Obituary: Dolph Briscoe Jr. / Ex-Texas governor, scion of storied family

April 23, 1923 - June 27, 2010

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Former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe Jr., the wealthy scion of a storied family descended from a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, died Sunday after a lengthy illness, according to a family statement. He was 87.

Mr. Briscoe had been hospitalized in January and had returned home only recently, according to family spokeswoman Ann Arnold.

Born on April 23, 1923, the son of a politically powerful rancher and oilman, Mr. Briscoe, a Democrat, served as governor in 1973-79.

He grew up in Uvalde, Texas, and graduated as valedictorian of the local high school. As a boy, Gov. Ross Sterling -- a close friend of Mr. Briscoe's father -- allowed him to sleep in Sam Houston's bed during an overnight stay at the Governor's Mansion in Austin.

Mr. Briscoe would later say the experience sparked an interest in Texas history that continued through his life.

"My family settled in Fort Bend County in 1832, and Andrew Briscoe signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and led a company of men in the Battle of San Jacinto," Mr. Briscoe said in a 1994 interview. "My father moved to Uvalde in 1910 to go into the cattle business, and we've been here ever since."

At one point, the Briscoe family reportedly controlled more than 600,000 acres, making it the largest private landholder in the state.

In 1942, Mr. Briscoe graduated from the University of Texas, where he was editor of the Cactus yearbook, married Janey Slaughter and enlisted in the Army. He served in Southeast Asia during World War II.

After the war, Mr. Briscoe returned to ranching in Uvalde, in South Texas, and became interested in politics. He was elected to the Texas House in 1949. He served there until 1957, then returned to ranching.

In 1968, Mr. Briscoe stepped back into the political spotlight, running unsuccessfully for governor in a three-way Democratic Party primary. Four years later, he tried again -- this time successfully, as the outsider candidate at a time when Gov. Preston Smith and other top officials were tainted by the Sharpstown influence-peddling scandal, when reform and investigations were swirling around the state Capitol.

Defeating liberal activist Sissy Farenthold of Corpus Christi in a colorful primary, Mr. Briscoe narrowly overcame Republican state Sen. Henry Grover in the general election -- at a time when GOP fortunes were rising in the longtime Democrat-controlled state.

A fiscal conservative, Mr. Briscoe, as Texas' 40th governor, focused on maintaining existing government, not expanding it, and improving the highway system.

In 1974, he won re-election to a four-year term, the first for a Texas governor since 1873.

His second term was marked by two unsuccessful attempts to rewrite the Texas Constitution -- efforts that Mr. Briscoe argued would weaken an executive branch already considered too weak by political scientists -- and by passage of the landmark Texas Open Records Act, the first Texas sunshine law granting the public access to government agencies' records.

It was also marked by the so-called Chicken Ranch affair, which forced him to order the investigation and closure of a long-running brothel in La Grange after Houston television reporter Marvin Zindler publicized its existence with the complicity of local officials.

Mr. Briscoe was reluctantly drawn into the case by public outcry. The episode was later popularized in a Broadway show and movie, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

In 1976, Mr. Briscoe drew unwanted notoriety for appointing a dead man to office.

In 1978, voters denied Mr. Briscoe a third term. He was defeated in the primary by Attorney General John Hill, who lost to Republican oilman Bill Clements -- with some help from Mr. Briscoe's family.


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