Renewing its Purpose, Goals and Dedication
By Sharon DeCarlo
The Name Will James strikes a chord with most people. Artist? Author? Cowboy? No matter what the note, the name is familiar. 24 books from the pen of Will James has compelled little children to dream of becoming a cowboy (or cowgirl of course), sparked their imagination and peppered it with images he drew and tales he spun.
Curiously, Will was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault in Quebec, Canada in 1892. Still in his teens he left in 1910 and traveled to the United States with a new name, William Roderick James. He soon became everything he dreamed of becoming, the quintessential western cowboy! He drifted and worked for several western cattle ranches, worked as a stuntman in movies and served in the U.S. Army from 1918 to 1919. While in the Reno area he met and married his true love, Alice Conradt. With Alice's encouragement he sold his first writing, Bucking Horse Riders in 1922. Smokey the Cow Horse (1926) won the coveted Newberry Medal for Children's literature in 1927 and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, given by the University of Wisconsin, in 1965. Smokey was written at Will and Alice's ranch in Washoe Valley located about 30 miles south of Reno, Nevada, where his cabin still stands today. More wonderful, self-illustrated cowboy books followed, 24 in all.
20 years ago a group of enthusiasts gathered at a Cowboy Hall of Fame event honoring Will James. As Jack Wong describes it, "We were sitting around after the ceremony visiting and talking about James' wonderful art and his contribution to the literary world and how it was a shame that more folks didn't know about it." Also in attendance were Tom Decker and Anne Hamilton (Will James' niece) who proposed an idea. With prompting from Tom and Anne they came up with the idea that a club or organization should be formed to help promote and preserve James' work in both fields. Others in that first group included Curtis Fort, Henry Bedford, Fred Fleischmann, Steve Zimmer and Les Davis.
The year was 1992 and by 1993 The Will James Society, a non-profit organization, was born and has been growing ever since while donating hundreds of Will James books to libraries, schools and our troops all over the world.
And today there is a new fire in the belly of the group. After many years of steadfastly keeping Will James books and art preserved before the public by way of a yearly gather, a quarterly magazine and an outstanding generous book gifting program, some new exciting avenues are paying off.
Along with fundraising for a book gifting program, the Will James Society holds an annual fall gathering, usually in the first week of October, for the purpose of raising public awareness of James' art and books. This is their main fundraiser auction as well as banquet and full schedule of educational and entertaining events. This year the theme is Cowboy Story Telling along with classes for drawing, writing, leatherwork and saddle making. The home base of the Will James Society began in Billings, Montana but relocated to Elko, Nevada in 2010 and has found exceptional acceptance and support in this traditional cowboy oriented town. Their current President is Gary Verhaeghe who has been a great innovator and leader when it comes to pursuing new ways to enhance the book gifting program by applying for grants and seeking sponsors to help support the funding of the program. The Will James Society has been blessed with Debbie Hoover who works tirelessly as the Will James Society liaison in Elko, raising money, and setting up the Society with professionals to manage the business/web site, and single-handedly making all the arrangements with the Elko contacts for the yearly gather.
The Will James Society welcomes you to join them at the 20th Annual Will James Society Gather in Elko Nevada October 5-7, 2012 and learn all about the goals and future plans to continue to distribute sets of Will James books to as many deserving schools, libraries and troops as they possibly can.
The Society seeks to support our ranching and cowboy heritage by demonstrating the positive affect it has on our lives. It must be preserved and it must prevail. This is what the Will James Society stands for!
Read Will James! Enjoy his art! Join us in support!
For more information, membership download applications and schedule of Gather events go to www.willjames.org.
Author Sharon DeCarlo is the editor and publisher of Cowboys North & South, the official publication of the Will James Society. With help from Debbie Hoover who reached out to editor Linda Kohn Sherwood of Smoke Signals eMagazine, and mostly to the Will James Society who keeps Will James alive for our children.
Photo of Will James and wife Alice, courtesy of High Noon Western Americana archives.