To those who champion politicians strictly by party, Mark White defies easy categorization, which is why he goes down as arguably Texas’ finest governor in generations. Even though he was a Democrat, he didn’t hesitate to provoke many in his own party and powerful teacher groups in his concerted effort to reform public education. That included putting a strong emphasis on retaining only truly skilled teachers — and reducing the heavy emphasis on school sports at the expense of academics.
White, who died of a heart attack Saturday at age 77, was also the governor who rankled a lot of Texans by signing into law a bill compelling drivers to wear seat belts. Despite the complaints of many, there’s little doubt the effort saved lives. White recalled for us once how someone had the temerity to complain that wearing a seat belt rumpled his suit. The governor reminded him how rumpled he might be after a traffic smashup without seat belts.
White in the past year or so gained prominence again by vigorously pressing the Baylor University Board of Regents for more accountability regarding a scandal involving sexual assaults and the university’s problems preventing them or appropriately addressing the victims. Yet much of his vehemence in the issue involved what Baylor President Linda Livingstone has correctly noted is a concern that all Baylor alumni have — and White was in any estimation a dedicated BU alumnus.
Indeed, White, an attorney, was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 1984 by the Baylor Alumni Association and received from Baylor in 2011 the Pro Texana Medal of Service, which honors an individual whose contributions in furthering the mission of Baylor have made “an immeasurable impact in the public or non-profit sector.” Whether a Baylor Alumni Association (or, more recently, Baylor Line Foundation) event, a Bears for Leadership Reform press conference or a gathering of the “Baylor Nation” on campus, White was most often present.
White served only one remarkable term as governor, from 1983 to 1987. That is possibly a reflection of growing Republican dominance in state politics but perhaps also averse reaction to his signing key legislation that included the so-called “no-pass, no-play” law that said students must maintain certain academic standards if they are to compete in sports. While visceral Friday night lights reaction to this law demonstrated how awful some priorities are among parents and school boosters, White never regretted trying to better prepare students for the challenges of tomorrow.
No state of Texas office-holder today stands tall quite the way White did. He committed sacrilege of a sort during the desperate oil bust of the 1980s by stressing that Texas’ future required business and economic diversification; he brought warring parties together to hammer out viable compromises and real solutions (which, among other things, yielded Ivie Reservoir in parched West Texas); and, yes, he forever took flak over those seat belts. He was also a tremendously engaging figure, brimming with integrity, vision and guts. We will miss his wit, vigor and example of selfless leadership.