Pat Neff, the Autocrat of Waco

Many illustrious Americans have served as state governors — Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, Benjamin Franklin in Pennsylvania, Franklin Roosevelt in New York, Adlai Stevenson in Illinois, Robert La Follette in Wisconsin. However, except for Sam Houston, a national pantheon of governors would likely slight Texas; constitutional constraints in this state limit accomplishment, and the political culture encourages bumptious mediocrity. A case in point is James Ferguson, whose refusal to fund the University of Texas led to his impeachment and removal in 1917. Blocked from office, he engineered the 1925 election of his wife, Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, who opposed teaching foreign languages since, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”

Between them, the Fergusons set a daunting standard of gubernatorial disservice that others have not quite lived down to. Between their terms, the governor’s mansion was occupied by a stern, industrious Baptist named Pat Neff. Born in 1871 to a farming family in Coryell County, Neff was 31 in 1903 when he was chosen speaker during his third and final term in the Texas House of Representatives. He served two frustrated terms as governor, from 1921-25. He later served as chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and grand master of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Texas. However, what seems most significant to Neff’s first biographers, Dorothy Blodgett (Baylor ‘45), Terrell Blodgett (Baylor ‘43), and David L. Scott (Baylor ‘87), is his tenure as president of Baylor University, from 1932-47.

Dorothy Blodgett died two years ago, before completing the biography she had begun two decades ago. Concluded by her husband Terrell Blodgett and Scott, The Land, the Law and the Lord explains where San Antonio’s Pat Neff Middle School got its name. But, for all its prodigious research, the book does not corroborate the verdict in its final sentence, attributed to historian Rupert N. Richardson, that: “Pat M. Neff earned a place in even a short list of great Texans of all time.”

That Neff was a hard worker, on the farm, in the Capitol, or on the Waco campus, his assiduous biographers leave no doubt. “I work about eighteen hours each day,” he told a cousin, “but do as I please the rest of the time.” Neff’s marriage to his jobs led his lonely, neurasthenic wife, Myrtie, to disappear for long rest cures in Mineral Wells. The true love of his life, dearer than Baylor, was his mother, Isabella, who moved in to the governor’s mansion with him months before her death. The biography draws on hundreds of letters between Neff and the woman who was the namesake of Mother Neff Park, the parcel that she donated to inaugurate the Texas state park system. Nowhere was Neff more his mother’s son than in his persistent, outspoken dedication to Prohibition.

According to Blodgett, Blodgett, and Scott, Neff was an extraordinarily active and gifted orator. Yet despite copious information on his busy speaking schedule, the authors never manage to evoke the man’s distinctive voice. And, far from demonstrating Neff’s eloquence, his printed speeches show someone inordinately fond of his own bombast. Maligning alcohol, he is inebriated with his own prose: “The world is constantly moving onward and upward, and during the next generation, students of thought will walk the halls of learnings, `sic` and inquire why and how their forefathers endured so long a traffic that dethroned manhood, debauched womanhood, destroyed childhood, corrupted the ballot box, commercialized virtue, brutalized civilization and squandered the world’s wealth.”

Neff was the first Texas candidate to campaign by plane and the first Texas governor to speak on radio.

A despotic disinclination to collaborate with the legislature thwarted his initiatives. The biography provides much information about Neff’s governorship — his appointment of more women than any of his predecessors, the creation of Texas Tech University, the replacement of hanging by electrocution. But a human being never quite emerges from beneath the pile of facts. It is only during the Baylor years that Neff, and the book, come to life. Slashing salaries and wooing donors, he saved Baylor, the oldest university in Texas and the largest Baptist university in the world, from bankruptcy. The autocrat of Waco, he held forth at compulsory chapel services and hired spies to intimidate drinkers, smokers, card-players, dancers, and grumblers.

On May 15, 1916, 15,000 people participated in the lynching of a black man accused of murder. Though Neff’s Waco law office was two blocks away, the biographers find no evidence that he offered any public reaction to the atrocity. As governor, not only did he refuse to take a stand against the burgeoning Ku Klux Klan, but he also supported a poll tax and the restriction of primary elections to white citizens. Blacks, Latinos, and non-Christians seemed invisible to Neff, and they are absent from his biography, which itself employs the quaint, misleading term “Negro” — though not “Caucasian.” Great Texans possess a greater range of sympathy.




Terrell Blodgett
5-7pm Tue, Sep 18
The Twig
5009 Broadway
(210) 826-6411

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