Dolph Briscoe Passing is Loss of State’s Quintessential Texas Rancher

June 28, 2010

Texas lost another giant of its history over the weekend with the passing of  Dolph Briscoe, governor of the state from 1973  through 1979, and a prominent South Texas business leader and philanthropist for decades.  Governor Briscoe was the personification of the legendary Texas rancher of  book and movie lore, whose family land holdings once sprawled over  600,000 acres, making it the largest privately-owned property in
the state.

His death recalls a personal turning point in my own life in which he played a key role. In December of 1961, Briscoe hosted  a meeting of then- Democratic political movers and shakers at his famed Catarina Ranch to discuss the 1962 Governor’s race.  Described in his own book, as told to editor Don Carlton, (director  the Center for American History at the Univesity of Texas), Briscoe had supported then-Governor Price Daniel in the past. But Daniel, who already had served three terms, had hesitated to announce his plans for another term, leading conservative Democrats to coalesce around John B. Connally, who was serving as Secretary of the Navy as an appointee of President John F. Kennedy.  As Briscoe notes, the Catarina, with its deep South Texas seclusion that includes a private air strip,  was the perfect place to map political plans. As expected, the meeting confirmed united support for Connally among prominent political leaders from across fhe state.

A few days later, in Fort Worth, I received a call from Scott Sayers, a member of the Texas Legislature. telling me that John Connally had asked that I have coffee with him at the Hotel Texas, a popular political gathering place . Then a Fort Worth resident and counsel to legendary oil man Sid Richardson and his nephew Perry Bass, Connally was aware of my budding experience as a young public relations and political counselor, including sucessful election campaigns for State Represntative Don Kennard and CongressmanJim Wright. Over coffee, Connally shared his experience as Navy Secretary, where he watched research grants going to California, New York and other states, but not to Texas.  That convinced him that the state’s future depended on vastly increased emphasis on higher education.  He then outlined his vision to make that objective the foundation of his campaign for Governor.”I don’t know what all I need (in this campaign)” he said after talking further about his concerns for Texas, “but I think you o.  And I would like for you to sign on with me”.  Thus began a relationship that spanned more than four decades, involving years of confidential counsel through good times and bad, the handling of millions of dollars in campaign funds ( cash was legal back then), and all without any formal contract.

After his role in helping launch Connally’s campaign, Briscoe was chagrinned that Governor Daniel finally declared as a candidate for a fourth term.  but to no avail. Connally led primary voting  over the Governor and four other candidates, and served three terms as governor before retiring voluntarily in 1969.

Governor Briscoe’s gentlemanly presence. generous philathrophyand sense of history will be keenly missed and fondly remembered. We  can be grateful to Don Carlton for overcoming the Governor’s modesty to help preserve his legacy for future generations. 

–Julian Read

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