Written by Lorie Woodward Cantu | Photos by New Story Media
It’s impossible to predict where Deborah Clark will be. The first time I contacted her, she was on an extended trip to London serving temporarily as her grandchildren’s nanny.
The next time we talked she was recovering from hosting a party for 250 people on the Clay County ranch, near Henrietta, she owns and operates with her husband, Emry Birdwell. The party took place 48 hours after she returned from England.
The third time we spoke, she called from their cattle pens where they were processing a load of stocker cattle. Blood-red fluid was pouring from the squeeze chute’s hydraulic system and puddling around her feet.
“I screamed. For a minute, I thought we’d literally squeezed the life out of one of the steers,” she said, laughing at her reaction, as she postponed our interview. She had to tend the emergency. On a ranch that implements an intensive rotational grazing program that depends on the animal impact of up to 5,300 head of cattle at any one time to manage the forage, the chute is an essential piece of equipment.
When we eventually connected, our interview interrupted a spur-of-the-moment planning session with her sister for a quick birthday trip to New York City to see Beautiful, the critically acclaimed Carole King musical.
“I love Carole King’s music,” she said. “I told Emry, ‘I’m going to New York for my birthday and, by the way, you don’t get to come.’ Emry said, ‘Have fun. By the way, I’m never going to New York City.’”
Deborah is a self-described “flower child with plenty of business experience.” Emry is a lifelong rancher, whose family’s multi-generational ranching roots stretch from New Mexico throughout the Texas Panhandle into Palo Pinto County and beyond.
Despite the fact that they their paths crossed in the small town of Palo Pinto in elementary school and later in high school, where, thanks to the alphabet, Birdwell sat right in front of Clark, nothing indicated they one day would marry. He was a cowboy. She was a cheerleader. He went to Texas Tech to study animal science. She went to SMU to embrace peace, love, bell bottoms, tie dye and anthropology. Emry returned to his family ranch in Palo Pinto. Deborah headed to the University of Texas School of Public Health for her Master’s and then to the hustle and bustle of corporate Houston.
Fate, in the form of a family construction business, put Deborah and Emry in the same geographical orbit. In the late 80s, Deborah’s parents called and asked her to return to Mineral Wells and join them in the family business, C&B Associates. The invitation caught her by surprise.
“Because my sister and I were obviously girls, we had assumed that Dad wasn’t interested in having us be part of the business, so we never thought to ask,” she said. “It was a typical family miscommunication. I returned to Mineral Wells to become my father’s son.”
Her arrival in Mineral Wells got the match-making wheels turning. Her mother returned from the first of a year-long series of dental procedures with the news that the “dentist had a friend.” Recently divorced, Deborah wasn’t interested. At each succeeding dental appointment, her mother returned home with the same message. Finally, Deborah was bored, so she made her own dental appointment. Twenty-four hours later, Emry called.
“It was an oil and water first date,” she said. “I was a liberal. He was a conservative. He had deep roots and was content to stay put. I had traveled extensively. He is quiet and deliberate. I am not. And yet, here we are 25 years later.”
As the romance heated up, so did the Clark family’s construction business. As fiber optic cable installers, they had carved out a profitable niche in the telecom revolution. Their specialty was installing cable in rocky terrain. Her father helped develop a series of rock saws specific to the task that gave them a competitive and quality advantage.
Deborah lived in airports and out of suitcases as she criss crossed the country to oversee construction projects. Emry stayed at home, ran the ranch and raised their children. They lived “separate checking account lives” for 15 years. Then, in the mergers and acquisition phase that characterized the zenith of the dot.com bubble, the Birdwell family’s construction business was purchased along with eight other mom-and-pop telecom service providers. The bubble burst. And, within 18 months, the new owners had put all of the companies they acquired into bankruptcy. They continued to eke out an existence for the next two years.
“It was the saddest thing in my life,” Deborah said. “I had to let go employees who had been with my father since the 1950s.” In 2003, Deborah, who was also dealing with a cancer diagnosis, had enough and left.
“Emry and I looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, we’re like a regular married couple now,’” said Deborah. They decided to buy a ranch together.
They were casually searching when an off-handed comment to a friend prompted him to show them the Clay County ranch that would eventually be their home.
“It was a series of serendipitous events,” she said. “I had a pocket full of change from selling the business and Emry sold some property he had inherited. We were banking on his expertise.”
No one expected the adrenaline rush that was to come. Although the couple made their decision to purchase the property quickly, they caught wind that someone else was also interested in the land, which was overseen by a trustee who they didn’t know. The rumor was verified over a weekend. They decided they would contact the trustee on the following Monday. That Monday morning Emry spotted a truck bearing the logo of the other entity that had expressed interest in the ranch. The truck belonged to one of the nation’s largest homebuilders and it was headed toward Wichita Falls, the location of the trustee’s office. He called Deborah and said, “Call the trustee now.”
The trustee told Deborah that he was expecting an offer within the day and that he would consider whichever offer arrived first. Together, with an attorney friend and a real estate friend, she quickly cobbled together an offer. Then, she put on a business suit and swung by and picked up Emry in his cow-manure flecked work clothes. They sped to the trustee’s office. It was mid-afternoon.
They were first. The trustee and his attorneys reviewed the offer, which met all of the demands, and accepted it. The land was bisected by a road. Initially, Deborah and Emry were planning to purchase the 8,000-acre tract to the south, which was all they had seen. Instead, they purchased 22,000 acres with 14,000 acres sight unseen.
“For a minute, it was like being in sixth grade,” she said. “After signing some paperwork, we very formally asked permission to go see what we had bought. When we got there we were like giddy school kids because we had literally bet everything we had on this ranch — and the north side turned out to be even better than the south side.” They later sold the 8,000-acre tract.
They closed on January 30, 2004. Deborah expected a slow transition from one ranch to the other, but woke to find Emry loading his horses, dogs, saddles and emptying his closet and drawers. As he pulled out of the drive, he yelled, “Don’t be late to the closing.”
Deborah was standing in the driveway with her primarily Spanish-speaking housekeeper, who said, “I think you move.” Deborah said, “Yes, I think we move.” While Deborah had been a rancher’s wife for 15 years, she had never been involved in the day-to-day operations.
“Frankly, I didn’t know the difference between a steer and heifer, then,” she said. “I certainly didn’t know the difference between a grass and forb. I couldn’t wrap my brain around ranching as a business or all of the moving parts involved in ranching – weather, markets, herd health, forage management, business relationships…We’ve come a long way baby.”
A lifelong believer in education, Deborah became a workshop junkie. She eventually grasped the business side of ranching by attending a Ranching for Profit School. She came to understand the vision and philosophy of successful ranching using decision-making models that are advanced by the Holistic Management Institute. She began to appreciate the natural cycles underpinning ranching through wildlife.
“Emry is the consummate practitioner, but he’s not always a good communicator,” she said. “Through the wildlife workshops, I attended I came to understand the synergy between wildlife and livestock. Through that lens, I began to understand Emry’s goals for the ranch. I began to share his passion for making this land everything that it could be.”
Prior to moving to Clay County, she had never held a firearm, but once she overcame her “own personal liberal bias against guns,” she became an avid shotgunner. And when she took to the field with Emry and watched bird dogs work a covey of wild bobwhites, she became an avid quail hunter, finding the pursuit rejuvenating. In 2005, she graduated as a member of the state’s first QuailMaster class. The diploma is one of only four framed “atta girls” that adorn her office wall.
Her burgeoning interest in wildlife put her directly in the path of a group of passionate young female conservationists, including Tamara Trail, Helen Holdsworth and Jenny Sanders, who were educators and advocates for the Texas Wildlife Association (TWA).
“Those young women served as role models for me,” she said. “I was in my 50s. They weren’t. I was just discovering an area and a passion that they had dedicated their lives to. They welcomed me into their world and encouraged me to be an active, engaged contributor.”
Today, Deborah is the chairperson for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Wildlife Committee. She recently, after a two-year hiatus, reaccepted the role of State Membership Chairman for the TWA.
When she was discussing, with Emry, the latest opportunity to serve, she relayed a conversation with TWA’s incoming president, who asked her to return to the very time-consuming job. Emry, who had suggested she take a break to spend more time on the ranch, considered what he heard and said, “Well Debbie, what I think he is saying is that they can use your help.” And the decision was made.
“Emry is the visionary expert on cattle, grazing, forage production – all the things we have to consider and manage for our ecological and economic survival,” Deborah said. “I’m the communicator. I work on what we – and other people like us – have to consider in order to sustain productive, open space land and our way of life.
She continued, “He is black and white. I’m color. But we’re partners.”
While Deborah still misses the multi-star restaurants and really great grocery stores found in big cities, she wouldn’t trade the life that she now wears as comfortably as a favorite pair of jeans. On the day we spoke, she gave me a glimpse of her early mornings. The following can only be described as a love letter to the land.
This morning, I was in my office reading the Psalms, as the sky turned from dark into a brilliant palette of orange and yellow tinged with pink. I usually don’t quote chapter and verse because that’s not my style, but today I revisited Psalm 65, one of my favorites. Verse 8 jumped off the page, “You make the gateways of morning and evening shout for joy.” In the country, I’m part of that joy every day.
In the past three days on my short trip down to our pens, I’ve seen three coveys of quail burst from the grass, evaded a multitude of deer that seem to be intent on jumping out in front of me, laughed at a momma raccoon and her babies trundling along, and spotted coyotes slinking in the background. This is just a normal part of my days.
Vistas. Sunrises. Sunsets. The natural ebb and flow of life. Over time, I’ve been blessed by an increasing intimacy with the land.
Sometimes I declare self-imposed periods of isolation where I refuse to leave the ranch. I simply want to breathe. I simply want to be.
I came to this land after a period of difficult transition. The experience, epitomized by this ranch, has taught me that bountiful opportunities and peace often lie on the other side of hard, trying times.