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In Memoriam

Malcolm McGregor, 1929-2003
by Published on

Malcolm McGregor was a man of the Texas West, specifically El Paso, and he enjoyed all of the history and mischief that the borderland entails. Politics, law, literature and adventure were his passions in life. He was also the keeper of the tales of Woodrow Bean, one time county judge of El Paso and all time political conniver.

I first met Malcolm in UT Law School in the mid 1950s. He was elected to the Texas Legislature from El Paso in 1954 and served with distinction for a decade. Our law school group was populated with politicians including other longtime friends of Malcolm’s—progressive democrats, who found their way into the legislature—Neil Caldwell from Angleton, Maco Steward from Galveston, Tony Korioth from Sherman, Carl Parker from Port Arthur and C.L. Ray from Waskom. We also had at least one back-sliding Republican, James Baker, the consigliere of the Bush family. Malcolm’s career as an elected official ended in 1964 when he lost a hard-fought race for the U.S. Congress, but he remained active in liberal Democratic politics for his entire life.

In the 1950s Texas was tightly run by a gaggle of Old Southern Democrats, and the actual legislative process seldom saw the light of day. The few elected liberals roomed together in a big, old house on West Avenue known, naturally, as the Russian Embassy. The biennial budget was the dominant feature of those legislative sessions. The budget was typically hammered out in secret in conference committee and sprung full-blown on an unsuspecting public. McGregor and a fellow Embassy resident, Don Kennard of Fort Worth, decided the secrecy had gone too far. They knew the budget had already been written, printed and secreted away to be revealed at some propitious moment in the future. So they mounted a burglarious assault on the locked room. The daring duo unscrewed an air vent at the bottom of the locked committee-room door, wriggled in on their bellies like commandos, and pilfered a copy of the budget.

The next day under an oath of secrecy they began to leak it out in dribbles to an AP reporter who ran daily stories on the contents. As we used to say, the shit hit the fan. Such transparency, to use a word in current vogue, was unheard of in Texas legislative circles. House and Senate leaders accused one another of the leak, and finally the chairs of the House and Senate conferees, both portly gentleman in their middle years, came to fisticuffs over the accusation. The Department of Public Safety was called in to investigate. Col. Homer Garrison, a tough old buzzard, called the offending AP reporter to DPS headquarters, but the noble reporter Frank Manitzas stayed mum. One sweet irony: when Manitzas got back to his office, Garrison called almost immediately to apologize for badgering him and explained he was under intense pressure from state leaders. After apologies, Garrison said, “Listen, while I have you on the line, would you mind checking your document and telling me what’s in it for the DPS budget?” Manitzas replied, “Send someone over here and I’ll give you a copy of that entire part of the bill.” Garrison sent a Texas Ranger.

One other brief story also captures an important facet of Malcolm. In 1957 Texans were in a white heat over desegregation, and the Texas Legislature was up in arms to defend our Southern way of life and to prevent race mixing. The Texas House overwhelmingly passed a dozen or so bills designed to destroy the NAACP and forever prevent school desegregation. Only four members of the 150-member Texas House voted against every single one of the bills—one of the four was Malcolm.

Politics behind him, Malcolm devoted his energies to the practice of law. He was one of the dying breed of lawyers who relish the challenge of a jury trial and devote their energies to representing working people and others victimized by societal forces. Obviously, the overworked and underpaid residents of El Paso supplied an ample source of needy clients. Even as his illness began to intrude Malcolm stayed at it to the very end. Doris Sipes was Malcolm’s dearest friend and long time companion. She reports that the two of them tried a jury case together just eight months ago and Malcolm was at his eloquent best in his closing argument to the jury.

Books were scattered wherever Malcolm went, his office and home bulged with books. He read constantly, always pressing some obscure historical gem upon those who came his way. His home was a sanctuary for visiting writers, ex-wives, debtors fleeing creditors, or simply those in need of a respite. Bill Brammer and Willie Morris, now departed, were intimates of his, as were long-time Texas writers Gary Cartwright, Cormac McCarthy, Bud Shrake and Larry L. King. All in their own way, I am sure, enjoyed Malcolm’s grand company, hospitality and love of books.

Where Malcolm is involved, a Woodrow Bean story is always required: Woodrow was a long time political ally, and Malcolm recounted his schemes and misdeeds with gleeful relish. At a May memorial service for him in Austin, an old friend recounted one of Malcolm’s favorites. Woodrow had a brush with the law, having failed to file an income tax return for some 20 years, and was trying to get back on his feet practicing law. He went to see a prisoner in the El Paso jail who was being held on burglary charges. When Bean asked for a fee to represent him, the prisoner explained that the only funds he had were those he had burgled and then buried in a safe place. He was willing to describe the location of this cache so Woodrow could retrieve the money for his fee. This seemed a reasonable proposition to Bean. He got the location, down a dirt road off the Midland highway, half a mile, buried under a mesquite tree adjacent to a windmill. As Bean reported the matter to Malcolm, Woodrow followed the directions and found the site. Just before he began to dig, Bean said aloud to himself, “Woodrow Wilson Bean, you are skatin’ on the thin edge a ethics here.” As he drove off with ill-gotten swag, Bean again said aloud, “Woodrow Wilson Bean, ethics is for young lawyers.” Malcolm reveled in the rapscallion ways of Bean and treasured the foibles of his many friends scattered across the landscape of Texas. He had the most enchanting talent for turning their absurd misadventures into mock-heroic epics of woe or triumph.

One visit to Malcolm’s house in Canutillo in the valley above El Paso told you that you were in the presence of an adventuresome spirit. The house incorporated an aircraft hanger and abutted a runway that enabled Malcolm to taxi out of his house and into the wild blue. His planes included a stagger-wing Beechcraft, an open cockpit Stearman and heaven knows how many more. Flying was a passion for Malcolm and a source of terror for the friends who flew with him. He made his last cross country flight in the fall of last year, flying to Maine to visit his sister. When in Big Bend last year, I ran into Mimi Webb-Miller, a denizen of Terlingua. She told me that she had been doing a publicity shot in the area and had gotten Malcolm to fly down in one of his open cockpit planes to do a series of takes in Colorado Canyon. She reported that he was absolutely in his element flying through the canyon with his scarf trailing in the wind. That’s the way he saw his life I think—like a World War I pilot out of Dawn Patrol.

Malcolm’s gone—our lives are far richer for his presence among us—and we will sorely miss him. He lived life to the fullest—full throttle all the way.

Dave Richards is one of Texas’ most noted civil rights lawyers now living in California.