by ANNE WHEELER
Robert L. Hardesty, whose career included key positions with President Lyndon B. Johnson, Speaker of the House Carl Albert and Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe – and who later became a university president and the highest ranking official of the U. S. Postal Service – died July 8, 2013, in Austin. He was 82 years old. Cause of death was congestive heart failure, according to his wife Alice.
Hardesty was born in St. Louis, Mo. in 1931. He was the son of Dr. John F. Hardesty, a prominent ophthalmologist, and Lucille Hetzel Hardesty. He attended Bel Nor School, St. Louis Country Day School, Western Military Academy and The George Washington University where he honed his skills as a writer and developed a lifelong passion for government and politics. Following his service in the Army, he was a reporter and columnist for Army Times, specializing in military and Congressional affairs.
Hardesty began his career as a writer and ended it as an administrator. He could never escape the call to write speeches for Democratic office holders and government officials around the country. “Bob was like a fire horse when it came to writing speeches,” said his longtime friend, Tom Johnson. “No matter how busy he was, he couldn’t say ‘no’ to a request for some eloquent words.”
In 1964 with the presidential campaign between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater looming, Hardesty became chief speechwriter for Postmaster General John Gronouski, the Democrats’ principal spokesman.
In the wake of the 1964 Democratic victory, LBJ aide Jack Valenti called Gronouski to ask who was writing his speeches. According to Valenti, he had asked the Democratic National Committee to send to the White House fifty of the best speeches from the Presidential campaign—forty-two were written by Hardesty for Gronouski. Before long, Hardesty was in the White House working for the President. He stayed with Johnson writing speeches and working on legislative affairs until the end of LBJ’s administration (Johnson called him “one of the best.”) He then moved with his wife Mary and four young children to Austin to edit and help write the former president’s memoirs, The Vantage Point.
In the 1972 presidential race between Richard Nixon and George McGovern, Hardesty received a call from Speaker Carl Albert to orchestrate a House of Representatives Democratic campaign, separate from that of the Democratic National Committee. It was always a matter of pride with Hardesty that even though Nixon’s victory was one of the greatest landslides in American political history, the House Democrats lost only 13 seats and maintained a majority.
Back in Texas, Hardesty was named press secretary and special assistant to the newly-elected Democratic governor, Dolph Briscoe, serving in that post for three years.
Hardesty was appointed Vice Chancellor for Governmental Affairs at The University of Texas System in 1976. At the same time, he was chosen to serve on the drafting committee for the Democratic National Platform. It was during one of the Platform Committee’s sessions that Hardesty received a call from the White House informing him that President Ford was sending his nomination to the Senate to fill a Democratic vacancy on the Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service. “My God, if they had known what I was doing over there at the Mayflower (Hotel),” Hardesty observed later, “that nomination never would have seen the light of day!” He served three terms as Chairman of the Postal Board of Governors and is credited with strengthening the role of the Governors and bringing fiscal and political stability to the struggling Postal Service. Hardesty was awarded the Postal Service’s highest honor: the Benjamin Franklin Award.
The year 1981 proved to be the pivotal point of Hardesty’s career. He was named president of Southwest Texas State University (now called Texas State University), LBJ’s alma mater. He initiated far-reaching academic reforms, presided over the student body growth from 13,000 to 20,000, built a state-of-the-art library and vastly increased the permanent endowment. In the words of one state leader, Governor Mark White, “He took a sleepy, obscure university, brought new prestige to it and put it on the map.” Hardesty’s faithful companion, his Golden Retriever Orloff, was a familiar sight around campus with Hardesty and often accompanied him to his office.
Hardesty’s university career came to an abrupt halt in 1988 when Republican Gov. Bill Clements ordered several of the regents to fire him for “philosophical differences.” His firing was appealed to a state district court which overturned it on the grounds it was illegal. Later a Travis County jury ruled that Hardesty had been fired for political reasons. The regents subsequently bestowed on him the title of “President Emeritus.”
In later years, Hardesty served as a consultant to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation and other organizations.
Asked recently what were the best years of his career, Hardesty replied, “They were all the best years. The years with Gronouski were the most fun. The years with LBJ were the most significant with the passage of Medicare, civil rights and education legislation. The years with the Postal Service were the most stimulating personally, having the opportunity to set national policy in a huge federal agency. And the years at Southwest Texas State University were the most exciting since I was able to make such a difference. I’ve been blessed many times over.”
A quiet man with a wry sense of humor, Hardesty was a gifted mimicker and teller of stories, especially Lyndon Johnson stories. He and fellow speechwriter Harry Middleton recently gave a presentation, “LBJ With the Bark Off,” to Middleton’s University of Texas Liberal Arts Honors Program students, which was taped by C-SPAN and may be viewed on their website.
Hardesty loved traveling the world with his Alice, but his favorite city was New Orleans. For many years, he and Alice observed their Mardi Gras ritual of rollicking Friday lunches at Galatoires with a select group of friends.
Hardesty was a past president of the Headliners Club of Austin where he was often seen enjoying martinis with a twist and an onion, good food and stimulating conversation with his many friends. Every relationship Bob had was unique. Those friends will miss the charismatic, dapper man who wore outrageous socks with impeccably tailored suits.
He is survived by his wife, Alice McDonald Hardesty. Bob often said how fortunate he was to have found “the love of his life.”
He is also survived by his two daughters, Elizabeth Hurst of Houston and Ann Hardesty of Oakland Calif.; his two sons, Bruce and John Hardesty of Austin; his grandsons, Eric and Alden Hurst of Houston, (Josh Garza of Austin; his step-daughter Dr. Michel McDonald and step-granddaughter Genevieve McDonald of Nashville, TN. He is also survived by his devoted caregiver, Rose Johns, and many loyal friends too numerous to name.
Hardesty was preceded in death by his first wife, Mary Roberts Hardesty, and his beloved brother, Jack Hardesty.
Interment will be at the Texas State Cemetery at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, July 15. A memorial service will be held in the LBJ Presidential Library on the same date at 11:00 a.m.
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