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Saying Goodbye to a TV Western Icon
I really have been blessed in that through the things which I love to do, I have met some incredible people. Those things which I love are, of course the outdoors, and history. I have always been a huge Civil War buff, and if you look at my small library, 80% of the books deal with the Civil War, 10% might be hunting and the remainder are religious in nature.
I was asked many many years ago about giving tours at the Battle of Athens State Historic Site and I jumped at the opportunity. Well, if you are going to be at a Civil War Battlefield, it’s only natural that you would eventually find yourself in uniform and doing Civil War re-enactments. So I have an early war outfit, which is almost a civilian outfit, and late war, which are the uniform of both the Union and Confederacy. On the day I got a phone call from a former Site Administrator that there was a tour coming to Athens and could I dress in my early war attire to give tours, I jumped at the opportunity and I arrived shortly before the tour bus did.
When the bus pulled up out stepped Edwin Bearss. Just to give you an idea of who Edwin Bearss is, he is a decorated Marine who was wounded at Guadalcanal, author of countless Civil War books, given perhaps thousands of Civil War battlefield tours, Civil War speaker, and former Chief Historian of the National Park Service, a position he holds as Chief Historian Emeritus. I first learned of him through the PBS Civil War series by Ken Burns. I had a fascinating afternoon listening to him and sharing ideas with him. I still find it hard to believe that I got to meet him.
Being a Civil War re-enactor means that besides having an interest in the people and places of that time period, it often leads one in different directions. For example, our family are Civil War dance instructors, although we only attend a couple events a year now we are getting older. My interest in the Civil War and that time period also led me to firearms of that time period and into the old west for that matter. I have a weakness for 1851 Colt Navy reproductions. Very few soldiers carried swords or side arms except for officers, so naturally the desire to fire these pistols took me to joining the Wild Bunch, which is group of Old West re-enactors that pack, for the most, part black powder pistols and shotguns, although you will see a couple 1873 colt pistols, as well as some 1860 Henry rifles.
If Civil War re-enacting is regimented, the Wild Bunch is almost everything but regimented. You have good guys and bad guys and you have a scenario, such as a bank robbery or jail break and it always ends with a gunfight in the middle of the street. Being the bad guy, it is rare indeed for me to survive the fight.
This brings me to the point of this story. In 2004, I was in Hannibal for their festival and the Wild Bunch camped out there and had three or four gunfights on Saturday and Sunday. I got there on Saturday morning in time to get my guns safety inspected and load my three pistols (just with loose black powder no ball or bullet) and my double barrel shotgun. My group of outlaws was being ordered out of town by the local sheriff, in this instance Dave Wilson, and his two Walker reproductions, a couple Remington Army pistols, and a sawed off double barrel shotgun. Like all Wild Bunch fights, this first fight had lots of smoke and lots of noise. The crowd was on the sidewalks and it was a very sizable crowd. After I had fired all my shots, I died from multiple wounds inflicted by Sheriff Wilson’s armory. We laid in the street for a short time before someone yelled “Lazarus,” meaning we all came back to life.
After I had recovered my weapons, I began the walk back to our camp. I walked by a small pop-up canopy and a deep voice came from under the tent, “You boys put on a heck of show.” I turned to tell the voice “Thank you” when suddenly I came face to face with James Drury.
For those of you too young to know the name James Drury or if you’re older and may have forgotten, James Drury was the main character in the 90 minute TV western “The Virginian” which ran from 1962 until 1971.
Dave Wilson and I talked to Mr. Drury for perhaps twenty minutes and I would talk to him even more later after a few more of our shootouts. He autographed my Mexican bandito hat and Dave took the picture of us together that runs with this article. He seemed to be a super nice man who would have talked to us all day, I believe. I shared my thoughts about how much I enjoyed his western, as well as other acting performances.
Mr. Drury passed away this past week on Monday, April 6th in Houston, Texas of natural causes. It’s funny when you think about how many westerns he acted in when you realize he was born in New York City on April 18, 1934. His father was a university professor. His mother was a native of Oregon and had a ranch there and the family made a great many trips from New York City to that ranch. He grew up with a love for horses and the outdoor life style. In fact, in his younger days he competed in cutting horse events, as well as polo and dressage. It would his maternal grandfather who taught him his outdoor skills including shooting and marksmanship. At one time, he participated in shooting sports such as skeet, cowboy shooting, and trap. His first acting was in a children’s Christmas play when at 8 years of age, he played King Herald. His first professional acting occurred when Mr. Drury was 12 years old, and in 1954 he moved to Hollywood. I’m sure that things didn’t just happen, but Mr. Drury appeared in countless movies before and after “The Virginian.” He also returned to the theater. In 1991, he was inducted the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. The cowboy Action Shooting gave him a sense of history and a connection with the Old West. He maintained an active life up until the time of his death appearing at western events, autograph shows and festivals, such as the one at Hannibal where I met him. He spoke about the west and how our country was shaped by those values.
Mr. Drury was also a veteran having served as a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Naval Reserve. This past week I watched perhaps five or six episodes of “The Virginian” on the Inspiration Channel. I enjoyed each one, but a little sad, as well. We may never see his kind again, especially in Hollywood!