H. Ross Perot was your garden-variety self-made business tycoon … more or less.
He came from humble beginnings in Northeast Texas. Born in Texarkana, the young man enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he graduated and earned his commission as an officer. He served his country, then came home and got to work.
Eventually, he gathered up enough cash to start an electronics firm in Dallas. It grew into a monstrous company. Perot managed to inflame a lot of tempers along the way, which I suppose you could say is fairly normal for most business tycoons. I mean, you don’t acquire wealth in the billions of dollars without stepping on a few toes.
So, it happened with Ross Perot, who died this week in Dallas at the age of 89.
Suffice to say the man’s presence will be felt likely for as long as there are individuals still inhabiting Texas, the United States or, dare I say it, Planet Earth.
Make no mistake about his commitment to his country or to the generous spirit that inhabited this man’s heart. He gave enormous amounts of his treasure back to the community and sought to advance noble causes around the nation and the world.
He fought for information about the men he believed were left behind at the end of the Vietnam War. He actually led a rescue mission to free prisoners of war during that conflict.
Perot ran for president of the United States twice, in 1992 as an independent candidate and in 1996 as the leader of the Reform Party. He didn’t make it to the White House, but managed in 1992 to gather enough votes that many analysts said denied President George H.W. Bush a second term in office. I have doubted that theory, believing that Bill Clinton would have defeated President Bush even without Perot’s presence on the ballot.
Perot made his mark on public policy, though, years earlier in Texas.
It was in 1983 when Perot declared quite loudly that Texas was far more interested in producing blue-chip athletes than blue-chip scholars. Gov. Mark White called Perot out, telling the business mogul, in effect, that if he could improve the state’s public education system, he was welcome to try. White formed a blue-ribbon commission and named Perot as its chairman.
He told Perot to get to work. So, he did. The Perot Commission produced a landmark Texas education overhaul that resulted in what came to be known as no-pass, no-play, meaning that if students didn’t attain a 70 percent classroom average, they would be disqualified from extracurricular activities. The Perot plan also limited class sizes for students in grades kindergarten through sixth grade.
He then launched a statewide barnstorming tour to pitch his plan.
Our paths crossed when he ventured to Beaumont in the summer of 1984. Take my word for this: The man who stood all of 5 feet 6 inches could command a room as if he were a foot taller. He was a force of nature. I witnessed his speech to the Beaumont Rotary Club one day and then had the high honor of spending time with him sitting at a conference table at Lamar University, where we discussed the nuts and bolts of what he was proposing for Gov. White and the Texas Legislature. As he would say while running for president years later, “The devil is in the details.” So, he delivered the goods. The Legislature met in special session later that year and approved the Perot plan for public educational achievement.
Depending on your point of view, Ross Perot either produced a system that has improved the condition of public education in Texas or has been the bane of teachers, students and parents for the past three-plus decades.
The man is gone. His legacy remains, whether it is in public school classrooms, in political strategy war rooms, or in the field of big business. This man left his mark. It will be visible for a very long time.
John Kanelis, former editorial page editor for the Amarillo Globe-News and the Beaumont Enterprise, is also a former blogger for Panhandle PBS in Amarillo. He is now retired, but still writing. Kanelis can be contacted via Twitter @jkanelis, on Facebook, or his blog, www.highplainsblogger.com. Kanelis' 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.