UT takes stewardship of Garner house

by John Tedesco
Metro / South Texas

All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

UVALDE — He was a backroom dealer who held court with other politicians during whisky-fueled poker games.

Laws were spared life or sentenced to death depending on where John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner stood on the issue.

Yet the legacy of Garner, one of the most powerful politicians in the country at the time, has faded since his time as vice president of the United States ended in 1941. The same held true for the John Nance Garner Home, a museum in his hometown of Uvalde that also has faded with time.

Peels and cracks in the plaster can be seen behind the various photographs documenting Garner’s 38 years of government service.

“Certainly it’s fallen on hard times in recent years,” said Bill Dillard, a Uvalde banker helping to restore the building. “It’s been needing some attention.”

New exhibits and restoration are the goals for the University of Texas at Austin, which took over stewardship of the museum from the city of Uvalde in a formal ceremony Saturday.

Don Carleton, director of the Center for American History at the school, told the crowd of 200 people outside the museum that Garner had changed the face of the vice presidency after taking office with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. His friendships in Congress paid huge political dividends for Roosevelt’s New Deal, and his behind-the-scenes activism in office was a watershed for the vice presidency, Carleton said.

Carleton said UT wasn’t going to engage in “hero worships” of the Texan. Instead, historians will try to bring about an informed awareness of the profound ways Garner shaped the United States political system.

Garner seldom made public speeches but was very active in political circles. “During his early years in Congress, he adhered to his No. 1 rule for success: Get elected, stay there and gain influence through seniority,” as taken from the New Handbook of Texas.

Another Uvalde resident, former Gov. Dolph Briscoe, helped raised $1.5 million for an endowment to help the UT system maintain the museum.

“It’s really too bad that he (Garner) didn’t become president,” Briscoe said. “Yet he exerted more influence and more power than even a president.”

Uvalde had been spending $55,000 a year to keep up the old brick Garner house, a few blocks north of U.S. 90. Dillard, the treasurer of the endowment fund, expects UT to spend twice that amount annually.

Garner got the nickname Cactus Jack when he tried to change the Texas state flower from the bluebonnet to the cactus while serving as a state representative.

All of his 189 gavels are stored at the museum, gifts given to him during the course of his career after he broke a gavel as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Stored in a glass cabinet is a box of trademark Mexican cigars, placed beside an empty bottle of old Fitzgerald genuine whiskey.

Carleton said historians failed to note Garner’s importance because the politician often operated outside the public eye in his dealings with other legislatures and legislators. He burned all his papers when he left office, nearly destroying all the records that could have preserved his place in history.

Bob Crawford, who was on the now-dissolved museum board, said members were “tickled” when UT stepped in. “It’s great,” Crawford said. “It’s going to be a completely different situation.”

Garner died Nov. 7, 1967, at the age of 98. Officials estimated it would take six to eight months to restore the museum named after him.

jtedesco @ express-news.net