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
Local author’s new book highlights Hispanic culture, spotlights LBJ, Lady Bird visit
On a warm November day in 1966, a big Ford station wagon draws to a slow halt amid an eager crowd of spectators in front of a one-story redbrick building overlooking a dusty and sunlit plaza on the east side of Cotulla.
The tall man emerges from the car and his face creases with smiles as the crowd surrounds him. Hands are outstretched, shoulders are patted, and the man is enveloped in a sea of children’s hugs.
The towering figure in the middle of all the fascinated townsfolk is the president of the United States.
Onetime Cotulla school teacher and career legislator Lyndon Baines Johnson, former senate majority leader, vice president and now 36th president in the middle of his single elected term in the White House, had come back to the school where he started his adult working life as a teacher to the community’s Hispanic children.
Accompanying him on this trip was the first lady of the United States, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson. It is her part in the visit that is being celebrated today by someone who was in the crowd.
For LBJ, the visit represented a trip down memory lane. When his plane landed at Cotulla Airport, the president found a telephone and called his long-time Cotulla friend, Dan Garcia, asking him to come fetch him in a car because, in a renowned quote, “I’m here at the airport and I’m surrounded by Republicans.”
Garcia showed up in his wood-paneled Ford Country Squire and drove the president to Plaza Florita.
Remembering life as a teacher in Cotulla was critical to the president, and Lady Bird would be there with him to revisit the past and meet the people who had played such a vital role in LBJ’s life.
“I shall never forget the faces of the boys and girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor,” the president had earlier said on a visit to his seat of higher education, Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College (now Texas State University) in San Marcos. “And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.”
The 1966 visit to Cotulla by President Johnson as well as his brief turn at teaching in the Welhausen School at the end of the 1920s have been consigned to history today in the form of a statue and commemorative plaque in front of the redbrick building. At the time of his visit, the president was touting his landmark education act, which had famously been drafted with Johnson’s memories of the underserved and the economically disadvantaged Hispanic population of Cotulla seared into his mind.
“Education is the key to opportunity in our society,” the president said the following year, when his education reforms and funding began to reach America’s schoolchildren, “and the equality of educational opportunity must be the birthright of every citizen.”
Geronima “Jeri” Garza has taken pieces of Cotulla’s remarkable history and its connections with President Johnson as her inspiration for a 32-page illustrated children’s book that shines an endearing light on the lives of children living in poverty and uses a fictionalized moment in which central character Teresa meets the president’s wife.
Garza was in the crowd outside the Welhausen School that day in 1966, and she treasures poignant memories of meeting the first lady.
“We were near the end of the crowd, and my friends and I were just so young and felt so honored to be able to witness it,” Garza recalls. “We were migrant farm workers, so we didn’t have the schooling that a lot of the other children had. Most of the time, we would be out picking cotton or vegetables while the other kids were in school.
“When Lady Bird came past, it was as though she had found us,” Garza says. “She stopped and smiled, and she made eye contact with each of us. It was the most special moment of my life. In her eyes I read compassion and understanding… Lady Bird opened her heart to us that day. There was so much empathy, so much love for the underprivileged. She truly cared about every last one of us.”
“Glove for a Lady” was written with young bilingual readers in mind, and Garza hopes the story will illuminate Cotulla’s Hispanic heritage, not only in the juxtaposition of Lady Bird with the children of the community’s east side and migrant workers, but also in the people’s pride and dignity that are highlighted in the short story.
Funded by the Moody Grant through the LBJ Foundation in 2008 and revised at an authors’ retreat with the Highlights Foundation in 2016, Garza’s book will see its official launch on Saturday, November 6. A brief ceremony to mark the release will be held at the Welhausen School, the place where the book is set and the very site where Lyndon Johnson was so impressed by the hardworking and studious attitudes of his underprivileged students that he spent his political career working to relieve the plight of the impoverished in America.
While working at Cotulla as teacher of 5th, 6th, and 7th graders and as their principal, Johnson promoted student engagement in academic events such as debate and spelling bees, and inter-school sports by organizing teams and facilitating their transport to other schools. Legend tells of Johnson using his teacher salary to buy sporting goods and shoes for his students so that they could enjoy recreation and leisure activities while attending school, and so that they could look to their futures with dignity and hope, having been actively engaged in activities with their peers in other communities.
President Johnson not only permanently directed federal funding to schools but also founded the Head Start Program in 1965.
“Glove for a Lady” briefly takes the reader behind the scenes of the president’s visit and uses a child’s meeting with the first lady to demonstrate the impact that the Johnsons had on Cotulla’s Hispanic population.
“There’s a lot of me in this book,” Garza smiles. “I think I have projected myself into the character. The little girl is about the same age that I was at the time, from the same kind of background, and I think some of the impact the event had on me is reflected in the girl’s life as well.”
Garza’s book is aimed at readers ages 8 through 12 and is illustrated by Noe Gonzalez Garza. The artist was also a child in the crowd on the day of the president’s visit.
“Because we were both there, I think it really helps us to make the book almost a slice of reality,” Garza says. “Lady Bird was wearing a blue dress with long white gloves, and so we included that in the book. Almost every detail really is true to that day, in history and in our hearts.”
The book launch is timed to coincide with the 55th anniversary of President Johnson’s visit to the Welhausen School.
Del Alma Publications, which is publishing the book this year, is a Latina-owned independent company based in South Texas and offers bilingual and Spanish books written by US-based Hispanic authors.
“Currently, there is a dire need for more culturally relevant material for children, young adults and educators of bilingual, bicultural, educational settings,” the company notes in a press release on its site, and adds that its aim is to provide children with “mirror” books that accurately reflect their culture.
Publishing company founder Dr. Maria Alma Gonzalez Perez had over 40 years of teaching experience in public schools and university when she began the task of seeking out and publishing books that would not only be enjoyed by bilingual and bicultural students but would also help support their educational needs.
Dr. Perez identified the need for more culturally relevant and bilingual books over a 20-year period when she noticed that teachers were resorting to translating English books for use in their bilingual classes because of the shortage of bilingual and Spanish books for children. Perez established a small library of bilingual books and immediately noticed the demand for more when there were not enough available.
Upon retirement, the career educator began her publishing company to produce more of the bilingual books that were in so much demand and to promote more Hispanic authors and illustrators.
Cotulla ISD was integrated in 1970, after which the Welhausen School was used for over ten years as an elementary campus. Since its closure as a school, the building has been used by the South Texas Rural Health Services and the La Salle County Appraisal District, and served briefly as the La Salle County Courthouse. It has undergone extensive repairs, renovation and restoration, and is now registered as a historic landmark.
Jeri Garza is a Cotulla resident active in volunteer civic organizations, notably playing a role in the coordination of activities honoring armed forces veterans and celebrating the city’s heritage and historic preservation. She has previously been featured in this newspaper for her charitable work in a food-sharing program known as The Blue Chair, through which she offers home-grown vegetables, fruits and other harvests to any who need them.