It’s not unusual to see a group of old friends gathered for morning conversation at a coffee shop or fast-food establishment.
One particular–and distinguished–group, meets twice a month at the McDonald’s near the intersection of Rock Prairie Road and Longmire Drive.
The group–all men to this point and numbering anywhere between four and eight–represents many of the leading voices of local history.
Most are authors. Each has ties to Texas A&M. All are passionate about both the history of the college and its contributions to the United States Armed Forces.
At the helm of this austere assemblage for many years was Henry Dethloff: prolific and acclaimed author, former head of the Texas A&M History Department, and friend to many...including this “City Stories” project.
I had the pleasure of meeting Henry for the first-and-only time–he died on January 25, 2019, at the age of 84–in the summer of 2018, when I met with City of College Station officials to begin this project.
I’d heard so much about Henry and in person, he was everything everyone said he would be: charming, smart and very much the optimist and encourager. Discussions about updating College Station’s original historic retrospective by former A&M graduate student Deborah Balliew–and spearheaded by former College Station city councilwoman Blanche Brick–had been ongoing for some time before my arrival.
The original plan was to have Balliew update her original 1988 publication. Instead, Dethloff led an effort to do a reprint of the original book. Copies are still for sale at the College Station City Hall building.
In the meeting which began this project, Henry brought with him a manilla folder. In it was a “cover note” he had written to Blanche.
I rifled through my files and have the notes, e-mails, etc., re(garding) our early discussions about an update. There are several documents in the file that might be useful. One is a suggested outline for a possible revision that I had conjured up, and there are a few documents in the file that might be of interest.
Don’t plan on me being of any active assistance. I have a few medical problems these days that are slowing me down.
Henry seemed vibrant and in reasonably good health at our meeting. In about five months time, however, he would lose his battles due to complications from both cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
His departure leaves a gaping hole in the local literary and historical scene.
He is missed by many.
To celebrate and salute Henry Dethloff, I asked to meet with those with whom he regularly swapped stories over coffee and plotted the next great book about Texas A&M history.
Here’s how those men regarded Henry.
David Chapman (Class of ’69)–Director Emeritus of Texas A&M’s Cushing Memorial Library
“I would not have achieved what I achieved were it not for Henry. When I came back to Texas A&M as a graduate student, I was just out of the Navy. I hate to tell you this, but I wasn’t the best student. Still, Henry seemed to see something in me.
“I told him that I really wanted to finish my master's degree. I had about a semester to go.
“I don’t know how many people know this, but at his core, Henry was an agricultural historian. He was an expert on rice and had been over to the Cushing archives looking for stuff. I was a student worker there at the time and helped him find a box from the Texas Cotton Association.
“He told me, referring to that box, ‘There’s your master's thesis.’
“And so, as Henry suggested, I wrote about cotton.
“After I got my master’s, Henry talked me into getting a Ph.D. He said, ‘It’ll help you go further in life.’ And he was absolutely right.
“Henry taught me several things, especially about doing research. He helped my writing, He also calmed me down when I got a little wound up.
“Henry was such a tremendous influence in my life and a true mentor to me, in addition to being a long-time friend.”
Brig. Gen. Don Johnson (Class of ’55)–Former assistant and deputy commandant to the Texas A&M Corp of Cadets
“My last assignment with the Army was coordinating the ROTC program with the Corps of Cadets here at A&M. About the time I was getting ready to retire from the military, a civilian position opened up within the commandant’s office and I was lucky enough to get that job.
“My whole time with the Corps, I never had to change my desk.
“I didn’t really know about Henry until A&M’s centennial came along. Of course, he wrote two volumes about the school’s first one hundred years and I bought and read both of those books. Then, at a Christmas party one year, I finally got to meet him. He was a very interesting individual.
“Thanks to Jim Woodall, who invited me to join this group, I got better acquainted with Henry.
“I guess I’m sort of the ‘latecomer’ to this bunch. I never really thought of myself as a writer, but thanks to Henry–and the rest of these fellows–I’ve started to write a book of my own, about the history of the A&M handball team. Henry answered a lot of my questions to help me get started and, as importantly, to keep me going on the project.”
Jerry Cooper (Class of ’63)–Former editor of Texas Aggie magazine
“I got to know Henry well when he came to me in the mid-1990s and asked if I would help him finish a book on which he had been working.
“He had created a map of the A&M campus on which he had located various buildings and points of interest. He said he wanted to do a book that served as sort of a walking-guide to the campus. I was flattered to be asked and told him I would be glad to help.
“To get started, I decided to take his map and try to find each of the places he had highlighted. In doing so–and I’m not joking about this–one of the first things I ran into was a wall of the chemistry building. They’d added a new annex since Henry had put together his map and I just wasn’t looking!
“That project took us three years to finish. It was my first book. I'm still proud to see my name along with Henry’s on the cover.
“Henry could always tell when you were getting into a tight spot in your writing or you were a little down about things. He had this knack to boost your spirits by sharing stories about his own trials and tribulations as an author.
“You know, Henry didn’t go to school at Texas A&M. Born and raised in Louisiana, Henry received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas in 1956. He said he went to school there because they had a Naval ROTC program. His father had told him he couldn’t go to school in Louisiana because of the ‘politics’ there.”
Maj. Gen. Tom Darling (Class of ’54)–Former Commandant of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets
“I spent my military career in the Air Force and after I retired from active duty, I became commandant of the Corps. I spent nine years in that job, then did fundraising for the Corps for another six years. So, in addition to being a student here, I’ve seen quite a bit of the history of A&M.
“After I left the Corps in 2002, I spent some time writing about my life. I had such grand plans. My first volume would be from birth to the end of my active military career. The second volume would be about the rest of my life.
“I’ve been working on that, obviously, for a very long time. Right now, I have my sights set on finishing one book about my experiences with the Corps.
“One day when I was commandant, the chairman of the board of regents, Ross Margraves at the time, cornered me after a meeting. He told me that we needed some statues of Aggie war heroes near the drill field, ‘like they have at West Point.’
“He appointed me head of a committee to figure out which war heroes we needed to honor.
“Someone referred me to Henry’s book about the history of A&M and that helped a lot.
“We came up with a pretty good list, but obviously, none of the statues were ever built.
“Henry was such a modest, humble fellow. When I began writing myself, he became a real mentor to me. At our coffee gatherings, he didn’t always talk a lot, but whenever one of us would ask him a question, he always had a good answer.
“The more I got to know him and know about him, the more I realized just how remarkable he was.
“In my estimation, he was a giant of a man.”
Col. James Woodall (Class of ’50)-Former Commandant of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets
“In my career as an author, Henry was also a mentor to me. As I was working on my first book, about A&M Medal of Honor recipients, I’d go to Henry and he was a great help.
“‘Footnotes!’ When I started writing, I didn’t know anything about footnotes. In fact, I hated footnotes.. Henry explained how all that worked: about ‘stacking’ footnotes, indexing and a lot of other techniques that someone whose never written a book wouldn’t know anything about.
“Every one of us who had the privilege to spend time with Henry became a writer, thanks in great part to the example which Henry set. In fact, we’re all collaborating on a new book about Texas A&M ‘lists.’ I guess the idea sprung from my work putting together a list of the school’s Medal of Honor winners. This book will have lists about all sorts of things and every one of us will be contributing to the project.
“And when we’re done, I can assure you that we will dedicate the book to our friend, Henry Dethloff.
“He has been a real ‘touchstone’ for us all.”
John A Adams (Class of ’73)-Author of several books on the history of Texas A&M
“I knew Henry from the time he got to Texas A&M.
“He was teaching history at Southwest Louisiana–now, Louisiana-Lafayette–before he came here.
“I was a history major at A&M. I came here to major in history and I graduated with a degree in history. I think I was the only one in my dorm who didn’t change his major at least three times.
“I was also a realist. What I wanted was to be an aerospace engineer, but my math and science skills weren’t the best, having gone to four different high schools in three different countries following my father from post to post in the Air Force.
“As I’ve thought about Henry since his death, I realized that he’s read part or all of everything I’ve ever written that was longer than 50 pages.
“We always kind of kidded Henry about being a University of Texas grad. He didn’t talk about that a lot. I think he was proud of his association with Texas A&M.
“Henry and I had occasion to go to Austin together for some sort of meeting. When he finished up–we took Henry’s car–he asked me if I wanted to go see Guadalupe Street. I remember looking at him, rolling my eyes and saying, Really?’
He wanted to show me around the UT campus.
So, we went over there and drove around and he goes, ‘This is where I lived.’ ‘This is where ROTC was.’ ‘This was the pub I used to go to with my friends.’
“We spend about an hour seeing the old sights and he finally says, ‘Okay, I just wanted to give you a guided tour of the University of Texas.’
“That was Henry.
“I had the distinction–although I certainly wasn’t unique in this regard–of being thrown out of one of Henry’s history classes when I was a student.
“The Clydesdale team of horses was going to be here and I wanted to see them. At the time, I was taking a historiography class from Henry. There were only six or eight students in there and he was a stickler about coming to class and being on time.
“As I recall, the Clydesdales were making their appearance at the Vet School. I was pretty sure I could make it out there to see them and get back to Henry’s class in time.
“As it turned out, I didn’t. I was about 20 minutes late and as I walked in, I took a deep breath and decided to be honest with Henry about why I was tardy. I told him that I’d just seen the Clydesdales, hoping he would think that was as big a deal as I did.
“He replied, ‘Which do you think is more important: those horses or this class?’
Before I could answer, he continued, ‘I don’t think you should answer that.’ He excused me from his classroom and I can assure you I was never late again.
“Years later, I asked Henry if he remembered that occasion and he said that he did. Then he shared a story with me which put his strict attendance policy into a new light.
“My friend Bill Page–who also majored in history at A&M, took classes with Henry, and today works for the Texas A&M Libraries–recently reminded me about how wound up Henry could get in his lectures. Henry loved to interject stories about Texas in all his classes.
“At a dinner event one evening years after he retired from teaching, Henry told me this story about a student who, right in the middle of one of his classes, got up and began to leave the room. Henry said he hit the brakes on his lecture and told the young man that if he left at that moment, he should never come back.
“In telling the story, Henry gave me this surprisingly horrified look.
“Pausing, he reached over and touched my hand–Henry was such a southern gentleman. He then continued his story, telling me, ‘You know, sometime later, I realized, “What if that boy had been sick and needed to go to the bathroom?”
“‘I never thought about that at the time. When I did, I felt so bad about how I had treated him.’”