The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Tribute to Skinny Rowland

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1999

Online: January, 1999

Skinny RowlandCarl Art "Skinny" Rowland, 1926-1997Many years ago I received a packet of poetry and information from an individual (and I DO mean individual) named "Skinny" Rowland.  I was used to getting a lot of submissions in the mail, but this one was irresistible.

First I read the bio he had included, which contained a few articles from other publications. I found that this man was a Cowboy Poet, a stand up comedian, and a man who was actually "Skinny" as a rail with the incurable disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease – ALS, diagnosed in 1978). He was living in Montana at the time, but was born July 10, 1926 in Tillamook County, Oregon. Skinny (or Carl Art Rowland as his birth certificate read) enlisted in the Navy in 1943 and served during World War II. Then he reenlisted in 1950 and served in the Korean War. After that, he held a variety of jobs from mill worker to a telephone lineman. After the disease hit him, he was forced to work with his head instead of his hands. This was when he began his career as a poet.  He had a small print shop in Helena, Montana the last years and also married around 1989.

I forced myself to sort through the poetry he sent. I usually dreaded poetry coming in because 95% of it was bad, really bad, but I was pleasantly surprised to say the least. His poems were traditional, rhyming and extremely funny. Not all the poems were humorous – he could tackle serious subjects also, and they were equally good and most meaningful. Later he would be named the official Cowboy Poet of the state of Montana and go to many Cowboy Poetry Gatherings.

The Gatherings were the love and focus of his life. I have always heard that laughter is the best medicine, and I am sure that it was Skinny's sense of humor that prolonged his life much longer than the original three years his doctors had given him to live.

Skinny was generous to a fault, often giving away copies of his paperback book of poems to admirers. Many of the readers and contributors to The Mountain Laurel wrote to Skinny and became pen pal friends. I plugged his book and was glad that he got many orders from our readers to help supplement his meager income after his illness became worse. Skinny's own quote about his illness was, "The things I do are proof that a person with ALS doesn't have to sit on the edge of the bed and wait to die, that as long as a person has a mind, he is not helpless, unless he refuses to use it."

Skinny Rowland, Cowboy PoetSkinny scanned this photo of himself and used it on his stationery.His very skinniness was produced by the illness and he used it to his favor in his humor and poetry. By 1987, he had already lived for nine years with the disease. Nowhere in his poems can you find him feeling sorry for himself because of his disease, even though he used to write poetry when he was too weak and his muscles hurt too much to do ordinary work. In an early letter to me he said, "Why don't you just call me Skinny, I am you know, it is true, every time I drink tomato juice I look like a thermometer. I am probably the only guy in Montana that can go camping and use his fly rod sheath for a sleeping bag." See what I mean? How could anyone resist such a personality?

As time went by, Skinny became known and loved by a wide audience of people. He was honored many times including being the first inductee into the Idaho Cowboy Poet's Hall of Fame. He had his photo put on a t-shirt when he was inducted into the Montana Poets Hall of Fame. I imagine they sold pretty well and regret that I didn't get one.

He also participated in the Wyoming Poetry Roundup, Idaho Gathering, the first Pikes Peak cowboy gathering in Colorado, and in Washington state, but his favorite by any standard was the national event at Elko, Nevada. He sometimes took his motorhome, sometimes a car, but if he was able to crawl, Skinny would be there.

Skinny hitch hiked his first trip to Elko. The weather was below zero and his trip made the front pages of the Wall Street Journal! By the late 1980s, many of the Cowboy Poets Gatherings were subsidizing Skinny's trip so he could join them.

Through the few years of our correspondence, Skinny acquired a computer with graphics capabilities. Remember, this was the 1980s and few people had computers then and even fewer had graphic capabilities and were doing desktop publishing. Skinny loved his new toy and was soon scanning photos of himself and doing cartoon blurbs above his head and making his own personalized stationery.

Skinny used to end his letters with the Montana state motto – Montami Semper Liberi – Mountaineers Always Free. February 27, 1997 Skinny went to the Big Roundup in the Sky. Now Skinny is finally free of the disease and pain it caused, and if I knew him at all, he's probably sitting on a cloud somewhere writing another poem.