John Ben Shepperd: Open the Door, Blackstone
August 28, 1956
Annual Meeting the National Conference of Bar Examiners and the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar
Open the Door, Blackstone (opening remarks only)
Thank you for that very flattering and truthful introduction. I think he did a good job considering that he was in somewhat the same position as the Master of Ceremonies who had to introduce another obscure character from a small town in Texas. He said, “Our next speaker needs no introduction. Even if I told you who he is, you still wouldn’t know him.”
Aren’t these politics over the country something? The conventions are barely over. The hangovers are not even over yet. And already the atmosphere is pervaded with a sort of nervous eagerness . . . politicians are finding things that haven’t even been stolen yet. Some of them are turning up crimes that haven’t even been committed . . . there’s no problem too small to be turned into a crisis and every blabbermouth politician has a solution.
Only yesterday, a self-anointed politician in Washington went running to a psychiatrist suffering from a complete nervous breakdown. He had worked out a beautiful solution but couldn’t find a problem to go with it. He went to a smart doctor who merely sent him to the desk of a Washington bureaucrat who enters his office each morning to face a small issue. His job is to make a mountain out of it before 5 o’clock. He cured him immediately. He created a problem for him.
But I don’t want you to think politicians are good for nothing. We must be good for something—don’t press me for an answer on exactly what.
The other day a lady called my office and said, “Mr. Shepperd, I have a problem.” I said, “Lady, if you feel like you have a problem, come feel of me.” She said, “I have a skunk in my basement.” I told her she had called the right place and all she had to do was take a box of bread crumbs, go down to the bottom of the basement steps and start a trail of these crumbs up the steps, through the hall, through the living room, out the front door, across the porch and out to the edge of the yard, then prop the front door open and go over to the neighbor’s house for an hour. An hour later she called me back and said, “You can’t tell me you politicians can’t get the job done. I now have two skunks in my basement.”
I can say all this because I am not running for re-election. I have become a statesman. You know what a statesman is—a politician who decided not to run again, in most cases because he couldn’t have been elected.
The only reason I even went into politics in the first place was because of my wife, Mamie. She wanted me to move from my home town of Gladewater to our Capital City, Austin, in order that I might make a name for myself. She didn’t like the names they were calling me in Gladewater. But she’s ready to go home now because those names were so much better than the ones they are calling me in Austin.
But I shouldn’t be talking about politics to such a notorious non-political organization as the American Bar Association. So please permit me to go from the sublime to the ridiculous and say a few words about my native state. I’ll talk about Texas whenever there is the slightest indication of interest in that noble subject and you have indicated the slightest interest of any group I have talked to recently.
I want to extend a very warm and cordial welcome to those of you who are from outside the Lone Star State. Let me reassure you at the outset that we don’t blame you for being born somewhere else. You’re still welcome in the great and bountiful state of Texas. I do hope though that you brought your own water. This drouth is so bad we’ve started letting in wetbacks just to get the moisture.
We’re getting smarter in Texas though, as you no doubt have already discovered. We are finally learning that it’s easier to pick a tourist—particularly a convention tourist—than it is to pick cotton. And it’s a lot more fun. I’ve tried both and I know.
In fact, there are so many Yankee and foreigner tourists in Texas now, I’d better give you a few tips on how to recognize a Texan. In the first place, if you see somebody in a big hat and western boots, that’s not a Texan. That’s one of your own bunch who has a Texas friend. And as hot as it is, he’s probably wishing by now he didn’t have.
You’ll know a real Texan when you see one. A real Texan is wealthy—not individually, but collectively. We measure our wealth in terms of each person’s share in the total. So every citizen of this state owns 1/7 of a hog, 1 [and] 1/8 of a cow, 4 pounds of pecans and 1/80 of a jackass. The latter usually sticks out more than the former. He also has 104 barrels of oil.
But I want you to know it isn’t true that all Texans are oil rich. If all the people in Texas who get royalties from oil were suddenly taken up into heaven at the last trump, which is not likely at all, the state would still have left five sharecroppers, two members of our Board of Legal Examiners and one darn good attorney general.
I guess you wonder when I’m going to get around to bragging on Texas. Texans actually don’t enjoy that sort of thing, but it has come to be expected of us and we’re too polite not to fulfill our obligations. When you come right down to it, there aren’t actually many Texans who brag. If all the bragging Texans were laid end to end, it would meet with the unanimous approval of the rest of the country.
You out-of-staters think we don’t have a very high regard for the truth, but the fact is we value it very highly and that’s why we are so economical with it. Remember though, there is one sure way to tell if a Texan is lying—if his mouth is open, he’s lying.
While you are here you will find that Texas is the healthiest place in the world. We have to go across the state line to get sick. A friend of mine who is a veteran of many years at the bar—both kinds—lost his health back east so he bought a ranch in Texas. When he came down here he was crippled and had a glass eye. They discovered oil on his ranch, and he not only stopped limping but he can see a little out of that glass eye.
I’m not going to take your time to pay a much-deserved tribute to the dynamic members of the Dallas and Texas Bars. The fact that they could sell you on coming to Dallas in hot August is the best evidence of their enthusiasm and salesmanship. One of the delegates might have expressed your feelings when he told me last night that “August heat isn’t so bad in Texas—it saves you money—if you want to communicate with any of your departed brethren in the American Bar, you can do it cheap here because hell isn’t a long-distance call from Texas.”
There’s one thing you can say for us Texans that makes us popular, even if nothing else does. We have always had a high regard for women. Texas women are so tall you have to regard pretty high to see them. Last year we passed a constitutional amendment asking them to serve on the jury. We decided that if women are going to try and convict more men than juries ever could, they might as well sit twelve in a box and do it legally. That way they can only pick on one poor devil at a time.
There was considerable legislative haggling over whether or not to exempt lawyers’ wives from jury service. They were finally exempted on the ground that being married to a lawyer is punishment enough.
As a matter of fact, the ever-present battle of the sexes in Texas resolves itself down to this simple formula—men are men and women are women—and I defy you to improve on a situation like that. Or, as the old maid said, “Who wants to improve on it? I just want to get in on it.”
Actually though, you out-of-staters are welcome in Texas. As a matter of fact, we already have more than two million citizens from other parts of the country. Many of them are from your home states. We call them refugees. If I were a typical Fourth of July orator, I’d tell you what a great contribution they have made to our state, what fine citizens they are, how much we love them. But I’ll be perfectly candid. You can have them back any time you want them.
Actually we’re glad to have these refugees. We are working hard to get more people; in fact, every 16th child born in the United States is a Texan and Texans are born four times as fast as they die. That’s pretty discouraging to the rest of the country.
Just remember when you’re in Texas, that of all these 8 1/2 million laughing, bragging, hard-working, God-fearing Texans with their feet on the ground and their heads in the sky, 9,500 are in the penitentiary, 29,000 are under indictment, 19,000 are out on bond, 2,500 are in jail and the rest have been assessed fines totaling $398,000 already this year. I tell you this because these figures will be popular with your friends back home.
But I had better get on or you will be wanting me to stop before I actually get started.
You know my wife and I have four children, two of whom are twin girls. When my wife went to the hospital before they were born, my oldest son, Skippy, kept saying he hoped Mommy had a girl. So I told him, “Son, why don’t you try praying for one?” The first night he prayed for a long time and came in the next day and said, “I prayed last night and nothing has happened. I am not going to pray any more.” I said, “No, son, go back and try again.” The second night he went back and prayed very, very long and devoutly. He came in the next day and said, “I prayed twice and I’m through.” Some time later we went down to the hospital and there was his mother with Marianne in one arm and Suzanne in the other. Bursting with pride on the arrival of his twin sisters, I walked across the room, patted him on the head and said, “Son, aren’t you glad you prayed?” He said, “Yes, and ain’t you glad I stopped?”
[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]