"A Fine Man"
I wrote this article in 2015. Hard to realize Dad would now be 103...
2015 -- Father’s Day this year is kind of special for myself and my siblings, as our dad was born in 1915, one hundred years ago. It seems strange and frankly unreasonable to think that, if he were still with us, he would be that old. He is still too known, too familiar, his example and lessons too fresh in my mind. But then I realize that we all are a long term influence on our kids and grandkids, and that time is measured by generations that can stretch easily to a century. It is a matter of legacy.
W.O. Culbertson, Jr was born in Tucumcari, NM, a restless budding railroad and cattle town, sometimes also called Six-shooter Siding. That same year his father and R.S. Coon of Dalhart, Texas created a partnership that soon would operate on ranches from Dalhart to the New Mexico line and develop the largest herd of registered cattle in the world. Dad grew up in Dalhart and on the ranches, and was from an early age a good cowboy, a characteristic that defined him more than any other experience. Considering the reach of his life and the broad spectrum of associates and friends, my father seemed to have the most regard and strongest connection to those who were good cowboys and horsemen.
The period of depression and drought in the ‘30s was among the early events that defined “the greatest generation.” Economic collapse and complete absence of life-giving rain brutally tested the strength and resolve of ranchers and farmers in the west, especially the plains states. Dalhart seemed to be in the bulls-eye of the black dust storms of the “Dirty Thirties,” deserving of its nickname as the capitol of the dust bowl. Many gave up for prospects elsewhere, inspiring Steinbeck’s great work, “The Grapes of Wrath.” The Coon & Culbertson ranch stuck it out, searching for feed and forage wherever it could be found. It is said my grandfather searched out and bought hay by the train car-load wherever he could, to be offloaded onto wagons and carried straight out to the cattle. These were Dad’s formative years and the early shaping of his identity as a cattleman.
W.O. enrolled at Texas A&M College where, in 1938, he earned his degree in Animal Husbandry as well as his officer’s commission in the United States Army Reserve. Dad was an Aggie, through and through. From an early age us kids knew the Aggie Fight Song by heart and probably could have identified most of the main attractions of “Aggieland” on first sight. I didn’t attend A&M, but he seemed not to mind, or at least he didn’t show it. Anyway, he came back to the ranch in the spring of ‘38, as he always knew he would, “caught his horses,” and went to work managing the outfit. In 1939 Coon & Culbertson dissolved their enterprise and, with Mr. Coon’s encouragement, my grandfather created a new partnership with his sons, acquiring ranchland and moving the cowherd to Harding County, New Mexico.
In 1940 Dad and his hometown sweetheart, Marie Ellen Foltz, eloped to Santa Fe to be married. M.E., as he always called her, was the oldest of three daughters in a railroad family. A red haired beauty, she had been the first Queen of Dalhart’s famed XIT reunion in 1937. W.O. & M.E. made their first home in a little rock house at the “Baca Ranch” on the Ute Creek, near Bueyeros, NM.
War came with the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, and Dad was called to active duty. After artillery training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Lieutenant Culbertson said goodbye to his bride, boarded a train, and shipped out to the Pacific theater. My brother Bill was born in 1942 and saw his dad only once in the four years of World War II.
Few events of history affect the pathways of peoples’ lives like those of war. 400,000 Americans gave their lives, and, in their sacrifice, gave up the opportunity to be fathers. Dad was in the Army’s 98thDivision, which was among the forces preparing for Operation Downfall, the invasion of Japan. Military planners projected as many as one million casualties in the invasion, and the particular assignment for the 98thwas known to be pretty much a suicide mission. The battle force was getting ready to go with ships loading supplies and gear at the docks in Hawaii, and Dad’s duffel bag was already packed and on the troop ship. Then, Hiroshima and in a few days Nagasaki, and soon afterward the war was over. Within weeks, Captain Culbertson was on his way home.
Out of the Service and back on the ranch, Dad revived what had been begun before the war, ranching and cowboying, but he also found himself involved in another kind of service, having been elected to the Harding County Commission and later the NM House of Representatives. In 1947 I was born, making the little house on the Baca Ranch just a little tighter fit for the family.
In 1950, brother Cary was born, and at the same time the family ranch company bought the Park Springs Ranch, halfway between Las Vegas and Santa Rosa. Our family moved there early that year and began the next chapter of life’s adventure. Sister Jane Ellen was born in 1953. For 34 years Park Springs Ranch was an anchor point for how we measured our story as a family, whether on the ranch or away. Las Vegas became the community that provided the source for friendships, shopping, school, church, and all the rest.
Dad was prominent in New Mexico politics as a legislator, candidate for Governor, candidate for Lt Governor, and a respected advisor to numerous political leaders, statewide and nationally. He was a businessman, cattleman, cowboy, horseman, pilot, freemason, speaker, and occasional lay preacher. He did and saw many things, had many friends, and reached across a broad spectrum of private and public life; but to me and my siblings he was, above any of that, always present in the life of the family, the one who taught the skills, required the standards, provided the example, and showed the way. He was insightful, humble, gregarious, engaging, and respected people without regard to their station in life.
Dad passed away thirty years ago, and yet sometimes I still meet people who upon mention of him remark, “He was a fine man.” Maybe that is, in a phrase, what we are called upon to pass down to the generations; the thing that we might hope to be said of any of us in our one-hundredth year. It is a matter of legacy.