THE LEGACY OF JACK MILES BICKHAM

warning: writing is hard work 

By Bob G. Burke, 2003 Inductee

I was a junior at the University of Oklahoma in 1969 when I met Jack Bickham. It was his first year as an assistant professor in the widely acclaimed Professional Writing Program in the H.H. Herbert School of Journalism. But Bickham was hardly a novice in writing for a living. When he joined the faculty, he was an accomplished pulp-fiction author and newspaper editor.

Bickham was born September 2, 1930, in Columbus, Ohio, where he graduated from high school and earned a degree from The Ohio State University. He worked as a newspaper reporter in Ohio before arriving at OU in 1957, intent upon earning a master’s degree in journalism under the professional writing leadership of the legendary Dwight Swain, a successful pulp-fiction author. Bickham received his master of arts in journalism from OU in 1960. 

Bickham worked as a stringer for the Oklahoma City Times and wrote a column, “Hi-Fi,” with tips on listening to and preserving records and tapes. But most of Bickham’s time was spent on his promising career as a fiction writer. In 1959, Ace Books published his first novel, Feud Fury, closely followed by Gunman’s Gamble.  

Bickham’s first real literary success was in 1961 in The Fighting Buckaroo with an unusual Western character, Wildcat O’Shea, with red hair, yellow boots, green pants, and no front teeth. Wildcat was the main character in 15 books in the series for the next decade. Bickham later wrote, “Until I started telling Wildcat’s story, I didn’t know I could write humor. The moment I wrote that first half-drunken scene with him, my imagination lit up from exaggeration and I thought I had someone special.” Bickham wrote the Wildcat books under the pseudonym, “Jeff Clinton.” 

In 1964, Bickham became managing editor of The Oklahoma Courier, a Catholic newspaper in Oklahoma City. The newspaper, founded by Father John Joyce, had a wide circulation because of its liberal editorial policy. Bickham was not afraid to take on controversial topics such as cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam or birth control. Eventually, negative feedback from Oklahoma Catholics forced the diocese to cease publication in 1969. 

The death of The Oklahoma Courier was fortunate for a generation of journalism students at OU. In his course on how to write fiction, Bickham’s theme was to never accept excuses for not writing a fiction story that was burning in a future author’s mind. He taped his favorite writing cartoons to his office door. One showed a man sitting at his typewriter, telling his wife, “I am waiting on inspiration.” The second and third frames of the cartoon showed the man still at the typewriter as he grew older and older. 

In class, Bickham warned students that writing was hard work. He frequently told the story of someone writing a page each day for a year and producing the first draft of a 365 page novel. Then, after rewriting each page for a year, the writer was two years into the project. 

Later, Bickham became associate professor and full professor and attained the university’s highest teaching honor, named as David Ross Boyd Professor of Journalism. 

After retiring from OU in 1991, he expanded his novels outside Western fiction, including stories about espionage and mystery, and instructional books on the craft of fiction. Some of those books such as Scene & Structure and Writing and Selling Your Novel are still considered must-reads for aspiring writers. 

Bickham had 75 books published in his extraordinary writing career. Two books, The Apple Dumpling Gang and Baker’s Hawk, were made into motion pictures. Two books were reprinted by Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. He was presented the top award for lifetime achievement by the Oklahoma Center for the Book. 

Twelve years after being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Bickham died in Norman on July 25, 1997 at age 66 after a long battle with lymphoma. 

Bob G. Burke is not only a Hall of Fame member and successful attorney, but is also one of the most prolific authors today. He has authored or coauthored more than 130 non-fiction books, more than anyone else in history.