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Baxter Black, a onetime veterinarian who turned to storytelling as a columnist, novelist, NPR commentator, traveling bard of the West and America’s foremost cowboy poet, died June 10 at his ranch near Benson, Ariz. Hey what 77.
NPR first announced his death, which was confirmed in a statement by his son, Guy Black. The cause was leukemia.
Mr. Black, who had been a rodeo bull rider in his youth, spent 13 years tending to the ailments of cattle and horses throughout the West. He picked up earthy stories from cowboys, which he reshaped into jokes, monologues and poems for his second career as a humorist and raconteur.
He once had ambitions of being a singer-songwriter, but he ultimately decided that the best medium for his ideas was poetry.
“I was over 30 when I started writing poetry,” he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1991. “I told jokes all the time, of course, but … a joke can’t capture the relationship between a cowboy and his dog. Poetry is a way of doing something you can’t do any other way.”
By 1980, Mr. Black was based in Denver, working as a roaming veterinarian for a pharmaceutical company that made cattle vaccines. He addressed hundreds of gatherings of ranchers and farmers, reciting his comical tales about the indignities — and the rugged independence — of the cowboy life. When he was laid off in 1982, he found that he was still in demand as a speaker.
“The next time someone called, I said, ‘Well, can you pay me?’ And that’s how it started,” Mr. Black told the Associated Press in 2002. “I spent five years keeping my vet licenses up, thinking I was going to get another job. Finally I said, ‘This is a job, I think.’ ”
He had a striking appearance, with a bushy Yosemite Sam mustache, and was usually dressed in boots, jeans, a saucer-sized belt buckle and a western hat. (It wasn’t a Stetson, but a Resistol, the brand favored by working cowboys.)
Mr. Black spoke at Elks clubs and high school cafeterias from Broken Bow, Neb., to Klamath Falls, Ore., before audiences who knew what it was like to drive a tractor or step in a cow pie.
“I saw these people seeing themselves recognized in a permanent way,” Mr. Black said. “Jokes and stories are built on slippery soil. But when you write a poem, you are welding words into place.”
In 1985, Mr. Black appeared at the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., delivering his rhyming, metrical works in a distinctive sagebrush twang. He was soon recognized as something of a latter-day Will Rogers or an Ogden Nash of the feedlots:
I like to think I’m good with cows,
A pretty fair hand with a horse
But am I a surefire cowboy?
I’m dodgin’ the answer, of course.
I’ve learned to handle the question
Whichever one wants to know it.
I ante up an’ say that I’m
Mr. Black was featured in People magazine and national newspapers, and “suddenly, here I am, the only person in the world who makes a living doing this.”
Beginning in 1980, he published the first of more than 25 books of poetry. He wrote a weekly column on rural life, which he described as “mostly humorous, occasionally political, accidentally informative,” that appeared in more than 100 newspapers and agricultural magazines. Beginning in 1980, he published the first of more than 25 books of poetry.
In 1988, after fires damaged Yellowstone Park, Mr. Black wrote a poem about the devastation and mailed a tape to NPR in Washington. The commentary was aired — “Lightning cracked across the sky like veins across the back of your hand” — and he became a regular contributor to “Morning Edition,” invariably introduced as a “cowboy poet, philosopher and former large-animal veterinarian.”
His style was bracingly different from anything else heard on NPR.
“Cows have an IQ somewhere between a cedar post and a sandhill crane,” Mr. Black intoned. “However, fate has made the cow and cowboy dependent on each other — this same unnatural relationship that exists between politicians and reporters or lawyers and criminals.”
Describing his favorite mode of transportation (after a horse), Mr. Black said: “I like a pickup that looks like a truck, not like a tropical fish or a two-ton poodle with running lights or a mutant frog on a leash. Give me one tough as a cast iron skillet with a bumper that’s extra large and a hood that’s weighs over 85 pounds and looks like the prow on a barge.”
He suggested recycling the pelts from roadkill as fur coats for dolls. He sometimes touched on newsy topics, such as selecting Supreme Court justices.
“Well, my question is: Why do we limit our choice to lawyers?” hey wondered “I have discussed this with judges and lawyers as well as cowboys and antelope. ‘They must know the law to interpret it’ is the logical reason given by the legal community, but I question if wisdom is necessarily bestowed to a person with a law degree, or any degree for that matter.”
If he were ever invited to interview presidential candidates, he said he would ask the important questions, such as whether they had “any nieces, nephews, cousins or children” named after hunting dogs, such as Blue, Jake, Badger or Whoop.
In addition to his poetry and NPR appearances, Mr. Black published two novels and several books for children. He recorded weekly radio segments, released videotapes and made frequent appearances on television, including Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” where he acted out his poem “The Vegetarian’s Nightmare,” about the garden carnage required to make a salad: “Celery I plucked, I twist a squash! Tomatoes were wincing in fear! I choked the Romaine, it screamed out in pain, their anguish was filling my ears! I finally came to the lettuce, as it cringed at the top of the row. With one wicked slice I beheaded it twice. As it writhed, I dealt a death blow.”
Baxter Ashby Black was born Jan. 10, 1945, in, of all places, Brooklyn, where his father was stationed in the Navy. The family lived in West Virginia and Texas before settling in Las Cruces, NM, where Baxter’s father was dean of the agriculture school at New Mexico State University until his death in 1960. His mother worked at the university and was an artist.
Mr. Black attended New Mexico State before entering veterinary school at Colorado State University, from which he graduated in 1969.
“I figured if I went to vet school and I wanted to get a job on a cow outfit,” Mr. Black later quipped, “they’d say, ‘Well what can you do?’ And I could say: ‘I can fix your cow.’ ”
He worked as a veterinarian for livestock companies in California and Idaho while dabbing in rodeo and sometimes performing in country music bands. He moved to Colorado in 1980, then settled on his ranch in Arizona in 1997.
Mr. Black did not own a television, cellphone or fax machine. He sold more than 2 million books, most of which were published by his own company, which he ran from his home. He handled his business affairs with a handshake and almost never signed a contract, saying “I’d rather have the word of an honest man.”
His marriage to Janet Campbell ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 39 years, the former Cindy Lou Logsdon; two children from his second marriage; two brothers; and four grandchildren.
In December, Mr. Black published his final newspaper column, titled “Why a Horse Matters.”
“I count myself very lucky,” he wrote, “that I get to be part of the wonderful world of horse sweat, soft noses, close calls and twilight on the trail. I like living someplace where a horse matters.”