Thursday, August 30, 2018

Review: The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch ~ Lone Star Literary Blog Tour

foreword by Bill Hobby

  Genre: Memoir / Texana / Politics / Eastern European History
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Date of Publication: April 16, 2018
Number of Pages: 336 pages w/50 B&W photos

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As a boy in Houston, Bill Sarpalius, his brothers, and their mother lived an itinerant life. Bill dug food out of trashcans, and he and his brothers moved from one school to the next. They squatted in a vacant home while their mother, affectionately called “Honey,” battled alcoholism and suicidal tendencies. In an act of desperation, she handed her three sons over to Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch north of Amarillo.

At the time, Bill was thirteen years old and could not read. Life at Boys Ranch had its own set of harrowing challenges, however. He found himself living in fear of some staff and older boys. He became involved in Future Farmers of America and discovered a talent for public speaking. When he graduated, he had a hundred dollars and no place to go. He worked hard, earned a scholarship from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and obtained a college degree. After a brief career as a teacher and in agribusiness, he won a seat in the Texas Senate. Driven by the memory of his suffering mother, he launched the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse in an effort to help people struggling with addiction.

Sarpalius later served in the United States Congress. As a Lithuanian American, he took a special interest in that nation’s fight for independence from the Soviet Union. For his efforts, Sarpalius received the highest honor possible to a non-Lithuanian citizen and was named a “Grand Duke.” The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch is a unique political memoir—the story of a life full of unlikely paths that is at once heartbreaking and inspirational.


“The autobiography of Bill Sarpalius reads like a 20 -century version of the American dream – equal parts heartbreak and inspiration, culminating in an unlikely political career capped by three terms in the U.S. Congress.” -- University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs

“The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch is an inspiring tale of perseverance and personal courage.” -- Si Dunn, Lone Star Literary Life


I normally only read fiction, and I can’t remember the last time I read a biography or autobiography. But as someone whose life has been affected by alcoholism, I was grateful for the opportunity to read The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch and learn about the life of Bill Sarpalius, a survivor who didn't let a difficult childhood hold him back from living a meaningful life.

At first, I wasn't sure how to approach reviewing a memoir. In a fiction review I might talk about the setting, the voice of the characters, and the tone and pace of the narrative. As it turns out, however, most of these elements apply to Bill’s story as well. In addition, there are a number of photographs included in the book that provide visual support for the text and show all the ages and stages of Bill’s life, including most of the family, friends and other important people who had an impact on his life. The photos also provide a backdrop for the various places described in the book. I was also surprised and pleased to note how few grammatical and editing issues I encountered as I was reading, considering this is a first-time author. These types of errors will usually catch my eye, but in The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch, I was happy to overlook the few I encountered and just enjoy the book for the story it told.

Written in plain, everyday language, Bill tells his life story to the reader in a way that is well-paced and engaging. It flows well and is written, for the most part, in chronological order. One gets a real sense of the author's personality in his writing - his distinct voice - which grants an intimacy to the reading experience. The other characters introduced in the narrative are less distinct, which makes sense as the focus is on how all the experiences affected the author's life. What we are given, ultimately, is a story of a life hard-fought and well-lived. Bill Sarpalius overcame very significant obstacles in his life, but also experienced deep love, true friendship, the honor of public service and the Providence of God.

When Bill was 13 years old, he and his brothers were removed from the care of their mother, Honey, who was an alcoholic, and were sent to live at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch outside Amarillo, Texas. Bill’s father had abandoned their family, and Honey was not able to support her children. Even though there were many instances of abuse while Bill and other boys lived there, the author gives much credit to Boys Ranch for the lessons he learned about hard work, overcoming obstacles and not giving up on one’s dreams and goals. I was saddened by reading about the level of abuse that occurred at Boys Ranch, for all the children who suffered at the hands of older bullies, and even some staff members. Bill claims it made him stronger, but I'm sure many of the boys were damaged irrevocably by those experiences.

Although illiterate when he arrived at Boys Ranch, Bill went on to graduate high school in five years, after many failed classes. When his high school counselor told him he would have a hard time passing college courses, Bill writes:

“It was clear to me that the school counselor didn’t understand what was in my heart and how hard I was willing to work to become successful. I knew God had a plan for me to help people, and I would just follow His guidance.”

This quote is is indicative of the rest of Bill’s life: he had a heart for service, a deep faith in his God, and a strong desire to improve his life and the lives of others. After high school, with no plans and barely any money, Bill ran his first campaign, on a shoestring budget, and became the president of the Future Farmers of America. This achievement provided him a scholarship to attend college, during which he worked six different jobs to make ends meet. He also managed to obtain a Master’s Degree, and went on to run very successful campaigns for the Texas Senate and the U.S. Congress. I won’t go into a lot of detail about Bill’s political life, as I hope many people will read this story and see the impact he had as a public servant during his political career. But a few are worth mentioning.

Bill was instrumental in changing the penalties for drunk driving offenses and changing the legal drinking age in Texas, with much opposition by a powerful lobby. He was involved in revising the laws to allow adopted children to locate their biological parents, and vice versa. He also found a clever way to convince lawmakers to make dog fighting a felony, after which Bill received severe backlash, including death threats. The laws he changed to provide more regulations for ambulance services would, ironically, end up saving his life after an accident in which he broke his back. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, he played an important role in the historical freedom of countries stifled by the oppression of Soviet rule, beginning with Lithuania, from which Bill’s ancestors originated.

One thing that radiates throughout this book is Bill's belief that God would provide him with opportunities to make a difference in other people's lives. Ultimately, what resonated the most with me upon finishing the book is this: every time someone reached out a hand in need, Bill reached back to help.

The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch is a deeply personal story, and I feel my own life is richer having read it.

BILL SARPALIUS represented the Texas 13th Congressional District from 1989 to 1995, and from 1981 to 1989 he served in the Texas State Senate. He currently is a motivational speaker and serves as CEO of Advantage Associates International. He divides his time between Maryland and Houston, Texas.

BARNES & NOBLE, #2665 2:00 PM
2415 Soncy Road
  Amarillo, TX 79124

Notable Quotable
Video Interview, Part 1
Scrapbook Page
Video Interview, Part 2

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent review -- sounds like you really made a connection. I love books that make you feel enriched by having read them.