Divine Secrets of the Alamo Sisterhood
A sensational lawsuit, a disputed election, and months of vicious rumormongering can mean only one thing: the Daughters of the Republic of Texas are at war—again.
Write it in red: Armageddon. Odessa. May 2004. No, not an al Qaeda attack or a Jerry Lewis Telethon. Something worse. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, that otherwise genteel, blue-haired matriarchy charged with the caretaking of the Alamo, are rumbling into the West Texas town for their annual convention, and this time it’s not merely one of their periodic catfights but a no-quarter, to-the-death struggle for the heart and soul of Texas’s oldest women’s organization. Members have been going at it now for nearly one hundred years, and this may be it, the last great slaughter, a final burning of bridges and scorching of earth.
Officially, the ladies of the DRT are traveling to Odessa to vote on new bylaws. That’s what they do on even years. On odd years they elect new officers. But they’ll arrive in the Permian Basin with blood still on the ground from last year’s election, in Galveston, which a number of members believe was rigged by former president general Virginia Van Cleave and her band of supporters, known by rivals as “the evildoers.” Those rivals (called “the whiners” by the evildoers) are still angry, and they don’t plan to come home from Odessa until they’ve changed the election rules to prevent future foul play.
Then there is the lasting bitterness from 2002. That year Alamo Committee chairman Kathleen Carter, who oversaw the shrine and its 86 employees, and her chief of security, Vince Phillips, hatched a plan to offer a New Year’s Eve party at the monument and charge $5 for general admission. They were hoping to raise money for the Alamo Fund, which had decreased $770,000 during the two-year reign of Van Cleave. But the event was cancelled after a protest was led by Kelly Clark, a Daughter from New Braunfels, who pointed out that the DRT had never charged admission to the Alamo before and that the potential for a crowd of drunks was a recipe for disaster. Carter and Phillips were outraged; the event had been advertised in the local papers. According to Tomas Padilla, a security guard who was present at the Alamo on New Year’s, Phillips turned away would-be revelers by telling them that “a few power-hungry bitches” had spoiled the party and allegedly told Padilla that he’d like to rape and kill Clark. Padilla, who says he was fired after speaking out, made these claims in a lawsuit he filed against Carter, Van Cleave, and the DRT. In his suit, he refers to Phillips and Carter, both of whom are married, as “paramours,” making public a rumor that had had the DRT ranks in a tizzy.
Although the lawsuit was settled in March, it had hung like a storm cloud over the organization for months and become an intolerable embarrassment. Last February, in an apparent attempt to distance the DRT from the suit, the board dismissed Carter from her post. In response, she wrote a blistering letter accusing the 26-member board and the current president general, Mary Walker, of defaming her character and warning that “if we reach our one hundred years as custodians of the Alamo, it will be in spite of you, not because of you.” Carter was referring to plans for an elaborate centennial celebration of the DRT’s Alamo stewardship in January 2005. But she may also have been alluding to the rumor that keeps DRT members awake at night: If the Daughters don’t stop fighting, the Legislature will reclaim the Alamo and transfer control to Texas Parks and Wildlife.
As a practical matter, that probably won’t happen; thanks to thousands of volunteer hours by the Daughters, the Alamo hasn’t cost taxpayers a penny since its initial purchase. But some members wonder if the DRT won’t self-destruct before the centennial. “The DRT as we know it is over,” one dejected member predicted in a conversation with me a few months ago. “The traditional way, the loving way, the mission. These women will never be friends again.”
WHEN THINGS GO UGLY at the Alamo, they go Texas-size ugly. In the decades since the battle of 1836, the old mission has been befouled by Marxists hoisting red flags from its roof, Ku Klux Klan members rallying in Alamo Plaza to beat back imagined Red hordes, and Ozzy Osbourne relieving himself on its hallowed walls. These episodes, however, pale in comparison to the frequent internal battles among the Daughters themselves. It is probably no coincidence that the DRT’s infighting dates back to its very takeover of the roofless chapel.
In fairness, the state wouldn’t have had an opportunity to buy the crumbling mission if it weren’t for the heroics of two of the organization’s high-spirited Daughters, Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll. In the years after the battle of 1836, the Catholic Church regained title to the Alamo and leased it to the U.S. Army. The property was later purchased by the wholesale grocery firm of Hugo and Schmeltzer. But in 1903 De Zavala, a granddaughter of the first vice president of the Republic, took an option on the Alamo convent on behalf of the DRT. She hoped to save the building from a group of East Coast investors who planned to level the convent and build a hotel next to the chapel, but she was short on funds. Along came Clara Driscoll, the globe-hopping daughter of the wealthy Corpus Christi rancher, who built the historic Hotel Robert Driscoll in Corpus. Clara put up $17,800 and signed a note to pay the balance of $50,000 in yearly installments. Together, Driscoll and De Zavala fought a holding action while waiting for the state to appropriate money for the Alamo’s purchase and preservation in 1905.
No sooner was the shrine secured and turned over to the DRT than Driscoll and De Zavala turned to fighting each other over its control. It got so vicious that Driscoll and her supporters “seceded” from the De Zavala DRT chapter and founded a second San Antonio group, the Alamo Mission chapter. After the state’s purchase was complete, Governor S.W.T. Lanham sided with De Zavala and handed her the keys. A San Antonio newspaper reported what happened next. The Driscoll women were so furious that they sent a locksmith to change the lock, only to watch in dismay as De Zavala put the poor locksmith “ignominiously to flight.” Driscoll persevered. Her Alamo Mission chapter eventually took control of the DRT and excommunicated De Zavala and her followers.
Since then, the focus of most of the Daughters’ squabbles has been on determining membership. Qualifying for inclusion in the DRT isn’t easy. An applicant must submit documents tracing her lineage back to one of the colonizers of the Republic of Texas. Rules are so exacting that the absence of a single document is cause for rejection. One reason no black woman was admitted to the DRT until 2003 was the lack of documentation relating to slaves. Another reason is that until 1986, DRT bylaws specifically limited membership to white women.
The one thing the Daughters have always seemed to agree on is their right to treat the Alamo as their personal property. Their rules—requiring men to remove their hats upon entering, prohibiting photographs, and insisting that visitors speak in whispers—are strictly enforced. They also decide who can and who can’t use the Alamo, and how. In 1911 the state appropriated $5,000 for repairs, but it took a state Supreme Court order to get the carpenters inside. In 1969, while doing research at the Alamo, I was warned, “You can’t take notes in here!” I’d come to write about—the showdown between the DRT and a Hollywood production company that was trying to film its version of Jim Lehrer’s book Viva Max! The novel is a satire about a modern-day Mexican general who leads his ragtag army on a quixotic mission to recapture the Alamo. Lehrer learned a deeper meaning of satire when he asked a Daughter why there were no public restrooms at the Alamo and was informed, “It isn’t done.” The DRT did everything it could to sabotage the movie, even threatening to drape the Alamo in black. To placate the Daughters, producer Mark Carliner made a $10,000 donation to the Alamo Fund, suggesting that it be earmarked for the construction of public restrooms. The board of managers rejected his suggestion. “I knew then,” Carliner told me, “that we had entered into the Land of Oz.”
BY THE TIME THE DAUGHTERS arrived in Galveston in May 2003, war was already being waged again among the membership. A group of dissidents I spoke with, led by two of the most popular and respected former presidents general, Helen Kelso, of Dallas, and Betty Burr, of Nacogdoches, insisted that there had been a general decline in civility within the DRT dating back to 2001, when Van Cleave was elected. “We’ve always prided ourselves on being ladies,” Burr told me. “But that changed.” Some of the dissidents accused Van Cleave of being dictatorial and heavy-handed and of consolidating power by misinterpreting bylaws. “Under Mrs. Van Cleave, it was all about ego,” Burr explained. “There was no spirit of compromise, no debate.” Kelso was even more blunt. “Virginia considered herself a queen,” she told me. “If you weren’t reverent at the proper time, you were in trouble.”
Under Van Cleave, changes were indeed sometimes harsh. In early 2003 she and the board of management eliminated the office of director of the Republic of Texas Museum in Austin, which meant dumping Carl McQueary, who had had the job for nine years. Van Cleave’s detractors say that McQueary was let go precisely because he was well liked among the membership. “My cousin donated our family Bible to the museum only because we trusted Carl so completely,” said Marla Bush, one of the dissenters. After the Padilla lawsuit was filed, a number of members signed a petition asking Van Cleave to relieve Carter and Phillips of their duties. “She never acted on the petition or even acknowledged it,” said Anne Bennett, of Garland, who served as the board of management’s corresponding secretary general during Kelso’s administration. “When that happens, you get a little testy.” In fact, the petition was signed by 250 members, but it was never submitted.
When I visited with Van Cleave in Austin, I expected her to have horns and a tail. But she didn’t come off as a brutal oppressor. “A dictator I’m not,” she said cheerfully. She insisted that McQueary’s position had been eliminated for economic reasons. She also referred to her critics as “the negative ones” and says they are a distraction from all the good work that the DRT carries out. “If we would spend time doing positive things,” she said, “we could accomplish so much for ourselves and our children.” It was Van Cleave’s misfortune to follow into office the spirited and attractive Kelso, who was described by one friend as “Jackie Kennedy elegant.” Members of Kelso’s clique weren’t kind. They joked that Van Cleave bought her clothes in Vietnam (partly true) and that her hats were so ghastly they would scare an Army mule (mostly untrue). One DRT member told a friend, “I’ll tell you who the evildoers are. They’re the fat, dumpy, unpopular girls who could never get a date in high school, and they hated us because we were pretty and popular, and now they’re getting their revenge.”
Those opposed to Van Cleave arrived in Galveston full of hope. It seemed nearly certain that the candidates for office recommended by the nominating committee would be a fresh start for the DRT. But three days later they went home in tears. For the first time, the convention had ignored the nominating committee’s recommendations and elected nearly an entire slate of officers from the floor. In addition, Van Cleave had delayed the scheduled 9 a.m. Friday voting, claiming that some members were running late because of a broken elevator at their hotel. A story quickly spread that the real reason was to wait for the arrival of buses carrying 182 members from Houston chapters. The dissidents insist that these members arrived at the last minute, voted, then got back on the buses and went home. “They didn’t even stay for lunch,” Burr told me. The conspiracy theory is shaky at best—nobody actually saw the buses, and fewer than thirty members may have registered that Friday—but plenty of members still believe that the election was a coup orchestrated by Van Cleave and her parliamentarian, Louise Hall, who they feel bent the election rules. After the convention, several dissident Daughters filed grievances against Hall with the National Association of Parliamentarians, whose ethics committee officially reprimanded her. But the reprimand didn’t change the results of the election.
The woman who became the DRT’s president general that day was Mary Walker, of Crockett. Walker had struggled for years to reach the top. On at least one previous occasion, she had submitted her name to the nominating committee and been rejected as unsuitable. In 1999 Walker was nominated from the floor, only to lose to Kelso. Despite being turned down again by the committee in 2003, Walker achieved her goal by banding with other rejects and forming the ad hoc slate. Apparently it wasn’t that hard to bushwhack the dissidents.
MOST OF THE DRT’S 6,700 members are only dimly aware of the deadly struggle between the evildoers and the whiners. The evildoers say that the whiners are only a tiny part of the membership, maybe 25 or 30 women. The whiners make the same claim about the evildoers. Both are right. The majority of the DRT’s members are too old, too poor, or too uninterested to try for state office: Officers have to pay all their own expenses, including travel. Less than 10 percent of the membership is even willing or able to travel to the annual convention. “A lot of these women are old, and the convention is their one time a year to get out,” said one member, who asked not to be identified. “The last thing they want is a fight.”
From all indications, there will be more fighting. The whiners haven’t taken to life in the DRT under Walker any better than they did under Van Cleave. In her first Daughters’ Reflections, the official DRT newsletter written by the president general and mailed to the membership twice a year, Walker threatened to expel from the DRT anyone who questioned her authority. In her second newsletter, however, she did report that at the next convention she would replace Louise Hall with an outside professional parliamentarian. Walker refused to comment for this article.
Many of the women who agreed to talk to me admitted that they are sick of being intimidated and might quit the DRT. “We’ve all been threatened, and they’ll probably kick us out one of these days,” said Bonnie Chambless, of Horseshoe Bay, who initiated the grievances against Hall. “I don’t care anymore. I don’t have time for this.” Anne Bennett, the nominating committee’s choice as third vice president general, said, “After Galveston, I was heartbroken and discouraged. I thought of just picking up my marbles and leaving. I’m afraid a lot of other women may be thinking the same way. How can I tell my daughter and granddaughter to join with all this going on?”
All the women I spoke with talked about their great love for the DRT, the evildoers as well as the whiners. Even Carl McQueary, the museum director who was allegedly fired for being well liked, defended the group. His mother and grandmother were in the DRT, and it would forever have a place in his heart. “Most of those in the DRT are lovely, lovely women, devoted to noble ideas and grand causes,” McQueary told me. “If you’ve ever been to a convention and heard them sing ‘Texas, Our Texas,’ all those withered little voices, it’s simply beautiful and wonderful.”
Some whiners are still hopeful. A few even believe they can change the bylaws at the 2004 convention to limit the number of delegates each chapter can send, maybe prevent another Galveston. Good luck, ladies. The evildoers have some bylaws changes of their own. They are proposing to allow the board of management to expel any member who questions its authority or criticizes the DRT publicly. I’ve even heard that they’ve already lined up buses for Odessa.