Carlos E. Castaneda (Historian)
THE OLD MAIN BUILDING of the
University of Texas stood out in broad relief that late September
afternoon, its Gothic towers piercing the blue sky, tipped by
the gold of the sunset. For four years I had dreamed of this
moment. It was not until my second year in high school that I
had begun to think of it, but when I graduated I had to work
a year to get enough money to begin to realize my dream.
Mother dicd when I began high
school and father died the next year. With four sisters, two
older and two younger than myself, it was hard sleighing. I worked
after school hours and studied nights. Then came graduation.
But taxes were in arrears on the old homestead. I had to wait
a year to help payoff the debt. As a teacher with only a second
grade certificate, I taught in an ungraded rural school-six grades
by myself, children as old or older than the teacher. In self
defense I allowed my mustache to grow. Horrors! It came out flaming
red. Imagine the combination: black hair, hazel green eyes, and
a red mustache. I never allowed it to grow out again.
The year's teaching netted
a very modest sum after other obligations were paid. But off
to the University I went, full of hope and ambition. There I
was at last, before the castle of my dreams, the main building
of the University. Late that afternoon I called on the pastor
of St. Austin's Chapel, the chaplain of the Newman Club. I had
not met him before. He was a man in his early thirties. Understanding
and sympathy radiated from his eyes. His voice was rich and resonant,
with a note of warmth in it. Father J. Elliot Ross was a man
who invited and inspired confidence. I told him my situation.
I had little money; I needed to find a room; I was willing to
work to help pay the rent. I wanted to get a college education
at any cost.
He listened with interest.
Then he took me over to the chapel, up the back steps, to a small
room in the garret. It had a cot; no water, no heat. We improvised
a washstand, got an old table and a couple of chairs, and there
For four years I lived in that
room while at the University. I studied in my bathrobe, and sometimes
in my overcoat. In the spring of my senior year, late one evening,
Father Ross came to my room. He had a knowing smile that played
about his mouth as he stood in the open door. "I want to
be the first to tell you and to congratulate you on your election
to Phi Beta Kappa."
Frankly, I had not even given
a thought to the possibility of such a thing. I had studied hard
and I had made good grades in most of my subjects, but I had
never dared to dream that my record was good enough for this
coveted academic distinction.
As Providence would have it,
three years later I went to teach at the old College of William
and Mary in Virginia, where Phi Beta Kappa was founded, and in
December, 1926, when the sesquicentennial of the Society was
celebrated, I had the rare privilege of being on the official
program to read a paper on "Modern Language Instruction
in American Colleges, 1776-1800." On that program, attended
by President Coolidge and John D. Rockefeller, were Henry Van
Dyke, John Erskine, and many other distinguished scholars from
the outstanding universities of this country, Canada, and England.
Rockefeller became deeply interested in the old College of William
and Mary and the old city of WilIiamsburg. His interest aroused
at that time has made available to all America a reconstructed
colonial capital, where Patrick Henry had delivered his famous
oration in the House of Burgesses.
But Father Ross, dear to so
many students of the University of Texas, did more than give
me a room over the chapel. He was the first to suggest that I
write and the first to encourage me in this pursuit. My interest
in history dated back to high school days. At the University,
in working my way through school, I was thrown into close contact
with Dr. Eugene C. Barker, foremost Texas historian. I began
to try my hand at historical writing. "The Indian Problem
in Mexico" was my maiden effort, published in America
in 1921. Next I wrote a longer article on "The Earliest
Missionary Activity in Texas," published by The Missionary,
in Washington. I had definitely launched my frail bark on the
endless stream of historical writing. My field was to be Texas,
Mexico, and Latin America.
I am not what you call a professional
writer. My writing has been a sideline, a hobby I indulge in
after my day's work is done. As a teacher and librarian I earn
my living during the day. At night, on holidays, during vacations,
and in spare time, I read and write history. At different times
I have done research in the rich archival collections of the
University of Texas, the University of California, the Library
of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Newberry Library,
the National Archives of Mexico, and numerous state archives
in this country, Mexico, Cuba, and Central America. The old musty
records, covered with dust frequently, are not as dry or as uninteresting
as they appear. They are full of human interest, countless and
unexpected details that help to revive the past, to live again
the days gone by. In this fashion I have gathered materials for
my books on the history of Texas, the Southwest, and Mexico,
from sources scattered far and wide.
Only those who have had a book
published know the thrill of having the first child of one's
mind, the fruit of endless nights of vigil, at last appear in
print. My first book was The Mexican Side of the Texan Revolution,
published in 1928 by the Southwest Press of Dallas, Texas. I
shall never forget seeing the first copy of the finished book.
Since 1928 I have written fifteen
books on historical and educational subjects in addition to numerous
articles. Which of them do I consider my best, or the most important?
It is like asking a father which is his favorite son. Yet, if
I had to say which, in my opinion, has made the greatest contribution
to the history of the Southwest, I would name OUf Catholic Heritage
in Texas, of which five volumes have been published to date.
In these I have tniced in detail the history of Texas in all
its aspects from the time its shores were first explored and
mapped by Pineda in 1519 to 1810. I began writing this work in
1935, but I had put more than ten years of research in this country
and Mexico in preparation, besides the countless hours I spent
still finding new materials. The work was undertaken under the
auspices of the Knights of Columbus of Texas, who planned this
publication as part of the Catholic contribution to the Texas
Centennial in 1936. There remains one more volume for me to write
in the series to bring the story up to 1845, from where an abler
pen will undertake the modern era.
It was the writing of the first
four volumes that I believe brought me the highest honor I have
received. On October 12, 1941, in Gregory Gymnasium, at the University
of Texas, I was made a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
by Bishop Kelley of Oklahoma and Tulsa in a solemn ceremony I
shall never forget. Election to membership in this, the oldest
Order of Christian knighthood, is one of the high honors which
the Pope may confer. Almost twenty-four years to the day from
that afternoon in September, 1917, when I first arrived at the
University of Texas, within the very shadows of St. Austin's
Chapel in whose garret I had lived four years, I was dubbed Knight
of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in a solemn Pontifical High
NOTE: Dr. Cataneda was proffesor of Latin American history at
the University of Texas at Austin until his death in 1958.
Originally published by
Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors Volume Three,