I have deep roots in Texas. I was born and raised on a farm in East Texas that had been in my family since before the Civil War. From my upbringing, I learned
- Abiding family values,
- A deep religious faith,
- A strong work ethic,
- A patriotic commitment to our democracy,
- A genuine concern for the well being of others.
But most important, I learned that talking about my values was not enough—I had to live them.
Love, Marriage and Careers
In 1965, at the tender age of 19, I married the love of my life, Bill Ledbetter. We headed off to the University of Houston with little else besides our love and the last paycheck from his job at a local service station. Within three years we had finished our undergraduate degrees, paying our own way by working low-wage jobs and taking advantage of National Defense Student Loans and the GI Bill.
After completing our undergraduate degrees, Bill began graduate studies in history at the University of North Texas and I started my first teaching job. After two years, I lost my job because I became pregnant with our daughter, Shay. At the time, it was not unusual for school districts to have a firm policy against pregnant women teaching. Fortunately, we were both able to get assistantships in the university’s graduate school. Our second child, Todd, was born while we were completing our studies.
In 1972 Bill finished his work first and got a job teaching at the college in Gainesville, where I too was employed the next year. Thus began my 40+ year college teaching career. My primary focus has been on United States history, but I have also taught world history, literature, a variety of humanities courses, honors courses, and legal studies. One of my proudest moments in this long career was being named a Minnie Stevens Piper Professor in 2015. This award is given to only ten professors chosen statewide each year from both universities and community colleges for outstanding accomplishments in their professions.
A New Direction: Adventures in the Law
Although we both enjoyed our teaching jobs, after ten years in the classroom we felt pulled in a different direction. My dad had encouraged me to become an attorney when I was growing up, and I had always wanted to know more about the law. Our best friend had started law school the same year we started graduate school and was practicing in Denton. I knew Bill had been torn between the two options back then. The college had a leave policy that enabled us to go to law school without giving up our jobs, so we headed to Texas Tech for this new turn in our lives. Although I did well in law school and had the option of making more money with a major firm, I knew by that time that I never wanted to give up teaching.
We returned to Gainesville and opened a law office. Bill practiced full time, but I never left teaching. I worked with him during the summers and helped out during regular semesters. Even though I was never a full-time lawyer, the degree opened a couple of new avenues for me that enriched my life. I was able to start and head up a two-year associates legal assisting program at the college. In this program, I encountered highly motivated students who often faced serious personal and/or economic obstacles to their success. In part because they saw a direct connection between their studies and their planned career, they proved to be excellent students. Even though the college ultimately phased the program out, I gained a greater appreciation for the power of career and technical education that turned me into a strong champion of such success-building programs.
Legal Services Work
The law license also gave me the opportunity to work with the Legal Services Corporation to start a legal clinic in Cooke County for clients who could not afford an attorney. Early on, in the law practice I discovered it was almost impossible for me to turn away clients because they couldn’t pay.
An experience from my high school years had instilled in me the difference an attorney can make in people’s lives. When I was a senior in high school, I became friends with a young woman who had married a US soldier in Germany when she was only 14. Even though she had a three-year-old child, she was determined to get her high school diploma. One day she walked to school with her little girl in tow and asked to see me. Her husband had beaten her badly, and she had nowhere to turn. I left school and took her to an attorney friend of my family. He didn’t hesitate to take her case although he knew he had no hope of getting paid—she soon had a divorce and a restraining order.
She lived with my family until high school graduation, but meanwhile she had met the wife of the school superintendent, a good woman with more money than my family. She invited her to live with them and agreed to pay her way through college. Because people were willing to help her, this young woman was able to build a good life for herself and her daughter. Now I seemed to replay her story in my mind every time someone like her came to us. Bill pointed out that we could go broke.
I contacted the Denton Legal Services office, and the lawyers there worked with me to begin a program in Cooke County to handle civil cases only, mostly involving various aspects of family law. At first, they sent their attorneys to a once-a-month clinic, and I contacted local attorneys to take the qualifying clients on a pro-bono or reduced-fee basis. I discovered that with a system in place to determine who actually needed help, local attorneys were incredibly generous with their time. Almost every one of them was willing to take a few cases each year.
As I was starting the legal assistant program at the college, it occurred to me that students could acquire significant real-life experience by working these cases. We got a grant through Legal Services to hire a part-time legal assistant to open an office in Gainesville. She did the paperwork, and my students got valuable practice interviewing clients and learning first-hand how to move a case through the court system. Our program received recognition from both the Legal Services Corporation and the State Bar. Although budget cuts at the federal level led to closing the local office, the Legal Services Corporation still sponsors a legal clinic once a month in Gainesville.
Our Family Tragedy
Since the birth of our daughter in 1969, our family had been the top priority for both Bill and me. Despite their childhood quarrels, our two children, Shay and Todd, grew up to be best friends. When she graduated high school, Shay enrolled in the University of Texas in Austin and was soon joined by her brother Todd. As young adults, they became closer friends than ever, and Bill and I took great pride in their accomplishments. By 1992, Shay had graduated and moved to Denton to begin graduate school at the University of North Texas. It seemed she was following in our footsteps.
Then one fateful August evening she went for a walk in her neighborhood and never came home. She was struck from behind by a vehicle and suffered severe head injuries. No tragedy in life can compare with the loss of a child.
Fortunately, Shay was an organ donor. The only positive thing that came from the unbearable pain of her loss has been our relationship with the young woman who received her heart. For five long days and nights, Shay lay in a deep coma, her life sustained by machines. When finally the doctors told us she was brain dead, it was hard to imagine our own lives without her, much less identify with another young woman whose life might be saved. But Todd reminded us of what Shay wanted, and we made a decision for life. Six years after Shay’s death we had the opportunity to meet her heart-friend, Bonnie. Since then our families have become close. When she married, Bill and her own father gave her away and I lit the unity candle. A few years later, she and her husband were the attendants at our son’s wedding.
An Involuntary Career Move
In the early 2000s Bill and I had one more battle to fight together, as my own teaching career took an interesting turn. In 2002-03 the state legislature drastically cut funding for higher education, and my college was forced to lay off a number of people, including several good friends of mine. In spite of the financial crisis, the college president made the decision to proceed with a major building project.
Along with many other citizens of the community, Bill and I both raised objections, and Bill announced his plan to run for the Board of Regents. In the midst of this controversy, the president fired me and filed suit in federal court, seeking a court order to uphold his action. I counter sued for violation of due process and freedom of speech.
In the end, Bill was elected, along with two other candidates who shared his objections to college policy. The president’s contract was bought out, and Bill became Chair of the Board of Regents. Meanwhile, the lawsuits proceeded in the federal District Court in Sherman until the court handed down a ruling dismissing the college claim and allowing me to proceed to trial. With that decision in my favor and the change in administration, I was able to get my job back. Ultimately, the new college president wrote one of the recommendations that helped me win the Piper Professorship.
The Education of a College Teacher
What I had initially thought was a blow to both my pride and my career led to one of the most productive two-year periods of my life. When I temporarily lost my college teaching job, I decided to take a detour back into public schools. Sanger High School hired me to teach sophomore and junior English. After over thirty years teaching in college, I admit I didn’t know where to start and almost quit after the first week. But my fellow teachers gave me a crash course in understanding teenagers as well as the high school curriculum. Almost every day it seemed I took up my colleagues’ after-school time with some new issue or problem. Because of their compassion for me and their commitment to our shared mission, they patiently guided me through an incredibly difficult job. After many false starts and the encouragement of a supportive principal, I finally figured out what my students were capable of (more than I had first thought) and learned to love them dearly. Most important, I gained a deep appreciation for what our public school teachers do every day. I was relieved to return to college teaching only because the high school job was so physically demanding I knew I could not continue doing it many more years.
I came back to my original job with so many stories of our public school teachers’ heroism under duress that I believe I can convince the most intractable of legislators they are under-paid, under-respected, and under-appreciated. I am convinced that most state policy makers wouldn’t last a single week following in a teacher’s footsteps. I know I almost didn’t, and without a lot of help, I wouldn’t have.
Another Teacher in the Family
Now our son Todd has undertaken perhaps the most challenging job in the teaching profession: working with emotionally disturbed children. He loves his job, and most of all he loves the children. But, like all public school teachers, he struggles financially. I continue to get first-hand accounts of what is happening on the public school front, both the incomparable rewards and the intractable obstacles.
Todd is now married and has a family of his own, two stepsons and a young daughter. His wife Susan is like a daughter to me. Her family came from Mexico so I have some personal insight into the value that immigration brings to our state. Having struggled to learn Spanish myself, I am grateful that my granddaughter has the opportunity to grow up bilingual.
Last Years and Lasting Commitments
Bill continued to serve on the college Board for a number of years after I got my job back. He also contributed to and worked with the college Foundation to increase the endowment for students to attend college. With a father who was disabled and a mother who had limited job skills, his family experienced hardship and struggle. His commitment to education came from a deep place in his heart—he knew that his own opportunity to go to college saved him from a life of poverty, and he wanted to give back. In fact, one of the requirements to work in his law office was that employees had to let him pay for their college. He didn’t just hire people to work for him: he genuinely loved them and turned them into lifelong friends. The endowed scholarships he established at both the community college and at the University of North Texas continue to extend that love and support to students who can never know how much he cared about their future.
In December 2017, after a sustained battle with a variety of health issues, I lost Bill. We had been together for 52 wonderful years. We went through good times and sad times, but overall our marriage was an equal partnership and a lifelong friendship, as well as a sustained love affair.
I know I have chosen to run for public office at an unusual point in the above-described lifecycle. I no longer harbor any personal ambitions: I have nothing left to prove and little left to lose. I’ve spent my life working with young people. I have not only taught the children of my former students, I have also taught their grandchildren. It is only natural at this stage of my life that I care more for their well being than I do for my own. It’s for their future that I want to serve in the Texas legislature. For most of us boomers, opportunities were abundant, as my own life story shows; now that our lives are relatively secure, it’s time for my generation to focus on improving Texas for the next generation.