Monday, January 09, 2012

Scandal, 1950s Texas Style: Allan Shivers, Earl Rudder and the Veterans Land Swindle, Part III

A Texas farm boy, James Earl Rudder became internationally famous as a D-Day hero. A political outsider, he cleaned house as Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office after one of the messiest scandals in the state's often corrupt political history. A deeply conservative man who lacked the proper academic credentials, he nevertheless ruled as president of Texas A&M when the tradition-bound school underwent sweeping reforms. Under Rudder, A&M changed its name, desegregated, admitted women for the first time, and ended the requirement that students serve in its paramilitary "Corps of Cadets." The passage describes how a bomb planted in a car owned by a witness involved in the Texas Veterans Land Scandal cast an ominous shadow over statewide elections in Texas in 1956

By increasing the openness of the Land Office and frankly addressing the agency's shortcomings, the newly appointed Commissioner James Earl Rudder significantly increased confidence in the Veteran's Land Program both among legislators and the public. The office stopped providing land loans in July 1954. With Rudder's reforms, the office resumed the veterans' land program on October 31, 1955, just 11 months after the new commissioner took office. The Legislature placed a constitutional amendment before voters in November 1956 to authorize a $100 million bond sale. Voter approved that measure, which was coupled with a change in the makeup of the governing board. The board, henceforth, consisted of the Land Commissioner, and two citizens appointed by the governor. Another legislative change was designed to prevent the "block sales" that became the center of the Giles-era scandals.

By the time Rudder compiled his 1954-1956 report to Governor Allan Shivers, he could announce progress on five major goals he set when he first took office: converting the Veterans' Land Program "from a state of chaos and confusion to an honest, orderly, and well-regulated business-like program"; providing closer supervision of mineral exploration, development, and leasing; improving working conditions for the Land Office staff; placing the office on a self-sustaining basis as required by the Texas Constitution; and better preserving records and more efficiently using office space.

In spite of his many accomplishments as Land Commissioner, Rudders faced surprisingly strong opposition in the Democratic Primary in 1956 as he sought a full term in his own right. On April 24, 1956, Rudder announced his intention to enter the commissioner's race. The incumbent trumpeted his role in cleaning up the land program, closing loopholes "which enabled promoters and sharp dealers to use this fine program for their own selfish motives." Rudder claimed that he had accomplished much, but his mission was not complete. "Much remains to be done and it is my desire to help complete the job," he announced. "To refuse to offer my services for two more years, in my opinion, would be to shirk an important public duty."

Election cards printed for the July 28 primary touted Rudder as "[t]he veteran who cleaned up the Veterans Land Program." Rudder asked his campaign staff to come up with an easy-to-remember campaign slogan and his Harris County chair, John Lindsey, came up with "None udder than Rudder." Reportedly, Rudder hated the suggestion, but it became the campaign's unofficial slogan.

Rudder sought election in an unusually crowded political season in which getting press attention proved a problem. Even the Austin American-Statesman, one of the state’s most politically-oriented newspapers in terms of coverage, devoted little ink to the land commissioner’s race.

Shivers had never recovered from the damage to his reputation caused by the insurance and the Veterans Land Board Scandals. His political approval rating collapsed to 22 percent by the fall of 1955. This created a fierce race within the Democratic Party to succeed governor, even as Shivers entered into bitter battle with Senator Lyndon Johnson for control of the state party convention. Six candidates vied to be Shivers’ successor, including popular Senator Price Daniel, who famously said he would rather be governor of Texas than president of the United States; the colorful and folksy Ralph Yarborough, the Austin lawyer who led the Texas Democrats’ liberal faction; retiring House Speaker Reuben Senterfitt; former governor “Pappy” O’Daniel; and J. Evetts Haley, a former leader of the extreme right-wing Jeffersonian Democrats of Texas who sought to prevent the re-election of Franklin Roosevelt as president in 1936.

In addition to the Shivers-Johnson feud, the crowded governor’s race, and a heated Democratic presidential primary contest between Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver, Shivers successfully placed three inflammatory referenda concerning segregation on the Democratic primary ballot. Democratic voters were asked to whether they favored repeal of compulsory school attendance laws “when white and Negro children are mixed in public schools”; whether they supported strengthening the state law barring intermarriage between whites and blacks; and whether they backed the use of “interposition” to “halt illegal federal encroachment” on states’ rights.

Shivers first conceived of the referenda, seeing segregation as an issue he could exploit to win a fourth term. Shivers hoped that having the race-charged measures on the ballots would draw right-wingers to the polls in large numbers and, as one of the governor’s advisors put it, “weld together conservative forces.” The hoped-for fourth-term boom never materialized, however, and the governor withdrew from the race. He did, however, hope that the referenda would draw supporters for the candidacy of Marion Price Daniel, a conservative Shivers hoped would prevail. Whether Daniel benefited from a heavy segregationist turnout is less clear, but the three segregation referenda certainly shaped the rhetoric of the most extremist gubernatorial candidates. Haley warned that the Brown decision was but one part of a wide communist conspiracy to destroy Texas while “Pappy” O’Daniel darkly prophesied there would be “blood in the streets” if the federal government tried to force integration on Texas schools.

In such an over-heated atmosphere, Rudder and his opponent Ned Price of Smith County had trouble getting press coverage. And although Rudder enjoyed considerable advantages -– incumbency, a sterling war record, and the support of the Democratic establishment -– he suffered from one major liability: Allan Shivers. A sure indication of the governor’s declining popularity came when Ralph Yarborough began mocking Price Daniel as a “political buddy of Allan Shivers.” Such associations were no longer seen as something to brag about, but Rudder could not deny his friendship with the governor.

His opponent, a three-time state representative who was serving his fourth term as Smith County Judge, Price preferred to run against Shivers than Rudder. In a large campaign advertisement that Price ran in Rudder’s hometown newspaper, "The Brady Standard" and "Heart O’Texas News" just before the primary, Price contemptuously dismissed Rudder’s military service. “Yes, we, too, like a hero,” the ad read. “But we have heard so much about the ‘big hero’ – it has been rehearsed and rehashed, morning, noon, and night, for years, until we are sick and tired of it – fed up on it. We have heard this story so often we can close our eyes and recite it from memory, forward, backward, up and down – and sideways. It has been worked overtime. So, we hope to disperse with this ‘hero’ stuff for awhile – and let some of the weary ‘GIs’ have their inning.”

Price presented the real issue of the campaign as Shivers’ corruption. Rudder disappears from the attack ad, except as a Shivers’ stooge, as the challenger directly blasts the governor in the last nine of the advertisement’s 14 paragraphs. “Did you [Shivers] come up to Brady and select your ‘appointee’ to pay a Political Debt? . . . Was the ‘smoke’ boiling over in the Land Office, you rushed up to Brady to ‘select’ a good friend to hurry down to Austin to help you . . . plug up . . . the holes in the Land Office and keep all the ‘smoke’ inside the office until your term of office expires next January?” Price then attacked Rudder’s salary increase from $6,000 to $17,500 and accused Shivers of grooming Rudder to be a future governor. “We want our Land Commissioner to be one that was ‘appointed’ and ‘chosen’ by us -- not by Allan Shivers – never.”

During the campaign Price labeled the former army officer an appointed hack and a Shivers clone. Rudder, however, ran a quiet campaign of retail politics, emphasizing his successful record as commissioner. For the most part unable to get attention from major newspapers, he made appearances at smaller cities and small towns, running the circuit of civic clubs. His campaign kicked off on a high note with a Distinguished Service Award presented by the Brady Chamber of Commerce. “And even before '[Brady Standard' Publisher L.B.] Smith had finished the introduction the audience was standing and clapping, and like Rudder, some of them had tears in their eyes, too,” the hometown newspaper reported on it front page. “A ‘favorite son’ of the town, who had been honored many times elsewhere, had finally been honored at home.” The Standard gave extensive coverage to the Chamber of Commerce award, detailing his D-Day heroism in a sidebar, and a month later generously reported Rudder’s dedication speech at the opening of a Girl Scouts camp at nearby Lake Brownwood.

As Rudder urged voter support for the constitutional amendment on the November ballot, which would strengthen and extend the veterans’ land program, he reassured voters that the scandals that plagued the commission in the past could not happen again. “[W]e have already closed the loopholes which enabled promoters and sharp dealers to use this fine program for their own selfish motives,” Rudder declared in opening his campaign. ”With the cooperation of the legislature, along with the help of the veterans organizations . . . we have made a tremendous amount of progress. Much remains to be done, and it is my desire to complete the job.” It could not have hurt Rudder’s cause when Ken Towery, the reporter who broke the veterans’ land fraud story, told the Brady newspaper that he had a favorable impression of Rudder. “Talking to men he trusts in Austin, Towery said he has already been told that Rudder is doing a good job,” the newspaper reported.

Yet, in spite of the reforms he initiated in Giles’ wake, Rudder’s association with the scandal-saturated Shivers regime became the ghost at the banquet. To Rudder’s embarrassment, the land scandal literally burst onto the first pages of not only Texas but national newspapers once again in June 1956 amidst Rudder’s reelection bid. This time the story veered from the merely venal to the sinister.

As the "Dallas Morning News" related events, on 8 a.m. June 8 1956, Sam McCollum, a 37-year-old Brady attorney who had provided key testimony against Bascom Giles during the former land commissioner’s trial, “snatched a glass of chocolate milk from the hands of his pretty wife La Nelle, drank it, and hurried to his 1953 Mercury station wagon parked in front of the small white cottage [that was McCollum’s home.] When Sam pressed on the starter, the car exploded – nearly blowing the young attorney into oblivion and certainly catapulting him into national headlines.”

McCollum, a friend of Rudder’s also served as friend and lawyer for L.V. Ruffin, a Brady insurance and real state salesman under indictment for charges related to the land board scandals. McCollum and Ruffin not only provided key testimony against Giles in his criminal trial, but also implicated another key figure in the case, B.R. Sheffield, who still faced a trial for fraud and other alleged improprieties. The dynamite from the blast shattered the window in McCollum’s home and could be heard 16 blocks away, according to the "Morning News." “The roaring explosion deafened me, beat me, hurled viciously against the back of my seat,” McCollum later recalled. “Black smoke swelled up in a choking, nauseating cloud that burned my eyes and throat . . . I looked down at my legs. I couldn’t see them. I thought, ‘My God, my legs are gone!”

Newspapers prominently featured photos of a scarred McCollum recovering in his Brady hospital bed, bearing chest wounds from glass, metal and pieces of the car’s floor mat that blew through his clothing during the explosion. In the photos, McCollum grins broadly in the embrace of a grinning LaNell, but in subsequent days few in the state house or the Land Office found anything to smile at. The photo of the McCollums appeared on front pages across the nation and the story for a time even eclipsed the media attention afforded President Dwight Eisenhower’s hospitalization for heart disease. Investigators later said they believed a “hired killer” had wired a bomb into the car’s ignition system. McCulloch County Sheriff Luke Zogel proclaimed that “We know that this thing is tied up with the land scandals.” Police questioned Sheffield about the attempted murder. He denied involvement. By the time a court of inquiry convened in mid-October, McCollum was still in the hospital and no one had been charged with the attempted murder.

Even though Rudder had nothing to do with the attempted murder of his friend and could make a convincing case that he had turned around a once-criminal land board, the attempted murder undoubtedly made some Texas voters again link the name of Allan Shivers with a scandal that now resembled a gangland war. Men like Rudder who were close to the lame duck administration began to suffer badly from their friendship with Shivers. Rudder continued to insist that land board scandals were safely in the past. This placed him in an awkward position, however, when questions arose about a proposed block land deal the commissioner ultimately backed out of in 1953.

Three year earlier, Rudder had made plans involving four other former soldiers purchasing, under the Veterans Land Program, a 240-acre tract just east of Brady near the site of a decommissioned World War II prisoner of war camp. The deal fell apart before details could be sealed. Rudder, however, still faced embarrassing questions when the Houston Post published the murky details of the transaction a little more than a month before the July primary. Rudder apparently bought the land from Enoch Shuffield of Brady. Enoch was the brother of B.R. Sheffield, deeply implicated not only with the land board scandal but also suspected in the Brady bombing case. (The younger Sheffield had changed the spelling of his last name.)

Rudder apparently made a $1,500 down payment on the land. The entire contract price came to $30,000. State veterans refund checks totaling $1,500 sent in June 1953 to four veterans originally involved in the deal (Valentine Garza, Jr., Romulo Cervantes, Jr., John V. Espinoza, and Fidel G. Guttirez) had been countersigned and cashed by Rudder. Rudder said he met the men in the Brady area and that some of them had had worked at Brady Aviation where Rudder was vice president until his appointment at the Land Office. He claimed he cashed the land board checks to make back the original deposit and then bought the property by himself for $30,000. “The only way I could have made money on the deal was to wait and buy it from the veterans and use the low interest rate,” Rudder told the Austin American Statesman. “But once I saw the complications and saw it wasn’t right, I backed out.” Rudder never explained what made him uncomfortable about the transaction.

Although the "Post" and other Texas newspapers never charged that anything illegal happened during the aborted Brady land deal, Rudder’s opponent Ned Price quickly made that implication. “The people of Texas are entitled to know the full facts about the veterans land fraud scandal, including any part which the current land commissioner had in a block deal, involving himself and certain Latin-American veterans at Brady,” Price told the Post. “It is obvious that the full story of the land scandals has not been told.” Rudder reminded reporters that the land deal had never been finalized. “It was so involved I didn’t see any way for me to get the land I wanted,” he told the Statesman. “It just didn’t look right.” Rudder insisted that there was “no mystery or scandal” about the transaction and then complained that “politics” lay behind the publication of the story so close to the election. Rudder also claimed in a written statement that he had previously informed reporters about the deal.

When I was appointed land commissioner, I reported the full circumstances of this transaction to other members of the veterans’ land board, to the state auditor, to District Attorney Bill Allcorn of my home district, and to members of both the Senate and House investigating committees. I also told members of the Capitol press Corps about it. All agreed that I had acted correctly in refusing to go through with the proposal as it was originally offered.”

Reporters, however, contradicted part of the commissioner’s story. “None of the seven who questioned [Rudder] today could recall having been informed of the transaction,” the Statesman reported. No story related to the Land Commissioner race got more coverage, but Rudder tried to ignore the possible fallout. He returned to his theme that the scandals of the past could not happen again. “[T]here is no possibility of slick land deals such as those that shocked the state not so long ago,” he told the Marshall Luncheon Club nine days before the July 28 election. As he toured East Texas, he took credit for a $48 million increase in the state school fund. “The increase was due to the restoration of a sound, business-like administration at the land office, which was plagued with irregularities, including the veterans land scandals, when I took office,” Rudder said in a Kilgore address in the campaign’s waning days.

It is hard to tell how much the Post’s “block deal” story and the McCollum attempted murder case hurt Rudder in the final days of the race. Rudder won the primary, beating Price 647,443 votes (about 51.2 percent) to 616,459 (approximately 48.7 percent.) In a state completely dominated by the Democratic Party, Rudder's win in the primary meant that he had already guaranteed his election to the office that November. Rudder, however, assumed he had won the public's trust, and was stung by the closeness of the vote. Advisors and friends told Rudder the margin did not indicate any personal disapproval but stemmed from an anti-Shivers backlash. "I had the scare of my life when the returns starting coming in at Lufkin and South East Texas," wrote Harvey Bayne, Houston County Service Officer, in an August 1 letter. "Judge Price must certainly have spread the discord about Allen [sic.] Shivers and you being an appointee of his."

A concerned Rudder asked Joe Buford, owner of the Buford Investment Company in Mount Pleasant, Texas, for his analysis and the business executive gave a similar answer. "Earl, You [sic.] have asked me to give you any reason for Ned Price's large vote," Buford replied in an August 12 letter. "I will try to give you several reasons that I know had some bearing on your race. Unfortunately there is nothing that you could have done or can do about any of them. First some people that are anti Shivers [sic.] thought you were an associate of Governor Shivers because he appointed you to the Land Office job . . . [Also] In a race for an office such as yours the general public does not try to inform themselves as to the best man for the job. They merely pick out the name which might appeal to them. Your opponent had a very common name and I think this got him a number of votes. Now in this county a number of people voted for Mr. Price because he was from East Texas and you were from West Texas."

It's impossible to know for certain how Rudder reacted to his one race for statewide office. He may have thought he had accomplished all he set out to do in public office, but the campaign had to have been in many ways a bitter, disillusioning experience. It is almost certain that the competitive, hard-driven general found the results disappointingly close and the accusations of corruption against him by Price disheartening. If Price was right when he charged that a Shivers cabal was grooming Rudder as a future governor, it was clear that land commissioner’s heart was no longer in politics by November 27, 1957, when the "Fort Worth Star-Telegram" announced in a headline, "Rudder to Resign, Take A&M Duties." Rudder, the story reported, had been offered either the job of president or vice president of the A&M system and head of the main college.

Many Aggie exes jumped for joy at the rumors. "I read some very interesting news in the paper yesterday morning regarding Earl Rudder and A&M College," teasingly wrote another friend, architect George L. Ingram of Beaumont. "If you will remember, I made some mention of the possibility of your becoming governor and certainly, if you desire the job of A&M College, I think all the 'exes' and student body will be most pleased to see you in this office."

Many friends, however, expressed deep concern about the future of the Veteran Land Program specifically and the General Land Office in general. Rudder himself had warned that the Veterans Land Program might be on its last legs unless the struggling bond market of 1957 improved and voters approved a constitutional amendment that raised the interest rate on bonds from three to four percent. At such a time, attorney Burr S. Cameron of Linden argued, it would be irresponsible for Rudder to leave. "It is submitted that your service in your present position could hardly be replaced," Cameron wrote to Rudder. "The people of Texas, particularly the veterans have great confidence in you. In a short time you have brought the Veterans Land Board from chaos and great distrust to orderliness and trust."

Despite such widespread pleading, Rudder submitted to Governor Price Daniel on December 21,1957 his letter of resignation, effective February 1, 1958. Rudder had been appointed vice president by the Texas A&M Board of Directors. "I can report to you in all sincerity that with the help of many dedicated Texas citizens and faithful state employees this mission [to clean up the Veterans Land Program] has been accomplished."

Disenchanted with politics, Rudder found in A&M another difficult challenge he found almost impossible to resist. The school was segregated and still not coeducational when he assumed his duties as vice president in 1958. A visiting committee of professional librarians from other colleges deemed the library “seriously inadequate”. The elderly and unproductive faculty led Rudder shortly after he rose to the presidency to unkindly remark that, "What A&M needs is a lot of funerals." Rudder had no experience as an educator, and lacked any academic credentials other than a college diploma as he moved to College Station to assume the vice presidency of his alma mater. He seemed a completely unlikely candidate to resurrect a school suffering a declining reputation and sagging enrollment. But he had established, first as a soldier, and then as General Land Commissioner, a unique knack for the role of fixer, a man who could salvage impossible situations and impose order on chaos. The Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas would provide him a perfect stage to display those talents.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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