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Best of SA 2013: 4/24/2013
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Arts & Culture

Renowned Journalist Covers His Family’s SA History in New Book

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos


Don’t judge a book by its cover. When The Harness Maker’s Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas, first arrived in the office this fall, it didn’t much differentiate itself from the scores of other regional history books that come across my desk. Then I noticed the author’s name: Nick Kotz, a much-lauded (including a Pulitzer) journalist formerly with the Washington Post. Then there were glowing blurbs from the likes of Ken Burns, who called The Harness Maker’s Dream “a wonderfully big story, fully told and realized.” Intrigued, I cracked the book and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of a dry non-fiction account, The Harness Maker’s Dream hooked me quickly for a ride through practically the entire 20th century via one hardworking Texas family. Turns out Kotz is the grandson of Nathan Kallison, and nephew of brothers Perry and Morris Kallison. San Antonians may remember the name from the Kallison’s Department Store (the building, crowned by a cowboy, still stands on South Flores), or their pioneering Kallison Ranch. As Kotz demonstrates, the Kallisons had a fascinating story of escaping persecution in Imperialist Russia for the cramped immigrant ghettos of Chicago and of becoming successful Jewish cowboys in San Antonio long before Kinky Friedman popularized the notion. There’s also fortune, stardom, feuds, heartbreak and failures.
The Current spoke with Kotz about how he got the story. Stop by the Twig on Friday or Saturday to learn more during an author talk and signing.

Reading this book might inspire people to look into their own ancestral past. Do you have any advice for the amateur historian about how to learn more about their family history?

That’s one of my hopes of this book. … Lots of people have interest but haven’t pursued it. The obvious place to start is with family photographs, with diaries, with letters, with records and beyond that, anyone with sort of minimum computer skills (mine aren’t very much beyond minimum), can do it. There’s an incredible amounts of information. … You know as a journalist the great thrill when you find something…. And the even greater satisfaction when you’re able to put together little pieces and out of it you get a picture.

From your background as a journalist, what was it like to maintain your journalistic standards and your objectivity, but also be writing about your own family?

You know as a journalist, you constantly need to be on guard about letting your own subjective feelings come into it. I think the most difficult part of that was writing about the hard times and writing about disagreements within the family involving business and other things. Because, I still have lots of cousins in San Antonio, Austin and Houston and in all my writing, I have always tried to be careful to try not to hurt anyone gratuitously. So, I think the most difficult thing was being honest about the family because I didn’t want to hurt anybody.

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