Published on April 28, 2020

This is where the cowboy rides off into the sunset

By Janice Edwards / The Bulletin

James Child Drury, the actor best known for playing the title role in The Virginian (1962 – 71), rode off into the sunset to join the last round-up April 6, 2020. Born in New York on April 18, 1934, he spent his childhood between New York and his mother’s farm in Oregon. I guess that’s where he picked up the skills to become the cowboy with no name.

Even though Drury had the lead role in the third longest-running western (behind Gunsmoke and Bonanza) and had strong ties to Brazoria County through being a spokesman for Brazoria County Day, a lot of you may not know who he was. But for me, I guess - to borrow some lines from a Willie Nelson song - “My heroes have always been Cowboys.”

I grew up a-dreamin’ of bein’ a cowboy
And lovin’ the cowboy ways,
Pursuin’ the life of my high ridin’ heroes, I burned up my childhood days.

My dad and I watched a lot of the old Westerns together. I think we watched them all. But now, it’s decades later, and so many of the cowboys have left this earthly range: Lorne Green, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker, Pernell Roberts, Ward Bond, Roy Rogers, Robert Fuller, John Smith, James Arness, Chuck Conners, James Garner, Doug McClure, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne – and the list goes on.

The old westerns were little morality plays, and each one taught a lesson to be learned. I remember the first time I realized these shows were more than just storylines meant to entertain. They changed my life.

Growing up, I always wanted to have a cup of coffee and conversation with Jimmy Stewart, a dance with Gene Kelly, and meet the mysterious cowboy with no name, James Drury. The only fan letter I ever wrote was to the cast of ‘The Virginian’. I never got that dance with Gene Kelly or the coffee and conversation with Jimmy Stewart, but I got to meet and later work on a project with James Drury.

Back when Roy and I were traveling all over the state to create awareness for re-opening the San Bernard River, we met Debbie Pennington of the Brazoria County Economic Alliance and began volunteering to work Brazoria County Day so we could have the opportunity to engage state officials regarding the plight of the river.

At the time, James Drury was the spokesman for the event. He was featured in a video used to promote it, and he attended the Shrimp Cocktail event at Fiesta Gardens in Austin. Debbie found out that Drury was a hero of mine and made sure I met him.

Words failed me, and I felt like an awkward teenager again. He signed my Brazoria County Day T-shirt. Roy had a chance to speak with Drury about the river when things became quieter, and he became interested in what we were trying to do.

We didn’t see Drury again until the next Brazoria County Day, two years later, but he remembered us and asked about the river. I was excited that he remembered us. Again, during the shrimp cocktail portion of the event, we talked to him again about the river. I got an autographed picture then.

Roy and I continued to work with Brazoria County Day, and in 2013, I got the opportunity of a lifetime to work on a project with Drury.

The Brazoria County Day committee asked me to update the script for the promotional video for BC Day, add new events and things going on in the county, and change the ending.

Once the script was approved, the BC Day committee had to find a place to film the video. I suggested Dona and Tommy Worrell’s place on the Poole Ranch, since James and Tommy knew each other from their acting days. (Tommy’s brother was in some of ‘The Virginian’ episodes).

The Poole Ranch was it, and I was asked to coordinate the filming. The film crew, James Drury and the Worrells set a date, and I was ready to sit back and watch. But for some reason, the Worrells got tied up in San Antonio and could not be there after all. So, Roy and I were given a key to the house, a combination to the ranch gates, and when everyone showed up, we led them to the filming site.

Drury was amazing. There were changes to the script, but that did not faze him. He took 10 minutes to memorize his lines while the crew set up. We got the video in two takes – mainly because he did not like the change to the end of the script that I wrote and wanted to use the previous ending. I wasn’t about to argue with my hero, so he read the new script as I had written it and used the previous ending, which he had remembered. It was magic.

I will always be glad I got to know James Drury. “My heroes have always been cowboys, and still are it seems.”

Happy trails, James Drury.

“Happy trails to you, ‘till we meet again.
Some trails are happy ones,
Others are blue.
It’s the way you ride the trail that counts,
Here’s a happy one for you.
Happy trails to you, until we meet again.
Happy trails…”
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans

(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)