“Governor Coke Stevenson: Mr. Texas” – An Exhibit at the Southwest Collection

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The Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library will soon be exhibiting portions of the papers of Texas Governor Coke Stevenson. Documenting his life and career from childhood to retirement in Junction, Texas, the exhibit will run from mid-spring to mid-summer.

Coke Stevenson was born on March 20, 1888, at his grandparents’ home between the little towns of Katemcy, Fredonia, and Pontotoc, in Northeast Mason County, Texas. Throughout his life Stevenson was an entrepreneur and civic leader: a cowboy at ten; the owner of a freight-line between Junction and Brady, Texas, at sixteen; a janitor who worked his way up to bank clerk by 18. Ultimately, he became a member of the bank’s board, and later became president of several banks. He was part owner of grocery, drug, and, hardware stores, the Junction Eagle newspaper, the Fritz Hotel, and Llano River Irrigation and Milling Company, along with water, electricity, ginning, grist mill, and irrigation businesses. He apprenticed under a former state judge, and the Fourth Court of Civil Appeals admitted him to the bar in 1913. Remarkably, he only completed twenty-two months of formal education.

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Stevenson served two terms as Kimble County Attorney and County Judge, but soon was was elected to the Texas House or Representatives, where he became its first two-term Speaker.  In 1938 he was elected Lieutenant Governor and was reelected in 1940 before assuming the governorship in August 1941, when W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel resigned to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the deceased Morris Sheppard.  Stevenson served two gubernatorial terms during World War II, during which time he supported the war effort and President Roosevelt, and inspired the Good Neighbor Commission.

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Affectionately known as “Mr. Texas,” after the war he ran for O’Daniel’s vacated U.S. Senate seat against Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson.  He lost a contested run-off when George Parr, the so-called “Duke of Duvall County,” allegedly had Voting Box Number 13 stuffed with 202 ballots that tilted the election to LBJ.

Politics wasn’t the entirety of Stevenson’s life. In 1913 he married Fay Wright, and soon they were blessed with a son, Coke Robert Stevenson, Jr. Fay died in 1942 while Stevenson was governor. After leaving public office he married in 1954 the Kimble County District Clerk, and widow, Marguerite King Heap, with whom he had a daughter, Jane Stevenson. After the failed Senatorial campaign, Stevenson returned home to his Kimble County law practice, friends, and ranch. There he cowboy’d for a while, and took extensive road trips with his family, visiting all 48 contiguous states. He died at 87 years of age on June 28, 1975.

That’s the biography, but the exhibit is so much more! Come by and take a look at it if you have the opportunity. Also, if you’d like to view the Coke Stevenson Papers, they will be available for research use before the exhibit ends. Our Reference Staff will always help you find what you need.

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Governor Coke Stevenson vs. The Communists!

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Born in 1888, Coke Robert Stevenson was a prominent Texas politician. How prominent? First off, he was Texas’ Governor from 1941 to 1947, but before that he served as a Kimball County Attorney and Judge, member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1929 to 1939 (four years of which he served as Speaker,) and also did a stint as Lieutenant Governor under Pappy O’Daniel. He was the only 20th century Texas politician to hold all of those statewide offices during a career. More importantly (to us!), the SWC is currently processing his papers. Among them we found a couple of small items concerned with a pressing issue in the United States during Stevenson’s years: communism.

The pamphlet above is one example. “A White Paper on the Black Pages of the Red Menace;” that’s one heck of a subtitle, and a stern indictment of communism to say the least. It does make sense to find it among Stevenson’s possessions. He consistently and vocally opposed communism and its attempts to creep into the U.S. But this pamphlet wasn’t by far the wildest material tucked into his papers.

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First, a story: in 1948, at the end of his governorship, Stevenson ran for a U.S. Senate seat against Lyndon B. Johnson. Although Stevenson had lead the race by a small margin, he ultimately lost by only 87 votes. He immediately cried “foul,” and challenged the results, claiming that Johnson had stuffed the ballot. By an equally narrow margin (29-28,) Texas’ Democratic Central Committee declared the election for Johnson despite Stevenson’s appeal. And so Coke retired to his ranch near Junction, Texas, and left elections (but not politics, per se) behind.

Communism was probably not involved in the ballot box issue, but one riled-up citizen of Pampa, Texas, thought otherwise, and in the above letter explained how communists had “stole, or feloniously miscounted” votes. His “facts, true facts!” were one voice among many concerned about America’s future. For example, Pappy O’Daniel, under whom Coke served as Lieutenant Governor, had hunted communists as well, focusing particularly on suspicious academics at the University of Texas. Lt. Governor Stevenson had supported that policy, and this letter writer knew it. Sadly, LBJ did not, and in Senatorial campaign speeches he accused Stevenson of being soft on the “red menace.” One more bit of evidence that one man in Pampa, Texas, believed pointed toward the Democrats’ “subservience” to the “COMMUNIST PARTY.”

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Setting election controversy aside, we turn again to Jack Gardner’s booklet. First, it’s signed to the governor by the author. That’s an exciting find in any collection! Gardner wanted to place it in the hands of those who could best prosecute the communism that he so despised. The booklet was actually written in the form of a speech to be given by the President of the United States, or “some patriotic statesman.” Because this item is dated 1964, however, it’s unlikely that Gardner’s dream of the “preservation of the sacred fire of liberty” in memory of George Washington, to whom the pamphlet is dedicated, was within the retired Stevenson’s power.

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The rhetoric in the pamphlet is intense. Whether by President or patriot, the words should be delivered at the United Nations. If “made available to all citizens of the Planet Earth,” Gardner’s rhetoric would send commies running and reignite the fires of liberty worldwide. Drawing from previous presidential speeches ranging from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to those of Franklin Roosevelt, the dozen or so pages of this pamphlet suggest a world of concentrated, fanatical anti-Communist sentiment in the mid-20th century.

The Coke Stevenson Papers are not yet available, as they are copious and have to be arranged, described, and inventoried correctly to be of any use to researchers. In the meantime, interested folks can feel free to take a look at the papers of other prominent politicians in our collection, such as Representative George Mahon and Governor Preston Smith. Our Reference Staff would be happy to facilitate that.