The spartan lifestyle on the South Plains in the early 1900s either built a man or broke him. Yet it is common ground for many who have most influenced Lubbock in its 100 years.
So it was with George Mahon, who was raised on a small farm in Loraine in Mitchell County with an ambition to simply become "somebody."
His persistence and willingness to walk through doors as they opened led him to a 44-year career in Congress and recognition as one of the most important and respected officeholders in Washington.
When he ended his career in 1978 as U.S. representative for the 19th Congressional District, Mahon had worked alongside eight presidents and served for 20 years as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The conservative Democrat had been elected 22 times and never was seriously challenged.
In the 19th District, his legacies include the development of farm programs beneficial to area agriculture, the founding of Reese AFB in Lubbock and Webb AFB in Big Spring, leadership in the development of Interstate 27 and disaster relief during droughts and tornadoes.
Mahon was born Sept. 22, 1900, near Haynesville, La., one of eight children of John Kirkpatrick and Lola Willis Mahon. His father, a farmer, moved the family in 1908 to a plot of land near Loraine.
There was little free time in young Mahon's childhood. Between helping in the fields and attending rural schools, any spare time was spent reading ... the classics and biographies of military heroes were his favorites. The latter provided a hint of what was ahead for him.
His father, a strict Scottish Presbyterian who neither drank nor smoked, was a powerful influence. The elder Mahon always cautioned that one should not obligate to purchase something unless he had the money in hand - a belief that would strongly influence Mahon when he held the nation's purse strings.
Mahon graduated from Loraine High School in 1918 and earned a bachelor's degree from Simmons College, now Hardin-Simmons University, in Abilene in 1924 and followed that with a law degree from the University of Texas. He joined childhood friend Charlie Thompson in a law firm partnership in Colorado City.
He married Helen Stephenson while in college, and they had one daughter.
His entry into politics came in 1926 when he won the vacant county attorney seat in Mitchell County. A year later, the district attorney for five counties, including Mitchell, resigned and Mahon, seeing another open door, asked to be considered for the post. Despite concerns about Mahon's relative youth, he was selected for the job by Gov. Dan Moody. He remained in office until 1932.
After the 1932 presidential election, the Legislature passed a redistricting bill that established the 19th Congressional District, a 25-county area that stretched from Haskell to the New Mexico line and from Bailey County to Howard and Mitchell counties. Lubbock was the largest city in the district.
Though young by congressional standards, the tall and handsome man from Loraine saw another opportunity.
The race would come down to Mahon and Clark Mullican of Lubbock. Residents of Lubbock, including Avalanche-Journal editor Chas. A. Guy, were adamant that the office should go to a resident of the Hub City because of its size. The A-J editorialized to that effect both in the primary and in a runoff between the two top candidates.
That stance worked against Lubbock's candidate in other communities, where it was viewed with resentment. Mahon swept the rural areas and southern parts of the district to earn the seat.
His first appointments were to committees on census, civil service, elections and insular affairs. He was frustrated by the assignments, feeling he could do little in those areas to serve his district.
He expressed his disappointment to fellow Texans in leadership positions, and he was named in 1939 to the powerful Appropriations Committee, and the following year he began service on the subcommittee on War Department appropriations.
A year after he joined the subcommittee, Pearl Harbor was attacked and President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war. Among the decisions Mahon had to make as part of the subcommittee was whether to fund the Manhattan Project, the code name for development of the atomic bomb. He was entrusted with rare access to one of the most secretive programs in the nation's history.
"They (the War Department Subcommittee) had appropriated almost $2 billion through a Congress who had no inkling they were financing a weapon of such formidable power," Wanda Webb Evans wrote in her Mahon biography "One Honest Man, George Mahon, A story of Power, Politics and Poetry."
"When his work on the War Department Subcommittee became knowledge, George Mahon emerged as a man of rare stature. One who could be trusted with his country's deepest secrets. A man willing to risk his future in the best interests of his country. A politician who put the interest of his district above his own, and the nation's interests above his district's," Evans wrote.
When seniority moved him into the chairmanship of Appropriations, he became "one of the most powerful men in Washington," Lawrence Graves wrote in a Mahon profile for "The Handbook of Texas Online."
That Mahon was able to maintain his standing through multiple administrations of both parties was a tribute to his leadership style. He refused to lead by bullying, sought compromise and readily supported committee decisions with which he might not have personally agreed.
He had the ear of presidents, many of whom sought his counsel. He was forthright in his assessments.
His voice is heard on the infamous tape recordings of Richard Nixon as the president briefed Mahon on an upcoming visit to the Panhandle by agriculture officials. At the time, the area was suffering from drought and former Texas Gov. John Connally was exploring the possibility of federal aid. Mahon told Nixon that the situation did not warrant a disaster declaration and that such action would not be in the country's best interest. He didn't let the president off the phone though without putting in a plug for more highway funding in his home district.
During Gerald Ford's tenure, he successfully came to the aid of farmers by leading the effort to lift an embargo on shipments of grain to Russia.
He was sitting in the Oval Office with Lyndon Johnson discussing funding for various programs when the president received a phone call alerting him that a U.S. Navy destroyer was under attack by North Vietnamese ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Given Mahon's thrifty nature, he bristled at deficit spending. His frustrations came to a head under the Ford administration. He took the floor of the House of Representatives for a lengthy assessment of Ford's proposed budget, which suggested "outlays of $349 billion ... . In my judgment, the government will never live within that," he warned.
"...Philosophically, I do not intend to abandon the principles which I have so frequently enunciated in the past - that except in times of war or deep depression, we should not initiate new programs or expand old ones unless we are willing and able to provide the funds to pay for them.
"For years now - during times of relative economic prosperity - the federal government has been generating budget deficits while at the same time adding more and more programs that added greater and greater deficits," Mahon noted. He followed with a point by point critique of flaws he saw in Ford's proposal.
But Mahon was swimming against the political currents.
He clashed with President Jimmy Carter over proposals for an economic stimulus plan, which included tax cuts while adding federally funded jobs programs. Getting the government's fiscal house in order would stimulate business, which would then move toward creating jobs, he said.
In the summer of 1977, the then stoop-shouldered and graying Mahon announced that he would not be a candidate for re-election in 1978.
Fellow veteran politicians from both parties, Texans and, particularly, the residents of his district, lamented the loss of his political acumen and leadership skills.
In 1984, the Mahons returned to their home in Colorado City. Mahon died on Nov. 19, 1985, at a hospital in San Angelo, following complications after knee surgery. A large delegation from Washington attended his funeral services at First United Methodist Church in Lubbock. He was buried at Loraine Cemetery.
Mrs. Mahon died on Dec. 10, 1987, and was buried beside her husband.
A school, library and the federal building in Lubbock carry Mahon's name.
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