Page 3


Blessed Are The Mighty, For They Shall Depart From The Superdrum By Kaye Northcott Austin Well, Frank Erwin has handed in his season pass. Thousands of tearful Teasips hooked mournful horns as the Chairman was wheeled out of his beloved Superdrum. Fifty members of the Longhorn Band actually played “The Eyes of Texas” as a dirge in his honor. Terry Southern couldn’t have produced a better funeral. Even I, who once considered Erwin my personal nemesis, had a pang of regret when I heard over the radio that he had died of a massive heart attack. As my friend Eddie Wilson lamented, “We won’t have Frank Erwin to kick us around anymore.” Brilliant, arrogant, imperious, he was a formidable political adversary, a storybook villain. What I regret the most is that no one, as far as I know, got Erwin’s stories down on paper before he died. I rarely agreed with his interpretation of political events or even his version of the facts but there was a ruthless edge to his anecdotes that had the ring of truth. He was a man who relished raw power and wasn’t the least bit hesitant to brag about it. About a year ago, I spent an evening with Scott Armstrong and John Berry of The Washington Post. They were in Austin to do the obligatory investigative piece on John Connally; this, of course, before Connally flamed out in the primaries. After dinner I ferried them over to the Quorum Club in hopes of snaring some establishment pols in their natural habitat. It was a Monday night and the place was practically deserted, but soon Chairman Frank ambled in and sat down with us at the big circular table in the center of the bar. He was in fine Kaye Northcott is a former editor of The Texas Observer. form, and in two hours’ time carried us through 40 years of Connally’s political history. I remember him describing how Connally and LBJ got crosswise over some minor point during Johnson’s 1948 senatorial campaign. Erwin said that despite the fact that Connally was Johnson’s campaign manager that year, the two prima donnas refused to speak to one another during the last two weeks of the race. Erwin had to act as an intermediary. Since this was not a formal interview, the three of us weren’t sure about the propriety of taking notes, but the stories were too good to pass up. Armstrong slowly opened his big binder and unscrewed his pen, moving carefully as if not to startle a wild javelina. Soon all three of us were frantically scribbling away. Erwin could have cared less. Erwin had been a crony of Jake Jacobsen, the man who testified against Connally in the Washington bribery trial. According to Erwin, when Jacobsen first was questioned about loans at a savings and loan institution in Abilene he controlled, he went to the feds and offered up some tales in exchange for his freedom. Erwin said Jacobsen first mentioned LBJ, but when the prosecutors didn’t nibble on that, Jacobsen laid out something about Connally. Erwin alleged that Jacobsen came to him during this traumatic period and confessed that he just couldn’t face going to prison, that he would do almost anything to ‘avoid being locked up. “He asked me what he should do. I advised the son-of-a-bitch to commit suicide,” the Chairman remembered, his voice cracking with malicious glee. “You know,” he continued, “there are those of us who would gladly kill Jacobsen if we thought we could get away with it. If it weren’t for him, John Connally would be president today.” Erwin loved controversy, but student criticism of his policies as chairman of the UT Board of Regents must have chafed from time to time. In 1969, Erwin had a stand of oak trees near Waller Creek bulldozed to make way for an addition of Memorial Stadium. A group of students \(he called them “dirty test. Erwin had the students, and trees, pulled down. It was a nasty scene. That night, according to a bartender at the Forty Acres Club, Erwin ordered even more than his usual quota of scotches. And he kept playing two songs on the jukebox over and over: Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” and Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way.” In what may have been Erwin’s final interview. Bill Mintz of the Houston Chronicle asked him in August if he should have done anything differently. “I wouldn’t change any decisions,” Erwin answered. “In hindsight, perhaps, some of the things could have been done with a little more deftness. I might have let someone else cut down those trees.” 0 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3