DARBY — A slim man in a striped button-down shirt and faded jeans appeared in front of the American and Texas flags. The young audience was suddenly at attention, watching the screen intently. The man introduced himself as John Erickson, author of Hank the Cowdog.
“I’m gonna get my banjo and we’ll get cranked up,” Erickson said.
Lynda Fox’s fourth-grade class at Darby Elementary School watched Erickson play his tunes on Vision Net. The video conferencing tool allows people to talk via webcam and television screen from around the world.
“It allows the students to interact with people that, especially in Montana, they normally wouldn’t get contact with,” said Jessica Dufresne, Title One and gifted education teacher at Darby High School.
Dufresne coordinates the video conferences. While the fourth-graders have only talked to a former teacher and Erickson so far, the high school students have had guests from the Missoula Crime Lab, a scientist from the Denver Museum and a professional football player.
“What I think I appreciate the most is that we can bring things to our kids here,” Dufresne said. “It just expands their world that much more.”
Erickson gave quite the presentation. Not only did he sing, but he read from one of his 59 books in the series and answered many questions from the kids. Watching along with the Darby school were children from Alabama.
One student asked if Hank actually wasn’t very smart or if he was pretending.
“Dogs have kind of a dual nature,” Erickson answered. “Sometimes they seem very perceptive. Sometimes they seem kind of brainless.”
A Darby student asked how Erickson decided on his characters. He told them they were all based on people and animals he knew in real life. Originally, he said, he pictured himself as Slim Chance, the hired ranch hand.
Erickson read a passage in which Hank had swallowed a fish hook. Using different voices, Erickson read as Slim tried to make Hank throw it up by feeding him soap. When that didn’t work, he had to think a moment.
“When a guy runs outta luck, he’s forced to use his brain,” Slim said in the story.
The kids laughed as much from the fictional version of Erickson as they did from the real thing.
“I liked it when he talked about how he was a rancher and about why he wrote about Hank and the other dog,” said Marie Davenport, 10.
Gabe Smith, 9, took to stories about the real-life Hank and Drover.
“I like how [Erickson] told about Hank and Drover barking at the plane in the moring and waking everybody up thinking it was a giant bird,” he said.
Erickson talked about what it’s like to be a writer and the kind of perseverance he’s kept up over the years to continue to do so. For students aspiring to be writers themselves, meeting Erickson was a special event.
“It’s just cool how he finds out all the characters of the book. It’s really actually kind of inspiring to some other kids and to me,” said Warren Odlin, 10.
The first Hank the Cowdog book was published in the early 1980s. The series follows Hank, a not-so-bright dog who has claimed the title of head of ranch security. He goes through many adventures with his friend Drover and the enemy cat, Pete.
Dufresne said the series is great for reluctant readers — and boys.
“Boys like to read about dogs and cowboys and ranches,” she said. “The nice thing about series is, if a kid likes them, then there’s so many more that they can read. I like, you know, that he’s a writer, but it’s also nice to get kids hooked on that type of book.”
Erickson will give each student a signed Hank the Cowdog book. The gesture was described as “awesome” and “cool.”
“I’ll be able to brag to my brother about it,” Odlin said.
The next Vision Net adventure Darby School kids will have is to the San Antonio Zoo. They will see lions and apes all while sitting in a classroom. So far, the idea is catching with the kids.
“I think that it’s really fun, and it’s really nice to actually be able to get around to other places of the world and be able to talk to other kids around the globe,” Odlin said.