Bridges: Jester helped Texas chart bold new course after WW2
The years after World War II were a time in which America had confidence in its abilities but looked with concern at the many challenges at home and overseas. Beauford Jester became governor in 1947 in an attempt to modernize Texas. Jester’s years as the 36th governor helped set the tone for the state in the years after World War II.
Beauford Halbert Jester was born in Corsicana in 1893. His father was State Senator George T. Jester, a prominent Corsicana banker. As a child, he watched his father move up the political ladder. The elder Jester was elected lieutenant governor in 1894 and served two terms before returning to Corsicana and an active civic life.
The younger Jester attended local schools before enrolling at the University of Texas in 1912. He played baseball for the university while tending to his studies. He graduated in 1916 and soon enrolled at Harvard Law School.
America entered World War I in 1917. Jester answered the call to service, dropped out of law school, and enlisted in the army. He rose to become captain, commanding a company of infantry, during his service. He and his men saw intense combat in France, and he was honorably discharged after the conclusion of the war in 1918.
He returned to Texas and began studying law at the University of Texas Law School, earning admission to the bar in 1920. He returned to Corsicana as his father’s health declined, and he opened his own law practice. After his father’s death in 1922, he began managing the family’s real estate and oil holdings. His law office steadily grew; he even defended several of the oil companies he represented before the U. S. Supreme Court. By 1925, when he was only 32, area attorneys honored him by electing him president of the Navarro County Bar Association. He held the position for the next 13 years and ultimately became president of the Texas Bar Association.
In 1929, Gov. Dan Moody appointed Jester to the Board of Regents for the University of Texas. During his time on the board, major improvements were planned for the university as well as the medical school in Galveston. The 1933 plan included the construction of the iconic tower of the main building on campus as well as several other buildings. Jester served as chairman of the board from 1933 until 1935.
A seat on the Railroad Commission became open in early 1942 when Commissioner Jerry Sadler resigned to join the army. Ironically, Jester’s father had helped create the Railroad Commission as an independent regulatory commission when he served in the State House of Representatives in 1891. Jester was appointed to fill the unexpired term and announced his candidacy for the 1942 race and won the election fairly easily. He was re-elected in 1944.
Gov. Coke Stevenson announced in 1946 that he would not seek re-election as governor. As a result, 14 candidates jumped into a sprawling primary to replace him, including Jester. The lieutenant governor and attorney general had also jumped into the race, but their extremism repelled voters and gave Jester a valuable opening. He led the first primary with 38% of the vote. In the runoff, he faced former UT president Homer Rainey who had spent the years since his 1944 firing defending his administration and academic freedom. Jester rallied business interests and defeated him by nearly two-to-one to win the Democratic nomination.
The state had many problems with poor roads and bridges and serious deficiencies in education. Thought Jester had called for a state board for labor arbitration, the legislature fought to weaken unions. He managed to get the legislature to approve expanding funding for the state’s universities.
Jester ran for re-election in 1948. “The people of Texas are entitled to first consideration in all public matters,” Jester repeatedly said in his campaign, which he won comfortably.
Important education reforms surfaced in 1949 with the Gilmer-Aikin laws which mandated a state board of education, training standards for teachers, equal pay for white and Black teachers, and a nine-month school year. The inclusion of the 12th grade was also mandated. He also won funding for improved highways. His record on the increasingly volatile subject of civil rights was mixed. He refused to support President Harry Truman’s end to segregation in the military and federal hiring, he won support of an anti-lynching law in the state legislature and created a law school for African-Americans.
He was enjoying a popular and successful governorship as the summer of 1949 approached. On July 22, he boarded a train to leave for a vacation in Galveston when he suddenly suffered a massive heart attack. He died at the age of 56. Tragically, he was the first governor to die in office and was succeeded by Lt. Gov. Allan Shivers.
In light of his work for the University of Texas, the university named its new dormitory complex after him in 1968, a dorm that housed nearly 3,000 students and was the largest dorm in the world at the time. The State of Texas renamed a prison in Fort Bend County after him. His native Corsicana honored him by naming a park after him, and a historic marker has since been placed at the site of his boyhood home.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.