Arthur Gochman, 1931-2010

Texas loses a great philanthropist, entrepreneur and civil-rights attorney.
by Published on

We lost a great Texan on Oct. 25, when Arthur Gochman—freedom-fighting lawyer, fabulously successful businessman and openhanded philanthropist—passed away at the age of 79, at his home in Houston, after an extended illness. A figure from the golden age of Texas Liberalism, Gochman was Maury Maverick Jr.’s law partner, a celebrated civil rights attorney who took the fight for Texas school finance reform all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 with Rodriquez v. San Antonio Independent School District. Arthur was also the founder, in 1970, of Academy Sports, a chain of stores he grew into an empire that now spans 11 states.

Though I never knew Arthur during his plucky days as a civil rights attorney, I can tell you that the same exceptional energy, commitment and intellect that drove Academy’s triumph led to his victories in the courtroom. From school finance reform to sportswear, when he set his mind to something, Arthur Gochman was an unstoppable person. He was also a writer, a lover of smart talk and big thinking, and an unflagging friend. And he was a hell of a lot of fun.

I had the honor to know Arthur during the last years of his life, through my great friend, former State Rep. Sue Schechter. In June of 2009, I spent a charmed weekend with them, part of a troupe of sunburned Houstonians, at Arthur’s house in Port Aransas. In a house filled with top-flight talkers, we all hung on Arthur’s stories, peppered with the great names of Texas politics: the Mavericks, Ann Richards, Bob Eckhardt, Creekmore Fath, Molly Ivins. He’d known them all, and they’d admired him as a peer. But my lasting memory of that weekend was the way Arthur danced. There was a sort of honky-tonk down the street, one of those delicious Gulf Coast dives where the tables are covered with white paper and the waitress dumps crawfish and sausage and cold beer down before you, like a fisherman emptying his nets. There was live music and a rinky-dink dance floor, and Arthur, age 78, danced all night. He outlasted us all. Long after I’d gone to bed with a book and a glass of milk, Arthur stayed out dancing, until he finally sped home in a rented convertible, with the top down and the hot Gulf air whipping around him. He was an avid human, driven by enthusiasm—in the boardroom, in the courtroom, and on the dance floor.

To all appearances, Arthur was the establishment. He lived two doors down from the Bushes, for goodness sake. But at heart, he was always an upstart. His parents were Jewish immigrants who ran a tire shop in San Antonio. Arthur grew up poor, and seemed never to lose his sense of “otherness,” his respect for the excluded. I remember the first time I told him I was gay, and received the unmistakable impression that he suddenly liked me more. It was as though I’d identified myself as a member of the club he’d always belonged to, and for which he’d fought so hard: The Outsiders.

Last month, I had lunch with Sue and Arthur and Sissy Farenthold, and while Sissy and Arthur brilliantly analyzed the recent Democratic primaries, Sue leaned over to me, and asked, “Aren’t we lucky? Just to be here? Just to listen to them talk?”

Yes, we were. Hell, the whole state of Texas was lucky to have had the chance to listen to Arthur Gochman. He was a man who used his voice to fight for folks who couldn’t talk half as loud or as brilliantly. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s cutting a rug, two-stepping across some honky-tonk in the great hereafter. I hope he’s having a ball, but most of all, I hope he keeps fighting for justice in Texas. I don’t know how we could do without his daring, determined voice.

Robert Leleux is the author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy. His essays and articles have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine. Robert is currently at work on his second book, The Living End, to be published next year by St. Martin's Press, and an oral history of Texas legend Sissy Farenthold.