“Austin Askew”–Chapter X– Underground Austin: The Texas State Cemetery

In recent weeks we’ve celebrated Memorial Day and commemorated the anniversary of the Allied landing on the beaches of Normandy in World War II, occasions that bring to my mind not only scenes of battle and heroic sacrifice, but also images of military cemeteries, with row upon row and acre after acre of identical white grave markers. A military cemetery is similar to war itself in that it tends to blur the story of the individual and cast into relief the story of the group. What is left, then, is not so much one or two heroes, but an army of them, and maybe that’s as it should be.

Pondering on all this made me want to go look at a cemetery and see what observations a tour of one might stir up. To my knowledge, the closest military cemetery to Austin is down in San Antonio, but I did remember that the Texas State Cemetery has a Confederate section, and anyway, even without that feature there are plenty of famous Texans in that cemetery worth writing about.

Prior to this recent visit I had not been to the State Cemetery since 1993. I went a few months after the funeral of John Connally, and I remember a grounds keeper had told me, “They’re still working on Governor Connally’s monument. We were told it’s gonna be plenty big. You gotta know with him it’s gonna be big.”

Now here I need to confess at the risk of sounding morbid that I am a cemetery junkie. I love them for the history and genealogy angles, I love to look at the designs of the stones, and as a writer and editor I’m fascinated by how people use their tombstones and their epitaphs to sum up their lives. Often what they don’t say is even more important than what they do.

Take Winston Churchill, for instance–a man of many achievements and honors, regarded by many as the greatest man of the twentieth century, and possibly the savior of his nation. Where would you start in designing a tribute to him? He easily earned a huge monument in Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral, but instead he’s buried with his family in a country churchyard, under a simple marble slab bearing his name and dates. When you’re that important, you can afford to be understated.

Thomas Jefferson insisted that his epitaph mention his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, but not his Presidency.

Brilliant German composer and egomaniac Richard Wagner, on the other hand, left instructions that nothing be engraved on his tombstone. He was so confident in his fame and genius that he felt that as long as the stone remained everyone would know who was buried there–they wouldn’t need any reminders. And thus far, his prediction has been borne out.

But then there’s President Warren G. Harding, a likeable dunce who knew he had no business being President. He preferred to spend his time drinking, smoking, playing cards, and carousing with women, and let crooked politicians and business tycoons run amuck within his administration. But when he died in office he was given a huge tomb, designed to look like a circular Grecian temple, with fifty-foot high marble columns set in a ten acre park. Truly the tomb does not always match the man.

Anyway, in the years since I’d last visited the State Cemetery the place had been given a major face-lift at the behest of former Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. There are two things that just about everyone will tell you about Bullock: 1) he had the respect of both Democrats and Republicans in the State government, and 2) he was a fanatic about Texas history.

Bullock was responsible for finally getting a Texas State History Museum built, so when it opened after his death, it was appropriately enough named in his honor. He’s buried on a hill in the State Cemetery today, his grave a stone’s throw from Stephen F. Austin’s and J. Frank Dobie’s. His epitaph reads, “God Bless Texas.”

If you enter the cemetery through the north gate you’ll see a long driveway lined with Texas flags. On either side of the front gate are spaces in the wall that look like filing cabinets. These are for cremated remains. A little further on, off to the west, you’ll see a low limestone building that was designed to resemble the “Long Barracks” at the Alamo. This building includes administrative offices, a private sitting room (presumably a place for families to gather before funerals), and a small museum of random Texas artifacts, as well as a directory of the people buried there.

Outside the museum area is a meandering, babbling brook (this part of the cemetery looks like a really beautiful golf course), and on the east side of the grounds is a tall hill that has been made from the earth excavated for that brook and that affords an impressive view of the cemetery and the downtown skyline.

Before you start saying, “Hey, sounds great–Sign me up for a plot,” I should explain who’s eligible for burial here: a past or present member of the Legislature, a past or present elected State official, an appointed official with at least twelve years service in that position, or any prominent Texan appointed by the Legislature, Governor, or Texas State Cemetery Commission.

George W. Bush, for example, as a former Governor, can be buried here, but considering the trend for recent Presidents he’ll probably be buried on the grounds of his Presidential Library, wherever that winds up being. Singer Larry Gatlin, of Gatlin Brothers fame, has been approved for burial here, but Texas folk hero Willie Nelson has not. (I guess if he’s considered too much of a reprobate to deserve a highway named in his honor, as some Legislators recently claimed, he’s probably not thought worthy of the State Cemetery either. Well, it’s the State’s loss, in my opinion.)

The Cemetery has several monuments and memorials commemorating groups or events and that don’t actually mark burial sites. One of the newest is a 9/11 memorial, dedicated in honor of all the Texans that died that day.

My initial impression of the memorial was that it was wretched and an eye-sore, but my opinion changed as I took a closer look. It consists of a pink granite cylinder with a small entrance space for visitors. Inside the cylinder are two steel beams rescued from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, scarred and twisted by the blasts.

The beams, if viewed from the right angle, resemble the Twin Towers, and are punctured at their tops, just as the WTC Towers were by the airplanes. One beam is twisted in such a way that it resembles a flame, and so could be said to carry the symbolic meaning of an eternal flame of remembrance as well as serving as a reminder of the hellish, fiery end of the Towers.

The interior of the cylinder is claustrophobic, making the visitor think of all the people who were trapped in the Towers, and the inner wall is marked with notations of what took place on that day, at their respective times of occurrence. As the sun moves across the sky the beams cast shadows evocative of the Towers along that inner wall. The memorial is deceptively powerful and unforgettable.

The State Cemetery is a little thin as far as Texas sports heroes go, but one of the first monuments I saw on this visit was that of Willie James “El Diablo” Wells (1906-1989), a famous Negro League shortstop and native Austinite who was inducted posthumously into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Wells played for the San Antonio Black Aces (1923), St. Louis Stars (1924-1931), Detroit Wolves (1932), Homestead Grays (1932), Kansas City Monarchs (1932, 1934), Cole’s American Giants (1933-1935), Newark Eagles (1936-1936, 1942, 1945), Chicago American Giants (1944), New York Black Yankees (1945-1946), Baltimore Elite Giants (1946), Indianapolis Clowns (1947), and Memphis Red Sox (1944, 1948). He also managed the Birmingham Black Barons (1954).

According to the Hall of Fame website, Wells…“set a single-season Negro leagues record with 27 homers in 88 recorded games for the St. Louis Stars in 1926….[He]…had a prolific career in Latin America, where Mexican League fans dubbed him “El Diablo.” He batted .320 over seven Cuban Winter League seasons, while winning two home run titles and two MVP awards.”

His plaque in Cooperstown adds, Wells “combined superior batting skills, slick fielding, and speed on the bases to become an eight-time All Star in the Negro Leagues. A power hitting shortstop with great hands, ranks among the all-time Negro League leaders in doubles, triples, home runs, and stolen bases. Played on three pennant-winning teams with the St. Louis Stars, one with the Chicago American Giants, and one with the Newark Eagles.”

Apparently he was also one of the first professional players to use a batting helmet. He designed his own after a nasty beaning in 1942. Like Ty Cobb, he had a reputation for being a hothead and attacking his opponents with his bat and spikes. As far as his nickname goes, opposing players used to warn each other, “Don’t hit it to the shortstop, because the Devil’s playing out there.”

A huge figure of Texas sports also has a stone here: Tom Landry (1924-2000), legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys. The front of his stone features an engraving of his famous hat and the Cowboy Lone Star logo, while the back of the stone lists his achievements and has a bas relief of Landry standing on the sidelines with his play book. The only thing missing is Landry–he’s buried, appropriately enough, in Dallas, and the stone is just a cenotaph, a memorial to someone buried someplace else.

El Paso native Tom Lea (1907-2001), author of “The Brave Bulls, “The King Ranch,” and “The Wonderful Country,” who also painted some haunting and powerful pictures of the Pacific Theater during World War II for “Life” magazine, is honored here with a cenotaph–a shiny granite monument with a bas relief of the Franklin Mountains, and a quotation of Lea’s that George W. Bush has quoted in several speeches: “Sarah and I live on the east side of our mountain. It is the sunrise side, not the sunset side. It is the side to see the day is coming, not the side to see the day that is gone. The best day is the day coming, with the work to do, with the eyes wide open, with the heart grateful.”

The other important cenotaph I noticed was for “Texas” author and former Tarrytown resident James Michener (1907-1997). The odd thing is he’s just buried across town at Austin Memorial Park. Why wasn’t he buried at the State Cemetery?

There are a few other authors who are physically present here, including historian Walter Prescott Webb (1888-1963), whose magnum opus “The Great Plains” was said to be as dry as the actual plains themselves, folklorist J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964), and novelist Fred Gipson (1908-1973).

Mason, Texas-native and sometime Austinite, Gipson is best-known for “Old Yeller,” his tragic children’s classic of a boy and his dog. The Gipsons were all very fond of dogs. Fred’s son Mike had a dog called “Savage Sam,” who served as the model for a fictional dog in his dad’s book of the same name.

While Mike Gipson was a student at UT, he came home to Austin from a weekend trip to find some slimeball had tortured and beaten Sam to death. The discovery so traumatized the boy that he committed suicide, and Fred Gipson spent the rest of his own life in a downward spiral of depression and alcoholism. His epitaph reads “His books are his monument.”

Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) is memorialized with a grey granite pylon bearing a bas relief of her face, along with the words “Patriot” and “Teacher.” Known for her booming voice and oratorical skills, Jordan was the first African-American woman elected to the State Legislature and the first African-American woman from the South elected to Congress. She came to national prominence as a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings, where she declared, “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

In 1976 Jordan served as keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, the first woman granted such an honor. She was keynote speaker again in 1992. She retired from politics in 1979 and taught at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

The State Cemetery has some unusual, even amusing sights. Thomas Gee (1925-1994) has the entire text of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V” on the back of his stone, and is listed as “Hunter-Fighter Pilot-Lawyer-Judge,” while his wife Deborah (1950-2000) is described as “A friend to all creatures great and small.” (I wonder how they squared his love of hunting with her love of animals.)

Legislator Doug McLeod and his wife Joan have a stone densely packed from top to bottom and front and back with descriptions of their achievements and memberships in various organizations. The only catch is the two are both very much alive and presumably still very active. So what happens if they rack up more achievements between now and the time they die–will they get a new stone?

But perhaps the most interesting epitaph I’ve ever seen is that of Virginia Leon Barnhart (1930-2000), the wife of State Rep John Barnhart. Her obelisk contains a seemingly random list of the topics, events, and activities that made her who she was: “Hospitable  Driven   Compassionate   Beeville~Fun  Empowering   Joyous/Angry Creative~Houston  Dame of the Shoe   Stephen’s College Traveller~Energetic  Jinny Doll   A Texas Lady   Wife to John  Mom~Friend   Lover~Rotan  Free Thinker   Passionate   Intense Courageous  Adventuress   Literatae  Hispanic America  Homemaker Traditionalists   Chautauqua  Open~Goliad   Political   Generous Family  University of Texas”  It sounds like she’d have been a fun person to know.

The downside of this cemetery for the average visitor is that it’s filled with lots of little-known Legislators and State officials, and you have to wade through a sea of their usually plain grey or pink granite tombstones before you find somebody famous. There’s an excellent collection of historic figures from the Republic of Texas days, however, most of whom were disinterred from their original resting places and brought here to make the State Cemetery a tourist attraction for the Texas Centennial in 1936. These are the sort of people they name streets, counties, and towns after. Stephen F. Austin (1793-1836) has probably the largest monument here, which is topped with a statue of Austin with his arm pointing east. I’m sure the idea was that Austin was supposed to be beckoning towards a great destiny or welcoming people to Texas or something like that, but to me he looks to be waving, “Ya’ll come back now, y’here?”

Other old-time Texans are Austin’s nephew Guy Bryan (1821-1901), John Wheeler Bunton (1807-1879), Peter Hansborough Bell (1812-1898), Andrew Briscoe (1810-1849), Ben McCulloch (1811-1862), Sterling C. Robertson (1785-1842), Edwin Waller (1800-1881), founder of the City of Austin, William A.A. “Bigfoot” Wallace (1817-1899), whose grave marker is anything but big, and Robert McAlpin Williamson (1806-1859), the namesake of Williamson County. Williamson’s right leg bent back at the knee, so he wore a peg leg, earning him the nickname “Three-Legged Willie.” (It must’ve been murder burying him, don’t you think?)

The grave of Judge John Hemphill (1803-1862) is marked with an excellent example of Victorian funerary art: a weeping woman leaning against a pillar and a stack of impressive-looking books. What is her story? Is she a librarian? Are the books overdue?

And naturally the cemetery is filled with Governors. Hardin Runnels (1820-1873) has an epitaph which reads, “By his public spirit and stern integrity he won the confidence of the people, who elected him to the highest positions Legislative and Executive that they had to bestow. Filling all these with honor to himself and benefits to the commonwealth, no finger can point to a shadow of corruption upon his extended public record.” (I pointedly draw your attention to that last claim. Nobody else in the State Cemetery has dared to make it.)

Unpopular Reconstruction-era Governor Edmund J. Davis (1827-1883) has probably the second-largest tomb here, but you can’t imagine anyone wanted him around. Miriam (1875-1961) and James Ferguson (1871-1944) have a fancy Art Deco tomb adorned with the Chi Rho symbol, the Alpha and Omega, and the lines, “Life’s race well run, Life’s work well done, Life’s victory won, Now cometh rest.” The grave of anti-KKK Governor Dan Moody (1893-1966) is marked by Roman Doric columns (differentiated from Greek Doric columns by the presence of bases), and an entablature bearing his name.

Not far from Dan Moody we find the grave of Allan Shivers (1907-1985). Shivers was best known for fighting the Federal government for the oil rights of the Tidelands just off the Texas coast. This led him to break with Harry Truman and the national Democratic Party and to support Eisenhower in the 1952 Presidential race.

The Shivers grave is marked with a tall pink granite obelisk and two sculptures by Charles Umlauf, one of a woman who appears to be the Virgin Mary, and the another is of a winged man poised to take flight. Unlike that similar-looking man I discussed a few weeks ago, who graces the Alamo Cenotaph in San Antonio, this guy isn’t naked, but appears instead to be wearing ill-fitting boxer shorts.

During his life Big John Connally (1917-1993) loved the spotlight, so it’s no surprise his tomb is an attention-getter. Built of black granite, it consists of a central obelisk, with panels on either side for Connally and his wife, Nellie. The obelisk bears the seals of the three important offices Connally held, and the back of monument features a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt used in John Connally III’s eulogy at his father’s funeral.

What I found perplexing about the tomb was that in front of it was a statue of St. Andrew. What was that there for? Connally was a Methodist, not a Catholic–why would he have a statue of a saint on his tomb?

The Connallys had been Methodists for many years. In fact Connally’s grandfather had been named “John Wesley,” after the founder of Methodism, as had Grandpa’s childhood friend, John Wesley Hardin.

What I was able to turn up was that the statue was actually the work of Connally’s daughter, Sharon Connally Ammann. I assume that since St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, the statue must refer to Connally’s Scottish ancestry.

John Connally was born into poverty in South Texas. At UT he distinguished himself as a student actor, and actually turned down a chance at a Hollywood screen test to become a lawyer instead. He served in the Navy in World War II and became LBJ’s protégé, right-hand man, and campaign manager.

After working as a corporate lawyer, Connally was named John Kennedy’s Secretary of the Navy, a position he resigned in order to run for Governor of Texas. He served in that office from 1963 to 1969, concentrating his efforts on improving education and tourism in the state.

Connally was riding in Kennedy’s car in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and was himself seriously injured in the attack that killed the President. Some say that being wounded by a bullet that had first passed through Kennedy and surviving that wound caused Connally and those around him to believe he had been Spared by Providence for Great Things. But higher office was to elude Connally. He was LBJ’s anointed successor to be sure, but then the two had a falling out of sorts. Then Richard Nixon took a shine to him, making him his Secretary of the Treasury. Nixon was certain Connally would be President one day.

Then, not long after LBJ’s death, Connally did the unthinkable–he switched parties and became a Republican. That might not seem like such a big deal now, but in 1973 Texas there was room for only two political parties, the Conservative Democrats and the Liberal Democrats. John Tower was a Republican Senator, of course, but his case was more of a fluke. The Republican Party in Texas didn’t really come into its own until 1979, when Bill Clements became the first Republican to be elected Governor since Reconstruction.

Connally sought the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 1980, but bowed out of the race after garnering only one delegate. He went back to practicing law and took positions on the boards of various corporations.

When the Texas economy tanked in the 1980s, Connally was forced to declare bankruptcy, sell most of his houses, and put up his collection of art and antiques for auction. He had to part with so much furniture he was reduced to using a cardboard mover’s box as his bedside table. His wife Nellie didn’t mind, though–she said it reminded her of when they were newlyweds.

When Connally died in 1993 and it was announced that the viewing and funeral would be open to the public, I knew I had to go. I figured correctly that it would be the last gathering of a legendary generation of Texas politicos.

Since the State Capitol Rotunda was being renovated at that time, the casket was placed in the House Chamber for the Lying-in-State. The line stretched from the Chamber, down the northwest staircase behind the Chamber, out the western doors, east down the southern side of the building, and out to the southern front doors of the Capitol.

There was something of a feeling of a time warp that morning. I saw Texas Rangers wearing skinny-lapelled jackets and straw cowboy hats of a style more common to the early ’60s than to the ’90s. One man in the line with me talked about visiting Connally in the hospital a few days before his death, while an older woman who had worked in the State government in the 1960s reminisced about the day Connally walked into her steno pool office with John Wayne: “The Governor sure was a handsome man. He looked just like a movie star.”

(Private JFK assassination researchers and the Federal government asked the Connally family for permission to remove bullet fragments from Connally’s body in order to test the “single-bullet theory,” but the family refused.)

And everybody who was anybody showed up for that funeral. Billy Graham officiated and Lady Bird Johnson gave one of the eulogies. Lloyd Bentsen was there, as were George Christian, Jack Valenti, Ralph Yarborough, Jake Pickle, Van Cliburn. (I wound up seated next to veteran newsman Neal Spelce and across the aisle from then-Mayor of Houston Bob Lanier.) All the Governors still alive at that point attended, though I’m pretty sure I saw Mark White pointedly refuse to let the ushers seat him next to his old enemy Bill Clements.

Then, right before the Connally family came in, there was a crowding of attendants, ushers, and security people at the back of the church, and from the midst of them there emerged, by himself, a small, bent, but still very recognizable old man, and a frantic hissing and murmuring ripped through the crowd: “Richard Nixon! Richard Nixon!” I half-expected that the organist was going to launch into the “Darth Vader Imperial March” at that point.

I cannot tell you how long I stayed at the State Cemetery on this most recent visit. All I can say is that by the time I got to the Confederate section I felt like Eli Wallach at the end of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” brain fried by the sun, eyes stinging with sweat, running frantically amongst the endless rows of identical military-issue tombstones.

I confess I did not spend much time in that section. I recognized none of the names there and the stones were tiny (maybe the size of a yellow legal pad) and very hard to read. Instead I went up the hill to where Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston (1803-1862) is buried at the head of his troops.

The American Civil War proved to be so traumatic for its participants that both sides felt the need to create mythologies about the war in order to process and deal with that trauma. The North, for instance, constructed the myth, still taught in schools today, that the Union Army consisted of selfless moral men who went to war with the Southern bigots solely out of their love for African-Americans and their desire to see them live in freedom. The squabbles, north and south, over slavery as an economic, rather than a moral, issue, have been conveniently ignored, and the whole state’s rights brouhaha is generally trivialized as well. But then again, anyone can justify a war if they take, or indeed have, the moral high ground.

The South got even more caught up in realms of fantasy, constructing something called “The Myth of the Lost Cause,” where Confederate soldiers were seen as modern-day knights, Christian warriors, crusaders for the preservation of a way of life that was so perfect and godly that there was no way it could last. With such a view, it wasn’t hard to rationalize the idea that losing the conflict was not only inevitable, it was noble. The fact that such Confederate leaders as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson (whose great-grandson, World War II flyer Thomas Jonathan Jackson Christian, Jr. is buried in the State Cemetery) were well-known for their religious devotion only made the myth seem all the stronger.

And so for that reason we have Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, a veteran of the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War as well as the Civil War, resting in a tomb similar to that of the old crusaders. It is topped with an effigy of the General, carved by Elisabet Ney, in full uniform, his head pillowed by a folded Texas flag. The tombs of knights were often covered with elaborate canopies, but knights were usually entombed inside churches. Johnston’s tomb, on the other hand, is outdoors, but since it’s made of marble and needs protection from the harsh Texas weather it has a canopy too, made of wrought iron, with all sorts of Gothic details, such as gargoyles, as well as the non-Gothic Texas Lone Star.

But people aren’t as respectful and reverent nowadays as they were in 1905 when the tomb was constructed, so further protection over the tomb but inside the canopy has been added in the form of a Plexiglass screen which looks like nothing so much as the sneeze guard at a salad bar.

After my uncommonly busy day I climbed the new man-made hill to get a comprehensive look at the Cemetery. It’s been open for over a century now, and yet it’s at best only a quarter full. Many, many members of our State government will have to die before it reaches it’s capacity, but I think that would be a very small price to pay.

—June 16, 2005 and June 30, 2005

{Note: “Literatae” is the name of an organization, and it is indeed spelled that way.}

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