Mark Wells White, Jr
Mark Wells White, Jr., who served Texas as secretary of state, attorney general and as a governor who transformed education in his beloved state, died Aug. 5 of a heart attack in his Houston home. He was 77.
Mark White served as governor from 1983 to 1987, following his surprising victory over incumbent Republican William Clements. Mark committed himself to the transformation of the Texas political landscape. During his term of office, he appointed more members of minority groups to high positions in government than had been appointed by all of his predecessors combined, including 500 appointments of women to offices. From the instant of his swearing-in, he made inclusiveness a Texas reality by walking from his inauguration ceremonies to his new home at the nearby Governor's Mansion and ceremoniously cutting the chains that barred public entry to the mansion. Over the balance of his life, Mark's commitment to an inclusive and dynamic Texas never waned.
Mark was the first of the post-World War II generation to hold the position of governor in Texas. He brought to the Governor's Mansion a young family, a beautiful and gracious wife, three energetic children and a sense of revitalization and new promise. Nowhere was this effect more transformative than in the field of education.
At the time Mark took office, standard aptitude tests for Texas school children had been declining for 10 years. By any measure, educational performance in the Lone Star State ranked at, or near, the bottom among the states. In Mark's view, generations of Texas youth were being denied an opportunity to participate in the economic and technological march of progress occurring elsewhere in the nation.
The son of a schoolteacher, Mark was determined to open an antiquated and underfunded public education system to new ideas. As a first order of business, he appointed an independent commission with the specific charge of identifying opportunities that could be turned into law and action. In Mark's words, "Our goal must be to build the best educational system that the mind of man can devise – from first grade through graduate school."
Influential Texans, both in and out of government, Democrat and Republican, were brought together to form a ramming rod for change. With the help of committed colleagues, such as Lt. Gov.William Hobby and a resolved legislative body, House Bill 72 became law. There was little about public education that House Bill 72 did not change. Teacher salaries increased by an average $5,000 per teacher. Class sizes were reduced and, in many ways, educational priorities shifted from where the money was to where the students were. Poor school districts received new hope. All school districts were given new purpose.
The effect was immediate and has proven to be enduring. Standard test scores moved upwards. Texas teachers, who had historically stood at the bottom of the states in terms of compensation, advanced above the national average. New initiatives and policies encompassing everything from pre-schooling to curriculum were brought under the umbrella of change. But within the winds of progress, a storm formed.
The new education law required teacher testing, ongoing measurement of student performance, and an emotionally burdensome requirement which came to be known as "no pass - no play." It seemed to many that a gauntlet had been thrown down on every high school football field in Texas commanding that "you can't play on this field unless you first succeed in the classroom." The reaction was swift.
In many places, including rural counties that contributed to Mark's success as a candidate, the governor became a pariah. School teachers, who previously supported him in his race for governor, rallied against what they considered to be onerous testing requirements. Suits against the law were filed in the courts. School boards hesitated to implement its provisions. But in the end, the law held, as it continues to hold today, not just in Texas but in states across the nation that have emulated many of its ground-breaking initiatives.
Against this backdrop of change, Texas experienced a sharp drop in state revenues as a consequence of falling oil prices. Rather than abandon education reforms and economic development initiatives, Mark elected to take a new direction in the financing of state expenses. He boldly proposed tax increases totaling $4.6 billion, asking the legislature to pass the measure and "blame it on me". They did both. Mark did not win reelection in a second contest with Clements in 1986.
Generations have passed since Mark occupied the governor's office, but the benefit of his stewardship lingers. Austin continues to benefit from his recruitment of high tech companies, which launched the city's subsequent development into a center for technology. The need for protective services for children, first championed by Linda Gale and Mark, remains a Texas priority. The great universities of Texas continue to honor the importance of research so emphasized by Mark. Texans travel safer following his seat belt law and advice that "a click of the seatbelt is your best insurance." He modernized the Texas highway system from a "farm to market network" to a super-paved grid supporting economic growth. And who can forget the anti-litter campaign – "Don't Mess with Texas" – that he initiated; it remains a battle cry today.
Like Texas, Mark changed. As governor, he upheld the death penalty but over the last several years, he lost his belief in the equity and benefit of capital punishment. One of the last uses he made of his legal talents was in defense of people who had been found guilty of capital offenses in which the verdict and the facts did not appear to coincide.
Early in his career, Mark White served Texas as an assistant attorney general. Later, he was appointed Secretary of State by Governor Dolph Briscoe, and in 1977 was elected the youngest-ever president of the National Association of the Secretaries of State. In 1978, the 37-year-old Mark won a heated primary election for Texas Attorney General and went on to defeat Republican James Baker in the general election. During his term as attorney general, Mark gave new priority to consumer issues, particularly those concerning utility rates, a cause he again addressed forcefully as governor. Mark was elected chairman of the Southern Conference of Attorneys General in 1981. He once described his philosophy of government as "basic and uncomplicated. It asks two questions before any others: Is it right? Is it fair?"
In keeping with the educational traditions of his family, Mark received a public education and graduated from Lamar High School in Houston. He received a bachelor of arts degree in business administration from Baylor University in 1962 and a degree in law, also from Baylor, in 1965. He remained an active participant in the affairs of Baylor University until his death. Many of the friends made at Baylor during his student years continued to be his closest friends.
Mark made attempts to regain public office, but the magic of the 1980s had moved on to bless others. He returned to the practice of law at Reynolds, White, Allen & Cook. A few years later, he left to put his entrepreneurial talents to the test with varying degrees of success. He founded Geovox Security to sell the Heartbeat Detector, a product still in use protecting the borders of England, France, Spain and China by detecting people hiding in fully-loaded tractor-trailers.
In truth, Mark never stopped being a public servant. It was his calling. He devoted himself to charities and worthwhile causes. It delighted him that the Mark White Elementary School in Houston carries his name. Mark took every opportunity to speak out for the important role that MD Anderson, UTHealth and Baylor College of Medicine play in leading the healthcare of Texas. He championed the importance of Texas history, including protecting the aging USS Texas battleship. No man or women in the last 40 years has run for major office in Texas as a Democrat without first receiving the advice of Mark White. Even some Republicans were known to call.
Ten years ago, Mark was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer. He battled it and suffered the indignity and pain that befalls all cancer victims. In the end, he kept the cancer at bay. He died comfortably, without warning from an unrelated cause. His abiding Christian faith will take him to his next great adventure. He was, after all, a Baptist and a Baylor man.
Mark is survived by his wife of 50 years, Linda Gale Thompson White. He liked to call her "LG." Together they formed a loving partnership committed to family, charity, their many friends and the State of Texas. Mark's friends agree Linda Gale was the foundation behind every great moment of his life. Mark is also survived by sons Mark III and Andrew, and daughter Elizabeth Marie Russell; daughters-in-law Melanie and Stacey; son-in law Seth Russell (who Mark loved as much as his own sons); grandchildren Charles Luke White, Zachary Wells White, George William White, Emma Claire White, Robert Thompson White, Mark Wells White IV, Catherine Marie Russell, Houston Wells Russell and Christopher Pierce Russell. He loved taking his grandchildren on their 8th birthday to Washington DC to visit our country's seat of government and to instill in them his belief in public service. Mark was born on March 17, 1940 in Henderson, TX to Sarah Elizabeth Wells White and Mark Wells White, Sr. He also is survived by a sister, Betty Gerlach.
Services will be held at 11 a.m., Wednesday Aug. 9 at Second Baptist Church of Houston, 6400 Woodway Dr., Houston 77057. In addition, Mark will lie in state at the Texas Capitol Rotunda Thursday, Aug. 10 from noon to 3 p.m. Both are open to the public.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests any donations in memory of Gov. White be made in his honor to Communities in Schools, a stay-in-school program he brought to Texas and his loving wife has been actively engaged with for decades, at 1235 N Loop W Fwy, Houston, TX 77008.
Published in Houston Chronicle on Aug. 8, 2017.