A young naval officer from South Texas destined for his own brand of greatness was just another face in the crowd, as Gen. Charles de Gaulle rode triumphantly through the streets of Algiers on May 22, 1944.
John Connally told the story of his remarkable life in In History’s Shadow shortly before his death in 1993. This book, the source of most quotations in this column, may be the most readable and candid autobiography of any Texas politician.
The family tree was planted in the Lone Star State by Connally’s great-grandfather. The Alabama emigrant and a neighbor both named their sons after the founder of the Methodist denomination. John Wesley Hardin grew up to be the deadliest gunfighter in Reconstruction Texas, and John Wesley Connally became a farmer in Wilson County.
That was where the father of the future governor was born in 1889. Twenty-eight years later, he named the fourth of his eight offspring John Bowden Connally, Jr.
Years later the politician refused to play the poverty card despite advisors’ pleas to “talk more openly about knowing humble times. I wasn’t comfortable with up-from-poor talk. I did not try to conceal my roots, I simply chose not to exploit them.”
Judging from his childhood, he certainly was entitled. The Connally clan eked out a living on a small piece of land three miles outside Floresville. “The Depression never touched us. We were so far down on the economic ladder, we hardly knew it happened.”
The Connallys lived without electricity until 1940. His mother cooked three meals a day on a wood-burning stove and washed clothes in a kettle of water heated over a fire in the yard. The children wore nothing but overalls, went barefoot practically year-round and studied by the dim light of kerosene lamps.
“My father, who had never gone beyond the eighth grade, always wanted to be more than a tenant farmer.” John, Sr. tried cutting hair for a living but at six-foot-five was too tall for the barbering trade. He opened a feed lot with a partner, but “the market crashed” and they defaulted on a $5,000 bank loan.
Nevertheless, the elder Connally refused to quit. He scraped together enough cash in 1926 to buy a second-hand Buick and started hauling paying passengers seven at a time between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. A year later, he moved the family to the Alamo City to be at one end of the “bus” line.
All the kids did their part. John crawled out of bed at three o’clock in the morning to milk cows and make deliveries for a local dairy. “My pay was all the milk, butter and cream that the Connally family needed.”
John, Sr. sold his bus business to Greyhound in 1932, paid off his creditors and bought a 1,200-acre ranch in Wilson County. His namesake graduated from Floresville High the next year and enrolled that fall in the University of Texas at the tender age of 16.
The long list of John Connally’s classmates and friends reads like a “Who’s Who” of mid-20th century Texas politics: Congressmen Jake Pickle, Homer Thornberry and Joe Kilgore; Dallas district attorney Henry Wade; judges John Singleton and Perry Pickett; diplomat and Democratic Party bigwig Robert Strauss; and legal eagles Sherman Birdwell, Scott Daly, Mack DeGuerin, Speck Logan, Jimmy Nesbitt and Nelson Rodgers.
The Curtain Club, one of the restless undergrad’s many extracurricular activities, included actors-to-be Eli Wallach and Zachary Scott, television star Betty White and news anchor Walter Cronkite. It was also through the drama group that he met the love of his life, Idanell “Nellie” Brill.
In 1936 Connally participated in his first political campaign, his father’s successful bid for county clerk. Two years later, the son won his first election succeeding pal Pickle as president of the UT student assembly.
In between – 1937, to be exact – Connally returned the favor of a New Deal functionary who arranged his part-time job at the state supreme court library. Twenty-nine year old Lyndon Baines Johnson finished first in the special election to fill a vacancy in the Texas congressional delegation and never forgot the bright ball-of-fire from Floresville.
When Connally completed his college education in 1939, the U.S. Representative had a place for him on his staff. For the next two years, he worked night and day as LBJ’s secretary while learning his way around Washington.
With influential friends in high places, Connally could have spent World War II behind a desk. Instead, he pulled strings in order to be shipped overseas and into combat.
The flight control officer survived nine major battles in the Pacific. In April 1945, he earned a Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit by staying at his hazardous post for 52 straight hours during the peak of a Japanese kamikaze attack.
Lieutenant Commander John Connally came home in late 1945. Ahead lay the “landslide” that carried Lyndon into the Senate, three terms as governor, his near-death experience in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, a cabinet seat at the Nixon table and his controversial change of party allegiance that may have cost him the presidency.
Bartee’s four books “Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes,” “Murder Most Texan,” “Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil” and “Unforgettable Texans” available at barteehaile.com or by mail at P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.