Woodrow Wilson Rawls was born on September 24, 1913 in the rural Ozark Mountains near Scraper, Oklahoma. His parents were Minzy Rawls and Winnie Hatfield Rawls. There were no schools near his home, so his mother taught her children. She ordered books through the mail, read them out loud, and then let her children read them. Woody wasn’t interested in books because they were “girl stories,” but then his mother brought Jack London’s Call of the Wild into their home. Woody’s imagination was fired by this story of a man and his dog.
As a teenager and young adult, he traveled through the U.S.A., South America, and Canada, working on construction jobs—among them, Alaska’s Alcan Highway. On his travels, he began writing stories. Embarrassed by his poor grammar and spelling skills, he kept his efforts locked away in a trunk.
He married Sophie Styczinski in 1958 in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Shortly before their marriage, he emptied his trunk of rejected manuscripts and burned them. He didn’t want his new wife to know about them. Eventually, Sophie heard about his writing and encouraged Woody to submit one of the stories. He sat down and rewrote her suggested story in three weeks (35,000 words). Sophie edited it and they sent it in to the Saturday Evening Post. The magazine serialized the story in 1961, publishing it in three parts, calling it “The Hounds of Youth.” Later, Doubleday published it as the book we now know as Where the Red Fern Grows. Wilson Rawls had achieved his ambition of writing a book of the same stature as his idol, Jack London.
In 1973, the book was made into a movie. The production crew rebuilt Rawls’ childhood home in the Ozarks, and asked the Rawls to visit the set. Rawls said, “I stayed for ten days and relived my youth. It was wonderful.” He wrote another book, Summer of the Monkeys, which was published before Rawls died in Marshfield, Wisconsin, in 1984.
Woody and Sophie lived in Cornell, Wisconsin from 1975 to 1984. Today, thanks to Jim Trelease telling the people of Idaho Falls the story of their one-time resident who made his dreams come true, there is a statue of Billy Colman and his two dogs in front of the Idaho Falls Public Library, a reminder of the power of the stories about boys, men, and dogs.