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Quail Dobbs

The law east of Stink Creek

What’s the difference between a rodeo clown and a justice of the peace? Not much, says Quail Dobbs, who now serves as a justice of the peace in Coahoma after his retirement as a rodeo clown. With a twinkle in his blue eyes, he quips, “You still gotta put up with so much bull.”

My assignment was to spend the day on a slice-of-life piece on Dobbs, who for 35 years worked as a rodeo clown, then upon retirement in 1998, was elected to one of three J.P. posts in Howard County. His post is in Coahoma, his adopted hometown 10 miles from the county seat, Big Spring.

But when I asked him about his rodeo clown career, Dobbs corrected me. “It’s rodeo bullfighting clown,” he says. “We’re the ones who slap the bull on the nose to distract him from the cowboy. And that makes the bull reeeeal mad.”

Dobbs has scars from his rodeo days—including one very visible mark on his cheek. His explanation? “You don’t have anywhere to hide in a barrel; there are no corners.”

Seems the bull managed to get a hook inside the barrel and into Dobbs’ cheek, twirling the barrel with Dobbs inside like a Hula Hoop in the air. In 1973, a bull ran over him, breaking his leg. Other than that, he’s fine today. So far, he’s got no scars from being a judge.

We met in Big Spring, in the parking lot of what looked to me to be the world’s biggest truck stop on the busy east-west Interstate Highway 20 trucking route. Dobbs does not fit the image of the tall, Texas lawman west of the Pecos: He is short with a cherubic face framed by blond hair and split by a near-perpetual smile. He is dressed in beige Wrangler jeans, a starched, white cowboy shirt, and practical SAS shoes.

I learned during the day that a monumental testament to Dobbs’ fame is on the Coahoma water tank, just to the right off IH-20 before you enter the town (population 932). Dobbs’ billboard-sized, white-and-red-painted clown face grins down from the side of the water tank: “Welcome to Coahoma, home of Quail Dobbs.” Town leaders thought this signage fitting because of Dobbs’ cowboy honors. He was named the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Clown of the Year in 1978 and 1988, and is a member of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame.

While in Coahoma, I met Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jason Hester in Dobbs’ Coahoma office—there to visit his mother-in-law, Connie Murley, Dobbs’ clerk. The officer added his bit to the Dobbs lore.

“I always wanted to give someone a ticket by the water tower,” he says. “Then when I tell them that their signature on the ticket is not an admission of guilt but does guarantee that they will either pay or show up in court, I would say ‘and that’s the judge you’ll see, right over there on the water tower.’” Unfortunately, he adds, it’s never happened.

Indeed, in spite of his short stature, like the tower image, Dobbs is larger than life. He is a beloved figure, as I witnessed folks’ reactions to him, from the courthouse in Big Spring to his gleaming, white-painted office in Coahoma, and he was addressed as “Judge” or “Quail,” depending on the greeter—never the formal “Mr. Dobbs.” He ran unopposed in November, winning his third four-year term.

“It’s not so much that I deserve it [being elected] or know the law, it’s that it’s an honor,” Dobbs said. But I learned not to believe his quip about the law—he knows it—as witnessed by detailed answers to my questions about J.P. law. Texas J.P.s attend 20 hours of schooling every year. “I’m always studying,” Dobbs says.

We drove to the 1950s-era courthouse in the middle of Big Spring where Dobbs delivered a marriage certificate to the county clerk. “Here, it makes ’em legal to fight,” he quips.

At the sheriff’s office, Dobbs picks up a sheaf of yellow traffic tickets. “Lots of people don’t know a traffic ticket is a Class C misdemeanor,” he explains. He processes about 1,200 tickets a year. “There’s 12 miles of IH-20 in my precinct, and that’s lots of speeding tickets.”

Dobbs is one tough judge on speeders. “I used that story, and it didn’t work for me and it won’t work for you,” he says he tells speeders—admitting to me he was an inveterate leadfoot. One recent defendant was Dobbs’ son—who was ticketed for not wearing a seat belt and received a fine. “I’m on the other side of the law, Son,” Dobbs told him. “They [the townfolks] would have hung me if I hadn’t.”

Business finished at the courthouse, we drive to his office in Coahoma, past the famous water tank. A sign to the right of his door reads “The Law East of Stink Creek.” The handmade, carved wooden sign was arranged by his former clerk—so named for an actual creek and a takeoff on Judge Roy Bean’s “Law West of the Pecos.”

Pink periwinkles bloom in a broken whiskey barrel on the porch—the barrel entirely wrapped in red tape—the same tape Dobbs used on his rodeo barrel. Inside the office, country music plays softly on a radio. Folks who have to come to this office will surely feel at home.

We lunch at Dairy Queen—chicken-fried steak, of course. More West Texas humor from the club of seven retirees sitting near us drinking serial cups of coffee: “So, Quail, did you have to pay that girl to sit with you,” asks a retiree with gimme cap reading Coahoma Softball Champs.

“What do you know, Quail?” asks another blue-jeaned retiree. “Don’t know ‘come here’ from ‘sic ’em,’ ” he replies.

A J.P. is at the entry-level end of the judicial system but in rural areas has considerable powers, which include serving as county coroner, marrying couples, processing traffic tickets, serving eviction notices, issuing search warrants and performing all manner of magistrate duties, from driver’s license suspensions to bail settings.

Coroner duty is Dobbs’ least favorite. “You gotta be crazy to get up in the middle of the night and look at a dead person,” he says. “It’s not too difficult, the EMS is gone, and the reason they are gone is that the person is dead.”

Dobbs explains that as coroner, he conducts an inquest. He interviews whomever is at the scene. Most deaths are from natural causes.

For marriage ceremonies, Dobbs erected a wrought-iron trellis in the corner of his office, entwined with green, fake ivy. He attached a real bull skull midway up the trellis—a gift from a rodeo in Montana before he retired. He consulted a steno pad of names and counted, one-by-one, the couples he’s married. It’s about 25 a year.

Why become a J.P.? He was asked to run, he says, and he was relieved to have a career after retirement.

And how did he get to be a rodeo bullfighting clown? “Every young boy in West Texas wants to be a cowboy,” Dobbs says. He started a career as a rodeo cowboy but within two years, thanks to an absent barrel clown in Wisconsin and his being offered the job, he was—pardon the pun—hooked.

In 1978, Dobbs founded the Coahoma Kindergarten Rodeo. Each March, children build stick horses and stick bulls and perform in mock barrel races, bareback and bull riding, and even milk “wild” cows.

The teachers love the event because it combines mental and physical agility training. Dobbs cajoles his contacts from the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association to donate to the rodeo.

Dobbs’ sweet spot for youth emerged immediately on becoming a J.P. Just six weeks into the school year, he began receiving notices from the school district about truant students. He admits to being obsessed with keeping them in school.

Dobbs has the power to fine or jail parents who don’t show for a hearing or whose children continue being absent from school. Has he ever jailed or fined? “Naw, I call ’em first,” says the judge who puts the youths to work cleaning up streets or painting fire hydrants. Or, he’ll gently explain to a grandmother that three of her 17-year-old granddaughter’s absence notes were forged. Or, by just talking with parents, he learned that too often they simply can’t make the teen get out of bed on time to catch the bus. Dobbs just shakes his head.

“I can put ’em in jail, and I will if they don’t do community service,” Dobbs says. “I tell ’em, ‘You’ll drop out forever if you don’t watch out.’

“I took this job to make a difference,” he says. “And if I can keep one kid going to school, that’s making a difference.”

Mary Lance wrote about lowrider bicycles for our December issue.