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ACCLACAIMED PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE STAFFER DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN VISITS WELHAUSEN
“If I can’t win her over, no one can.”
With those words, US President Lyndon Johnson ushered a new intern into the White House Fellowship program in 1967, fully aware that she had written a scathing article opposing his policy on the war in Vietnam. The young graduate was pursuing a doctorate and had earned a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to that end, making her an ideal candidate to serve as an assistant in the Oval Office, but her stance on the president’s foreign policy prompted him to place her in the Department of Labor instead.
She would soon be at the president’s side, however, working on domestic policy in Johnson’s continued efforts to battle American poverty.
Doris Kearns Goodwin has established herself as one of the nation’s foremost presidential historians and is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt – The Home Front During World War II.” Her other books have included biographies of Johnson, the Kennedy family, and Abraham Lincoln, portions of which were adapted for film. She was also consulted by author Stephen King for his novel focused on the Kennedy assassination, “11/22/63,” due to her in-depth knowledge of the Johnson White House.
It was during her tenure in the White House and while working closely with President Johnson on his memoirs in the years after he left office that Goodwin gained an understanding of the lessons that the long-term politician had learned in his early career as a school teacher in Cotulla.
Yet Goodwin had never visited the place where the future president was inspired to dedicate his life to the uplifting of the underserved, to promote equality in education and to extend American civil rights to all.
That changed in the 57th anniversary week of President Johnson’s landmark 1965 “We shall overcome” speech, when Goodwin set foot in the classroom where the journey had begun for the 36th president of the United States.
“Oh, these are his chalkboards?” Goodwin responds in astonishment at the extraordinarily well preserved condition of the Welhausen School, a building dating from 1926 that would serve the Hispanic children of the community for more than fifty years. “This was his classroom. His desk would have been here.”
Johnson’s former classroom is an office today. The Welhausen School is occupied by the La Salle County Appraisal District staff. Walls, ceilings, hallway, doors and many windows, and the auditorium, however, remain just as they were in 1928, when the education student from the San Marcos teacher training college (today’s Texas State University) took a job in what was known at the time as the Mexican school in Cotulla.
“I still see the faces of the children who sat in my class,” President Johnson said on November 7, 1966, when he revisited the Welhausen School on a tour to promote his Education Bill and to sign legislation that would make college and university education accessible to all. “I can still hear their eager voices speaking Spanish as I come in. I still see their eyes speaking friendship.”
Before he left Cotulla to complete his education and to pursue a career that would ultimately lead him to Congress and to the vice presidency in 1960, Johnson had become principal of the little school on the east side of Cotulla. He is remembered locally as founding and transporting the students’ debate teams, and using his paychecks to buy shoes and sports gear for the children of Welhausen.
By the mid-1960s, the former teacher was in the White House and frequently made reference to his experiences in Cotulla and the people to whom he had dedicated his life’s work.
Assisting the president during his legislative campaigns for civil rights and co-authoring his speeches was Richard Goodwin, credited for helping craft the 1965 speech for a joint session of Congress. Doris and Richard would be married in 1975, each having served the president in a different capacity.
“It was clear to us that the president was talking about the children of this school when he pushed for education and civil rights legislation,” Goodwin says today, adding that even after leaving the White House, Johnson would spend the last four years of his life in occasional reminiscence about his experiences.
“He sometimes wished he could go back and teach school,” she says of the president’s comments while writing his memoirs. “He was the only male teacher in this school at the time. You have to wonder what they thought of his. He would lope around… He was so energetic.”
Goodwin credits Johnson with having prompted her to research and to write.
“He made me a presidential historian,” she says today. “I’ll always be grateful to him. When I write presidential histories, I want to learn from them, read their diary entries, their personal memoirs, hear from or read from people who knew them and who worked for them.”
There is no shortage of anecdotes from Cotulla residents, descendants of Johnson’s former students and of those with whom he worked. The Welhausen School itself was built because of the persistent efforts by onetime school board president Emily Baylor Bell to establish a respectable facility in which Hispanic and migrant children could be schooled.
Bell was the grandmother of Cotulla natives Louisa Franklin, Margaret Sturges and Amanda Menke, who met Goodwin for her tour of the Welhausen School and the Brush Country Museum last week.
The school and its adjoining Plaza Florita are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and earned their designation as historic landmarks for their significance to the Hispanic culture and to the history of South Texas.
“This school is probably the best built, and it’s the longest-surviving of all Cotulla’s school buildings,” Franklin’s husband Wayne says of Welhausen. “I think it’s important to understand there’s a reason for that.”
“When my grandmother saw the conditions that Cotulla’s poorest and most underserved children were having to go to school in, she resolved to do something about it,” Louisa Franklin says. “She didn’t let up. That was her nature. She knew what she wanted and what was right for the children.”
In that respect, the school’s founder had much in common with its most celebrated teacher.
The building was barely two years old when Johnson was hired.
“The children in his classes, and the children of the school as a whole, remembered him for his genuine care,” Franklin says of Johnson’s impact on the Hispanic youths. “He must have been strict; you can picture him standing tall. He must have seemed like a giant. But he was genuinely affected by their situation. He saw at first hand what most of America at the time could not see.”
While Johnson may have inspired the children of Cotulla’s east side to continue their education and to work for the betterment of their community, there remains no doubt that the youngsters moved him.
“The LBJ I knew was a gentle man,” Goodwin says. “He may have been an aggressive legislator to some, and when it came to foreign policy I’d say there was a great deal of sadness and frustration in the last years of his career. When he turned to domestic policy, though, to the issues that directly affected all American families and especially the underprivileged and the poor, you knew immediately that he was speaking from the heart, and he was a determined man.”
Ten days before he died, President Johnson referred to his Cotulla experiences in an interview with television newscaster Walter Cronkite for CBS on January 12, 1973.
“When I was a young man, I taught in a Mexican-American school,” the president said, “and there I got my real, deep, first impressions of the prejudices that existed and the inequalities of our school system between whites and browns.”
President Johnson is responsible for a wide range of civil rights and social programs, all of which were signed into law during his administration between 1963 and 1969, including Medicare and Medicaid, voting and education rights.
“When I became president and realized that I was the leader of the country and that I was the president of all the people, and all the people were looking to me to correct the inequalities and the injustices, I knew there was something I could do about it,” the president said in 1973. “I concluded that now that I have the power, I’m going to use it every way that I could. And, of course, most of my efforts that brought fruit were during the time when I had the power of the presidency behind me.”
While serving as vice president, Johnson gave an address at an anniversary event at Gettysburg in 1963, reiterating his belief in the United States’ obligation to treat all its people equally and to extend its rights to all Americans, a century after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Until justice is blind to color, until all education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skin, emancipation will be a proclamation,” he said, “but emancipation will not be a fact.”
Goodwin believes to this day that President Johnson was so affected by his experience in Cotulla and by what he learned of America’s treatment of its poor and its minorities that his domestic policy agenda was driven toward social reform throughout his political career.
Addressing voting rights legislation during an address to a joint session of congress in 1965, the president drove home a message of equality that he believed lay at the core of America’s identity.
“Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote,” the president said. “There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”
The president echoed his 1965 addresses in one of his final public engagements, speaking in December 1972 at a symposium on civil rights at his presidential library in Austin.
“We have proved that great progress is possible,” the president said at the close of the event in an overview of his legislative accomplishments during the 1960s. “We know much still remains to be done, and if our efforts continue, and if our will is strong, and if our hearts are right, and if courage remains our constant companion, then, my fellow Americans, I am confident we shall overcome.”
“I’m so glad they have memorialized this,” Goodwin says of the Welhausen school and its link to the president. “He knew how important this place was for him. He had all that energy and vitality, and it was for those kids.
“When people see poverty in the faces of those kids, It was a transforming thing for him,” Goodwin says of the president’s lessons from Cotulla. “Education was the key. It was the road up, in our democratic society. He surely felt that he made a difference to them. That becomes a motivator, when you’ve changed someone’s life. In that sense, I think he always saw himself as a teacher.
“What convinces is conviction,” the historian adds, referring to President Johnson’s firm belief in his agenda for social programs. “He really believed this; he had a passion. It was authentic.
“That first night, when he became president, when Kennedy had just been killed that day, Johnson sat on that bed and had all of the principal characters of the administration around him, and he laid out a plan,” Goodwin says of Johnson’s ascension to the presidency in 1963. “Civil rights, voting rights… he had that dream, and it started here. It started in Cotulla.”
“It was a privilege to talk to him for so long,” Goodwin says of her consultation with the president before and after he left office, “and to learn what kind of man he was, what inspired him, and what he truly believed in his heart to be his calling for the American people…
“Oh, he won me over,” she grins. “He won me over completely.”