LBJ the educator statue planned for South Texas town
COTULLA, Texas (AP) — The life-size statue of a young Lyndon Baines Johnson shows him in suit and tie, a heavy book in his left hand, and pointing sternly with his right.
The San Antonio Express-News reports his hair is parted in the middle, his ears are not noticeably large and he isn’t smiling.
“I imagined him saying, ‘Pórtate bien Juanito!’ (Behave yourself Johnny!),” said sculptor Armando Hinojosa, 74, whose creation in bronze depicts the future president as a young school teacher in South Texas.
“Back then, they could still paddle the students,” added Hinojosa, who’s renowned for his sculptures in public spaces. He’s working on one that will honor the Canary Islanders in San Antonio.
Sometime next year, the gleaming Johnson statue will be dedicated at the Welhausen School on Cotulla’s east side.
It was here, at what was then known as “the Mexican School,” where Johnson taught and served as a coach and principal in 1928-29, while taking a year off from San Marcos Teachers College.
The time he spent with the poor Mexican-American students, many the children of migrant farmworkers, proved crucial to the shaping of Johnson’s social and political consciousness.
It bore fruit decades later in 1965 with the passage of the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” that mandated equal access to education and was a cornerstone of Johnson’s war on poverty.
The next year, President Johnson revisited Cotulla to catch up on old friendships and reaffirm his commitment to equal education.
“Right here, I had my first lessons in poverty. I had my first lessons in the high price we pay for poverty and prejudice right here,” he declared in November 1966 in a speech at the Welhausen School auditorium.
He reminded everyone of the deprivations found at the school: No lunch facilities, no school buses, and no money for playground equipment or sports. And he reminded them that the nation’s battle against poverty and ignorance was far from won.
“No longer can we afford to say to one group of children: Your goal should be to climb as high as you can. And then say to another group: Your goal should be to get out as soon as you can,” he said to an audience that included some of his former students.
“For the conscience of America has slept long enough while the children of Mexican-Americans have been taught that the end of life is a beet row, a spinach field, or a cotton patch,” he added.
Long reliant on ranching and agriculture, Cotulla drifted for decades without growth or prosperity, only to see fortunes improve dramatically in recent years with the Eagle Ford Shale oil boom. In the last five years, the city’s budget has doubled and its population has also jumped to about 6,500 people, said City Manager Larry Dovalina.
Cotulla’s decision to spend $125,000 for the Johnson statue is part of a larger city and county plan to identify, restore and preserve significant elements of the past, Dovalina said.
Already in place are a statue of Joseph Cotulla, the city’s founder, at veteran’s park in front of the courthouse, and an enormous mural on Main Street depicting the history of Cotulla.
The Welhausen School sits on a plaza that was once the heart of the Mexican-American community.
“I think there was a general consensus that we wanted to restore that area, and in particular, highlight the cultural past at Plaza Florita, and Johnson who was part of that,” Dovalina said.
“When you talk about LBJ, there is a reverence in Cotulla for the time he spent here,” he added.
Still to be resolved, he said, is where the statue will stand, either inside the old school, which now houses the County Appraisal District, or somewhere outside.
When it was built in 1926 to house Mexican-American students, the stately building with decorative tile highlights was the finest school building in the city.
And there is a story behind that unlikely circumstance that also helps explain how Plaza Florita, long known as the Mexican plaza, got it’s more formal name, Dovalina said.
“It was because of Florence Maltsberger, the city postmaster. She was the champion of the Mexican people,” he said, and was instrumental in persuading the county fathers, including Judge G.A. Welhausen, to build a first-rate school for the Mexican-American students.
Retired banker John Keck, 68, whose roots go back five generations in Cotulla, said the Plaza Florita and LBJ project may finally put a spotlight on an often overlooked chapter of local history.
“I think it will open up tremendous focus on this small community and on pieces of its history that some people know, but not in a broad way,” he said.
He is hopeful that unveiling ceremony will include out-of-town dignitaries with close ties to the former president, as well as local citizens.
“We’ve been in touch with the LBJ Library in Austin and we also want to include Johnson family members,” he said, adding that the descendants of the Mexican-American students taught by LBJ nine decades ago also will be invited.
When the district was integrated in 1970, the Welhausen campus became an elementary school. It was closed in the 1980s, and later housed South Texas Rural Health Services. More recently, it provided temporary quarters for various county offices while the aging courthouse was being renovated.
Although the students Johnson taught here are likely all gone, a few aging citizens still recall his presidential visit in November 1966.
It came during deer hunting season, which caused acute unease to the Secret Service agents who came ahead of time to look things over, according to one account.
“They drove around and every truck had a high-powered rifle with a telescopic scope on it, and the Secret Service did not like that,” recalled one old-timer who asked not to be named.
To make their job simpler, the Secret Service asked that most businesses in Cotulla be closed the day of Johnson’s visit. The weekly cattle auction went on as usual.
This resulted in one humorous episode, when a rancher’s wife came to town eager to do her shopping while her husband was at the auction, only to discover to her annoyance that the stores were closed.
When she was told that it was because “the president was in town,” she responded, “Well, he wouldn’t steal in broad daylight.”
Pablo Gonzales, 69, a high school senior at the time, keeps a photo on his cellphone of President Johnson shaking his hand in the school auditorium.
“I was the president of the senior class and was one of those chosen to be on the stage with him,” recalled Gonzales, a longtime Cotulla pharmacy owner.
He said he recently reviewed the speech Johnson gave that day and found it has held up well over the decades.
“He said if we defeat this poverty, we’ll be a better nation, and that education is the only way to do that, not only in Cotulla, but all over the Unites States,” said Gonzales.
“He was one of the main presidents who helped the needy people, especially the minorities. The problem was there all the time, and he was one who did something about it,” he added.
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com