Texas is suddenly one 10-gallon hat short

Oh, come on. You didn’t really expect a blog named “Letters From Texas” to allow the passing of a fantastic Texan like Larry Hagman to go without notice here, did you? We all grew up with JR, loved to hate JR, hated to love JR, and wondered who shot JR. Way before that, he was the lucky guy who got to shack up with the way-hot Jeannie.

Aside from LBJ or either President Bush, it’s hard to imagine a man more closely associated with Texas and more universally recognizable than Larry Hagman. In fact, years ago I went down to Nicaragua chasing after a woman I never caught, and after arriving in the Managua airport, knowing very little Spanish and realizing I needed to be on the other end of the country, I hired a guy who  spoke very little English to drive me there in the middle of the night. The first thing he wanted to know after I told him I’m a Texan: what’s JR Ewing really like?

I laughed and told the driver I didn’t know. I’d only briefly met the man once, in the Texas Capitol. But when I heard that Hagman had passed away, I contacted a couple of other Texans who did know him. I was just as curious as my Nicaraguan driver.

My friend Mary Mapes of Dallas (the town, not the TV show), whose words have long graced the sidebar to your immediate left, knew him. Here’s what she had to say:

He had a great hissing laugh and a really good sense of humor. Very quick, and very self-deprecating. He was interested in journalism and had several subjects he really liked to talk about, including veterans and PTSD.

He loved Texas, and loved making fun of Texas and Texans in the way that only someone from here and of here can get away with.

A fascinating detail I always noticed is how different he looked, and even acted, without the big ol’ hat. I was at a party at Lisa Blue’s house and hadn’t met him yet, when I realized that the rather dignified man walking past me (hatless) was Larry. White hair, regal carriage, quiet, and elegant. Next time I saw him that evening, he had the hat on. And it was a transformation. He seemed taller, edgier, more of a rapscallion, crazy eyebrows, the whole JR look. He seemed to revel in his Texas alter ego.

Philanthropist, politico, and Dallas lawyer (the town, not the TV show – STOP THAT) Lisa Blue knew Larry Hagman well. He was not only among her closest friends, but she also serves as the founding board member of Hagman’s foundation.  He organized the foundation because, as Lisa explained, “he wanted to give back in some way.”

Lisa’s bottom line on her friend:

He was probably the kindest person I ever met. He went out of his way to make sure people were included, and always asked them about their background, and was always very kind to his fans. He was the kind of guy who, if went to the doctor, he’d find out all about the nurse – her interests, her passions. He wasn’t at all like the character he portrayed.

Lisa, who was with him this week, told me that he went the way he wanted to go – quickly, and surrounded by people who loved him, and whom he loved. She said that in their last conversation, he told her that he’d had a wonderful life. That he was blessed. That he was so in love with his wife and his family.

I wish I’d known all that before my Nicaraguan driver asked. Rest in peace, Mr. Hagman. Even in death, you’re bigger than life.

Here’s more about the Larry Hagman Foundation, with an opportunity to contribute.