Meanwhile, in Texas . . .

  • Identical twin sisters from Houston bought identical Sears Craftsman housesright next door to each otherin Galveston.
  • After getting plunked by a pitcher, a man in a pickup baseball game near Elsa shot and wounded one of the opposing players.
  • An Austin girl who was kidnapped by her mother and taken to Mexico was reunited with her father twelve years after her abduction.
  • The SAT math scores of the state’s high school students hit a 22-year low.
  • At their wedding ceremony, a neuroscientist gave his ne

Johnny’s Custom Hatters

Ronnie Bardwell’s felt hat still hangs on the wall at Johnny’s Custom Hatters, just where he left it before he passed away, in April 2013. His ashes reside nearby, along with his portrait, which his wife of 49 years, Drenda, looks at throughout the day. “I feel him here a lot,” she says from her perch behind the cash register in the hat shop she and Ronnie purchased in 1978.

The Texanist

Q: I read your response to “Displaced Derek in Portland” in the July issue with interest. You see, I recently made my own return to the blessed land following twenty years in exile among the tree-hugging set. During my hiatus, much has changed: Bonfire has been tamed, microbrews are rampant, and I seem to have less endurance now than in my youth along the Brazos. What should be on my bucket list so that I can reconnect with Texas in the time that remains to me

Election History

The first Election Day that I remember was in 1978, but it’s not because I followed the candidates or understood the issues. I was a first grader at Meadows Elementary, in Plano, and the election mattered to me for only one reason: my dad came to school. He served as an election judge, and I tagged along with him early that morning as he helped set up those creaky folding ballot booths in our gym. I beamed later that afternoon when my teacher, Mrs. Bolin, informed my class that my father was on campus.

Man on Fire

The strip-center parking lot where the Reverend Charles Moore chose to end his life is as large as a football field and as lonely as prairie, the cracked gray asphalt dotted with weeds, shards of glass, and crushed Copenhagen cans. The faded yellow paint on the pavement recalls other days, when the Dollar General here was a Piggly Wiggly and members of the Night Prowlers, a teenage car club, would come park  their hot rods and open the hoods. Residents of Grand Saline (population 3,136) know the lot as the Bear Grounds, and on Friday and Saturday nights, high school kids still gather to hang out and play music on their truck radios. (“Bear,” as any of them can tell you, was the nickname of Wayne Clark, a car buff who used to park his ’55 Chevy here and watch the world go by on U.S. 80.) When the kids get bored, they pile into their trucks and “take the loop”—pull out onto the highway, drive to the west end of town, cruise through the Sonic, then drive back, past the Salt Palace and the Salt City Inn. It doesn’t take long to complete this ritual circle of small-town life. On any given Friday night, as many as two dozen kids may meet at the Bear Grounds. 

But on the morning of Monday, June 23, the parking lot was almost empty. Angi McPherson, a receptionist at Sophistikutz, a hair and tanning salon next to the Dollar General, got to work at eleven and noticed an elderly man standing some 150 feet away from the storefront. Dressed in khakis and a pale-blue shirt, with thinning white hair and tortoise-shell glasses, he didn’t exactly look out of place. He could have been one of the many locals going to pick up a prescription at Economy Drug or a cane at BT Medical Supplies, a few doors down.

Except that he wasn’t going anywhere. Monday is a slow day at Sophistikutz, and as morning turned to afternoon, McPherson found herself watching the man. Other shoppers came and went, but he stood by his car, a Volkswagen hatchback, leaning against it with his ankles crossed, looking toward the road. Occasionally he would walk over to a storage crate that the Dollar General was using as it remodeled its store, and he’d lean against that for a while. It was a hot, windless afternoon that only got hotter; still, the man stayed out there.

Mallie Munn, one of the Sophistikutz stylists, noticed him too. She saw him move the car a few times to other parking spaces, but never too far away. He had stuck a few pieces of paper on the hatchback window; maybe, she thought, he was selling it. He’d open the trunk and root around, as if looking for something, then close it and go back to standing. He watched as cars and eighteen-wheelers rolled by on their way to Dallas, seventy miles west, and east to Mineola. Several times every hour, the earth would shake and the air would fill with the deafening blast of a horn as a train approached on the railroad tracks just across the highway. 

Economy Drug and BT Medical Supplies closed at five-thirty, and not long after that, the man’s movements became more deliberate. He began to pace back and forth between his car and a particular parking space not far from the road. Munn and McPherson, on a work break, went out to sit on the curb in front of Sophistikutz. They were joined by McPherson’s boyfriend, Dewayne Mosley, and their friend Steven Goggans, who had just gotten off work at BT Medical. 

“Guys, what is he doing?” asked Munn as the four watched the man lay a white foam cushion in the parking space, on the pavement next to the concrete bumper. The man got on his knees. Munn, who had moved to Grand Saline from Seattle, had seen Muslim cabbies stop their cars and get out, lay down a mat, and pray, but she’d never seen anyone do that in Texas. “Is he pulling weeds?” she asked. Was that a gardening cushion? 

After standing around all day, the man now seemed full of purpose. He began pouring something on himself—over his left leg, over his shoulder, down his right side, and finally on his head. It was such a hot day that maybe, the friends thought, it was water. But he was using a red can. “Is that gas?” McPherson asked. She and Munn stood up. The four stared as the man set the can aside and picked up something long and thin. “He has a lighter,” gasped Munn. 

 The man was still kneeling, his back straight. He raised the lighter to his head.

The David Dewhurst Exit Interview

A confession to start: the first time I sat down with David Dewhurst, I felt as if I was going to end up taxidermied.

This was back in 2009. My old boss Chris Lockwood, then the United States editor for the London-based Economist, had come to Texas for a tour. As the Southwest correspondent for that magazine at the time, I had been deputized to arrange his meetings over the course of several days in Austin. Our appointment with Rick Perry was an exercise in soft power on the governor’s part, an hour-long charm offensive. He disarmed the British visitor’s question about Texas secession with a joke and a slap on the back, and he showed me a picture of some puppies that he had just posted on his Twitter account. As we left I reflected on the governor’s underrated political skills: he had, I felt, played us like a couple of fiddles.

The meeting with the lieutenant governor was a far more formal affair. After waiting for about an hour, we were ushered into an antechamber to wait some more. On a sideboard was a silver tray with an untouched selection of meats and cheeses rolled up like cigarillos. In the background, classical music played softly. When Dewhurst finally appeared, he cut an imposing figure. At six feet five inches, he towered over us. His suit was elegant, befitting the millionaire that he is. His hair was precisely combed. His posture was as crisp as it must have been when he served in the Air Force, and he showed us some photos and trophies from his days as a rodeo champion. By the time we took our seats at the long conference table, I had already been thoroughly intimidated, and our questions were beside the point, because Dewhurst had already prepared his answers, delivered in a smooth but halting baritone. He reminded us that, under the Texas constitution, the lieutenant governor is unusually powerful, a fact I was very aware of. I don’t know about Chris, but I was a nervous wreck.  

The next few years were not kind to him. When he had announced that he would run for the United States Senate in 2012, it was widely assumed that he would win. He was the candidate of the Republican establishment in a state where the Republican establishment had won every major office for almost two decades. And yet Dewhurst faced a scenario that none of his cohort had. After years of business as usual, the conservative grassroots had taken notice of a talented upstart named Ted Cruz, a former state solicitor general who had cut his teeth debating. The campaign was high profile and ferocious, and Dewhurst eventually lost the primary runoff. Adding insult to injury was that many Republicans, rather than crediting Cruz for his remarkable accomplishment, laid the blame at Dewhurst’s door for a poor campaign and for being, well, himself.

During the 2013 legislative session, I covered the Senate for Texas Monthly with my colleague Sonia Smith. The lieutenant governor, aided by a few new hires in the communications office, was apparently determined to present a softer side. When Sonia and I showed up for an interview, the classical music was gone, and Dewhurst gamely hustled us into his office, where he showed us how to throw a lasso. I have the pictures to prove it.

Over the course of the session, I saw that Dewhurst has his flaws: he can be awkward, overly formal, and come across as diffident. But those flaws have been mirrored in his virtues: he has been serious, gracious, and determined to protect his senators, even when they don’t deserve it. I had all this in mind in September, several months after he had lost his reelection bid to state senator Dan Patrick, when I went for my final interview with him as lieutenant governor. 

ERICA GRIEDER: Looking back at the past twelve years, what’s your big-picture summary? 

DAVID DEWHURST: I ran for lieutenant governor in 2002 because I looked at Texas and, being an entrepreneur, I said, “We can do better than we’re doing right now.” Texas’s economy was okay, but it wasn’t great. Today, it’s the twelfth-largest economy in the world. If we were a separate country, we would have just surpassed Australia. Isn’t that amazing? And we’re closing in on Canada. I was introduced at an event by a Frenchman who said, “We’re glad Governor Dewhurst is going to start doing some other things because we don’t want the Texas economy eclipsing the French economy.”

EG: That would hurt their feelings.

DD: That could hurt their feelings. [Laughs.] But, Erica, every morning as I got up and drank my coffee for the last twelve years, I thought of one or all of the following: My primary responsibility is to protect the safety of Texans, all 26.4 million of them, and their liberties and their freedoms. The second big area is to protect the health of Texans. The third is to make sure that when Texans graduate from high school or college, there are jobs. So I have worked hard to help create the most jobs of any state, right here in Texas. And to achieve that, over the years I’ve tried to champion improving public education and higher education, so that we have a skilled and trained workforce.

I’ve gone on a number of crusades to protect children’s health and protect children against sexual predators. In 2004 I read an article in the Dallas Morning News about how during a two-and-a-half-year period, some five hundred children under the age of eighteen had died throughout the state, more than a quarter of whom were seen regularly by Child Protective Services personnel—and I went on, you might say, a tirade. I wanted to know how it was possible—what was going on with CPS. To make a long story short, what came out of that was Senate Bill 6, by Senator Jane Nelson, which we worked on hand in glove. It invested almost a quarter of a billion dollars into changing the structure of Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services to better protect our children and seniors.

EG: You helped pass Jessica’s Law in Texas in 2007—named after a girl from Florida who was abducted, raped, and murdered—which strengthened penalties for crimes committed against children. 

DD: I once had to preside over an execution that still gives me sleepless nights, thinking about the fact pattern. In fact, the crime was so bad I wouldn’t let any of the ladies in my office see the execution book. After we passed Jessica’s Law, I talked with district attorneys and child advocacy centers, and they said that the legislation has permitted them to put a lot of bad people in prison. For the first time in Texas history, we have a law that stipulates that in cases of a super-aggravated sexual assault on a minor under fourteen years of age, the minimum prison term is 25 years. If someone does something to a child, I have no mercy on them. No mercy.

EG: You’ve also been an advocate for increased border security.

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