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From the rubble
Triumph, tragedy in world's spotlight

By Doug Hensley
for the Avalanche-Journal

An unforgettable statesman. An unbelievable showman. An unthinkable storm.

Lubbock’s third quarter century was marked by triumph and tragedy as newsmakers and news events pushed an increasingly cosmopolitan Hub City into the world’s spotlight.

George Herman Mahon’s shadow in many ways still looms over the city. It might be hard to believe, but it has now been 74 years since the "youthful district attorney from Colorado City" was elected first representative for the newly created 19th Congressional District.

Mahon told The A-J: "In the great task that is before us, I solicit the support and good will of all our people throughout the district."

It was a humble beginning to what would become a magnificent political career, spanning eight presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter. He remained a congressional institution until announcing his retirement at age 77 after 52 years of public service.

He was appointed to the powerful House Appropriations Committee in 1939, was named chairman of the defense subcommittee a decade later and became chairman of the full committee, which controls the nation’s purse strings, in 1964.

Mahon had a front-seat view of history during his time in Washington. He was one of the few government leaders on the inside of the Manhattan Project, the code name for development of the atomic bomb during World War II and, as a champion of a strong national defense, played a key role in developing a nuclear fleet. Mahon was instrumental in helping Lubbock land what would become Reese Air Force Base in 1941.

"George Mahon is regarded now and, factually so, as an institution moreso than a man because of the outstanding services he rendered this community, this state and this nation," said another Lubbock institution, former Gov. Preston Smith, upon hearing of Mahon’s death on Nov. 19, 1985.

Another man wielded similar influence in a very different world - but only for a short time.

Buddy Holly was a 22-year-old Lubbock native who tragically died in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, but not before making his mark on rock ’n’ roll.

Holly broke onto the national music scene in 1957 when he organized The Crickets, a rock ’n’ roll quartet that made several national television appearances. The group’s first record, "That’ll Be the Day," sold more than a million copies. Follow-up effort "Peggy Sue" was equally successful.

At the time of his death, Holly listed almost 45 recordings to his credit, including three albums.

Other Holly best sellers were "Early in the Morning" and "It Doesn’t Matter Any More."

The Lubbock native and two other rock ‘n’ roll singing idols, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, were killed in the crash. The three had just finished a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, and were scheduled to take a chartered flight to Fargo, N.D. Authorities said the four-seat, single-engine plane crashed as a result of the weather. A gathering snowstorm, complete with 18-degree temperatures and 35 mph winds, took its toll on the plane. Holly and his bride, the former Maria Elena Santiago, had been married less than six months.

Don McLean immortalized Holly’s death in his song "American Pie," calling that tragedy "the day the music died."

The singer’s death shook the city, but not like the fearsome Lubbock tornado of May 11, 1970.

The killer storm struck like a thief on a Monday night, cutting a swath of devastation through a quarter of the city while killing 28 and injuring more than 1,000.

With winds clocked in excess of 200 mph, the brunt of the twister’s fury started around 15th Street and Avenue Q and gouged the city in a north and east direction. The hardest hit was the Guadalupe neighborhood, a primarily Hispanic section on the city’s north side, and the homes in the Lubbock Country Club addition.

Carnage was everywhere from north of 34th Street and east of University Avenue to downtown. The tornado apparently touched down in the 2400 block of 19th Street and built in intensity until it reached downtown.

Despite the death, destruction and devastation, the city recovered and became stronger than ever.

Federal assistance flowed in. Lubbock rebuilt and reconstructed. The Memorial Civic Center, dedicated in 1977 in the heart of downtown, serves as a reminder of the lives lost and resilient spirit pervasive on the South Plains.

The spirit was evident in another great South Plains politician, Preston Smith, a Lamesa graduate and Texas Tech alumnus who became governor in 1969 and was instrumental in helping the Tech campus more fully realize the impact it could have on young lives.

Smith, whose long political career began in the Texas House of Representatives in 1944, went on to become a state senator and lieutenant governor before winning the state’s top job.

His influence as a friend of Tech was undeniable. During his time in Austin, he signed legislation creating a law school and medical school at Tech.

The Texas Tech School of Law opened in 1966, and the university’s School of Medicine opened in 1972, three years after legislation was approved that allowed Texas Technological College to become Texas Tech University.

The Lubbock International Airport eventually would bear Smith’s name. The affable and approachable Smith died in 2003 at age 91.

Lubbock was growing up and shaking off its rural roots.

In 1972, the South Plains Mall, the largest shopping address in the city, opened and changed the face of Lubbock as merchants who previously had operated downtown moved southwest.

Another move helped a South Plains stalwart feel at home in 1971 when the State Legislature repealed Article 1911 of the Revised Civil Statutes of Texas, clearing the way for prairie dogs to go from enemy to guest. Legislation dating to 1903 provided for local options on the poisoning of prairie dogs because of the way they destroyed grazing land.

In 1960, the city installed an emergency fire and police reporting system, which was expected to create an annual savings of $18,000 for property owners. It was made up of 137 telephone call boxes at strategic points in business and industrial areas as well as schools for the purpose of making emergency calls to police or fire officials.

Construction began in 1980 on a playground designed for handicapped children, one of just four in the nation. The Lubbock Park and Recreation board approved the finance plan and shared the vision for the facility with the Southwest Rotary Club.

A similarly noble initiative was launched by Lubbock Christian College in 1968, when students there worked with Project Handclasp, a drive sponsored to collect supplies for basic living for orphans and villagers in Vietnam. The program was coordinated by wives of servicemen in all branches of the service.
The era was not without its controversies, though.

A long-simmering debate came to an end Sept. 1, 1969, when Texas Technological College officially became Texas Tech University.

A name-change bill sponsored by State Rep. Delwin Jones was one of many parts of a drama that had played for the better part of 10 years. Some Tech faculty members preferred other names, including Texas Technological College and State University.

The school’s board of directors rejected all others and insisted there would be no compromise on the school’s new name. The state Senate made it official.

That same year, Gov. Smith signed a bill creating the Texas Tech School of Medicine. Smith, a Tech alum, used the same pen Gov. Pat Neff had 46 years earlier when he signed the document that created the college.

Cost for the facility was projected to be $40 million, and it represented the first medical school in the state west of Dallas. A similar bill had been vetoed four years earlier by Gov. John Connally, but the school was growing rapidly into a hub of its own.

No doubt, the city had put the tornado behind it. An even brighter future was beckoning.

The A-J Remembers The Most Important People in Lubbock's History

SPECIAL SECTIONS: 1909-1933 / 1934-1958 / 1959-1983 / 1984-PRESENT | PRINT VERSION