The last time I saw Irma Rangel was Sunday, March 16, just two days before she died after a lengthy battle with cancer. She was railing against tort reform in Texas and railing against the war. It was a typical conversation with Irma.
By now much has been written about the state representative from Kingsville, who made headlines across the country in 1976 when she became the first Hispanic woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives. That was just one of a long list of “firsts” that characterized her career as a lawyer and legislator: She was the first woman to head the House Mexican-American Legis-lative Caucus, the first Hispanic to chair the Higher Education Committee, the first female assistant district attorney in Corpus Christi, and the first woman to serve as chair of the Kleberg County Democratic Party. But to me she was “Irma,” a woman I worked with for nearly nine years, a boss who was tough, scrupulously fair, and who taught both her staff and her colleagues every day by her own example.
I first met Irma in 1985. After working in Austin for several years I had decided to interview with the State Representative from Kingsville, a woman who had a reputation for being tough. Nothing that she said during our first meeting changed that impression. Although she told me that she knew my parents, and in fact had gone to college with my dad—whom she remembered fondly as being very “travieso,” Spanish for irresponsibly playful—I still found her to be intimidating. But I got the job and eventually became her Chief of Staff. Looking back, it’s easy to understand why Irma appeared to be so tough. It was part of her nature—along with the matter-of-fact way that she referred to everyone, staff, and legislators alike, as “baby.” But it was also part of the burden of always having to be a pioneer, always having to do better, of coming from the generation that had to be the “first.” She wanted no less from her staff.
Like many women in her generation, Irma became a teacher after college, working in South Texas and California. She also spent seven years in Venezuela, where she wrote textbooks and became a principal—”the best years of my life”—before returning to Texas. At a time when few women went to law school—let alone a 35-year-old Hi-spanic woman—she embarked on a new career and graduated from the law school at St. Mary’s University at the age of 38. But she never left teaching. Her great love was her students. That is, all the students in the state’s colleges.
As the chair of the House Committee on Higher Education, Irma delighted in passing the Top 10 Percent Law that provided state university admission for all students in the top 10 percent of Texas high schools.
However, Irma just wasn’t tough on her staff, friends, and colleagues—she would take on anyone whom she felt needed a firm word from her, including the president of the United States. She was glad that George W. Bush signed the Top 10 Percent bill while he was governor of Texas. However, she believed he took credit for the bill without acknowledging the role of those Senate and House members who toiled in the legislative trenches to pass the bill. Irma felt strongly enough about setting the record straight that she took it upon herself to meet with reporters and editorial page writers to tell them that he had little to do with passing the bill. Irma was fearless when it came to proper protocol.
Ni modo, as Irma would say. It didn’t matter. He could claim credit if he liked. But it didn’t alter the fact that the Texas Legislature had created a way to circumvent—in part—the Hopwood decision. The top 10 percent of students from the high school in Roma were likely to be 100 percent Hispanic. The top 10 percent of students from Jack Yates High School in Houston were likely to be all black. And every one was automatically admitted to the state’s best universities. That was Irma’s legacy.
Earlier this year, Irma sent letters to every college and university asking them to remain tough; not to offer any cuts to their higher education budgets and to remind the leadership of campaign promises made that every Texas student ought to have quality and accessible education. Irma was not afraid to speak up.
In the 2001 legislative session, she passed a bill creating a school of pharmacy at Texas A&M University-Kings-ville—the first professional school in South Texas. When it opens this year, it will be named after her. That it took so long to have a professional school in South Texas is nothing short of incredible. That Irma made it happen, is not. It’s just one more of a lifetime of firsts.
Myra Leo worked for Representative Rangel from 1985-1994.