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

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