Page 2


all its daysthe university resembled a foreign capital consumed with intrigue, where things were never quite what they seemed. Erwin proved to be an impeccable source, whose spies were everywhere. Though not above shading the truth when it suited him, he prided himself on a certain pragmatic candor and I never caught him in a lie. One day I asked him about the Bauer House. The name of the alleged donor had never been revealed; in fact, most people believed Erwin had made the whole story up. “We had the money,” Erwin assured me. “It was a check for $600,000. We burned it in an ashtray one night at the Quorum Club.” Or maybe it was the Forty Acres Club, or some other watering hole where Erwin could be found most nights. I no longer recall that detail, because my attention was riveted to a more important piece of news. “Eugene McDermott wrote the check,” said Erwin.The late McDermott was a founder of Texas Instruments; he and his wife formed a charitable foundation in Dallas which has given a fortune to the university over the years. “We had to keep it secret because he didn’t want his wife to know. So when they tried to get us to make it public, we destroyed the check.” Who else knew? I asked. “A few people. I don’t know if his wife ever found out,” Erwin said. It was typical of Erwin to hand me a juicy piece of information I couldn’t use.The seminal events of 1970 and 1971 the Silber firing, the dissolution of the College of Arts and Sciences, the co-opting of Ransom, the Bauer House controversywere old news, faded clippings. So was Erwin himself. By the time I taught journalism at UT in 1980, my students had never heard of Chairman Frank, and when I assigned his “Frank Erwin wanted to create a great university. And he didn’t know how. He wrecked the damn place, in certain respects, but he kept it rich, and bigger, and bigger… There was a kind of mindlessness in it which makes you wonder, in the final analysis, was he just trying to fill a void in his life instead of thinking things through?” John Silber, Chancellor, Boston University obituary for homework, they had to troop over to the library to find out who he was.The obits they turned in were unique in that each fabricated the same cause of deatha sudden heart attackin the first paragraph. Something about this struck me as amusing, and I decided to call up Erwin and share the joke.When he answered the phone, I realized my error in judgment, but it was too late. He wasn’t amused by my students’ prediction but didn’t seem particularly offended, either. Though I’d meant to ask him to lunch, the timing didn’t seem right, and we soon said goodbye. What I didn’t know was that Erwin was already sick and on his way to Galveston for a checkup at the medical school. Hours later he died there, of a massive heart attack. He was 60 years old. n a city where nouveaux riches chateaux now pimple the Ilandscape, the commotion over a measly million-dollar house seems quaint. So does the lingering mystery about the source of the $600,000 check. Several years after Erwin’s death, I tried to confirm the erstwhile donor’s name, with little success. Dallas heiress Mary McDermott Cook, who manages the charitable foundation created by her parents, told me she had been out of the country during the Bauer House episode and knew nothing about it. LeMaistre, who by then had been deposed as chancellor, never returned my calls. I paid a visit to his successorE. Don Walker, who owed his entire career to Erwinto ask if McDermott had written the check. Walker was a big man, with the deceptively sleepy demeanor of a hound dog. After hearing my question, he leaned back in his leather chair, fingered a cigar the size of a small baton and said nothing.”I heard that story,”Walker finally replied. “I heard a lot of stories. I have no personal knowledge if it was true. That was all so long ago that I’ve just tried to put all that behind me.” Both Walker and his wife are dead now. Among the living I was able to find only one person who confirmed Erwin’s accountsort of. As a state senator from Lufkin, Charlie Wilson was Erwin’s most persistent interlocutor in the Bauer House investigation; he alone acknowledged that Erwin had told the subcommittee who the donor was. “It’s always been interesting to me that I’m the only one who will admit he told us,” mused Wilson, who has since served in Congress and is now a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Did Erwin mention Eugene McDermott’s name? “I think that’s what he said,” Wilson told me. “But, you know, does it matter? Who really gives a rat’s ass?” Thus the curious provenance of the Bauer House slipped into obscurity, along with other burning questions of a former era. What was the true nature of the bargain struck between Frank and Harry, and what did the University of Texas gain or lose? Did Harry die a broken man, or simply a wiser one? What if Erwin had done things differently? What if he had tolerated real leadership at UT, an exchange of ideas, wills that did not bend to his own? Or simply used his enormous influence to begin limiting enrollment at Austin 8/17/01 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9