If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
Johnson was only 20 years old when he came to Cotulla from his study course at the Texas teachers’ college in San Marcos (now known as Texas State University). He went on to serve more than four decades in government, later becoming Democratic Party leader and vice president of the United States. In 1963, he became president upon the death of John Kennedy and was elected to a full term in office in 1964. He is remembered for his Civil Rights legislation, education reform and his ‘Great Society’ domestic policies, creating Medicare and Medicaid. Johnson retired from government in 1969 and died at his family ranch in Stonewall, Texas, in 1973 at the age of 64.
Johnson’s brief tenure as a teacher in Cotulla is commemorated in his presidential library in Austin, where visitors are introduced to historical exhibits with a recording of the president’s voice, describing the impact that his South Texas experience had on the rest of his life. He returned to his onetime school in 1966 to celebrate his signing of the US Education Act and met with many of his former students.
The president spoke of his teaching experience at Welhausen and his exposure to the Mexican-American culture of Cotulla at the time, telling his audience in 1966, “In that year, I think I learned far more than I taught.”
The Welhausen School served the Hispanic community of Cotulla during a period of segregation and remained in use as a school building until the late 1970s. It now houses the offices of the La Salle County Appraisal District.
The bronze of Johnson as a young man was created by sculptor Armando Hinojosa and unveiled at a ceremony in April 2019, an event attended by the former president’s daughter, Luci B. Johnson.
Plaza Florita has played host to dances, community and church festivals, Quinceaneras. weddings and high school graduation dances for over 80 years. It was furnished with a pavilion, public restrooms and playground equipment in the early 2000s by the county through a grant from the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife, a controversial alteration to the site that has remained a point of contention for two decades. Local residents whose families had used the park for many years have bemoaned the alteration to the plaza’s original stone and concrete benches, which had been etched with commemorative names. Others have indicated they believe the steel-roofed pavilion and concrete-block restroom structure obscure the long-standing view of the Welhausen School from the plaza.
According to City Administrator Larry Dovalina this month, the Texas Historical Commission is expected to reach its decision in mid-May on whether Cotulla’s application for recognition as a place significant to US history will be honored in the nation’s capital for consideration of the school and plaza as a National Historic Landmark.
Dovalina told councilors of the application process and its progress to the final stage at a meeting on Thursday, April 8. He described the site as one that carries meaning to many local families but also as having a place in the history of South Texas.
“It is being treated as a national cultural landmark that depicts Mexican-American life in South Texas,” the city administrator said of the plaza. “We hope the community is pleased with this step towards a designation. This has been an extensive piece of work, as there were many activities that took place there. We have looked at many photos related to the site’s history.”
“We have waited a long time for this,” Mayor Javier Garcia said. Councilors concurred that the designation will be celebrated and that they believe the site has earned recognition.
A city planning organization working with the Main Street Program and City Hall in 2019 had highlighted the Plaza Florita (which is named after benefactor Flora Maltsberger) as both a tourist attraction and a community hub for public gatherings, festivals and recreation. A design for the city’s future development included improvements to several sites with a view to increasing visitor numbers.
Addressing a workshop group in a session for public input at the Alexander Memorial Library in late 2019, urban planner Leslie Aboumrad said she believed there is local demand for recreational sites that preserve some of the community’s history, and her preliminary designs called for connectivity between the downtown historic district on Main and Front Streets and the Plaza Florita.
Improvement designs for the plaza presented by Aboumrad included removal of the recent additions, a return to the site’s original layout, and the use of neighboring properties for parking and public restrooms.
At the time of Johnson’s employment at the school, however, the plaza was an open playing field on which his students practiced sports. Johnson is remembered in the Brush Country Museum in Cotulla and in the presidential library in Austin for having used his teacher salary to buy shoes and sports gear for the underprivileged children.
At the Cotulla Main Street Program office in the historic district, Bianca Ortiz says she believes the landmark designation will greatly enhance Cotulla’s ability to attract tourists, thereby boosting the local economy.
“The plaza played a significant role in hundreds of families’ lives,” Ortiz said this week. “It isn’t just the historic importance of Lyndon Johnson that makes the site relevant. The plaza is special for many more reasons over many more generations. You could describe it as the community’s cultural epicenter.
“Having a national historical landmark designation for the area will bring tourism,” Ortiz said. “It will make this into the major attraction that it deserves to be. Visitors will learn the significance of it, not just the place where Lyndon Johnson taught, but where all the local families celebrated the milestones in their lives, where they celebrated their culture and passed their traditions on to the next generation.”
Ortiz and Main Street Manager Patsy Leigh hosted a workshop in September 2020 at which “The Destination Doctor” Edward Dramberger gave advice on how Cotulla can better market itself for business and tourism, all with a view to feeding the local economy. All of Cotulla’s hotel owners, local business owners and managers, community leaders and local residents were invited.
“We learned how to market Cotulla,” Ortiz said, “and there’s no question that an attraction like this would really help put us on the map.”
Ortiz, who assists Leigh in the Main Street Program, said she looks forward to seeing more historic-interest tours of the downtown district and nearby sites, including the La Salle County Courthouse, the Brush Country Museum, the Plaza Florita and the Welhausen School.
“There is a lot to learn here,” Ortiz said. “We have begun planning events that help tie these sites together, with a focus on festivals at the Plaza Florita, including artisans’ booths, music, handmade items and foods that reflect the local culture.”
At City Hall, Dovalina and Mayor Garcia await word from the historical commission. Both have indicated that they believe the designation is likely.
“If we earn the designation, we will plan a celebration for the community,” the city administrator told councilors this month.