A titan of Texas culture has died. William "Bill" Wittliff, the iconic screenwriter and namesake for Texas State University's groundbreaking The Wittliff Collections passed away on June 9, according to an email from Texas State President Denise Trauth. He was 79.
Wittliff was born in Taft, Texas, but spent most of his childhood in Blanco. He studied journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, after which he started his career in publishing.
In his twenties, Wittliff began taking photographs, despite not having any formal training in the art form. Both Wittliff and his wife, Sally, eventually become prolific art collectors, particularly of photographs and archival materials. Together, the couple eventually donated much of their collection to Texas State to create the Wittliff Collections.
Though a talented photographer, Wittliff made his indelible mark on Texas culture as a screenwriter. When it came to stories, Witliff gravitated to tales about the West — especially Texas. His original credits include Red Headed Stranger, Barbarosa, and A Night in Mexico, as well as screenplay adaptations of Legends of the Fall, The Perfect Storm, and, of course, the classic TV mini-series, Lonesome Dove.
Texas and Mexico served as inspirations for the artist in his various mediums throughout his career. In a 2001 interview with Texas Monthly, Wittliff spoke about his muse.
“When I hear younger writers say that Texas has run out of good stories, I tell them to think again. There are still so many stories out there to tell,” he told Skip Hollandsworth. (An aside: Hollandsworth's beautiful portrait captured the magnitude of Wittliff's work, and is well worth the read.)
"Bill was a gifted writer, filmmaker, photographer, artist, and visionary. He was an inspiration to all who knew him," Trauth wrote in her statement to the Texas State community on June 10.
The Wittliffs were indeed a vibrant part of that community, beginning when they established the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University in 1986. Today, the Wittliff includes more than 500 special collections, ranging from literature to film, and include the papers of legendary Texas writer J. Frank Dobie, an expansive collection of Texan and Mexican photography, an anthology of Texas music, and a Lonesome Dove permanent collection. The Wittliff Collections' facilities feature expansive photography galleries as well as reading rooms.
In a moving tribute on social media, The Wittliff Collections spoke of their namesake and founder, saying: "Words cannot describe the sorrow that everyone at The Wittliff is feeling this morning. Bill was more than a founder, he was a leader and a mentor. He inspired us. He cared about us, and we cared about him deeply. You didn’t have to spend much time with Bill to know what a special person he was."