He squints as the sun ducks around the brim of his large cowboy hat.
His hand rests calmly on the handle of his pistol, which is slung high on his right hip.
The tip of his bandana flips calmly in the soft breeze and his feet point slightly in opposite directions as if they’ve been in the stirrups too long.
John Wayne may have passed away 30 years ago, but to those who encounter this tall Bryan resident may think otherwise.
“I started playing around with the John Wayne voice and didn’t know I had a natural match for it,” said Dr. Gene Howard.
Howard, a one time graphic artist for NASA and long time champion of Christian faith, started working on his John Wayne drawl after people told him that he looked very similar to the old cowboy.
Soon, with a few clothing additions, he had the “Duke” down to an almost exact match.
“I went to do some missionary work in Costa Rica, and I think they really thought I was him. I was getting off the plane and they were saying ‘Mr. Wayne! We have all your movies!’ I don’t think they know he has passed on,” Howard said.
Howard began using his perfected Wayne impersonation to travel the country to different churches to deliver his message of freedom and sacrifice.
“Sometimes people come to see the Duke, and wind up finding Jesus, and that’s what it’s all about for me,” Howard said.
Slowly, people began to hire him to come entertain at conferences and make other appearances outside of the church, and quickly his weekends were completely booked.
While he enjoyed delivering his message in the church, he found that his favorite place to spend his time was at veteran’s hospitals.
“Most of these guys grew up with him, and they so love him. I don’t think I could get a better welcome if I was John Wayne himself when I go to a VA.” Howard said. “One time I visited a guy, and when I was leaving the doctor told me that was the first time he had seen that patient smile in two years.”
On this day, Howard strolled across the campus of Texas A&M, visiting with students that couldn’t believe who they were looking at.
Some recognized who he resembled immediately, while others took a little coaxing from Howard before they caught on.
But Howard relished in the moment to make those he passed smile, and was even more gracious to be able to spread more of his message on faith.
“You’re not American if you don’t know who John Wayne is,” exclaimed one A&M cadet.
“My dad would have a heart attack if he saw you!” yelled another student, leaning out the window of her dorm.
And as long as he’s able, Howard said he plans on continuing to dress up like John Wayne, spreading his message, and making heads turn.
MORE INFO ON THIS STORY:
-- Gene has traveled to or spoke in 47 states
-- Gene was born in Sealy, TX but was raised in Sugarland, TX
-- Gene often spends money out of his own pocket to visit the veteran’s hospitals and churches he speaks at
-- Gene also is an accomplished artist, painting pictures of dogs and writing poetry
-- Gene has at one time been able to do 40 different voices, including Johnny Cash and Jimmy Stewart among others.
-- Gene has been preaching for 35 years
-- Gene enjoys all of John Wayne’s films, but is partial to “Rio Bravo” or “The Alamo”
-- Gene is a member of Texas Avenue Baptist Church in College Station
-- Gene is not related to John Wayne, nor is associated with the Wayne estate or family
-- For more information on Gene, visit his website link below the story