ESSAY by BRAD ROLLINS
On Nov. 20, workers hoisted the life-sized bronze of a young LBJ by the late Houston sculptor Lawrence Ludtke onto a new few-feet-high pedestal and bolted the statue into its granite mooring. A little more than a year after its unveiling at a prominent spot in the central campus mall, the statue was removed in October for refinishing after two students, 19-year-old Matthew Allen Reiber and 18-year-old Nicholas Petersen, allegedly slopped the statue with a Napalm-like incendiary jelly and set it ablaze.
In a statement announcing the statue’s return, student affairs vice president Joanne Smith said, “The original placement of the statue was to give the effect of walking to class with the students since it depicts LBJ as a student; however, due to some acts of vandalism, we believed the true significance of the statue was getting lost so the decision was to give it an air of importance to the campus with the higher pedestal.”
Texas State has been putting LBJ on a pedestal at every available opportunity in recent years, motivated at least partly by efforts to forge a new identity cast more in the mold of the only U.S. president to graduate from a Texas university than, say, Texas State’s second-most-famous graduate, country singer George Straight. Drawing this parallel when the statue was unveiled in September 2006, Austin American-Statesman reporter Molly Bloom recalled what, in Johnson’s college years, was Southwest Texas State Teachers College’s primary mission making schoolteachers out of kids “from rural families striving to help their children get off the farm.”
By the time it became Texas State in 2003, enrollment had reached more than 26,000. And today, the university, which launched its first doctorate program in 1996, has a mission far beyond its founding purpose. It is still the single largest educator of teachers in Texas but also has a nationally recognized business school and is home to the Southwestern Writers Collection, an archive of works by key Southwestern writers, filmmakers and musicians.
The university has held onto the party-school image that is only partly a vestige of campus bacchanals in the 1970s and 1980s. Legend has it that Hugh Hefner and the Playboy bunnies visited campus in the 1970s, a story rooted more in wishful thinking than fact, says Texas State history professor and Dean Ronald Brown. But “Girls Gone Wild” buses do periodically circle the bar-lined square near campus, and a 2000 study by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that Texas State had the second-highest number of liquor law violations of all Texas colleges, second only to Texas A&M University.
Texas State President Denise Trauth’s administration is trying to remake the image of a university better known for its nonacademic attributes. (One football recruit decided to attend the university partly because his mother, an alumna, had fond memories of locally made Manske rolls.) In a marketing campaign promoting Texas State as “the rising star of Texas,” the school touts its Princeton Review ranking as one of “America’s Best Value Colleges for 2007,” its expanded honors programs and academic scholarships, and the academic prizes its students win.
It does seem almost certain that there is a conscious or unconscious marketing connection between Texas State’s LBJ revival and the refocused ambitions of the former president’s alma matter. Indeed, Johnson’s legacy, at least as reflected in his domestic record and in the speeches he delivered, dovetails nicely with the “social compact” elements of Texas State’s ideals and mission. This is especially true in view of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s alarming 2000 report, “Closing the Gaps.” Updated yearly since its original publication, the study foretells dire outcomes if the state does not increase its annual college enrollment by 630,000 students, improve graduation rates and seriously commit to enrolling proportional numbers of black and Latino high school graduates.
Invoking LBJ during a convocation address in August 2005, Trauth said, “President Johnson came to our campus to prepare to be a teacher. He was poor, he worked a dozen different jobs, but he still ran out of money before completing his education. And so he left Southwest Texas and took a job as a teacher in a school for Hispanic children in Cotulla. There he got some of his earliest experience in and ideas about improving people’s lives, a theme that drove his Great Society programs. As a teacher, he worked with Hispanic merchants and leaders in the town to persuade parents to become involved in a parent-teacher association, something new to that area. Together they created an after-school choir, a baseball team for boys and a volleyball team for girls. He discovered, if he had ever doubted, that these parents had the same hopes for their children that more wealthy parents do.”
Being this intimately connected to the making of an American president in the American century — that he walked here and learned here and advanced his ruthless pursuit of power here — makes the university relevant in a historical context, connects the institution to Big Things That Happened To Us, a universality that every school cannot rightly claim.
Forced out of office by unrest over Vietnam, Johnson lived out his last years at his ranch in neighboring Blanco County. He told confidants like his companion and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin that he feared the war would overshadow his domestic accomplishments, particularly the unprecedented expansion of social services. Remnants of his Great Society still have outsized roles in San Marcos: the Department of Labor’s Gary Job Corp., Community Action Inc., the Rural Talent Search program housed at Texas State. Other programs he championed like Medicaid and free school lunches still anchor the underprivileged to opportunity far beyond our city limits.
When he returned to Texas State in 1965 to sign the Higher Education Act that established a federal college grant and loan program and guaranteed equal access to universities, Johnson mentioned how enrollment at the institution had grown from 1,300 when he attended to 5,500.
“I want you to go back and say to your children and to your grandchildren, and those who come after you and follow you — tell them that we have made a promise to them. Tell them that the truth is here for them to seek,” Johnson told a crowd at the Strahan Gymnasium. “And tell them that we have opened the road and we have pulled the gates down and the way is open, and we expect them to travel it. And when we meet back here again a few years from now, there will be many more than the 1,300 and the 5,500 that will be here seeking and receiving the knowledge that is an absolute necessity if we are to maintain our freedom in a highly competitive world.”
Since 1982, the university has hosted its LBJ Distinguished Lecture Series, drawing leaders and thinkers including former President Gerald R. Ford and poet Maya Angelou “to honor the former president and Texas State graduate [and] recognize the importance of education to the continuing prosperity of the nation,” the lecture series’ Web site states.
In what may be a testimony to LBJ’s enduring relevance, sometimes the lecture titles seem pulled both from the day’s headlines and the history books, evolving as they are on Johnson’s legacy. In 2004, John Seigenthaler Sr., a veteran Tennessee newspaperman who served as Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant during the racial tumult of 1960-1963 presented “Reflections of a Son of the Racist South” and despite the the Kennedy’s and Johnson’s mutual antipathy seemed to acknowledge that Johnson had accomplished with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 what Kennedy had not. In October 2003, former U.S. Sen. Bob Krueger spoke on “When Should the United States Intervene? A Look at U.S. Foreign Policy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” At the time of Krueger’s lecture, the “Mission: Accomplished” declaration six months earlier by another wartime president from Texas was still popularly accepted as fact. In discussing the unintended consequences of roiling geopolitics, Krueger cited the lessons of Vietnam, that other undeclared war, the one that brought Johnson low and forced him into retirement, bitter and depressed.
While Johnson waited for the end of his term after announcing he would not seek a second full term in 1968, a 22-year-old Minnesota man with a newly minted political science degree got drafted into the infantry. Tim O’Brien would later write his way to acclaim with his war stories in “If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home,” “Going After Cacciato” and “The Things They Carried.” Now a Texas State professor and writer-in-residence, O’Brien has reflected on the experience of milling about the campus where LBJ got his start. His most recent novel “July, July,” is about fifty-somethings gathered for a college reunion after 30 mostly misspent years.
Interviewed in 2002 by www.identitytheory.com, O’Brien spoke about using university places and people to frame a story: “That seemed to me to be an interesting hilltop from which you could survey the past and see the person you were and who you are now and the person you may become.”
From a similar hilltop, LBJ’s likeness once again surveys his university and the university, its legacy.Email | Print