Beauford Jester boarded the night train for Houston half an hour before midnight on Jul. 10, 1949. Before climbing into his Pullman berth, the governor left a wake-up call for 7:30 the next morning.
A punctual porter tried to wake the 56-year-old chief executive at the requested time without success. He delegated the delicate task to the conductor, whose more aggressive efforts had no effect on the apparent heavy sleeper. Not wanting to manhandle such a distinguished passenger, the ticket-taker sent for the highway patrolman waiting on the station platform.
W.B. Hawkins entered the railcar and located the governor. Jester was lying on his back in a pair of pajamas with his hands folded neatly on his stomach. The trooper bent down and vigorously shook the mattress.
“Governor!” he said sharply in a loud voice. “Governor, this is Hawkins. Don’t you know me?”
Getting no response, he gently raised Jester’s eyelids. The fixed pupils told him all he needed to know.
The highway patrolman stepped back and announced, “The governor is dead.”
The Southern Pacific doctor on duty pronounced Beauford Halbert Jester dead at precisely 8:19 a.m. He had died in his sleep from a heart attack between three and four o’clock in the morning.
A friend of the family phoned the mansion in Austin to ask if there were any truth to the rumor of Jester’s demise. The Texas Ranger who took the call was startled by the question but managed to mutter, “No, the governor is very much alive.”
No sooner had the lawman hung up than the telephone rang again. A funeral home in Jester’s hometown of Corsicana made the same disturbing inquiry.
Moments later came the long-distance confirmation of the tragedy. The governor’s Harris County campaign manager presumed the First Lady had already heard the bad news, when he contacted her for post-mortem instructions.
Mabel Jester struggled to maintain her composure as she told the caller what to do with her dead husband. “Don’t let anyone see the body,” was the widow’s final request.
Lt. Gov. Allan Shivers was spending a quiet Sunday on his farm outside Woodville. Informed of his sudden promotion by a newspaper reporter, he was immediately driven by highway patrol escort the 200 miles to the capital.
The first of its kind state funeral was held two days later in the senate chamber. A thousand mourners joined Jester’s widow, three children and 87-year-old mother in paying their last respects to the only Texas governor to die in office.
At the conclusion of the solemn ceremony, the body was taken to Corsicana for a private wake that evening in the family residence. Jester was laid to rest the next afternoon not far from the grave of his father and role model, a prominent politician who died in 1922.
George Taylor Jester fought with the famed Hood’s Texas Brigade in the war with the North before embarking upon a career in banking. He later entered the public arena serving as state representative, senator and ultimately lieutenant governor in the 1890s.
From an early age, Beauford Jester dreamed of capturing the prize that eluded his father. But the First World War delayed his graduation from law school until age 27, and for the next two decades the demands of his practice, family and community left little time for politics.
On the strength of his reputation for integrity and fairness, Jester was chosen in 1942 by Gov. Coke Stevenson to fill a vacancy on the Railroad Commission. Two years later, he won a full-term seat on the powerful regulatory body in his first campaign for a public post.
Encouraged by his beginner’s luck, Jester jumped into the bare-knuckle battle for the 1946 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Against better known candidates like Lt. Gov. John Lee Smith, former Railroad Commissioner Jerry Sadler, Attorney General Grover Sellers and Homer Rainey, liberal ex-president of the University of Texas, he was considered a long shot.
But Jester’s stock soared as his competitors covered each other with mud in one of the dirtiest contests in twentieth-century Texas politics. He carried a 150,000-vote lead into the runoff and beat Rainey two-to-one in their head-to-head match. The general election was the usual cakewalk against his Republican opponent as was his reelection in 1948.
Although Beauford Jester died in the prime of life seven months into his second term, his tragic loss was tempered with the pride of accomplishment. He had reached the top rung of the Lone Star ladder that had exceeded his father’s grasp.
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