WILDER'S WHOLE WORLD: Meeting Johnny Crawford's step daughter

By Dwayne Wilder
Special to the Herald Democrat

I’ve mentioned that my favorite TV Western is “The Rifleman,” a half hour drama of a father and son trying to make a life of farming (Or ‘Sod Bustin’) in the wilds of New Mexico in the 1870s. Chuck Connors, the basketball prospect who chose acting, plays Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford portrays his son, Mark. The widower is not only forced to make a living in an unforgiving time and land, he is obligated to be a single parent in such circumstances.

Oh, yeah. He’s the best shot in the territory...reputation and all.

Connors, the brother of Mike Conners (Mannix), was six foot six and a recruit of the Boston Celtics when the series started in the late 1950s. This is one of my all-time what ifs What would have happened if Chuck Connors had chosen basketball over acting?! 

When Crawford passed away earlier this year, an astute reader discovered that he had a stepdaughter living in Denison. Yes, Texas. As in right here, right now. This reader gave me all the information he had, and I decided I had to track down this person if she really lived locally.

It didn’t take long. Facebook is a wonderful thing at times. We connected and after a few messages, we were sitting down discussing all things Johnny Crawford, the child actor (The Mickey Mouse Club, Rifleman) and musical star (Crawford had a few albums after his ‘Rifleman’ days). Brenda Westenhaver’s story is winding and interesting, but it doesn’t lead to Crawford until she is an adult. But that wasn’t going to stop me; this was too cool and too good a story.

“He was fun, outgoing; willing to help anyone,” recalled Brenda, who met him for the first time in 1996. “He had no down moments; he was happy. Always smiling; and he loved his fans. He talked to people like he knew them; he was not stand-offish. He would talk to anyone who approached him.”

Crawford did theater in his later years; and even stayed at Brenda’s house in 2014 when he did a play in the metroplex. Wow! So Cool! Mark McCain was actually in the same town I was in at the same time!!! (Although I didn’t know it—details; details…) I feel closer to the ‘Rifleman’ than ever before. Awesome!

“He was just an everyday guy; he was a singer, a big band director and still had time for trick roping,” said Brenda. “He was a fantastic cowboy; he did trick roping and team roping. He loved that way of Life.”

Brenda also noted that Crawford had an antique car collection, which he leased to movie productions over the years. He was a big band director for a 12-piece orchestra for many years until his death.

“Early on he did rodeo; a true cowboy,” she added. “He played guitar, too; he was such a great guy. I was proud to be part of his family.”

Brenda, who has lived in Texoma for 13 years, said that when Crawford visited in 2014, he had to travel to the Red River. ‘He just loved this area,’ she noted, of his visit.

That ‘winding and interesting’ journey to Crawford’s family for Brenda began in the early 1960s – after Brenda’s mother had given her up for adoption. ‘Tinker’ ended up as Crawford’s classmate at Hollywood High School. They were in choir together (of course!); and began dating her senior year. This was 1963. They broke up when Crawford went to film a movie in Texas after graduation. 

They drifted apart after a few letters—flash forward 30 years or so. After Brenda found her birth mother, Tinker decided to tell her former boyfriend of how it all worked out. Making a VERY long story short, they ended up getting married in 1995 at Will Rogers Park in Pacific Palisades. Brenda believes that Johnny ‘lost her once and didn’t want to lose her again.’ But why am I telling you all this? Let’s discuss it with Tinker Crawford!

“We met in the front of the high school; Johnny was a junior and I was a senior,” recalled Tinker, whose formal name is Charlotte McKenna Crawford. “He was bashful, but a good guy; kind and generous. We went a lot of places. I didn’t know who he was; but I enjoyed going to all those events and meeting all the stars with him.”

Among other things, Tinker said Johnny Crawford was a ‘historian of old movies’ and regaled all who would listen to the stories of how they were made and what happened during filming and such. He was quite the storyteller; always telling every detail just right. She discovered all this after reconnecting in 1995. They finally got together and decided marriage was the right thing for them.

“We were always close no matter what,” said Tinker.

Tinker helped with the orchestra gigs; and they generally enjoyed the next 25 years together. In July, she held a Celebration of Life for Johnny at William S. Hart Park in California; Hart was Crawford’s favorite cowboy. It seemed fitting; 200 people attended—‘A lot of people loved Johnny,’ noted Tinker.

“He would have loved it,” she added. “It was amazing; his band was there. Just a wonderful time.”

“Johnny was such a good person; so kind and happy,” concluded Tinker. “And he was a talented actor.”

As a fan of “The Rifleman,” I agree, Tinker, I agree.

Dwayne Wilder

Dwayne Wilder is a Sherman native who currently lives in Denison. Wilder’s Whole World is his commentary about life in Texoma and the world. Wilder can be reached at cmandad17@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.