By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
World-renowned science fiction writer and Eastern New Mexico University professor Jack Williamson cut a diverse and pioneering path in the 98 years of his life. Friends, fans and family filled the ENMU Campus Union Building Thursday to celebrate that life.
The crowd assembled reflected Williamson’s own diversity — from farming and ranching people to writers and university faculty and science fiction fans.
Betty Williamson told the audience of her uncle’s early days growing up on the family ranch near Pep. She told the crowd about his first driving experience — piloting the Model T truck that served as the school bus, filled with children.
“He said he knew what to do from watching the driver,” Williamson said. “Fortunately no one was hurt.”
After graduating high school, he and younger brother Jim, her father, took a trip across the Southwest in a Model T. She said that on that trip the two hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and drank from the Colorado River, then hiked back to the rim all in one day. She said her uncle recalled being tired when they got to the top — later he found out he was suffering from malaria at the time.
Betty Williamson said that around 1934, with help from her dad, Jack built a shack out of raw pine boards on the ranch to give him a place to get away from the family and pursue his writing. He eventually added sleeping quarters and a wind generator that would power a single light bulb.
After his years in the service as a weather forecaster during World War II, he went to work for his good friend, Gordon Greaves, at the Portales Daily News. Greaves conspired to set his bachelor buddy up with a lady who owned a local dress shop. It was to be an evening of poker and the lady owned the chips.
“Before the evening was over, Jack said, ‘I was captured,’” recalled his niece.
In 1947 he married Blanche Slaten Harp in Portales.
Williamson went out of his way to stay active and in touch with the world around him, said his niece.
Betty Williamson said he once spent a few days in the hospital after injuring his shoulder, and was released in time for a scheduled dinner party at the Cattle Baron. Because of his shoulder, he couldn’t dress so he just put a robe on over his pajama top and went on to dinner.
“I told him later, ‘You know the dinner could have been canceled.’ He said, ‘I know, but I don’t want to become a hermit.’”
Patrice Caldwell, ENMU executive director of planning and analysis, who co-taught courses with Williamson in his later years, lauded the writer and professor as ENMU’s favorite son.
Caldwell said Williamson hated Old English but loved Shakespeare and Middle English.
“He once told someone it (Middle English) made him feel he was correcting a freshman’s composition,” Caldwell said.
She said he was known for his wit in coaching students and young writers, and all who learned under him sought the phrases, “That should work” and “May the force be with you” out of the professor.
“He was infinitely patient with new writers,” Caldwell said, “always encouraging them to keep writing.”
Noted science fiction writer and close Williamson friend, Connie Willis recalled a trip to a science fiction convention where she ended up in the Atlanta airport. She remembers the high-tech machines at the airport from the automatic sidewalks and escalators to the automated underground subway and baggage carousel. As she reached the baggage area, she noticed Williamson across the carousel.
“I thought the airport was part of the world Jack invented in his head,” Willis said. “He had lived long enough to be a part of it.”
Willis said that Williamson had won every award science fiction had to offer and had been the inspiration for such masters of the genre as Issac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.
“He invented the future for all of us,” Willis said. “And that future’s a far better place because he invented it.”