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Gov. Preston Smith

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Former Gov. Preston Smith, the man credited as most responsible for the establishment of medical and law schools at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, died Saturday at 91.

Smith died three days after entering Texas Tech Medical Center with pneumonia, university spokeswoman Sally Logue Post said.

Smith was governor from 1969 to 1973, after six years as lieutenant governor and presiding officer of the Texas Senate. He prided himself on being the first governor from West Texas.

After leaving the governorship, Smith returned to Lubbock and later did development work for Texas Tech. He remained active on the university's behalf until his death.

In May, Smith became the first recipient of the new Infinito Horizonte (Endless Horizon) Award from the Texas Tech University System Board of Regents, honoring his lifetime of service to the university.

"Preston Smith has been a friend and supporter of this university for decades," regents Chairman Robert Black said at the time. "As a state legislator, as governor and as an alumnus, Texas Tech has always been able to count on Preston Smith."

Smith had been slipping in and out of consciousness since Wednesday, relatives said. Before that, he had been well enough to attend a Texas Tech football game on Oct. 11. He had appeared at former House members day during the legislative session last spring.

Smith was a down-to-earth man who retained the common touch while he was governor and afterward, said Jerry Hall, a former Austin American-Statesman reporter whom Smith hired as his press secretary when he became governor.

Smith answered his own telephone, returned telephone calls himself and preferred having a beer and a sandwich with his staff members to attending a state dinner, Hall said. And he always wore polka-dot ties.

"I always thought he was sort of like Jake Pickle -- a democratic politician with a little D," said Jerry Conn, Smith's biographer, who worked on Smith's first gubernatorial campaign and later on his staff. "And I really did like and admire what I perceived to be a guy who really did have contact with regular folks."

Gov. Rick Perry, in a statement Saturday, cited Smith's career of service.

"For more than a quarter-century, Preston Smith served the people of Texas with a commitment to public service that made our state a better place," the Republican governor said. "His contributions in the areas of public and higher education will continue to touch the lives of Texans for generations to come."

Smith's effort to have an even six years each as a House member, senator, lieutenant governor and governor fell two years short when he was defeated for re-election to a third two-year term in 1972, after being embroiled in the Sharpstown stock fraud conspiracy, which shook up Texas government in 1971.

Smith ran a dismal fourth in the Democratic primary, with just 8.7 percent of the vote.

He was born March 8, 1912, in Williamson County, near a small community called Corn Hill. He was one of 13 children of sharecroppers.

He said he first got the idea to run for governor when he was 9.

"I was walking down a cotton row behind a span of mules and reading an old newspaper about Governor Jim Ferguson," Smith recalled in 1969 to Houston Chronicle reporter Billy Porterfield. "That was the first time I'd read about a governor, and I decided right then and there I wanted to be governor. I've worked toward that goal ever since."

The family moved to West Texas in 1923 and lived in a house in Sunset, later called Sand, between Seminole and Lamesa in Dawson County. They existed on rabbits and even ate green tumbleweeds, Smith recalled. The house later blew away.

When it came time for high school, Smith walked 14 miles into Lamesa, where he lived with a family and worked in their filling station and grocery. He then moved to Lubbock to attend Texas Tech.

Smith started a service station with longtime friend Ebbie Lee while both were students at Texas Tech. They also ran rooming houses for students, and after getting his degree in business administration in 1934, Smith branched out into movie theaters.

It was also at Texas Tech that Smith met a woman with the same last name, Ima Smith, when they were seated alphabetically in a class. They married in 1935.

By 1944, he had six movie theaters. But politics began to consume a great deal of Smith's time and energy -- something that turned into a lifelong trait, Hall said. His press-the-flesh, indefatigable campaigning was crucial to his political success.

Smith was first elected to the Texas House of Representatives from Lubbock in 1944. He was already building the card file of contacts that grew to legendary proportions over his years in politics.

After six years in the House, he ran for the vacant lieutenant governor's job in 1950, probably counting on help from the name identification of former Lt. Gov. John Lee Smith, who held the office from 1943 to 1947 and ran for governor in 1946.

Preston Smith finished third in the 1950 Democratic primary, which was won by Ben Ramsey, and returned to Lubbock to bide his time.

In 1952, he ran for the Texas Senate against incumbent Kilmer Corbin in a newly drawn district and narrowly lost. In a rematch four years later, Smith handily beat Corbin.

After six years in the Senate, the lieutenant governorship again came open. By that time, Smith's card file for his mailing list had grown to 55,000 names. And he bypassed the tradition of appointing county chairmen, instead appointing them in cities large and small.

Smith ran against three other state senators and the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, James Turman.

He finished second, trailing Turman by 70,000 votes, but won by 50,000 votes in the runoff.

Six years later, in 1967, Smith announced for governor, even before then-Gov. John Connally announced he would not seek re-election to a fourth two-year term. Five other major candidates, including former Attorney General Waggoner Carr and Secretary of State John L. Hill, later got into the race.

Smith adopted another campaign tactic, said biographer Conn. He had his campaign staff research phone books from every city, and a letter and campaign literature were sent to every person in the state named Smith, "with the idea that one of us is running for governor, and we need to support our family," Conn said.

Smith again finished second in the Democratic primary. He trailed liberal Don Yarborough, who had almost beaten Connally in 1962 and was making his third race for governor, by 35,000 votes. But he beat Yarborough by 146,000 votes in the runoff.

Among the accomplishments during his tenure, the coordinating board for state colleges and universities was created. Smith later was appointed to a four-year term on that board by one of his successors, former Gov. Bill Clements, and served as its chairman for two years.

This article contains material from wire services.

Published in Austin American-Statesman on Nov. 11, 2003
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