“Tumbleweed Smith,” born Bob Lewis in Waco in 1935, has made a name for himself in broadcasting throughout the state of Texas. Inspired by a tumbleweed that rolled across his West Texas lawn and his mother’s maiden name, he adopted the persona of “Tumbleweed Smith” as a radio host in 1970. Lewis’s big break came in August 1969, when he started his own radio show, The Sound of Texas. Amassing a collection of over 14,000 interviews during his long career, Lewis became the owner of the largest private collection of oral histories in the United States.
In 1944, the Lewis family moved from Waco to Fort Worth, where he spent the rest of his adolescence. He returned to Waco in 1953 to attend Baylor University, graduating in 1957 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. During his time at Baylor, Lewis joined the theater department and performed in a stage play of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which later won an award for cinematography at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958.
After receiving his BA, Lewis joined the United States Army as an Army Security Agent and was stationed in Germany from 1958–1960. While in Germany, Lewis listened to the American Forces Network with his fellow soldiers. Noticing how nostalgic listening to the American radio made him and other soldiers feel inspired Lewis to find a career in broadcasting. Upon returning from Germany, Lewis settled in Waco and started his career in radio and advertising. Early on, he worked as an ad agent for William George “Dub” King, Baylor’s Sports Information Director, and worked on advertising the Heart O’Texas Fair and Rodeo. In the fall of 1960, Lewis picked up and moved to Big Spring and joined the KBST Radio team. Then in 1962 Lewis would start working for KPRC Radio and Television.
Smith married his wife Susan Zack in August of 1963 and had his first son, Robert Kevin Lewis in August of 1964. Later that year, Smith enrolled in graduate school at the University of Missouri, where he earned an MA in Journalism. After graduation, he moved to Iowa and worked for WHO Radio and Television in Des Moines. He also began working as a freelance feature reporter for NBC Radio’s Monitor. The pieces he developed in that position shaped the style of Smith’s future radio show.
Returning to Big Spring in 1967, Smith resumed his role at KBST. His second son, Brian Zack Lewis was born in 1968. Smith taught broadcasting courses at Howard College for two years. Two of his most notable students there were Alan Doelp, writer for Shocktown, one of the first prime-time emergency room television shows, and Jim Ryerson, a reporter for ABC Television’s West Coast division. After Smith was fired from his position at KBST in 1969, he began to write for Texas Parade Magazine. It was then that Smith made the biggest decision of his career and started his self-produced radio show.
The show was originally titled Tumbleweed, but in April of 1970 Lewis would change the name to The Sound of Texas and took up the radio persona of Tumbleweed Smith. By the end of the year, The Sound of Texas could be heard on ten radio stations throughout the state. The Sound of Texas would garner a decent following after being on the air for a year, with hundreds of listers tuning in to hear Tumbleweed’s interviews with eccentric characters. Episode topics ranged from conversations about high school football, women-led businesses, military history, law, politics, technology, and many other matters. Tumbleweed’s show grew in popularity throughout Texas, and in recognition of his success, he was invited to become a professor at the University of Texas-Permian Basin in 1974, where he taught until 2008. During his thirty-four years at UTPB, he taught broadcasting to thousands of students, many of whom became award-winning journalists. His students won 120 awards during his tenure, most notably the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association Award in Broadcasting. After leaving UTPB in 2008, he took up a professorship at Western Texas College in Snyder, a position he stayed at until 2010.
Being a radio personality was not all Tumbleweed was known for. He was also a marketing expert, starting his own advertising company, Multimedia Advertising Company, in 1981. The company won two national awards in 1986. Tumbleweed’s production company, Orange House Productions, also garnered national recognition. The production company won six Communicators Awards, the Governor’s Tourism Award State of Texas, the 2018 W3 Award and two Telly Awards for “The Texas Torera” and “The T & P”. In addition to precuring quality interviews for his show, Tumbleweed also travels to cities all over the state, giving speeches at various academic and professional conferences and entertaining local community groups with stories.
A mentor to prominent radio personalities and television hosts and an innovator in his programming, Tumbleweed Smith earned a favorable reputation in Texas broadcasting circles. His passion for radio and interest in preserving Texas's stories pushed Tumbleweed to local stardom. His legacy persists, and his broadcasting style continues influencing radio show hosts across the state. The show highlights unique aspects of Texas culture and the people, providing a platform for underrepresented communities to connect to a wider audience. The Sound of Texas not only displays the versatility of Texans but embodies the essence of Texans. In addition to precuring quality interviews for his show, Tumbleweed travels to cities all over the state, giving speeches at various academic and professional conferences and entertaining local community groups with stories.