This writeup was sent by one of his daughters, Sophie Yarborough. According to Ms. Yarborough, her father is gravely ill. I will request that commenters show proper respect in posting their remarks.
Donald Howard Yarborough, who ran for governor of Texas three times and helped mobilize the progressive Democratic movement in Texas against the conservative big-oil factions that had so long dominated the state, was born in New Orleans on Dec. 15, 1925. He is the key reason that JFK flew down to Dallas that fateful day [November 22, 1963], because Don’s campaign against Governor John Connally posed a very real threat to the conservative democrats in Texas at the time, and Don was running against conservative John Connally (who later switched to the Republican party in his bid for president), whereas Don was a true-blue liberal championing civil rights, women’s equality and all of the most progressive policies of the time. He did not win, but he made a lasting impact on the state’s politics that continues to ripple to this day.
He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Charity O’Connell Yarborough. Don was married three times, first to Trin (Kay K.) Edwards Yarborough, and they had four children together: Inez VanderBurg, Francey Yarborough-Knotts, Leverett Yarborough and Sophie Yarborough. Then to Gail Lind, and they had one child: Daniel Yarborough. His current wife of 25 years is Charity O’Connell Yarborough, and they had two children: Donald Patrick Arthur “Patrick” Yarborough and Mollie O’Connell Yarborough. He has four grandchildren: Madeleine de Vise, Donovan De Vise, Grace VanderBurg, and Rose VanderBurg.
Don’s father was the president of a bank in New Orleans that went bust in the Great Depression, so Don was sent temporarily to spend part of his boyhood living with an aunt in Mississippi, where he helped out picking cotton in the fields of his family’s farm with the laborers, which contributed to his lifelong compassion for the underprivileged and disempowered. His father eventually got a job with the government and moved the family at one point to Washington, D.C, where they lived near the zoo on Macomb Avenue in Woodley Park. His family also spent time during the years after the Depression living with relatives in Coral Gables, Florida. The family eventually moved together to Houston when Don was 12. Upon graduating from San Jacinto High School at 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, entering officer’s training school and becoming, at the age of 19, one of the youngest Company Commanders in the history of the Marines. He served one year in China at the close of World War II. After the war, Don entered the University of Texas, where he belonged to Kappa Alpha fraternity, and worked part-time to supplement the money he received under the G.I. bill. He earned his law degree in 1950.
He re-entered the Marine Corps to serve during the Korean War as a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corp (JAG Corp). He then returned to Texas to found his own law firm and take part in civic affairs. In 1956, as one of the youngest presidents in the history of the [Houston] Junior Chamber of Commerce, Don helped build the largest chapter in the nation at that time. He also won the national debating championship for the organization due to his passionate speaking skills.
He was also named BY LIFE MAGAZINE in 1963 as one of the 100 young Americans who were distinguished by their dedication to something larger than private success, because they had the courage to act against old problems, the boldness to try out new ideas, and a hard-bitten, undaunted hopefulness about man.
Don ran for the office of Lieutenant Governor of Texas in 1960. In 1962, he ran for the first time for governor, and in a field of five Democratic candidates, he reached a run-off with John Connally and came within 1 percent of winning the nomination, an amazing and nationally-noted upset in a state long dominated by the party’s conservative faction. He was the first Southern politician to come out in support of the Civil Rights Act, a courageous stand, when Texas was still suffering from segregation. Eleanor Roosevelt praised him for his courage in doing that. He also ran for governor in 1964 and 1968. His politics focused on gaining civil rights for the underprivileged and women’s equality, and he also opposed the huge oil and other interests that had long dominated Texas politics.
John F. Kennedy flew to Dallas in an effort to heal the rift in the Texas democratic party that was created by Don’s extremely powerful progressive campaign, in which he united labor, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, women, and progressive liberals behind him to pose a very real threat to the conservative Democrats in Texas, as represented by John Connally (Connally later switched to the Republican party under Nixon, when he decided to run for president in 1980.) In speeches, Don Yarborough called Connally a wolf in sheep’s clothing. When Connally was shot in the car with Kennedy during the assassination, Connally became a national hero and was able to easily defeat Yarborough in the 1964 governor’s race at that point, but before then, even LBJ was extremely worried that Don would win the governorship and split the Democrats between progressives and conservatives, meaning that Kennedy would have a tough time winning Texas for himself for the next presidential election. o LBJ convinced Kennedy to fly to Dallas to unite them. (Check out this month’s Vanity Fair article on Jackie O, which explains this, although it mentions Ralph Yarborough, then United States senator, who was not running against Connally, instead of Don Yarborough, who was.)
Years later, there was confusion when an unknown, unrelated person named Don Yarbrough (different spelling) ran for the Texas Supreme Court and won handily using the same name, and then went on to become indicted for criminal activity. This Don Yarbrough was NO relation to the real Don Yarborough. Molly Ivins has written several articles about this unfortunate confusion that created a nightmare for Texas voters.
After leaving politics, Yarborough continued to dream big. Declaring that more people could be helped through science than through politics, he devoted much of his life to his deep passion for scientific research, especially his quest to cure aging, which he felt was simply a disease like any other, but one that affected everyone. He worked as a lobbyist for Paraplegia Cure Research in Washington, D.C., where he lived for many years on Capitol Hill and in Mclean, Va. He also played a large role in the Council for a Livable World, and was a founding member of biotech research companies. “We are either the last generation to die or the first generation to live forever,” he often said.
He believed scientists needed to keep a wide open child’s mind to make breakthroughs and discoveries, uninhibited by societal norms, expectations. and judgments.
He spent the last chapter of his life in Houston, Texas, his true home for most of his life.
* * * *
I appreciate the opportunity to publish this biography of “the good Don Yarborough,” as he came to be referred to after “the bad Don Yarborough” won his Texas Supreme Court seat on the strength of the Yarborough name.
According to the Texas Almanac, Don Yarborough was one of six candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1962. Incumbent Price Daniel had served three two-year terms and was seeking a fourth. Connally led the primary with 431,498 votes and Yarborough polled 317,986, finishing second and knocking out Daniel’s bid to become the state’s longest-serving governor. The other candidates were Major General Edwin A. Walker, who distributed John Birch Society literature to his troops and regarded Harry Truman as a “pinko”; Marshall Formby, who I think was a highway commissioner, and former attorney general Will Wilson, who had organized the raid that shut down Galveston’s famed gambling den, the Balinese Room, in 1957.
In the runoff, Connally had the backing of LBJ and the state’s business establishment, but Houston was very much a union town, and Yarborough made it a very close race. He trailed Connally by 565,174 to 538,924 – a difference of approximately 27,000 votes out of 1,447,115 million cast. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Yarborough defeated Connally. Would Republican Jack Cox, who lost to Connally by some 132,000 votes, have defeated Yarborough, accelerating by fourteen years the first victory for a Republican since Reconstruction, or would the Democratic party have held together for Yarborough?
Kennedy came to Texas in 1963 because the Democratic party was split between its liberal and conservative wings, the liberals represented by the two Yarboroughs and the conservatives championed by Connally and LBJ, who wanted Kennedy to intervene. Don Yarborough challenged Connally in the 1964 Democratic primary, but Connally campaigned wearing the sling for his arm that was hit by a Lee Harvey Oswald bullet. Connally won by 650,000.
Yarborough had one more race in him. In 1968, Connally retired to join the Vinson & Elkins law firm, and lieutenant governor Preston Smith sought the governorship. Ten candidates entered the Democratic primary. Yarborough led Smith by 421,607 to 386,875, but most of the other candidates were conservative Democrats. Even so, the runoff was relatively close: Smith won by 767,490 votes to 621,226. This was an era when segregation and civil rights were still issues, and unions were still an important factor in Texas politics, and liberals had a base from which to run. That Texas is gone.