He captured Billy the Kid & Elfego Baca.
- Written by Ollie Reed Jr.
- Published April 16, 2012
Howard Bryan, veteran newspaperman and author of popular books about Old West history, figured he interviewed about 100 Southwest pioneers within 10 years or so after arriving in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1948.
Most of the pioneers were at least 85 when Bryan met them, some of them more than 100. A few died just weeks after he talked to them.
A lot of them were great characters and fascinating links to the frontier times. They were Indian fighters and bear hunters, professional gamblers and cattle ranchers, men who hunted outlaws and men who called outlaws friends.
Bryan got to New Mexico in time to record their stories in his popular Albuquerque Tribune column, “Off the Beaten Path,” and in seven books of New Mexico history, including 1993’s Incredible Elfego Baca: Good Man, Bad Man of the Old West, which won the Western Writers of America Spur Award.
Still, Bryan regretted arriving on the scene too late to get the interviews he really wanted. “People talk about wanting to meet their maker,” Bryan said this past summer. “I want to meet Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett.”
Bryan, 91, was diagnosed with terminal cancer last May. He died September 10 at his apartment in northwest Albuquerque. Could be he’s interviewing the Kid and Garrett right now.
He was born Howard T. Bryan Jr. on March 25, 1920, in Delaware, Ohio. He got his love for history from his father, Howard Sr., who owned an electrical sales and repair store, and wrote a history column, “Know Your Ohio,” for the Delaware Gazette. A couple of times, Howard Jr. submitted a column in his father’s stead.
After high school, Bryan attended Ohio State University and then served with a U.S. Army Signal Service battalion in the South Pacific during WW II. After the war, he worked two years at the Cleveland Press in Ohio, first as a copy boy and then as a reporter.
A 1948 vacation trip to Albuquerque turned Bryan’s life around. In Ohio, frontier history was about dead people. But in mid-20th century Albuquerque, frontier history was walking the city streets, wearing cowboy hats and boots. Intrigued, Bryan walked into the offices of The Albuquerque Tribune and inquired about a job. He was hired on the spot and worked there until his retirement in 1985.
Early on, the Tribune assigned him to the federal beat where he met a lot of old-time cowboys and lawmen who were working for the Forest Service, or as probation officers or in other U.S. government jobs. They seldom had any news, but they all had stories about the old days, and they told him where to find older men who had stories about even older days.
“I’d just listen,” Bryan said of his approach to interviewing the old-timers. “I wouldn’t write—except maybe to make a note of a date or a spelling. I didn’t want them to feel self-conscious. Then, as soon as I was by myself, I would write it all down.”
Bryan did not get to meet Elfego Baca, the subject of his Spur award-winning book. Baca died in Albuquerque in 1945, three years before Bryan arrived in the city. His book is based on previously published material, court documents and interviews Bryan conducted with people who had known Baca, a man who won fame in his youth as a bold gunfighter and had gone on to be a lawyer, a private detective, a sheriff, a county clerk, a school superintendent, a mayor, a defendant in three murder trials (each time acquitted) and an all-around colorful and controversial character.
Bryan was a pretty colorful character himself. During the time he lived in Albuquerque’s Old Town, from the early 1960s into the ’80s, he was famous for his Christmas parties, which were attended by journalists, authors, artists, waitresses, cowboys, shopkeepers, philosophers, politicians and anyone else who could squeeze in.
Max Evans, Albuquerque resident and author of novels such as The Rounders and The Hi Lo Country, was a fixture at those Christmas parties. Evans recalled that he and Bryan were also regulars at gatherings in the home of Jack Schaefer when the famed author of Shane lived in Albuquerque in the 1960s.
“Jack and Howard and me would drink and tell stories,” Evans said. “In all the years I knew Howard, I never heard him complain about one thing. All I ever heard out of Howard was humorous history stories.”
That’s Howard Bryan’s legacy—stories from New Mexico’s history, funny stories, tragic stories, true stories, tall tales, stories from the old-timers, stories that would have been lost if Bryan had not listened to them and wrote them down.
Ollie Reed Jr. worked with Howard Bryan at The Albuquerque Tribune and credits Bryan with fueling his own love for writing about the West. Reed’s article, “Showdown at the V Cross T,” appeared in the Nov/Dec. 2011 issue of True West.