Elmer Stephen Kelton (also known by the pseudonyms Lee McElroy, Tom Early, Alex Hawk, and Joe Stevens), celebrated author of more than forty Texas Western novels, was born at Horse Camp in Andrews County, Texas, on April 29, 1926. The first of four sons born to R. W. “Buck” and Beatrice “Bea” Kelton, he grew up on the McElroy Ranch. Kelton attributed his inspiration for Western writing to his family’s rich ranching history. Kelton’s great-grandfather Robert F. Kelton arrived in West Texas in the late nineteenth century by horse and carriage, and his grandfather Bill Kelton served as the foreman of the nearby Five Wells Ranch. Kelton’s father, Buck, continued the family tradition of ranching as the foreman of the McElroy Ranch near Crane, Texas.
Elmer Kelton graduated from Crane High School and then studied journalism at the University of Texas in Austin. His mother, a former schoolteacher, encouraged her son to become a writer, while his father remained less supportive. In July 1944 Kelton was one semester shy of graduating with his bachelor’s degree when he was drafted in the United States Army. Kelton originally trained as an anti-aircraft artilleryman, but with the collapse of the German Luftwaffe, he underwent retraining as a combat rifleman. Kelton earned multiple awards for his work with Company G of the 104th Infantry, including the EAME campaign ribbon, combat infantryman’s badge, victory ribbon, Army of Occupation ribbon, two overseas service bars, and two bronze stars. Prior to his discharge in July 1946, Kelton completed the Intelligence Observers course and was classified as an administrative NCO.
Upon returning to his college studies, Kelton earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas in 1948. He began his writing career in 1949 as an agriculture journalist at the San Angelo Standard-Times. In 1963 Kelton became editor of Sheep and Goat Raiser, the monthly magazine of the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Association, and later associate editor of Livestock Weekly in 1968. He remained with that journal until he retired by 1991. Whenever he could spare time, Kelton worked as a freelance writer of short stories, magazine articles, and eventually novels and non-fiction books.
Kelton’s ranching experience fostered his prestigious writing career, which earned him countless awards. Among his most celebrated novels are The Time It Never Rained (1973), The Man Who Rode Midnight (1987), Buffalo Wagons (1957), and The Good Old Boys (1978) which was adapted for a television movie starring Tommy Lee Jones in 1995. Elmer Kelton won the Western Writers’ Spur Award for the best Western novel of the year seven times. He was also honored with the Western Heritage Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame four times. In 1977 he won the Levi Strauss Golden Saddleman Award. In 1987 Kelton won the Barbara McCombs/Lon Tinkle Award from the Texas Institute of Letters and in 1990 the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western Literature Association.
He was voted the “greatest western writer of all time” by the Western Writers of America in 1995. In 1996 the German Association for the Study of the Western honored Kelton by naming him an honorary member and presenting the Elmer Kelton Award for Literary Merit in his name. The Texas Legislature also honored Kelton by proclaiming “Elmer Kelton Day” in April 1997. In 1998 Kelton accepted lifetime achievement awards from the Larry McMurtry Center for Arts and Humanities at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls and the National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock. He received honorary doctorates from Texas Tech University and Hardin-Simmons University.
Kelton met Anna Lipp during the post-war occupation of Linz, Austria, where he ran the displaced persons office. They married in 1947, and the couple had two sons (Gary and Steve) and one daughter (Kathy). Kelton’s son, Steve, followed in his father’s footsteps by writing a non-fiction book and serving as a reporter for Livestock Weekly. Elmer contributed to Steve’s book, Renderbrook: A Century Under the Spade Brand (1989), by writing the introduction.
Kelton held no formal political affiliation, and in regards to religious affiliation his parents raised him a Methodist. He resided in San Angelo, Texas, until he died on August 22, 2009, from a series of conditions triggered by pneumonia. He was buried in Lawnhaven Memorial Gardens in San Angelo.