Dreams Can Come True

A biographical sketch, by Madelaine Love*

Woodrow Wilson Rawls was born on September 24, 1913 to Minzy O. Rawls and Winnie Hatfield Rawls. He grew up on a small farm near Scraper, Oklahoma. His family referred to this farm as “Mother’s Cherokee allotment” since it was land given to Winnie Hatfield Rawls by the government because of her Cherokee ancestry.

The Rawls children were unable to attend school on a regular basis, so Winnie decide to teach them at home by reading aloud from books she ordered through the mail. Some of these were the children’s classics, The Little Red Hen, The Three Little Pigs, and Little Red Riding Hood. Wilson thought these stories were “girl stories” and it wasn’t until his mother read Jack London’s Call of the Wild that he became interested in reading. Once his mother finished reading that book to the children, she gave it to Wilson, who took the book everywhere with him. He even read the book aloud to his dog. Wilson Rawls had found his dream. He wanted to grow up and be a writer. He wanted to write a boy-and-dog story that would affect others as much as Call of the Wild had affected him.

In 1929, the Great Depression hit the country. Wilson was sixteen years old. He left home and traveled all over the country in search of any jobs he could find. All the time he traveled, he wrote stories on what paper he could find. The Rawls family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1935. Wilson began traveling to Albuquerque each fall to hunt and work with his family. Each year he took the stories he had written on the road and locked them in an old trunk in his father’s workshop. One year he traveled north to Idaho where he began working at the Atomic Energy Commission site in the Arco desert. It was in Idaho that he met Sophie Styczinski, a budget analyst for the Atomic Energy Commission.

In 1958, Sophie and Wilson decided to marry. On a trip to Albuquerque, just a few weeks before he was to be married, Wilson decided to give up his dream of being a writer and become more responsible. He had never dared show his stories to anyone. On a hot August day, he gathered all the manuscripts from the old trunk and burned them.

Just a few months after the wedding, Wilson discovered that his dream was not going to die that easily. He still wanted to be a writer. He confided his dream to Sophie. He told her of the long nights he had spent writing stories by the light of hobo town campfires or by the side of the road as he waited for a ride. He told her how he had burned all those stories just before their wedding.

Fortunately, Sophie was not only supportive, she was extremely enthusiastic and with her editorial skills, the first version of the Where the Red Fern Grows was written. It came out in the Saturday Evening Post in 1961 as a three-part serial. Later that year, it was published in hardback by Doubleday. Wilson had realized his dream of being a writer! He went on to write a second book, Summer of the Monkeys, while living in Idaho Falls.

In 1975, Wilson and Sophie moved to Cornell, Wisconsin where he died in December of 1984.

Fact Sheet – Woodrow Wilson Rawls

from Something about the Author, Vol.22

PERSONAL: Born, Sept. 24, 1913 in Scraper, OK; son of Minzy O. and Winnie (Hadfield) Rawls; married Sophie Ann Styczinski (budget analyst for Atomic Energy; retired, 1972) on Aug. 23, 1958.

CAREER: Became itinerant carpenter in teens and worked for an oil company on a construction job in Mexico and in South America; also worked on the Alcan Highway in Alaska, on five of the major dam jobs in the United States, in West Coast shipyards, for the Navy in Oregon, for a lumber company in British Columbia. Full-time writer, 1959. Visited with and lectured to students in elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities throughout the West.

Next: “Childhood Memories Relived” (newspaper article)

*Information on this page comes from materials collected by Madelaine Love in 1997 for the Woodrow Wilson Rawls: Dreams Can Come True research project. This project was funded by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and the Idaho Falls Public Library. The original interview recordings and transcripts can be found in the Idaho Falls Public Library’s Idaho Room.