Campus and Community

Professor Emeritus Garna Christian Publishes Biography of Overlooked Journalist

Book CoverThe story of how professor emeritus Garna Christian came to publish a biography of one of Texas’s forgotten journalists is equally as interesting as the book itself.

Christian fell in love with the city of El Paso– with its scenic desert landscape and mountainous backdrop– as a 19-year-old military enlistee in basic training at Fort Bliss.

“I remember seeing the Franklin Mountains for the first time. Having grown up here in Houston, I had never seen anything like it. It’s just breathtaking,” said Christian.

Christian had never considered himself a “military man,” but recognized the G.I. Bill as an opportunity to further his education. That desert horizon would beckon him back to complete a graduate degree at Texas Western College, now known as the University of Texas at El Paso. During his studies at Texas Western, Christian read a book entitled, “Out of the Desert,” a  history of El Paso by 1920’s author and journalist Owen Payne White. So began Christian’s fascination with the writer.

“I found him interesting. He was this tenacious, straight-shooting kind of a guy, and he also had a love for the older, simpler times in the city. Most interesting was the amount of history he witnessed in his lifetime. I’m older now than he was when he died, but he saw so much more change than I have,” said Christian

Born in the late 1800’s, White lived to see both World Wars, the Great Depression, and the evolution of El Paso from a desolate western town to a developing city. He spent his childhood swimming in the irrigation ditch on the south side of town, and witnessed the laying of the city’s first railroad tracks. As an adult, he often wrote of his disillusionment regarding the modernization of society. In his later years, he was recognized for uncovering corruption, hypocrisy and crime in articles for major publications like New York Times and American Mercury.

Christian says he chose to write his doctoral dissertation on the historical relationship between El Paso and Fort Bliss, if for nothing more than an excuse to return to his beloved West Texas vistas. During this time, with help from White’s personal documents and articles in the UTEP Special Collections, Christian also wrote “Always in His Heart: Owen Payne White and Old El Paso.” The article was published in Southwestern Historical Quarterly, a publication of the Texas State Historical Association.

Shortly thereafter, the professor received communication from Oliver Osborne, White’s nephew, who was then over 90 years old. He had heard about the article from a friend.

“I was shocked. Owen White died in 1946, so I just assumed he had no living relatives– at least not any that could offer firsthand stories about him.”

Christian and his wife drove to Lake Jackson, Texas to meet Osborne’s family, and a new friendship ensued. Further visits and extensive research helped Christian to develop the first written biography of Owen Payne White, “El Paso’s Muckraker: The Life of Owen Payne White.”  Published by the University of New Mexico Press, the book will be widely available in February 2015.

by Amanda Jackson