TIFTON — When the Wild West History Association held its award ceremony in Cheyenne, Wy. in July, Dr. Gary Roberts, who was awarded the WWHA Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the field, was unable to attend. So, through the efforts of fellow WWHA members and friends, Cheyenne was brought to Roberts.
A reception was held on Saturday, July 27 at the Tifton Elks Lodge to celebrate Roberts and his achievement.
Roberts, who was a professor at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College for years, is recognized as the foremost expert on the American West, particularly Doc Holliday, and his works include “Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend” which is regarded as the seminal work on the Wild West legend with roots in South Georgia. Roberts’ first article to be published was printed in the January/February 1961 edition of True West magazine, and he has been contributing to the knowledge and understanding of the West ever since.
Spud Bowen and Sonny Hamilton, two of the organizers for the reception, welcomed attendees and introduced the speakers, each of whom testified to the impact Roberts had on both the historian community and the fiction writer community.
The first speaker, Victoria Wilcox, said that though Roberts was a historian and wrote from that perspective, he saw no conflict with helping her with a historical trilogy about Doc Holliday she wrote called The Saga of Doc Holiday.
“He was more interested in the history than in his own reputation,” she said. “There are a lot of historians who research and find information and they tell no one. They tuck it in their back pocket and they sit on it until they can publish it so their name and their reputation grows. Gary has never done that. When he finds something, he shares it. He wants to know what it means. He was interested in the history and he never felt like he owned it. And yet, because of that, he’s become the foremost expert in this, because of his generosity.”
She said that he believed in her more than she believed in herself and his support helped her become successful.
“I owe my success absolutely to you,” she said. “I want you to know that because of your love and attention to history and your willingness to share that, you’ve become part of the history. There will not be another quality work done about Doc Holliday that doesn’t reference you and your work.”
Mark Warren, author of a trilogy about Wyatt Earp, said that while most of the people in attendance knew Roberts as a friend, they might not be aware of his contributions to history.
“There was a time when no one in the literature publishing business took the history of the Old West seriously,” Warren said. “Anyone who professed to study it or write about it was not considered to be a true historian, but more of a sensationalist writer, because of the nature of the westerns we all grew up with. A handfull of writers changed that and Gary is in that group. He made a name for himself by being a person who researches with an intensity and has the skill of balance in his research.”
Warren said that Roberts presented his research in an unbiased way, letting the facts and the history shape his story rather than letting an idea or agenda share his work.
“Gary has a way of approaching historical events with a very open mind,” Warren said. “It has opened up many other minds because of that. His voice is the voice of reason.”
Warren said that if Earp and Holliday could come back and hear what historians today had to say about them, they would only tolerate most of them.
“But I believe they would ask Gary to come over to talk more and have a cigar,” he said. “I want to thank you for all that you’ve contributed. Maybe the greatest honor that a man can achieve, or one of the greatest, is to gain the respect of your peers. This man has done it in spades.”
The plaque from the WWHA was presented to Roberts by Eddie Lanham, who has an extensive background in Early American, Western, Civil War and Native American history. Lanham brought the plaque from the award ceremony in Wyoming to Tifton.
“It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” Lanham said. “This is a prestigious award.”
Roberts addressed the attendees after the plaque presentation.
“First off, I’m a little put off by this award,” Roberts said. “I think the lifetime contribution award is a little premature. I hope that there will be some more we can add to this at some point.”
Roberts spoke about how, when reading about the Wild West in high school, he thought that the people he was reading about weren’t portrayed accurately.
“They either turned everybody into heroes or they were the ultimate villains,” he said. “And that’s not the way people are.”
When he got in college, the academic historians didn’t take the study of the West seriously. That did not deter him from his goal of bringing together academic methodology and quality writing.
He spoke about the importance of context in being able to understand the historical people he was writing about by understanding not only the West, but the greater context in which the West was only a part.
“You need to have context,” he said. “You need to know something about the law. You need to know the social system. There is a whole level of research that has nothing to do with the character that you’re writing about.”
Roberts also spoke about how important it was to be unbiased when researching a topic or person.
“The idea of finding the truth, rather than thinking you’ve already got it, is the way that historians ought to work,” he said. “Lasting contributions seek balance.”
He ended his remarks by talking about the importance of passing on knowledge and advice to those who come after.
“I have had the good fortune of being able to play “Cowboys and Indians” my entire life,” Roberts said. “And it has been a wonderful adventure. But I had a larger purpose in the thing eventually.”