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Smith forged strong career in politics

Preston Smith

The distance from a dusty Dawson County tenant farm he shared with 12 siblings to the governor's mansion in Austin never seemed terribly far to Preston Smith.

In fact, he proclaimed when he was only 9 years old that he would some day be governor of Texas. For two terms, from 1968 to 1972, he fulfilled his promise, capping a public service career that spanned five decades.

The political giant was considered a visionary for higher education and a passionate advocate of quality medical care.

As governor, Smith, a conservative Democrat, was the driving force behind establishment of a medical school at Texas Tech, which altered the university's landscape and put Lubbock on the map as a major health care player.

In typically humble fashion, he disavowed any grand plan, saying his efforts were born more of necessity than broad vision.

"I had no idea what the future held," Smith told The Avalanche-Journal in an interview the year before his death. "I knew that we needed a medical school and we needed medical facilities out in this area. That sort of a concern was the priority that I had."

He also signed the bill that authorized Tech's School of Law, further stretching the university's mission.

His allegiance to Tech was strong but never inappropriate in the eyes of fellow politicians.

"I think those who have positions of public trust should do the things they think necessary to move this area forward and not ever think of future political consequences or honors they might have," Smith said.

"That never occurred to me. I was just grateful for the opportunity. ... A public official is nothing more than a public servant. Unfortunately, some of our elected officials take the position that they own the office, which they don't."

After his death in 2003 of complications from pneumonia, the state's 40th governor was buried in the Texas State Cemetery near other political legends.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Gov. Rick Perry and former governors Mark White and Dolph Briscoe joined family, friends, colleagues and fellow politicians at the burial, where Smith was recognized as the "people's governor."

Instead of his trademark polka-dot tie, Smith was buried with one emblazoned with the state seal of Texas.

Hutchison, who delivered the eulogy, said she first met Smith when he was governor and she was a reporter. He surprised her by calling the newspaper to talk to her directly.

"That was my first experience with the man who was well-known for making his own phone calls," Hutchison said.

Smith was born March 8, 1912, in Williamson County near Austin. He graduated from Lamesa's public schools and worked his way through Tech with a job at a service station while earning a business administration degree.

Because seating was arranged alphabetically at the time, he met Ima Smith in the classroom and they were married when he graduated in 1934.

Smith entered the Lubbock business community in 1936 by opening Tech Theater in a partnership with W.O. Bearden. He continued to open theaters, and in 1957 he merged interests with Video Theaters, operating theaters and drive-ins in Lubbock and Oklahoma City.

He also branched into other businesses, including real estate.

But politics best suited his talents.

In 1944, he won a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. He held that seat for six years and returned to Lubbock to begin his campaign for lieutenant governor. Smith ran against former state Sen. and Secretary of State Ben Ramsey in the Democratic primary and lost. In 1952, Smith ran unsuccessfully against incumbent state Sen. Kilmer B. Corbin, but beat him in 1956. Taking his seat in 1957, Smith served in the Senate until 1963, when he was elected lieutenant governor.

Serving with Gov. John Connally and presiding over the Texas Senate, Smith was able to use his political and business capabilities to help guide the state. When Connally announced that he would not seek re-election, Smith was the logical successor. Elected in 1968, he took office on Jan. 21, 1969.

Smith's two terms as governor were severely marred by political unrest throughout the United States and scandal in Texas. The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal were plaguing President Richard Nixon and the country, while the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal shook Texas to its core.

The scandal single-handedly changed the face of Texas politics. Almost all incumbents were voted out of office, including Smith.

Smith left quite a legacy.

Large portions of the legislation he authored, sponsored or signed into law dealt with improving education. In addition to the medical and law schools at Tech, he created four new state schools, a new University of Texas Medical School in Houston, University of Texas dental branch and a nurses training school in San Antonio, a new undergraduate nursing school in El Paso, and an expansion of the University of Texas medical branch in Galveston.

After leaving office, Smith returned to Lubbock and picked up with his civic and business dealings and ran unsuccessfully for governor again in 1978. In 1981, because of his work for Texas education, Smith was appointed to the Texas College and University Coordinating Board, now called the Higher Education Coordinating Board by Gov. Bill Clements. Smith served as chairman of the board until his term ended in 1985.

He returned to Lubbock after his life in politics was over and remained vital and active until his death. Even in his 90s, he was known to put in 40-hour work weeks as a special assistant to then-Chancellor David R. Smith, raising money for Tech.

Despite all of his successes and achievements, he remained a humble man who refused to capitalize on having held the highest office in Texas.

Current Chancellor Kent Hance said Smith gave him his start in politics. Hance worked for Smith while Smith was lieutenant governor and governor.

"He was close to the people and tried to do what was right," Hance said. "He was a good guy. He was like the guy next door. He didn't have any hidden agenda."

Smith was known as a man of great compassion, which manifested itself in many ways. He often handed out key chains that commemorated his years as governor.

It was noted at a memorial service in Lubbock that a man had recently approached Smith and began talking to him. The man had been badly burned years before. He recalled lying downhearted on a gurney at University Medical Center. Smith stopped, chatted with the man and offered an uplifting message of hope.

The man still carried the key chain Smith had given him years before at the hospital.

His highest devotion was to his wife, though. She became gravely ill in 1998. As her health declined, Smith would walk into her bedroom each morning with a fresh-cut flower and a note.

Today thousands of Tech students walk past a 9-foot bronze statue of Smith that stands in front of the Texas Tech Administration Building. An elementary school and Lubbock's airport are also named in his honor.

Previous City's Most Influential:
#3 - Buddy Holly #4 - Rollie C. Burns & Frank E. Wheelock
#5 - Dr. M.C. Overton #6 - Charles E. Maedgen
#7 - Walter S. Posey #8 - W.H. Bledsoe
#9 - Roy Furr #10 - Robert Snell
#11 -W. Cuury Holden #12 - Christine DeVitt l Helen DeVitt Jones
#13 -John T. Montford #14 - Kent Hance
#15 -Marsha Sharp #16 - Dr. J.A. Chatman
#17 -A.B. Davis #18 - T.J. Patterson
#19 -Jose Ramirez #20 - Delbert McDougal
#21 - Mac Davis #22 -W.B. "dub" Rushing
#23 - The Cavazos Family #24 -Glenna Goodacre
#25 - George Hunt #26 - J. T. Hutchinson/J. T. Krueger
#27 - Ella Iles #28 - Clifford B. Jones
#29 - "Dub" Rogers #30 - Linda DeLeon
#31 - Sedberry Family #32 - H. A. Sessions
#33 - Mae Simmons #34 - O. L. Slaton
#35 - Maggie Trejo #36 - Bob Knight
#37 - McMillan Family #38 - Ventura Flores
#39 - Halbert O. Woodward #40 - George Wolffarth
#41 - Spenser Wells #42 - Underwood Family
#43 - Dirk West #44 - Talkington Family
#45 - Grover Murray #46 - Mollie Abernathy
#47 - Ernesto Barton #48 - Adolph Hanslik
#49 - The Maines Family #50 - Alan and Sandy Henry
#51 - Ray and Lou Diekemper #52 - Murphee and Sherrod families
#53 - Polk Robinson, Huffman family #54 - Marciano Morales
#55 - Robert Duncan #56 - Roy B. Davis
#57 - F. W. Mattox #58 - George Simmons
#59 - Bobby Moegle #60 - Larry Combest
#61 - Charles C. Crenshaw #62 - George Singer
#63 - Judge W. D. Crump #64 - M. M. Dupre
#65 - George E. Green #66 - Marjorie Cone Kastman
#67 - Dudley Strain #68 - Maxey family
#69 - Caldwell, Hancock, Stubblefield
#70 - Elmer Tarbox
#71 - H. I. Robinson #72 - Paul Milosevich
#73 - Father Halfmann #74 - John A. Logan
#75 - Roscoe and Smylie Wilson #76 - Jim Courtney
#77 - Carolyn Lanier #78 - Waggoner Carr
#79 - "Rip" and Mark Griffin #80 - The Hometown Boys
#81 - Theodore Phea #82 - Dr. Bricker, Dr. Selby
#83 - Sam Medina #84 - Alan White
#85 - Joan Ervin #86 - Sister Maureen Van der Zee
#87 - S. E. Cone #88 - Clent Breedlove
#89 - Paul Horn #90 - Dudley Faver
#91 - Lee Lewis #92 - William Harrod
#93 - James H. Milam #94 - Jane Anne Stinnett
#95 - B. O. McWhorter #96 - Windy Sitton
#97 - James Granbury #98 - David Gutierrez
#99 - Delwin Jones #100 - Retha Martin
They built this city with a lot of work
Lubbock's 'builders' to be featured


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

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