Teel Bivins, a Panhandle cattleman, businessman and former state senator whose loyalty to George W. Bush led to his appointment as the U.S. ambassador to Sweden, died Monday at his Amarillo home, a family spokeswoman said.
Sharon Miner said Bivins, who was 61, died about 2 p.m. after a years-long battle with progressive supranuclear palsy, a disorder that afflicts five or six people in 100,000.
The same disorder sapped the late state Sen. Tom Haywood of Wichita Falls.
Bivins was diagnosed with the disease in 2004, while serving as ambassador to Sweden. He returned to Texas after resigning in 2006.
Bush offered condolences, calling Bivins "a dear friend and a great man."
In 1989, Bivins, who enjoyed family wealth tied to oil, gas and ranching interests, was a freshman legislator among eight outnumbered Republicans in the Texas Senate. Within the next decade, though, the GOP held a majority of the body's 31 seats, an advantage not relinquished since.
By 1995, Bivins was chairman of the Senate Committee on Nominations. He later led the Senate's education committee and then its budget-writing finance panel.
Former acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff described Bivins as a wily legislative technician who once came up with a novel way of filling the state's so-called rainy day fund.
Ratliff also called Bivins a good soldier invariably willing to tangle with Democrats in floor fights.
Robyn Hadley, a former Bivins aide and founder of the networking Web site Capitolcrowd.com, said Bivins hired people without regard to their political backgrounds.
"He hired people because of their talent, not because of their political persuasions," Hadley said. "Going the other way, there were Democrats who would never have hired me because I worked for a Republican."
Hadley singled out Bivins for his sponsorship of a proposal imposing a graduated driver's license system on Texas teenagers and his focus on ensuring that public school students clear state-mandated tests to advance from grade to grade — a key facet of then-Gov. Bush's platform in running for president.
Bivins was among state legislators who stumped outside Texas for Bush for president and was one of Bush's so-called pioneer fundraisers in 2000 and 2004, raising more than $100,000 for him in 2004.
Former aide Thomas Graham said that in July, Bivins owned a van sporting a Kay Bailey Hutchison bumper sticker. In April, Bivins gave the U.S. senator $5,000 for her campaign against Gov. Rick Perry in the 2010 Republican primary.
Perry said Monday that he'd remember Bivins' allegiance when the GOP-led Legislature tackled a $10 billion revenue shortfall in 2003 without raising taxes. Perry said educators should appreciate Bivins' long advocacy of raises for teachers.Graham said that while visiting Bivins, he asked if he could do anything for him. "Stop the income tax!" Graham recalled Bivins saying. Texas is among a few states without a personal state income tax.
Graham said: "Given his family's wealth, he could have done anything with his life and been considered a success. He chose to enter the arena of public service, where he was really able to make a difference."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who recently married Bivins' ex-wife, called Bivins a real friend and statesman, adding, "He had more friends and was admired by more people than almost anyone else I know."
Published in Austin American-Statesman from Oct. 26 to Nov. 15, 2009.