(November 19, 1938–January 12, 2015)
There are moments that writers hope never happen—a computer crashes, a potentially juicy story turns out to be a dud, or the recorder fails to capture an interview. I’m thankful, however, that the latter happened, because it gave me the opportunity to get to know Bob Payne.
I sat down (twice) with Bob to talk about how and why he decided to portray Robert McAlpin Williamson, known around our county as Three-Legged Willie. The bright twinkle never left his eyes as he drew me into his passion for Texas history—especially the curious tidbits that enrich the historical record. “There are so many really interesting footnotes to history,” Bob said.
When it came to Williamson, Bob was determined to shine a light on a Texas hero often relegated to the footnotes. “The more I found out about Williamson, the more I became interested in the man. Why isn’t his name engraved in the history of Texas?” Bob said. “That’s an affront to my historical knowledge of Texas. So I set out to teach the world about Robert McAlpin Williamson.”
And so he did.
I got the chance to see Bob’s last performance as Williamson at the Leander Public Library. Sitting with my two children on the colorful carpet, I watched as history came to life. Decked out in a fine suit, a gray top hat, and his homemade wooden leg, Bob captured the attention of children and adults alike as he shared Williamson’s life with the crowd.
While I will remember some of the amazing stories Bob told me about Williamson in our interviews—from Williamson serving as the first Texas Ranger to his being an accomplished dancer despite his handicap—I will treasure my memories of Bob Payne, a man with an easy-going smile who passionately pursued what he loved.