Is Waco Wacko?

Five years after the Branch Davidian siege, the hometown of Ann Richards and Dr Pepper is still a punch line. But locals are getting the last laugh.

April 1998By Comments

UNTIL JANUARY, when he assumed his post as United States ambassador to Sweden, Lyndon Olson, Jr., called Waco home, despite being the president and CEO of New York City—based Travelers Insurance. On his final commute back to Texas, a couple of days before departing for Stockholm, he stepped out of a cab at New York’s La Guardia Airport and handed his bags to a skycap. The man glanced at Olson’s final destination, cocked his head, and exclaimed, “Waco! Man, you ain’t paying to go there, are you?”

Most Wacoans can tell you similar stories. Five years after the 51-day siege and final conflagration that took the lives of 86 people at the Mount Carmel compound—four agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and 82 members of the Branch Davidian sect, including 25 children—“Waco” still reverberates more strongly than the name of any other Texas city (and if the early March standoff by an armed UFO cultist is any indication, it will continue to). Only Dallas has suffered similar notoriety, and not even it has seen its name become a verb: “to be Wacoed,” meaning to be overwhelmed in massive numbers by officers of the federal government. This does not sit well with Waco natives like my uncle Morris’ wife, Madelyn, who is quick to remind motel clerks and anyone else who dares lift an eyebrow when they discover where she’s from: “Those people were fifteen miles out of town! They were closer to a little place called Elk than they were to Waco! Waco had nothing to do with it!” But since being “Elked” isn’t likely to enter the vernacular anytime soon, most Wacoans have learned to live with their infamy—or even to turn it into an asset. “There’s no publicity that’s bad publicity,” says Jerry MacLauchlin, a professor of theater and dance at Baylor University.

“It allows me to tell people what Waco is really about,” says Elizabeth Taylor, the director of the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I take it as a positive. It’s like having to live with being Elizabeth Taylor all my life. I can either allow it to be a burden, or I can use it to my advantage.”

Having grown up in Waco, the city that gave the world Steve Martin, Ann Richards, Dr Pepper, and the longest novel ever published in book form (Madison Cooper’s 1,731-page Sironia, Texas), I was curious about the lingering effects of the Branch Davidian incident on its character and personality. Hanging out there for the first time since I was a kid, talking to people I hadn’t seen in years, I discovered that the tragedy had tested Waco and its new generation of civic leaders—and that they seemed to have passed the test. The city is thriving. Real, live people spend their days downtown, hustling in and out of refurbished buildings and patronizing vibrant businesses; parking is actually a problem. With redevelopment beginning at the Brazos River and spreading inexorably north, desolation is finally being colored in.

Of course, Wacoans have known hard times before. I remember another tragedy that affected the city even more profoundly than the siege. It happened on a spring afternoon 45 years ago: I watched sheets of rain blow across our front yard, followed by hail that bounced on the spring-green grass and then an eerie stillness beneath a bruise-colored purple-green sky. An hour or so later, our neighbor Mrs. Thompson came home from work downtown, which was a mile west. “Waco’s gone,” she shouted across the street to my dad. “It’s blown away.”

The 1953 tornado that ripped the heart out of downtown Waco not only killed 114 people but also marked the beginning of a decades-long decline. In the months and years after, downtown businesses decamped to suburban shopping centers, and in the name of urban renewal, the city bulldozed what was left of its historic heart: the city hall square. After Mother Nature and contemporary notions of progress had done their work, only the gray-stone thirties-era city hall remained, surrounded by empty lots.

In what seemed like no time, downtown Waco had become a shabby ghost town of abandoned brick buildings—buildings that once housed department stores, theaters, hotels, and small businesses. Every attempt to halt the decline seemed only to increase it. In the sixties the city listened to consultants who advised eliminating traffic and parking on three blocks of Waco’s main street, Austin Avenue, and adding benches, trees, and grass. But the pedestrian mall, a voguish trend in city planning, was a disaster. Customers blanched at shopping or eating downtown because they couldn’t park in front of their favorite shop or restaurant; after a while, they had no reason to. The city finally reopened Austin Avenue to traffic in 1987.

Not only downtown declined after the tornado. In 1966 James Connally Air Force Base closed, and overnight Waco lost some $27 million that 2,400 military and 800 civilian workers contributed to the local economy. Waco also lost the headquarters of the Twelfth Air Force and the city’s largest private employer at the time, General Tire and Rubber. While Dallas and Fort Worth, a hundred miles to the north, grew and prospered, and while Austin, a hundred miles to the south, boomed and busted and boomed again, Waco settled into stasis.

A popular theory about Waco’s history is that a few prominent families who ran the city over the years conspired to retard growth and progress because they feared competition: They wanted to keep out industry to keep wages low. “It was like a castle with a moat around it,” says insurance executive Bernard Rapoport, the former chair of the University of Texas Board of Regents, who has lived in Waco for most of the past fifty years. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly the case that by the time of the Branch Davidian incident, a new generation eager for growth and prosperity had assumed positions of civic leadership. “They covered the moat,” Rapoport says. “Now they have highways coming in.”

The prototype of that new generation might well be Bill Clifton. The scion of an old Waco family, the 51-year-old has a master’s degree in computer science from MIT, raises Thoroughbred racehorses on the side, and spends much of his time trying to persuade companies to move to Waco’s industrial districts. “A city is like anything else,” he told me. “It either grows or dies.” In the past ten years or so, the hard work has paid off. In 1989 Waco lured Raytheon Systems, a huge defense contractor that upgrades and retrofits airplanes for the military and foreign heads of state; it is now the city’s largest industrial employer. More-recent arrivals include Caterpillar, a construction equipment manufacturer, and American Fabricators, which customizes sheet metal. “Geography is one of our resources,” says Jack Stewart, the president of the Waco Chamber of Commerce. “We like to say we’re three hundred miles from eighty percent of the Texas population.”

Indeed, with easy access off Interstate 35, the city is a convenient business location—and that’s not all. Jerry MacLauchlin calls Waco “Tinkletown” because it’s a favorite rest stop for so many Texas travelers, but it boasts tourist destinations, from the Texas Ranger and Dr Pepper museums to the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and the superb zoo in Cameron Park, one of the largest municipal parks in Texas. New hotels are opening, including a Marriott Courtyard and a Residence Inn, and the city is working with Baylor University to develop the region’s greatest natural resource, the Lake Brazos Corridor. As part of the corridor plan, Baylor has announced plans to build a $23 million law school on the west bank of the Brazos. And downtown Waco is even nurturing some semblance of a nightlife, as Baylor students and young professionals flock to restaurants and clubs that have opened in Waco’s warehouse district near the river. As is the case in many cities nowadays, loft apartments are even being built in renovated warehouse buildings.

The catalyst of the warehouse area’s resurgence is Randy Roberts, a Jackie Gleason—size 45-year-old who bought the hundred-year-old, 135,000-square-foot redbrick Waco Hardware Building in 1995. “It had been vacant for twelve years,” he says. “There were three inches of pigeon crap on the floors.” Today the newly renamed River Square Center is home to a seafood restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, a bar and grill, and assorted retail shops and offices. Since Roberts set down roots in the neighborhood, he’s seen property values soar. A year ago he was negotiating to buy a building that only a decade earlier had been on the market for $10,000. Given Waco’s comeback, he figured he’d have to pay $150,000, but when the deal was finally signed, the price was $300,000.

Another critical thing happened in the mid-nineties, as Jack Stewart points out: The combined population of Waco and its surrounding towns reached 200,000, which automatically put the city into the various databases that are used by national chains. As a result, Loews, Outback Steakhouse, and other big-name franchise operations began to crop up. But the economic upturn only took place after the Branch Davidian siege, spurred on by Waco’s notoriety. “When businesses got around to growing again,” Stewart says, “Waco’s name identity had something to do with it.”

At first, no one would have predicted that any good could come from the events unfolding east of town. Bob Sheehy, a folksy, white-haired lawyer who was Waco’s mayor at the time, remembers getting a call on a Sunday morning in February from a Dallas reporter who asked if he had a reaction to what was happening. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you mean,” Sheehy told him. The reporter suggested that he turn on the TV. Sheehy did, then explained that what was happening was outside Waco. “We have nothing to do with it,” he said. As the siege unfolded, of course, the mayor realized what was really going on, and he talked to hundreds of journalists, appeared on dozens of news shows, and frequently got up in the middle of the night to accommodate foreign journalists who wanted a live interview. “Bob was made for that role,” says Jim Holgersson, who was Waco’s city manager. “With patience and kindness, he served as an oracle to help others understand what was happening.”

Holgersson had just taken the job in Waco and was on his way there that Sunday for a preliminary visit. Waylaid in a Pittsburgh airport, he was watching a basketball game on TV when the broadcast was interrupted by a special report titled “Shootout in Waco.” He thought about heading back home to Michigan. That Sunday was also the day before Liz Taylor started work as the director of the convention and visitors bureau. She knew she had a problem when she began seeing stories about “wacky Waco,” a one-horse Texas town obsessed with God and guns. She was particularly incensed by a Times of London story intimating that Waco was benefiting economically from the tragedy. She and other civic leaders began looking for opportunities to combat the negative image. “The event was unique in that there were fifty-one days of it,” Stewart says. “In fifty-one days, the media had time to realize that there was a difference between the community of Waco and the Davidians.”

And, in fact, stories began to appear about the kindness of Wacoans: how the local restaurant association was providing meals for the ATF agents and their families, how Caritas and local radio stations were collecting clothes for the Davidian children, how courteously hotel and restaurant employees treated their visitors. “There was never any organized effort to court these reporters,” Sheehy says, “but I had a lot of them say to me, ‘I wish to heck I didn’t live where I do. I’d just as soon stay right here.’ It’s strange to say, but the fact that it lasted that long probably helped us.”

“The character of this community deepened because of what happened,” Taylor says. “It’s like when you have a loss in the family. You become more reflective about what you can do. It caused us to look very closely at what we have to offer, how we see ourselves, and how others see us.”

“For a time, we didn’t want people to look at the Davidian situation,” Stewart says. “Now we’ll give them a map.”

Joe Holley wrote about small-town newspapers in the December 1997 Texas Monthly.

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