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Piece of Mind: Can TAMUC Take Over Rayburn Library?

John Kanelis

If there is a greater political icon in Northeast Texas than the late Sam Rayburn, then he or she needs to be discovered and unveiled for the world to see.

Rayburn was the former U.S. speaker of the House of Representatives, a longtime Texas Democrat who mentored the likes of future Speaker Jim Wright and future President Lyndon Johnson.

So, they built a library and a museum in Bonham, where Rayburn grew up and came of age. So, who runs the library? It’s a public policy branch based at the University of Texas-Austin. The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History runs the place. The Briscoe Center also runs the Briscoe-Garner Center in Uvalde (hometown of former Vice President John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner) and Winedale in Round Top, Texas.

But lately – because of that COVID-19 pandemic and other “unforeseen circumstances” (according to the automated message system at the library) – the library has been shuttered. No one enters the Bonham library to look at Mr. Sam’s many volumes of books or to watch videos explaining what a forward-thinker he was during his lengthy tenure as House speaker.

This notion is on no one’s lips or minds at the mind at the moment, so I want to broach the subject here. Why not hand management and administration of the Rayburn Library and Museum over to the Texas A&M University System, which then could entrust the folks at Texas A&M-Commerce to run the place?

It is a natural match, given Sam Rayburn’s deep ties to the region and, yes, even to his ties to the university … which haven’t always been warm and fuzzy. Rayburn graduated from what was known as East Texas Normal College in Commerce. It evolved into East Texas State University and eventually to Texas A&M-Commerce. You see, Rayburn butted noggins with the late East Texas State President James William Gee over desegregation of our publicly run colleges and universities. Rayburn wanted it done. Gee, well, resisted – to his everlasting shame.

Both men are long gone now. The library remains.

I put in a call to the office of A&M Chancellor John Sharp, who was unavailable to visit with me. I spoke twice to Vice Chancellor Laylan Copeland, who told me is unaware of any discussion about taking over the Rayburn exhibit in Bonham. Nothing from the A&M Board of Regents or from the chancellor himself. Not a word from the Briscoe Center for American History. Erin Purdy, communications director for the Briscoe Center, said as well that there has been "no discussion here" about transferring the museum and library to anyone else. Purdy said the Briscoe Center has run the Rayburn exhibit since 1991. 

“If you’re looking for any confirmation on this,” Copeland said, “you’re out of luck.” Then he added with a chuckle, “This one’s on you. You own it. Anything you say about it will be your opinion only.”

Fine. I’ll take possession. I believe we ought to start the conversation on whether the A&M System and its member institution at A&M-Commerce should take control of the library and the museum. It’s as natural a fit as anything I can imagine.

I am wondering now that we have nudged that door ajar just a bit whether anyone either in Bryan-College Station or Austin will fling it open the rest of the way.

John Kanelis, former editorial page editor for the Amarillo Globe-News and the Beaumont Enterprise, also is a former blogger for Panhandle PBS in Amarillo. He is retired but is still writing. Kanelis can be contacted via Twitter @jkanelis, on Facebook or his blog, www.highplainsblogger.com. Kanelis’s blog for KETR, “Piece of Mind,” presents his views and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of KETR, its staff or its members.

Kanelis lives in Princeton with his wife, Kathy.

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