Not to boast or anything, but my great grandfather is responsible for the course of American history since at least the early 1960s.
Perhaps “boast” isn’t the right word, since some would argue that “blame” might be a better verb in this context.
And maybe the certitude of that declaration needs to be tempered a bit. How bout “very likely was responsible” rather than “is responsible?” OK, fine, let’s go with “could may well have been responsible for part of…”
The other day while clearing out a closet in our house, my wife found a box full of family letters, photos and documents (my mom’s side). Inside the box, among other items, was a very old leather satchel containing a folder with several letters preserved in plastic sleeves. One of them was written by a student at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos (now Texas State University) to an old family friend, asking for a loan so he could get through his final year at college.
The old family friend, my great grandfather Don H. Biggers, at the time was a regionally renowned author, journalist, humorist and sometimes politician, who made his name writing Texas history books (now rare collectors’ items) and running muckraking newspapers and satirical publications in West Texas and Eastern New Mexico in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The college student? That would have been Lyndon Baines Johnson, who later became the 36th president of the United States.
Here’s LBJ’s letter to my great granddad:
Feb. 21, 1927
Hon. Don H. Biggers
My dear Mr. Biggers:
I find myself in considerable straitened circumstances. I work in Dr. Evans’ office, but am unable to make sufficient money to cover my expenses. My father is unable to help me just now.
I know of no relative to whom I can go for assistance. I have worried over the situation so much that I have finally with great reluctance decided to write you asking for a loan. My father does not know of my action in this matter, and due to the fact that Rebekah (Johnson’s sister) is in school here and depends upon him for her finances, I hated to trouble him by explaining my critical condition.
Mr. Biggers, I regret very much to ask this of you, but I assure you if you can possibly assist me, I shall repay you with interest and never give you cause to regret your kindness to me.
I am doing well in school. I am on the editorial staff of the college paper and also on the college debating team. I am making excellent grades.
Your kindness and encouragement in the past have been of great worth to me. I do not wish to impose upon you, but my extremity prompts me to ask favors in spite of my reluctance to trouble good friends.
My salary is barely enough to pay my board, washing, school supplies, etc. I receive $30 a month for five hours work every day. I now owe last month’s board bill, and my tuition for the winter and spring terms. The tuition here is $17 a term. Unless I can arrange in the next ten days for a loan, I am going to be compelled to leave school. At the end of this term, a certificate will be issued me, which will permit me to teach in any high school in Texas. I thought if I could make it through this term, probably I could pay the money back in the summer and in the fall teaching.
Let me assure you of my deep appreciation of your interest, and sincere gratitude for all favors shown me. Please write me here at your earliest convenience.
Sincerely your friend,
Lyndon Baines Johnson… San Marcos
Whether great grandpa agreed to loan LBJ the money remains unknown. In a letter to Capt. Clyde Biggers (my great uncle, one of Don’s sons) in August 1961, then Vice President Johnson thanked the Merchant Marine captain for sending him an original copy of Johnson’s letter to Don Biggers. (LBJ also mentioned two other original letters that had been sent to him at the same time as the letter to Biggers. Both were written by the future president’s mother Rebekah Baines Johnson to my great grandmother Nettie (Don’s wife), signed “your dear friend Rebekah,” in the spring of 1932.)
In the 1961 letter to Capt. Biggers, LBJ wrote, “Unfortunately, I do not remember the exact details of the financing (of that year in college) but I did get through, and it is my guess that your father helped out. I’m glad to claim it, if you are.”
I’m guessing the vice president was being charitable, since from what I’ve read about my great grandfather, while he owned many positive traits, it would be a gross overstatement to call him a philanthropist.
And there’s another 1961 letter, written four days later by a mutual friend of the vice president and my great uncle, in which the friend, Tom Bartle, recounted a conversation he had with Johnson about his 1927 letter to Don H. Biggers. In the letter to Clyde Biggers, Bartle wrote, “He (LBJ) clearly remembers having written to your father but he cannot positively recall what transpired thereafter. He recalls vividly making a loan from a close personal friend of some $80 and is somewhat of the view that he then so advised Mr. Biggers and canceled the original request for that loan.”
As it turns out, according to various histories, LBJ took a nine-month break from the Teachers College between 1928 and 1929, to teach Mexican-American children in a small town near the border south of San Antonio. He earned enough money to return to college, and graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in 1930.
So maybe, notwithstanding LBJ’s fuzzy and/or selective memory in 1961, he didn’t receive any loans during that winter term of 1927 – from my great grandfather or anyone else – and as a result dropped out long enough to teach at the school near the border and earn enough money to go back to college.
So I’ll admit it. I put entirely too much credence in the idea that without a loan from my great grandfather, LBJ never would have graduated from college, and thus never would have gone into politics, and thus never would have become vice president or president, and thus never could have done all the good things he did (Civil Rights Act, the Great Society, etc.) or the bad things he also was responsible for (Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam).
So allow me to revise the opening of this column. My great grandfather likely had nothing to do with the overall course of American history as it was charted and determined by President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
But it’s a great story nonetheless.