A giant in the world of Texas arts died on Sunday. He was a photographer and writer, and his work made Texas famous around the world. TPR's Arts and Culture Reporter Jack Morgan remembers Bill Wittliff.
Wittliff’s death was announced on Monday morning by Texas State University President Denise M. Trauth. (Read Trauth’s email in a Facebook post below) In the email, Trauth writes “Bill was a gifted writer, filmmaker, photographer, artist, and visionary. He was an inspiration to all who knew him, but particularly to our students.”
Words cannot describe the sorrow that we feel this morning. Bill was more than a founder, he was a leader and a mentor. He inspired us. He cared about us and we cared about him deeply. We were all lucky to have known and worked with him. Bill Wittliff (1940-2019) #TheWittliff pic.twitter.com/rVSjkRPFE8
— Wittliff Collections (@TheWittliff) June 10, 2019
Wittliff and his wife, Sally, founded The Wittliff Collections at Texas State in 1986, creating a research archive, library and exhibition gallery “focused entirely on the creative spirit of Texas and the Southwest,” Trauth said.
Hector Saldana, curator at the Bill Wittliff Collection at Texas State University in San Marcos, said Wittliff left his mark on several artistic fields.
"That's correct. Bill Wittliff is probably most famous for bringing Lonesome Dove to the screen. He was the screenwriter."
Wittliff explored what he saw as the four pillars of important Texas art: writing, photography, music and film. Saldana said Wittliff also brought Willie Nelson to movie screens in Honeysuckle Rose and Red-Headed Stranger.
"A lot of people don't know that the reason the song "On The Road Again" exists is because of Bill Wittliff," Saldana said. "Bill Wittliff needed some music for a scene in that movie and asked Willie to do something like, you know, from the bus ... and Willie goes 'You mean like on the road again?' and he goes 'Yeah!' and wrote it and we have those lyrics also here at the Wittliff collections." Saldana said Witliff was warm and friendly — the quintessential Texan.
"I don't think he ever met a stranger. He was very personable, and he had great stories. I mean, from the time when he was a teenager, he was about 16 when he drove from Blanco, Texas, to see Elvis Presley play at the then Municipal Auditorium. And he found out the show was sold out. He climbed a tree to try to get into a window, saw Elvis Presley there in the window. Elvis motioned to him and asked him, 'What are you doing up there in the tree?' And Bill Wittliff explained, and Elvis Presley tore out a paper towel and wrote to the ticket taker to let these three boys in. They're friends of mine. We have that piece of paper on display at the Wittliff Collection."
Saldana’s testimonial is backed up by Trauth. She says, “Bill could usually be found in the corner of the room surrounded by students as he patiently answered questions about the creative process.” The University’s President also credited Wittliff with attracting people to Texas State from all over the world through the collection.
Wittliff donated his materials from Lonesome Dove, which won seven Emmys, two Golden Globes and a Peabody Award, to the archive at Texas State.
Wittliff was also an accomplished photographer, having published a coffee table book on Vaqueros, or Mexican cowboys. His death was sudden — he had a heart attack. He was 79.
#RIP Bill Wittliff; wonderful screenwriter from Texas wrote the teleplay for 'Lonesome Dove' and the scripts for 'Legends of the Fall,' 'The Perfect Storm,' 'The Cowboy Way' and three Willie Nelson films. https://t.co/pTjFd9FPpo
— Mike Barnes (@MikeBarnes4) June 10, 2019
"He was he was always busy. He always had a he always had a project," Saldana said. "He had either a book project or some new photo prints he wanted to do. You know he was always on the go. And so that's what I'm going to miss. He was a firecracker."
When he died, he had been overseeing the expansion of his collection at Texas State. He is survived by his wife Sally. Funeral arrangements are pending.