Dying to Get In

The State Cemetery's Posthumous Pecking Order

The most exclusive real estate in Texas lies about a mile from the state Capitol in a poor neighborhood of east Austin, hard against black churches and taco joints. It’s the Texas State Cemetery, and people are dying to get in. President George W. Bush claimed his slice of ground on the small rise called Republic Hill, in the southwest corner of the cemetery’s rolling 22 acres. A couple of years ago the then-governor went to the cemetery and picked out the spot himself. Of course, Arlington National Cemetery is now an option for Bush. (The new president has also hinted that he wants to be laid to rest in Midland, the town that suckled him.) But even without the promise of W.’s bones, the State Cemetery, now celebrating its sesquicentennial year, has come to be known as the state’s version of Arlington.

Among the neighbors who are already waiting to share eternity with the commander in chief’s remains are Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas, and Bob Bullock, the Democratic lieutenant governor who showed a Republican novice the road to the White House. Despite its modest surroundings, the cemetery is now what Lieutenant Governor Bullock wanted it to be: well-manicured, well-maintained, and home to a huge Lone Star flag that you can see from as far away as Louisiana. But the selection process used to decide who will be buried there has become a little like Bullock himself: as corrupted by cronyism as it is impressive.

As the story goes, Bullock was embarrassed by the rundown condition of the cemetery during the well-attended funeral eight years ago of former governor John Connally. After a $5 million restoration and a few high-profile funerals, including Bullock’s own, anybody who is anybody in Texas politics now wants to be buried there. And yes, they do take reservations.

Every five or six weeks a committee of three wise men meets to decide who is “worthy” to be buried at the state’s graveyard. Together the three committee members reflect the major power centers of recent Texas history. The chairman is Martin Allday, an oil and gas attorney from Midland. Allday is George Bush’s man on the committee–he was the elder Bush’s campaign chairman during an unsuccessful 1964 Senate race, and Allday has known the younger Bush since W. was only eight years old. Ralph Wayne, the second committee member, was long one of Lieutenant Governor Bullock’s henchmen: Both served in the Texas House of Representatives, and Wayne was deputy comptroller when Bullock was State Comptroller of Public Accounts. Lastly there is George Christian, Democratic big dog and former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson. “It’s up to us,” Chairman Allday said in an interview, “as three–I think–good citizens, to decide who should be honored to be out there.”

There are two ways someone can be honored at the State Cemetery. In its wisdom, the Legislature long ago dictated that any elected state official has an automatic right to burial there. The members of the committee have no leeway here: No matter how short or inauspicious his or her tenure, a state officeholder is eligible for a few square feet of ground in east Austin. The unintended consequences of this arrangement are considerable. Warren G. Harding, one-time state treasurer who pled guilty to felony misconduct in office, has made a “reservation” for internment there. Drew Nixon, a Republican state senator from East Texas who was busted for solicitation of a hooker and carrying an illegal weapon, can go to the cemetery tomorrow and choose any open space he likes. The ex-senator might choose a plot, for example, near the grave of a certain former chairman of the Texas Pardons and Paroles Board, who capped his long career of public service by trying to give a handjob to an undercover vice cop, in the men’s room of the Austin bus station. A plot in the State Cemetery is, as one former official of the governor’s office described it, “the last little freebie” of state service.

Some can’t seem to wait to pick their final resting place. Terry Keel, at the green age of 43 (and, by all accounts, quite healthy), is a three-term Republican state representative from Travis County. He has already picked his spot. In fact, altogether Keel and his family (including his father Tom, former director of the Legislative Budget Board, and cousin John, present director of the Budget Board) have six spaces reserved at the State Cemetery. Dawnna Dukes, an Austin state representative with even less public experience than Terry Keel, has already laid claim to her final resting place, too. Dukes is only in her fourth term in office but she has already decided that she wants to rest, for eternity, in The Meadow (a slightly less fashionable area of the cemetery, down the slope from Republic Hill). Rodney Ellis, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, will be at her right side, the two black legislators separated only by their respective spouses. United States Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison had her “reservation” at the State Cemetery approved two years ago. On an application form submitted last year, fellow Senator Phil Gramm listed as one of his most important accomplishments in office “led the fight to stop the Clinton Health Care Bill.” Not exactly “died at San Jacinto,” but the bar may be getting lower for today’s great Texans.

If you’re not an elected official, entry to the Cemetery is now at the discretion of the Cemetery committee. Long-serving state bureaucrats, federal officeholders like Gramm and Hutchison and, according to the statute creating the Cemetery committee, “persons who have made a significant contribution to the history and culture of Texas” are eligible for burial at the state site. But in practice it may be hard to determine exactly what those contributions are. Jane Hickie, who served as Ann Richards’ administrative aide when Richards was a county commissioner, and was later Governor Richards’ liaison in Washington, has been selected. Mark Rose, a former Austin city councilman and lobbyist who went on to be manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, and is now a political consultant, has also been chosen. Rose’s father was commander of the Texas National Guard and is buried at the cemetery–but family lineage is not one of the criteria for selection. Under the younger Rose’s leadership the Lower Colorado River Authority gave money to help renovate the cemetery–but money is not one of the criteria either. Both Hickie and Rose have made no significant contribution to the state–at least none that is easily identifiable–but they are well-connected.

The Texas cemetery’s pretensions to being “like Arlington” do not hold up well under scrutiny. Arlington National Cemetery is run by the Army, which is not immune to cronyism or influence, but which seems to take a longer view of history than do Texas politicians. Unlike in Austin, no “reservations” are taken at Arlington. Every individual is evaluated at death. Presidents and Supreme Court justices are pretty much assured places, Medal of Honor winners too, but not every Congressman or senator who ever passed through Washington automatically gets a plot.

Things work a bit differently here. At a meeting last December the chairman of the cemetery committee introduced a motion requesting approval for burial of one of his former law school classmates. “I have a personal feeling about Dan,” Chairman Allday began. “Dan was a wonderful lawyer. He tried two major major lawsuits before the Supreme Court of Texas…. He represented Exxon and Texaco–a lot of the major companies–plus individual people, oil operators….” Allday’s voice rose and then trailed off. He struggled heroically to make a connection that would justify burial for his friend at one of the state’s most honored locales. One of his colleagues on the committee interrupted to offer a little help: “I think we’re going to have to do it based upon that he was Governor Moody’s son… I move approval.” The vote was unanimous, and now former Governor Dan Moody’s son, Dan Moody, Jr., who has already been laid to rest elsewhere, will be dug up and reburied as a significant contributor to the history and/or culture of Texas. The exact nature of that contribution will, apparently, be determined at a later date.

Many of the committee’s votes are, in reality, mere formalities. The committee members have recently approved a reservation for Jack Dean, a former Texas Ranger captain and President Clinton’s choice as United States Marshal for the Western District of Texas. The appointment for Dean and his wife is almost obligatory–the graveyard is already dotted with the tombstones of Rangers and Rangers’ wives. Sports has also promised a few bodies. The University of Texas’s legendary football coach Darrell Royal has a reservation for burial, and Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry was scheduled to be brought to Austin when he died last year–but at the last moment the Dallas city fathers reclaimed the coffin for honors closer to home.

The members of the Texas State Cemetery Committee argue that there is no risk of running out of room in Austin. Well they might: All three men have reservations in the prominent Republic Hill section, where signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence and veterans of San Jacinto are resting. Ralph Wayne’s claim is based upon his four-term service as a House member. (Actually, Wayne recently surrendered his choice spot, near George Bush’s feet, to Rick Perry, who moved his reservation to a more prestigious plot after being sworn in as governor.) Allday took a spot based upon his tenure as solicitor of the Interior Department under the first President Bush, and his later chairmanship of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (and, of course, his recent work on the cemetery commission itself). Christian, the only one whose reputation approaches that of a “major figure” of his time, has had his reservation for more than 20 years.

To be chosen for the cemetery in the modern era, you have to know the right people. Instead of getting Dooley Wilson, for example, who played Sam to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, and who grew up in a poor black family in East Texas, the committee has chosen the creator of the television program “Austin City Limits.” Instead of Jack Kilby, the Texas Instruments engineer who invented the integrated circuit–the microchip–and changed the world (he shared last year’s Nobel Prize for physics), we get Frank McBee, a technology entrepreneur who entertained often at his home near the Capitol, but is pretty much unknown outside of Austin.

Historically, the situation was even worse. Until recently it was as if blacks and Hispanics didn’t exist. The cemetery has the Indian fighters but none of the Indians. While those lapses are certainly not the committee’s fault, the monthly meetings of three elderly Anglo men in Austin isn’t helping to correct matters much. Instead of an effort to make the cemetery more representative of the history and culture of the state, burial there has become another form of patronage. It’s as if Lieutenant Governor Bullock, who has already gone to meet his maker, is still pulling strings to get his friends in.

Lucius Lomax reports on state agencies for the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST