Old Man Texas and Dealey Plaza

Inigo Thomas

View full image

Old Man Texas was a character invented by the Dallas Morning News cartoonist John Knott in 1906. He looked like a cowboy, a figure out of the Old West. He wore a ten-gallon hat over thick, flowing hair. He had a windswept moustache and wore leather boots. Knott was an Austrian who had arrived in Dallas via Sioux City. He returned to Europe for a couple of years from 1910 to attend classes at the Royal School of Art in Munich. A colleague of Knott’s described how the cartoonist worked up his pictures:

We had editorial meetings every morning, where we’d talk about what we were going to write. John would never come. But everyone that wrote an editorial would put the carbon copy on John’s desk. He’d take those things and just sit there and study them. For hours he’d just look at them. Then he’d draw his cartoon, come in and dump it on my desk, and say: ‘Here’s a contribution.’ Never ‘my contribution’, just ‘a contribution’.

In The First Texas News Barons (2005), Patrick Cox calls Old Man Texas a ‘herald for how Texans and others would view the state’: ‘The new western image replaced that of the southern colonel and the Confederate soldier.’ One irony was that the founding owner of the Dallas Morning News, Alfred Belo, had been exactly that: a southern colonel in the Confederate army. Another was that in the 1950s the newspaper’s publisher, Ted Dealey, reverted to a Confederate ideal that his father, George Dealey, had rejected. Two years ago, the newspaper’s holding company changed its name from the A.H. Belo Corporation to the DallasNews Corporation, to distance itself from its Confederate past.

Old Man Texas represented what the newspaper stood for: low taxes, open government, property ownership and improvements to the ever-expanding city of Dallas. In 1895, the population was 38,000; by 1920 it was 160,000. Radical, Old Man Texas was not – but he made appearances at sensitive and significant moments in Dallas and Texas politics, never more so than in the early 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan looked as if it would hijack the state. After the organisation’s refoundation in 1915, Dallas’s police chiefs and members of the board of education all joined Klan chapters. In 1923, the Imperial Wizard, Hiram Evans, marched down Main Street with 75,000 supporters, many of whom had cancelled their subscriptions to the Dallas Morning News. In 1924, the News threw itself behind the gubernatorial campaign of Miriam Ferguson, who defeated the Klan’s candidate, Felix Robertson. The Klan then fell to pieces, and the Dallas Morning News was considered its slayer.

George Dealey, like Old Man Texas, was an invented Texan. He was born in Manchester, moved to the US with his parents and siblings as a boy, became an office clerk for Belo at the Galveston News at the age of 15, and never left: ‘Be sure the job is one for which you are fitted. My attainment to my present place is not so much due to any perfection in me as to the fact that I stuck to the job.’ His younger brother James left Texas for Rhode Island, became a professor of politics and sociology at Brown, and in 1927 was asked by his brother, who had by then taken over Belo’s company, to edit the Dallas Morning News.

The improvement of Dallas had been one of George Dealey’s aims: public health, parks, roads, bridges, schools. His son Ted’s idea of improvement was to invest in radio stations and in Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against communism. Once elected to the White House, John Kennedy invited a number of newspaper executives to lunch. Ted Dealey interrupted the chat at the dining-room table to make a statement:

The general opinion of the grassroots thinking in this country is that you and your administration are weak sisters. Particularly this is true in Texas right now. We need a man on horseback to lead this nation – and many people in Texas and the Southwest think that you are riding Caroline’s tricycle.

Evidently he was looking for another Confederate colonel to take over.

When Kennedy went to Dallas on 22 November 1963 he wasn’t riding a horse or a tricycle but travelling in an open limousine. Dealey Plaza had got its name (after George Dealey) in 1940. The grassy knoll in its north-west corner has become a by-word for conspiracy. Anything that can’t be explained has its own grassy knoll. Whether you think Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin, or you believe there was a plot to kill the president, no one is in any doubt about what happened at 12.30 p.m. in Dealey Plaza. Kennedy was shot dead. And that may be the main mystery of the event; that around something as categorical and indisputable as the president’s death, seen in plain sight, there should be such doubts.

Geoffrey Jellicoe’s JFK memorial at Runnymede was opened by the queen in 1965. Jacqueline Kennedy and her children were there. Three years later, the centre-piece of the memorial, a slab of Portland stone with words from Kennedy’s inaugural address engraved on it, was blown up. The stone broke into two. The police said the explosion must have been carried out by people annoyed that Jacqueline Kennedy had just married Aristotle Onassis. Somehow, that does not seem so plausible. To this day, no one knows who planted the bomb. Or why.

As for the Dallas Morning News, it remained in the hands of the family that founded it 138 years ago until the recent retirement from the board of Robert Decherd, George Dealey’s great-grandson. Old Man Texas, however, died with his creator in 1963.


  • 29 November 2023 at 4:25pm
    Thomas Chamberlin says:
    "no one is in any doubt about what happened at 12.30 p.m. in Dealey Plaza. Kennedy was shot dead"

    Qanon has entered the chat.