March and April are always a busy time at the center, and 2015 has been no exception.
First, we participated in the launch of the UT School of Law’s Farenthold Conference last Thursday. Organized by the law school’s Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, the conference was a celebration of Frances “Sissy” Farenthold’s career as a Texas politician, university leader and international advocate for peace and justice. Her papers are at the Briscoe Center.
I was pleased to join Rapoport Center co-director Karen Engle in a discussion about the lasting value Sissy’s papers have for scholars and students. Karen’s team has just wrapped up a three-year project to digitize significant portions of the papers, which are elegantly presented through the interactive website, “Frances Tarlton ‘Sissy’ Farenthold: A Noble Citizen.” I’m proud of the role the center has played to help build the site, which showcases a variety of archival materials, as well as original short films and many hours of new interviews.
I have known Sissy for many years now. In June 2010, while working on remarks to be given at a memorial service for the center’s namesake, Dolph Briscoe, I received a call from Sissy. Knowing that I was to speak at the service, she asked that I add something to my remarks. As many of you will recall, Sissy and Governor Briscoe had been fierce opponents in the gubernatorial campaigns in the Democratic primaries in 1972 and 1974. Sissy asked me to quote her in my remarks as follows: “We were once political opponents, but Dolph Briscoe was a fine and decent Southern gentleman.” That generous and thoughtful remark, which is so characteristic of Sissy, was a remark I was more than happy to share at the service.
Governor Briscoe inspired this sort of respect from people, even his political opponents. I am proud that the center is named after him—and proud to present Dolph Briscoe: Texan, a permanent exhibit at the Briscoe–Garner Museum in Uvalde, Texas. Last weekend, I traveled directly from the Farenthold conference to Uvalde in order to speak at the exhibit’s opening. It was great to see members of Governor Briscoe’s family join folks from the local community and center staff in celebration. This is the second year that the Briscoe–Garner Museum has been open to the public since an extensive renovation and, with exhibits now open on both floors, I highly recommend a visit!
A lifelong Uvalde resident, World War II veteran, rancher, public servant and family man, Governor Briscoe’s life and career is difficult to capture in an exhibit. His papers, housed at the center, take up over 1,000 linear feet of shelf space and cover his political and business activities, as well as illuminating many aspects of his personal life. It has taken us a year of concentrated research to identify the nearly 200 documents and objects in the exhibit that we feel best tell his story. At the heart of that story is what Briscoe called “absolute integrity”—a virtue he successfully aspired to, in my opinion.
“Absolute integrity” is a virtue that Governor Briscoe’s friend Jess Hay also exhibited. A highly successful business leader and a lifelong champion of higher education, Jess died at the age of 84 earlier this month. Everyone at the center mourns his passing.
From 1977–1989, Jess served on the Board of Regents for the University of Texas System, acting as chairman from 1985 to 1987. Later, he was instrumental in helping the Briscoe Center finance the documentary When I Rise. He also successfully advocated for an archival position for the monumental ExxonMobil Historical Collection, which continues to be funded to this day. Like Governor Briscoe, Jess will be long survived by his reputation and his generosity.
Don Carleton, Ph.D.
J. R. Parten Chair in the Archives of American History
P.S. In 2006, Jess was interviewed as part of the University of Texas Oral History Project, which created an archive of interviews that captured the experiences, insights and spirit of those who have shaped the university. You can watch excerpts from his interviews here.