March is Texas History Month, and our state’s rich heritage is as much a path forward as a look back. Just ask youngsters taught their unique heritage in fourth and seventh grades or adults who kept those childhood history lessons close to their heart throughout their lives.
Appreciating Texas history has contributed to the enduring pioneer spirit of Texans who believe ours is a land of opportunity and the sky is the limit.
Our hard-fought independence is observed this month with Texas Independence Day and Texas Flag Day March 2, coincidentally Sam Houston’s birthday; Alamo Heroes Day March 6; and Goliad Heroes Day March 26.
Of course, we also celebrate on April 21 the defeat of Santa Anna at San Jacinto in 1836. From that day forward, the people of the Republic of Texas would forever be synonymous with bravery, honor, tenacity, guts, grit and dedication to a worthy cause. That fabled fortune spilled over into the creation of the state of Texas, the 28th to join the USA, and its shadow fell on generations to follow.
Our heroic ancestors fought to preserve the rights of Texans — relative newcomers and long-established Tejanos — to seek fruitful lives in this gigantic and geologically diverse state with hills, prairies, deserts, piney woods, rivers, beaches and a plateau so flat you can see forever.
Some of the state’s most successful natives credit, at least in part, their success to growing up in this land of possibility with a melting pot of courageous, bigger-than-life role models.
A “sense of place” is the way former CBS News anchor Dan Rather phrases it in an interview for “Growing Up in the Lone Star State: Notable Texans Remember Their Childhoods,” a recently published compilation of oral histories of well-known natives.
They recalled just what it was about growing up in Texas that inspired them to follow their dreams. Not surprisingly, studying Texas history ranks high in their memories.
Wharton-born Rather said, “One of my earliest memories from first or second grade is learning all the words to ‘Texas, Our Texas,’ which is the state song. And certainly, learning Texas history. That’s part of giving you a strong sense of place.”
Lubbock-born bluesman Delbert McClinton put it succinctly: “You are what you hear.”
McClinton’s point is you must hear and listen to truly know who you are, and that awareness will guide you to who knows where.
Other famous Texans agreed wholeheartedly with McClinton.
For instance, Rex Tillerson, Wichita Falls-born former CEO of ExxonMobil and secretary of state, attributed his identity to his roots.
“I have a deep sense of pride in who I am as a Texan. Often, I loved to say to people in Washington, ‘down in the Republic of Texas.’
“Native Texans have this deep sense of identity because we were a republic. We have a deep sense of pride in our ancestors. That’s been the source of my success. I always know who I am.”
Astronaut Robert Crippen, who piloted STS-1, the first Shuttle, and commanded other shuttle flights, dreamed about soaring in the heavens as a boy in the East Texas Piney Woods.
With a pilot’s swagger, Beaumont-born Crippen said, “I remember we studied Texas history in high school. We had to take a semester of Texas history when we went to UT.
“I think I was like any other kid growing up in Texas. I was proud to be a Texan and not shy about telling people about it.”
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, former ambassador to NATO and the first female U.S. senator from Texas, filled the seat of her great-grandfather’s law partner, Thomas Rusk. Rusk was the republic’s secretary of war and, along with Sam Houston, one of the first two U.S. senators from Texas.
Hutchison, born in Galveston, oozes the thrill of Texas history. She thought about it constantly while she grew up. She heard the stories. She read history books. Her great-grandfather also signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, and her grandmother’s neighborhood included Nacogdoches’ Old Stone Fort.
“We’ve passed it (history) down through the generations because we still have that love of Texas,” Hutchison said. “And it’s so important to continue to teach Texas history as a required course.”
While the Republic of Texas is the heart of our history, we know it’s not the beginning or the end.
More recent history continues with space exploration, a literal sky-is-the-limit enterprise. Remember, Neil Armstrong’s first word transmitted when the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the surface of the moon was “Houston,” as in “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Teaching Texas history in schools is an imperative we must continue no matter how the winds of education flutter.
If highly accomplished Texans were inspired to work hard to reach their potential because of the example of their forebears’ courage and sacrifice, we must make sure young Texans also learn to take pride in their heritage and have the daring to reach for the stars.
Hull-Daisetta native Gaylon Finklea Hecker and Tyler native Marianne Odom coauthored “Growing Up in the Lone Star State: Notable Texans Remember Their Childhoods,” published July 2021, Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.