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A Debt of Gratitude

It's said by his family that he had to borrow fifty cents to send a telegram from East Texas to accept the Democratic nomination for the governorship of Texas. There had been a stone cold deadlock of the two leading candidates. Oran M. Roberts became the compromise candidate and was unanimously accepted upon his consent.

He was the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court at the time, where he had been appointed in 1874 by Gov. Richard Coke, and won a second term by regular election. After the Civil War he had returned to Gilmer, a county he had help set up when he was a District Judge and where he  opened the state's first law school in 1868. One of his students became a Texas Supreme Court Justice (Sawnie Robertson). Never a man of great means, he did care about the law and about education.

Our concern here is about education, for Gov. Roberts would be the man who worked with the Legislature to get the money for endowing the University of Texas - and made sure it would be open to both men and women of the state. (A&M was restructured and funded at this same time, for males only.) At the time he knew there were no public universities in the state available to the school children of Texas aside from the private and parochial schools. He had migrated to Texas with his wife, Francis W. Edwards, in the early 1840s and had been a lecturer in law at the University of San Augustine.

In 1883 before he left office, the University of Texas would open its doors. Roberts was appointed a professor of law and taught at the Texas Law School for the next 10 years. He wrote the The Elements of Texas Pleading in 1890, which was used for decades. He was affectionately called the "Old Alcade," a title he first got while serving as Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

His history is long and colorful - he was the president of the Secession Convention in Austin - and he was actually elected to the Texas Supreme Court in 1856 but resigned as the war came. Then he was elected to the position of Chief Justice in 1864 while he was serving in the field as a colonel in the Eleventh Texas Infantry ("Walker's Division) but he was removed in 1865 along with other state incumbents.

His plan to "pay as you go" by selling Texas lands to pay the accumulated debt by 1879 and to finance education did work, but actual expenditures during his term of governor actually slowed the growth of schools; eventually the plan would pay off.

Roberts would retire in 1893. He married Catherine Border and moved to Marble Falls, a town whose development he played a small but pivotal role. Texas had contracted to build a new state capitol by trading 3 million acres in West Texas to a Chicago construction firm; that land would become the famed XIT Ranch. However, the State Capitol burned one night in 1881, and the wooden structure was consumed as Roberts, his family and every able bodied person near the Capitol tried to save as many state records as possible.

Even thought the cornerstone for the new Capitol was set in 1882, there was a long pause in construction because the proper stone to clad the structure couldn't be decided. While limestone from Oakhill was the choice of many, including sculptress Elizabeth Ney, the quantity stone was not possible from the Oakhill area. Texas looked out of state but eventually that idea was scotched. Roberts and his youngest son (and namesake) took the train to the new rail head at Burnet and rode down to Marble Falls to visit George W. Lacy, who owned Granite Mountain with W.H. Westfall and N. L. Norton, to ask if they would consider donating granite from Granite Mountain for construction of the State Capitol.  With the assent of the owners for the donation of the granite, within three years the Capitol was completed. Adam Rankin Johnson would create Marble Falls in that interim, complete with a railroad spur in 1889 courtesy of the state, as well. Lacy would gather later fame as the creator of the Texas Blue Lacy, the state dog of Texas since 2005.

Roberts would have one last permanent act to perform. In 1896 he helped create the Texas Historical Association, and was it's first president. His introductory address is the first to be found in the debut issue of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, continuously published since 1897 (and one of the best sources of Texas historical information, bar none).

Now I'm not just howling in the wind for sport here; there is a serious debt of gratitude, as this is the title. Gov. Oran Roberts, although born in South Carolina, was educated and graduated from the University of Alabama in 1836. He would get his law degree and pass the state bar and become a legislator for a term before he and his wife had the good sense to head to Texas in the early 1840s.

We and our beloved University of Texas owe no small debt of gratitude to the University of Alabama and while we point toward Thursday night on the football field, a young man graduating in 1836 and a smoky battlefield at a place call San Jacinto were just as important in paving the road to Pasadena.

Robers died in 1898 and is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery in Austin. You'd think he'd oughta be buried near the law school, although it's not far away.


Next up we'll actually talk football and jump into the next century. Whereas so many other schools had to claw their way up the ladder, the University of Texas started out as champions. All they had to do was whip so big mouths from Dallas.