Publishing (1985). Maverick Books.
- Cowboys Are Old Enough To Know Better (1986). Maverick Books and Gulf Publishing Company.
- Cowboys Are a Separate Species (1986). Maverick Books and Gulf Publishing Company.
- Cowboy Country (1986). Maverick Books.
- Cowboy Fiddler (1992). With Frankie McWhorter. Texas Tech Press and University of North Texas Press.
- Horse Fixin’: Forth Years of Working With Problem Horses (1992). With Frankie McWhorter. Texas Tech Press
- Catch Rope—The Long Arm of the Cowboy (1994). University of North Texas Press.
- LZ Cowboy: A Cowboy’s Journal 1979-81 (1999). University of North Texas Press.
- Some Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys: A Collection of Articles and Essays (1999). University of North Texas Press.
- Friends: Cowboys, Cattle, Horses, Dogs, Cats, and Coons (2002). University of North Texas Press.
- Prairie Gothic: The Story of a West Texas Family (2005). Foreword by Elmer Kelton. University of North Texas Press.
- Moonshiner’s Gold (2001). Viking-Penguin and Maverick Books.
- Discovery At Flint Springs (2003). Viking Press and Maverick Books.
- Story Craft: Reflections on Faith, Culture, and Writing (2009). Introduction by Gene Edward Veith and foreword by Nancy Pearcey. Maverick Books.
- Fear’s Return (2011). Maverick Books.
- "Meet the Author John R. Erickson". www.hankthecowdog.com. Retrieved October 9, 2013.
- Story Craft: Reflections on Faith, Culture and Writing from the Author of Hank the Cowdog, Maverick Books, Inc., 2009.
- TSCRA: Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association