Remembering a recently departed progressive champion and four friends who helped galvanize the Texas left—and had a blast while doing it.
The recent death of Don Kennard, longtime legislator and Democratic stalwart, caused me to unearth this photo of now-gone grand compadres. Left to right, they’re Malcolm McGregor of El Paso, Kennard of Fort Worth, Bill Kugle of Athens, Warren Burnett of Odessa and John Henry Faulk of Austin.
Who are these people? Why should you care? For Texas progressives of today, they are your forebears. For Texas hellraisers and fun-seekers of all persuasions, they should be your inspiration.
This picture was probably taken in the ’70s. No notion of the circumstances. But that’s not what matters. How was it that these men from four corners of the state seem to be so comfortable with each other? Simply stated, in that era, Texas liberals all seemed to know each other. We marched together, partied together, cursed the establishment in unison, and generally loved and enjoyed one another.
Case in point: The first canoe trip that Ann Richards, my wife and future governor, and I ever made was in the late 1960s down the Rio Grande through Boquillas Canyon. It was organized by Kennard, who was then a state senator. The group included, among others, three other men in the photo—McGregor, Burnett, Kugle—and Willie Morris, former editor of the Observer. Years later, Kennard organized the first major excursion down the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. This was long before the days of canoe outfitters who pack you and feed you; we were on our own with only Kennard’s good wishes.
Malcolm McGregor was a longtime El Paso trial lawyer, sharing an office for many years with the lovable scoundrel Woodrow Bean, one-time county judge of El Paso. Malcolm was serving in the Texas Legislature in 1957, when talk of secession was in the air after the Supreme Court banned racial segregation in public schools. In a frenzy of race-baiting, the Texas House passed a range of bills designed to prevent school desegregation. Only four of the 150 members voted against every one of those bills. Malcolm McGregor was one of them.
Bill Kugle, barely visible in the background, came back from World War II and got elected to the Legislature from Galveston. He became incensed by what he saw to be the corruption of Galveston, which included rampant prostitution and open gambling. Bill became involved in Attorney General Will Wilson’s successful efforts to clean up the city. His involvement killed his legislative career and prudence led him to move to Athens, Texas, where he ultimately partnered up with William Wayne Justice in law practice. A staunch liberal Democrat throughout his life, Bill was for me, and others, the go-to guy to find plaintiffs in East Texas for civil-rights lawsuits.
Warren Burnett was surely the most remarkable jury trial lawyer of his time. More important, he didn’t hesitate to donate his talents to those victimized by the system, whether it was Jap Cartwright on a bogus marijuana case in Austin, or Delia Gonsalez on a trumped-up immigration charge in Del Rio. The list of the beneficiaries of his talents is a yard long. But it was the swiftness of Warren’s humor that captivated. The most oft-told tale is his testimony before a committee considering whether the Odessa Junior College should be expanded to a four-year college. Asked by the chairman whether he believed there was justification for such expansion, Warren’s immediate response was: “There is enough ignorance in Odessa to justify a six-year college.”
John Henry Faulk was one of the most notable victims of the McCarthy Red Scare era. He was fired by CBS from his prominent New York radio program because he had been targeted as pro-communist by a nationwide blacklisting organization, Aware Inc. The immediate cause of the listing was John Henry’s involvement in a successful insurgent movement that ousted the incumbent leadership in the New York AFTRA local union. There was never a serious suggestion that he was a Communist; he was simply a victim of the hysteria of the times and the timidity of CBS, fearing loss of sponsors. He came back to Austin pretty much hat-in-hand. Thanks to loyal friends like Cactus Pryor, a local radio personality and LBJ’s favorite humorist, he managed to reclaim a career as a resident humorist and folklorist. John Henry’s book, Fear on Trial, is a good read about the McCarthy era. It was John Henry who first introduced many of us to Molly Ivins after she arrived at the Observer in the early ’70s. They became the closest of friends, and for many of us it seems clear that much of Molly’s endearing writer’s voice was derived from Johnny’s delightful sense of the absurd.
Don Kennard died on March 17 at age 81. His last years were difficult for him and those who loved him. But what a life he had—one characterized by great enthusiasms and occasional misadventures. Don was a 23-year-old senior at the University of Texas when he was first elected to the Texas House in 1952. Ten years later, he was elected to the state Senate, where he served another decade. He was well-known as an early and ardent environmentalist.
Two stories about Don will tell you plenty. One day, Don and his old friend Doug Crouch, one-time district attorney of Tarrant County, had been doing a little light drinking. They decided to recapture their youth by hopping a west-bound freight out of Fort Worth. Spotting a likely candidate, they gave chase as the train moved out of the yard. Crouch managed to swing aboard and got a hobo’s ride to Abilene. Don, carrying perhaps a little too much weight, ran out of air and never caught up with the freight car, watching Crouch disappear to the west.
Another Kennard story: During one legislative session, Don rented a house across the street from us in Westlake Hills. One Saturday, we heard what seemed to be gunfire coming from that direction. Our investigation revealed Don, and some of his legislative buddies, booze in hand, shooting skeet off the back balcony. It did not seem to have troubled them that they were peppering all their neighbors across the canyon with birdshot.
Now all these old friends are gone. Their lives remind us that while progressives hew to our principles—and fight the good fight together—we don’t have to become wet blankets and granny grinches in the process.
Dave Richards is a civil rights attorney and contributing writer for The Observer.