Bob Barton, a one-term state lawmaker who for decades was a force in Hays County politics and owned several small newspapers, died Saturday. He was 82.
Barton remained a diehard Democrat as Texas transitioned to a more conservative political climate, friends said. He championed those who didn't have a voice, whether in the pages of his newspapers or through his work as a Democratic organizer, said his son, Jeff Barton.
"He loved people, newspapers and politics, not necessarily in that order," Jeff Barton said. "If there was an underdog, that's whose side he wanted to be on."
Friend and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said in a statement that Barton represented "qualities that reflect the best of the human spirit."
Barton was born in Austin but grew up in Buda. He joined the Army after high school and served in Germany during the Korean War. He graduated from the college that later became Texas State University on the G.I. Bill and, with a friend, bought a small newspaper in Kyle.
It was the first of many small papers Barton would own, run and write for, including the Elgin Courier, the Hays County Citizen and the Hays Free Press, which is now published by his daughter-in-law.
"A community newspaper is a crazy animal because you see who you write about at the grocery store and the ball game," Jeff Barton said. "He was aware of that, but was still always outspoken about his opinions and encouraged reporters and editors to call it the way they saw it."
Barton was active in the Hays County Democratic Party and took a special interest in social justice issues – to the point that a cross was once burned on his lawn. He was among the organizers who helped get the first Hispanics elected to local positions like San Marcos City Council in the 1970s, friends said.
"He was part of a group that really changed the face of San Marcos politics, particularly in the area of civil rights," said Melissa Millecam, who was the editor of one of Barton's newspapers and later worked as his legislative aide.
Friend Bill Cunningham recalled that in the 1960s and 1970s, Barton was involved in the fight over what activists saw as the unequal treatment of Hispanic students in San Marcos schools.
Barton "aligned strongly with the Mexican-American leaders here. They ended up capturing a majority on the school board and getting the first Mexican-American mayor elected in San Marcos," Cunningham said.
With his wife, Wynette, Barton opened a bookstore in the 1960s, the Colloquium, that was near Texas State and often served as a hub for political activity.
As conservative Texas Democrats switched to the Republican Party, Barton remained part of "that hardy breed of liberal Democrats," Cunningham said. "He was willing to be a voice in the wilderness on unpopular issues."
Barton was known for his booming voice, gentle spirit and often-rumpled appearance, friends said.
"He was quick to jump into a fight, but slow to find an enemy," Jeff Barton said. "He never held a grudge. He'd lecture us about, 'People have their own point of view, and you have to respect where they're coming from.'"
Barton "didn't like toys or fancy vacations. He drove old, beat-up cars and wore second-hand clothes even at the Legislature," his son said. "He was sophisticated and well-read and well-traveled. He was just unconcerned with outward appearance and disdainful of people who put on too many airs."
Barton served one term in the Texas House in the early 1980s before being defeated by Republican Anne Cooper in the Reagan landslide of 1984.
"He was a common-sense person and legislator," said Gonzalo Barrientos, a former state senator who served with Barton in the Texas House. "He said what he meant and meant what he said."
Barton died of complications from congestive heart failure. He is survived by his wife, two sons, two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren.
Funeral services haven't been scheduled yet.
Published in Austin American-Statesman on Jan. 20, 2013