T.R. Fehrenbach dies at 88; his history of Texas remains a landmark

T.R. Fehrenbach never minced words.

In 1998, the San Antonio historian and newspaper columnist told Texas Monthly: "I don't believe in social science or all those tables and statistics. All the great historians have been great writers. But most of the new ones write small things. Hell, I read three pages of their work and my eyes dull."


Fehrenbach, who died Dec. 1 in San Antonio of a heart condition at 88, is considered a dramatic literary craftsman. He did not write about small things. He despised "flabby multiculturalism." And whether you agreed with him or not, he was never dull.

His "Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans" remains the landmark history of the state 45 years after its publication in 1968.

"I love that book," said James Magnuson, the director of the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, whose latest novel is "Famous Writers I Have Known," which includes an encounter between Fehrenbach and James Michener. "Lone Star," he said is "a book I always recommend to incoming [master of fine arts] students if they want to learn about Texas. There have been a lot of revisionist takes on it, but there's not another book that has pushed it aside. People have quarreled about it, but Fehrenbach is still standing. He's the Muhammad Ali of Texas history."

Journalist and novelist Stephen Harrigan calls Fehrenbach "a sort of broad-focus narrative historian — like Francis Parkman, Bernard DeVoto or Doris Kearns Goodwin."

He praises Fehrenbach's "storytelling power, command of character and mastery of detail that can make history vivid and exciting" and calls "Lone Star" "a landmark work of Texas literature, an indispensable and compelling read."

The subjects that fascinated Fehrenbach were wide-ranging and eclectic. He also wrote influential books on the Korean War, Swiss banks, the Comanches and Mexico.

Born Jan. 12, 1925, in San Benito, Texas, Theodore Reed Fehrenbach Jr. had his lifelong interest in history sparked at age 15 while reading Edward Gibbon's "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." He moved with his family to California and graduated from Hollywood High School at 16. His education at Princeton University was cut short when he was drafted into the Army at 18 in 1943. After leaving active duty in 1946, Lt. Fehrenbach earned his degree in modern languages and literature from Princeton, remaining in the Army Reserve. After returning to Texas and working in the family agriculture business, he was called up and sent to Korea in 1952, where he saw front-line action as a first lieutenant with the 72nd Tank Battalion.

He was promoted to company commander and became a battalion staff officer and intelligence officer before leaving active duty in May 1953. He retired from the Army Reserve as a lieutenant colonel in 1964.

After Korea, Fehrenbach and his wife, Lillian, moved to San Antonio, where he worked in the insurance business and began to devote more time to his writing.

In 1961, Fehrenbach sold his first short story to the Saturday Evening Post, followed by sales of short stories and essays to other publications, among them Argosy, Atlantic Monthly and Esquire. Many, written under pseudonyms, were science fiction stories.

He began a weekly newspaper column in 1973 in the North San Antonio Times and moved over to the San Antonio Light in 1975. In 1980, the column began appearing in the San Antonio Express-News, where it continued until he ended work on it this August.

In all, Fehrenbach, who worked in a small office in the Alamo Heights neighborhood of San Antonio, wrote 18 nonfiction books, including the Korean War study "This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness" (1963), "The Gnomes of Zurich: The Inside Story of the Swiss Banks" (1966), "FDR's Undeclared War, 1939-1941" (1967), "Lone Star" (1968), "Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico (1973) and "Comanches: The Destruction of a People" (1974).

"This Kind of War" remains on required reading lists for Army and Marines for officer education and for soldiers assigned to Korea. Gen. Colin Powell praised its "eloquent, sometimes painful description of the GIs who must bear the burden" of decisions made at high levels.

"Lone Star" became the basis of a 1986 PBS miniseries.


"I can think of only two books that dare to start out with the words 'In the beginning' — and the other book is T.R. Fehrenbach's 'Lone Star,'" said John Radziewicz, publisher of Da Capo Press, which printed the 2000 updated paperback. "He was a larger-than-life figure who wrote about larger-than-life topics, and his mastery of the subject and the language has ensured that his history of Texas will remain a classic for generations to come."

From 1989 to 1995, Fehrenbach was chairman of the Texas Historical Commission.

He is survived by his wife.

Bennett writes for the San Antonio Express-News and McClatchy Newspapers.