Peter O’Donnell’s Impact on Modern Texas Should Inspire Younger Texans

At Texas 2036, we are dedicated to bringing Texans together to support critical decisions and actions for our future, and we are driven by the need for sustainability and resiliency, stewarding our resources wisely and well. This month, Texas bids farewell to Peter O’Donnell, whose life and work reflects these principles. Through our mission of enabling Texans to make policy decisions through accessible data, long-term planning and statewide engagement, we hope to build on Peter’s legacy, and secure our shared vision of keeping Texas the best place to live and work now, and for generations to come.

To understand the evolution of modern Texas, you have to know the impact of leaders like Peter O’Donnell. The Dallas businessman/philanthropist died this month at age 97, but not before helping steer Texas in a new direction in education and politics.

From the 1930s thru the 1950s, Texas was slowly being transformed from a rural, one-party, agricultural state into a metropolitan, multi-dimensional place. As a legislator, Lyndon Johnson helped the process along through getting Congress to expand electricity to the state’s largely poor, frontier-like small towns. But Texas’ evolution into a mega-state got a major kickstart in the 1960s through leaders like O’Donnell. He was not as well known as John Connally, whose governorship from 1962 to 1968 placed a major emphasis on improving the state’s higher education system. But O’Donnell was as influential in diversifying our economy through pushing for improvements in education from kindergarten-thru-college.

The O’Donnell Foundation that he and his wife Edith created in 1957 invested heavily in developing the scientific and technological capacities of the state’s major universities. Long before STEM education became a fashionable term, they were donating, sometimes anonymously, to advance science, technology, engineering, and medical education at places like the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

The result was the evolution of Texas’ economy from one driven by oil and cattle to one in which knowledge fueled the rise of companies and institutions specializing in fields such as computer technologies, bioscience developments, and medical research.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, O’Donnell created an ecosystem around education that was not limited to the world of higher education. He almost single-handedly spread Advanced Placement (AP) courses across Texas.

A math graduate himself, he pushed the Texas Legislature in the 1990s to invest in AP courses that could prepare students for college. And the O’Donnell Foundation made its own major investments in the creation of AP courses in both urban and rural Texas. The mild-mannered philanthropist delighted in showing charts that detailed how these courses were helping transform educational opportunities for young Texans, including the growing number of minority students.

The importance of developing the minds of Texans was central to his mission. “Peter always said that Texas was blessed with depleting assets that needed to be replaced with human capital that would never deplete,” his friend and Texas 2036 founder Tom Luce recalls.

In the same way that O’Donnell created an ecosystem around education reform, he led others in the 1960s as state GOP chair in laying the foundation for a Republican resurgence in Texas. It is almost impossible to imagine now that Democrats once had a monopoly on power in Texas. The number of GOP lawmakers in the 1961 Texas Legislature, for example, totaled zero. Now, Republicans control both chambers.

Of course, we still need a competitive two-party state, one that gives voters choices. Political competition strengthens democracy, which is essentially what O’Donnell and fellow Republicans like John Tower and George Bush were doing while O’Donnell chaired their party from1962 thru1969.

In 1962, Tower was in the second year of a 24-year Senate tenure that began when he surprisingly won a 1961 race to take Lyndon Johnson’s Senate seat after LBJ became Vice President. In 1962, George H.W. Bush was chair of the Harris County GOP, and two years away from a U.S. Senate campaign that O’Donnell chaired.

One of the major fights at the time was keeping backers of the ultra-right John Birch Society from taking over the small band of Republicans. O’Donnell, Bush, and others wanted a forward-looking GOP.

With exceptions, such as Bush’s support for the 1968 Fair Housing Act, Democrats largely led the way on civil rights. But eventually a new GOP emerged, focused on mainstream issues like economic development, a strong national defense, a modern education system, and vibrant local communities. Later, an appreciation for the contribution of immigrants to our economy emerged.

Developing alongside this shift in our politics and economy were cities and suburbs that housed a rising professional and managerial class that prized innovation in the way that O’Donnell did. Many of those office towers and corporate campuses you see across our state are home to knowledge-based workers because of the foundation that leaders like Peter O’Donnell laid.

Young Texans today may think that divisions are too deep, and that our social-media saturated society is too atomized, to impact their state. But O’Donnell showed that change can come through looking ahead, creating an ecosystem of fellow travelers, and investing in strategies that speak to our state’s needs. He may not have been a household name but his influence on Texas was nonetheless real. There was a reason that former University of Texas at Austin President Larry Faulkner once described O’Donnell as “My candidate for the living Texan with the greatest impact on modern Texas.”

William McKenzie is senior editorial advisor at the George W. Bush Institute