A Touch of Class

Eleanor Tinsley-the only person I’ve ever met who was also a park and an elementary school-died Feb. 10. For anybody who doesn’t already know, much of what’s best and most beautiful about the city of Houston was a gift of Tinsley’s imagination. As a public servant and civic leader, she was a figure of great guts and dignity. She was also a very nice lady.

Houston, my hometown, is that strange place on the map where New Orleans manners meet western wildness, and where white-gloved refinement so often collides with cowboy coarseness and bigotry. White gloves never graced finer hands than Tinsley’s. A soothing presence in cupcake colors, she gave every impression of being the well-born Baptist matron she was (her great-grandfather, Dr. Rufus Burleson, was a president of Baylor University). But she was also one of those trailblazing women of the ’60s and ’70s who helped define our state as surely as any man at the Battle of San Jacinto.

When Tinsley was elected to the Houston School Board in 1969, the city was charged with the daunting task of racial integration-a cause to which she was unwavering. The Houston Chronicle reports that, during this tumultuous process, Tinsley was approached by a man made furious by the idea that his daughter might “catch something” from a black student.

“Perhaps, sir,” she replied, “she might catch tolerance.”

In 1979 Tinsley joined forces with Houston’s gay community to oust an outspoken homophobe from the City Council. That year, she became one of the first two women elected to the council, not to mention a champion of women’s and gay rights causes. By the time she retired in 1995, after 20 years in office, she’d played a major role in the creation of Houston Community College, Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Houston’s 911 emergency service, and literally hundreds of public parks. Former Councilman Jim Greenwood, quoted in the Chronicle, considers her “the most effective member of the City Council that Houston has ever seen.”

Interviewing Tinsley last spring, I asked her what she’d done before running for office. “I taught Sunday school at Willow Meadows Baptist Church,” she said sweetly.

“But didn’t your background conflict with your politics?”

“Well, I suppose it did,” she said, “but I never wasted my time thinking about that.”

Eleanor Roosevelt had that great line about women in politics having to develop skins like elephant hide. But one thing that always seemed remarkable about Eleanor Tinsley was the astounding softness she projected. Like Roosevelt, she managed to maintain a public poise that seemed, at times, astoundingly at odds with her circumstances. Thanks to her fights for integration and gay rights, she was the frequent subject of hate mail, petty vandalism, even death threats.

When I asked Tinsley about the hostility she’d encountered, she said, “I had a great husband and a great pastor. That always helped.”

“But,” I stammered, “wasn’t it unnerving, at least, to find yourself facing that sort of…public hatred?”

“Oh well,” she sighed, “when you’re a woman in politics, you just get used to people hating you. People are going to hate you, hate what you stand for, say nasty things about you in the newspaper. … Most of the time, you only win with about half the vote anyway. Maybe 51 percent of the people will vote for you. So then, you start out with people hating you. And after a while, you just go on with your life.”

Stace Medellín, author of the blog “Dos Centavos,” reports that less than two weeks before she died, speaking at a Planned Parenthood luncheon and looking “as vibrant as ever,” Tinsley told the audience that “turtles were her personal symbol … because they only get things done when they stick out their necks.” She apparently also felt that no meeting should last longer than a Diet Coke.

Tinsley came of age before the women’s movement, when it was considered unbecoming for ladies to express public anger. This is an era for which I harbor no nostalgia. I’m all for combative women. What I’m not for is combative politics. And that’s why I’ll miss Eleanor Tinsley. She was a person of elevated tone who committed her life to fighting for justice, to creating a lovelier, freer, prettier world. She did it all with civility. In the process she made her political opponents look like something worse than biased or corrupt. She made them look tacky.

Texan in exile Robert Leleux, author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, lives in New York City.

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of two books, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.

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Published at 12:00 am CST