A Big Texan Reflects On 'Big Tex'

An early morning fire all but destroyed the iconic "Big Tex" statue at the Texas State Fair on Friday. The news reached all the way in Nairobi, Kenya, where John Burnett is currently based.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There is sorrow in Texas today over the passing of a towering figure in Lone Star lore, Big Tex. The iconic 52-foot-tall talking cowboy stood at the center of the State Fair of Texas, and he burnt this morning. The cause of the fire: an electrical short near his boot. NPR's John Burnett, a native of Dallas, has this remembrance.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Let us now praise famous men. Even when the Tilt-A-Whirl was silent and the Ferris wheel was still, there was the craggy, ever-smiling face with the hinged jaw that often scared little kids, looming high above, keeping vigil. Over the 60 years that Big Tex stood in Fair Park, his clothes evolved from a red cowboy shirt made by Lee to a yellow shirt with pearl snap buttons made by Dickies.

Fairgoers were greeted by his familiar drawl.

BIG TEX: Howdy, folks. Welcome to the State Fair of Texas.

BURNETT: Big Tex was always there when you needed him. In October 1979, I was riding the fair's Swiss sky ride when the cable cars started smashing into each other and falling off the cable. One man was killed and more than a dozen were injured. The ride stopped, they evacuated the fairgrounds and we hung up there for an hour. Then the reassuring voice of Big Tex, actually a Dallas radio announcer, intoned do not attempt to exit your cable car. Wait for the cherry picker. And we did, and we were safe. Hank Hill of "King of the Hill" admired Big Tex.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV PROGRAM, "KING OF THE HILL")

MIKE JUDGE: (as Hank Hill) Son, look. There's Big Tex. He's like the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty rolled into one.

PAMELA ADLON: (as Bobby Hill) He seems tough, but kind.

BURNETT: The Texas State Fair's spokesperson says they'll rebuild Big Tex bigger and better than ever in time for the next state fair in September 2013. I'll miss him just the same. John Burnett, NPR News.

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