Dr. Bobby Johnson turns the key on his green Volkswagen. The engine has that distinctive purr familiar to anyone who has driven in the classic vehicle. A glance down at the odometer shows over 100,00 miles logged. The VW stays in town these days, but over the last three decades the retired Stephen F. Austin State University history professor used the bug to travel all over East Texas.
Johnson recollects some of his travels. " I've been lost in trying to find people's houses. I remember one night I came home on the edge of what must have been the greatest thunder and lightning storm I ever saw in East Texas."
Once Johnson got to where he was going he would pull out his tape recorder to collect oral histories. He's talked to a Texas Ranger who prevented the sabotage of oil derricks and a woman attorney who helped defend the rowdy wildcatters during the Kilgore oil boom. Johnson laughed, "They would put handcuffs on people and then handcuffed them to a tree and they would call that putting them on the trot line."
The history professor recorded several hundred conversations about the New London School explosion, World War I and II and the Great Depression. The information led to plays he wrote on the subjects. Johnson said, " I never worried about people lying to me. Although, I'm sure they varnished the truth sometimes."
Johnson made final preparations for delivering his own memories at Wednesday's SFA Regents lecture. " The title is An East Texas Odyssey. An Adventure in a Volkswagen. That's how I feel about my travels," said Johnson. Johnson wants people to go away with a better appreciation of East Texas history. " It's still remote somewhat and it's the western extension of the Old Confederacy, so you still have some of the old south ideas here. I think East Texas is a unique part of Texas and it too is changing."