Page 12


RUSSELL LEE two of its sons who were, in the radical Jeffersonian sense, public men. In the nineteenth century: Sam Houston. In the twentieth century: Ralph Yarborough. Larry Goodwyn is a former Observer editor and a professor of history at the University of North Carolina. His “Energy from the People” is reprinted from the Observer of July 14, 1989. The Tenacity of Ralph Yarborough BY DAVID RICHARDS FOR MANY OF US who came of political age in Texas in the 1950s, Ralph Yarborough defined our politics. He was the only meaningful force for decency in the squalid terrain ruled by Allen Shivers and his ilk. I first became politically aware in the 1954 gubernatorial race, when a principal plank of the Shivers campaign platform was a call for the death penalty for members of the Communist Party. After spending most of my college years working my way through the various beer joints of Waco and Austin, that campaign forced me for the first time to think about Texas politics. When the 1954 campaign came to an end, I was a Ralph Yarborough Democrat with little equivocation. In those years, everyone understood what was meant by a “Yarborough Democrat”; the term required no amplification. Over the years, I became acquainted with Senator Yarborough in the fashion that most supporters come to know their candidates. In the late 1960s, despite having observed over the years the glassy-eyed look of Yarborough’s staffers, I almost went to work for him as staff counsel to the Senate Labor Committee. Better judgment prevailed, and I remained in the relative serenity of a Texas law practice. But much later, in 1988, Land Commissioner Garry Mauro decided to vigorously investigate and litigate 1930s frauds against the Permanent School Fund, and as one of the principal attorneys on the Land Office case, I had the good fortune to be reconnected with Senator Yarborough. Working with him was an absolute delight and provided the strongest reconfirmation of his remarkable qualitiesand a reminder of some of his idiosyncrasies. The Land Office claim arose from events in 1933 affecting state-owned minerals in Pecos County’s Yates Field, one of the state’s most prolific oil fields. Yarborough was the primary witness in the litigation and a valuable resource on oil and gas law, as well as the history of the political battles over the state’s oil and gas interests. He testified at length, and the volumes transcribing his testimony reflect both the breadth of his knowledge and his incredible recall of people and events from sixty years earlier. In 1934, as a young assistant attorney general in the Jimmy Allred administration, Ralph Yarborough had principal responsibility for cases involving the state’s mineral interests. In fact, he had been the state’s attorney in the 1934 court proceed ing in Austin out of which our 1980 litigation arose. It was important to reconstruct what had occurred in 1934, and we learned to our great surprise that when Senator Yarborough left the Attorney General’s office he took with him all his files. So early on, we went to meet with him in his office in the Brown Building. He did not invite us into his office, but rather chose to chat with us in his librarywhich at first struck me as somewhat ungracious. On a later visit, I realized why he had been reluctant to invite us in. Every inch of the office, including the chairs, was piled high with papers and books that had taken on the appearance of permanent fixtures. He had been searching for his attorney general files, he said, but had not been successful. He invited us into another suite, set aside for his files, and we found a room that was even more of a nightmare. \(I am certain I saw three-by-five cards with written notes of precinct workers from 1950 Travis County political camhouses the Senator had rented to store other materials. I declined, but lawyers from the defense team accepted the offer, and with Jim Phillips of the Land Office, went out to the storage warehouses. The Senator, it seemed, could not bring himself to surrender a piece of paper once it came into his possession. The lawsuit proceeded without the files. One aspect of our lawsuit concerned the inaccuracies of the early surveys in West Texas, especially those covering the land west of the Pecos River. Senator Yarborough testified that when those early surveys were conducted, the land was hostile, presumably worthless, and populated by unfriendly native Americans. \(The Indians referred to the surveyors’ transit as “the thing scribed one surveying technique, whereby a surveyor would mount his horse, smoke a cigarette, and calculate how many feet his horse traveled while the cigarette burned. The surveyor was then equipped, cigarette by cigarette, to lay out the tracts of land west of the Pecos River. In other instances, the Senator testified, it seemed easier for the surveyor to remain in an Austin office, look at the Pecos River on a map, and project tracts of landthereby completing a so-called “office survey.” The result of this haphazard processonce the Yates oil field of West Texas had been discovered was the creation of great fortunes for socalled “vacancy hunters.” A “vacancy” was simply a tract of unsurveyed state land which permitted the finder to claim the landand ultimately, if the tract was located in the midst of an oil field, a portion of the oil revenue. Our lawsuit emerged from such vacancy tracts. Sitting as a witness, particularly in a vigorously contested matter, is an exhausting THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11