Exhausted by three exciting weeks in the United States Senate, 86 year old Andrew Jackson Houston checked into a Washington, D.C. hospital on June 21, 1941.
During the months prior to the April death of Morris Sheppard, Gov. W. Lee O’Daniel had his eye on the Senator’s job. Most Texans believed flamboyant Pappy would resign from office so that his successor, Lt. Gov. Coke Stevenson, could hand him the vacant seat on a silver platter.
The Dallas Morning News advised O’Daniel to do precisely that if he did indeed have his sights set on a Senate career. Otherwise, the Big D daily encouraged the governor to “conscientiously select an appointee who would stand an equally good chance of election.”
But O’Daniel had no intention of sending someone to the nation’s capital that might take a liking to the Potomac and decide to take up permanent residence. He wanted nothing more than a temporary replacement to keep the seat warm until a special election scheduled for June 28.
With his characteristic flair for the dramatic, the governor named the stand-in at the San Jacinto Day celebration. The audience listened in stunned disbelief as he revealed the honor had been bestowed upon Sam Houston’s sole surviving son.
O’Daniel described in detail how he had dropped by the old man’s home on his way to the battlefield. “Just as I broke the news to him of his appointment, the sun suddenly shot through the dark rain clouds in such a fashion that it appeared dazzling.”
“I said, ‘It appears to me that our great and loving God has just spread the clouds apart so the spirit of your illustrious father could smile down upon his son on this particular scene and see the big smile on your face.’”
In Austin, however, the announcement was met with frowns and howls of protest. A leading legislative critic of the O’Daniel administration condemned the controversial choice as “the crowning achievement of an era of buffoonery.”
The house of representatives quickly passed a tacky resolution extending a tongue-in-cheek invitation to the Senate stand-in to address the body on the issues of the day. The senate, at least, showed a little class by blasting Pappy for playing politics instead of ridiculing his helpless pawn.
Fortunately, Sen. Houston was too preoccupied with preparations for his departure to have his feelings hurt. After spending a lifetime in the shadow of his great sire, his turn in the spotlight had come at last.
Born in 1854 during his father’s second term in the U.S. Senate, Andrew Jackson Houston attended Baylor University and West Point before practicing law. After serving as a federal district clerk in Dallas and a U.S. marshal in Beaumont, he retired to a modest home near La Porte.
Although the younger Houston tried to follow in The General’s public footsteps, he inherited neither his charisma nor political savvy. He ran for governor once as a Republican and twice on the Prohibition ticket but polled an embarrassing grand total of just 9,730 votes.
The octogenarian’s two grown daughters feared the long and arduous trip to Washington would be the death of him. But Houston felt the honor was well worth the risk and insisted on taking the oath of office in the same chamber that long ago echoed with the rousing rhetoric of his eloquent father.
Eighty-two years after the first Houston left the United States Senate, the second was sworn in by Vice-President Henry Wallace on June 2, 1941. Andrew Jackson Houston achieved his own unique place in the history of the exclusive institution by becoming its oldest member.
For three thrilling weeks, the junior Senator from the Lone Star State, a generation older than his senior colleague, had the time of his lackluster life. He answered roll calls, sat in on committee hearings and took sightseeing tours of the city.
While the elderly senator looked tired and haggard, there was no indication that the end was so near. Complaining of fatigue and abdominal pain, he checked into Johns Hopkins hospital for an examination.
Doctors soon determined Houston had a tumor on his pancreas, which was causing severe internal bleeding. Despite his age and weakened condition, emergency surgery was the sole option.
The patient never regained consciousness. Sen. Houston died on Jun. 26, 1941 two days before the special election to pick his replacement.
A tragic waste? “Absolutely not!” would have been Andrew Jackson Houston’s indignant answer. He died knowing that Old Sam would have been mighty proud of him, and that was all he had ever wanted.
“Unforgettable Texans,” Bartee’s fourth and latest book, is still available. Get your copy by mailing a check for $28.80 to “Bartee Haile,” P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 or order on-line at barteehaile.com.