Ashley Richardson and Constance Gabel–Our second full day in Austin tackled three large subjects: LBJ, Arts, and Austin which are somewhat connected. Joining us for this trifecta was Will Phillips, an SHSU alum from Austin, who had been to some of these stops previously.
Our first stop included the LBJ boyhood home and the LBJ Ranch, giving us insight into the more private life of the former President. At the boyhood home, a modest-sized structure (but large for the time), we heard how LBJ would sneak out his window, crawl under the house, and sit beneath the room that his father and other local politicos would gather in to discuss politics. LBJ’s political ways—and his subterfuge—began at an early age.
The LBJ Ranch, or the “Texas White House,” was a snapshot of a different era. The home, clearly ruled by Lady Bird, was just as she left it, from the yellow Formica counter tops to LBJ’s three televisions (one for each network), to Lady Bird’s closet, which was filled with pantsuits of green and other unlikely colors. We toured the home, amazed by the preservation.
We also saw the Johnson family grave site which includes the graves of LBJ and Lady Bird and the “Air Force One Half,” the smaller version of Air Force One, which LBJ used to travel between the ranch and the DC White House.
One of the things we learned at the LBJ venues was his support for the arts, particularly inhis creation of the National Endowment for the Arts. In that spirit, we piled into the van and navigated the Hill Country to the Benini Sculpture Ranch. Unbeknownst to us, Professor Yawn set up a chance to meet the artist, who gave us access to his inner sanctum—a private tour of his studio—as well as an earful of his beliefs on politics, religion, and sex, all offered without much prompting.
The conversation, as well as the man’s art, was thought provoking and eye opening.
We each had favorite pieces from the tour. For Constance, it was Andante….
For Ashley, there were two: the Heartcatcher and the Stars Giver.
And lots of other works:
On a larger scale, both LBJ and the arts are part of the Austin scene. The LBJ Presidential Library is located in Austin and the arts are everywhere, in the form of architecture, public art, music, and private galleries. We had the chance to explore some of those on a night-time Segway Tour that lasted some 2.5 hours.
We capped off the night at Kerby Lane Café, where we met with Blake Roach, an SHSU alum who now works for Attorney General Greg Abbott. The food was good, the conversation was nice, and we were able to warm up before resting up for tomorrow, our last day in Austin.
Our first day of whirlwind activities in Austin began with a tour of the Capitol building, exploring the Senate Gallery, and viewing the portraits of Texas governors.
The highlights of the day, however, involved meeting the legislative staff. Our first meeting was with Senator Schwertner’s Staff: Chief of Staff Tom Holloway and Leah Alexander, the District Director. We learned what happens in a Senator’s Office, the need to be responsive to constituent concerns, and what responding entails. More to our immediate interest, we learned what is expected of legislative interns: a good attitude, initiative, and strong communication skills.
Following our meeting, we hopped over to Frank and Angie’s, where we had some delicious pizza and the opportunity to meet Brian King, a legislative intern with Representative Senfronia Thompson’s Office.
After lunch, we returned to the Capitol, where we had class in the House Chamber! The class was “taught” by Nikki Cobb (Chief of Staff for Representative John Otto) and Chris Griesel (House Parliamentarian). Our desks were the desks of the legislators, and the curriculum involved a step-by-step overview of the legislative process. An emphasis was placed on the need for cooperation which, in turn, depends on trust. And trust, of course, depends on members acting in good faith and keeping their word. Ms. Cobb also provided essential information, describing some of the work off the floor, how to mediate conflict, and an inspirational discussion of her career, which began as an intern and evolved over the years to Chief of Staff.
Our last Capitol stop was in Representative Thompson’s office, where we met Todd Kercheval, an SHSU alum turned legislative aide, turned executive branch employee, turned lobbyist. He stressed the importance of selecting a job you enjoy and that offers rewards, finding a mentor, and building relationships.
Our day ended on a high note, with dinner at Fogo de Chao. The food was wonderful, although there is little doubt we ate too much. We tried to walk it off with a brief stroll around 6th street, where we saw a bit of the much-discussed Austin night life before returning home, and resting up for another big day tomorrow.
Coby Steele and Kevin Hernandez–After arriving in Austin late in the evening (2:30am), we had an early morning beset by cold weather. In fact, our planned trip to Capitol Hill was delayed a bit, but we did not let this deter us…
Following some roaming around the Capitol…
we met with Senator Charles Schwertner’s staff: Chief of Staff Tom Holloway and District Director Leah Alexander. They walked us through the workings of the Senator’s office in both the Legislative and non-Legislative years, as well as their duties. We were surprised at the amount of work for such a small staff, and we found the policy side of things particularly interesting.
Elected officials rely heavily on staff to explore model legislation, analyze the costs and benefits of legislation, and to summarize existing legislation. There’s a lot of work that goes into these bills, and only a small portion get passed.
After our visit in Senator Schwertner’s office, we broke from the Capitol for lunch at Frank and Angie’s Pizzeria in downtown Austin. The restaurant is so named because of the original owner Angie having a strong affection for Frank Sinatra. There we were joined by a fellow LEAP Center student, Brian King, who is currently interning at the Capitol for Representative Senfronia Thompson. We all got to enjoy the Pavarotti, a vegetarian pizza; the Chairman of the Board, a type of supreme named for Sinatra; and our favorite was the Sicilian which incorporated bell peppers into the pizza. A single pizza was the equivalent of a large delivery pizza, so there was plenty to fuel us for what still lay ahead.
Following lunch, another treat awaited us. Nikki Cobb, Chief of Staff for Representative John Otto, and Chris Griesel, the Parliamentarian of the House of Representatives, met with us on the House floor to discuss the process of how a bill becomes a law.
The discussion was very engaging; Mr. Griesel displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of history and procedure, as well as frequent bursts of humor to lighten what, in other hands, could be a dry topic. Mrs. Cobb was very helpful in answering questions about the legislative process, while also providing details on her career path. Both spoke about a common theme of working together with other legislators and not making enemies or bridges because they said one day “they may need you to pass a bill, and another day you may need them.”
After our exclusive and unprecedented experience in the House chamber we met Todd Kercheval, a man with a diverse resume. His work ranged from being a Legislative Aide to Chief of Staff to work in an executive department to lobbyist. While most of our day was more oriented to the different formalities of the Texas legislature, Mr.Kercheval touched on the essentials needed to work efficiently in the fast paced world of Texas politics. He emphasized two points: initiative and integrity.
After a day of amazing presentations, we had an amazing dinner. In our case, it was at Fogo de Chao, a spectacular Brazilian steak house, which is a short walk away from the festive and ever-exciting 6th street. We were joined by old colleagues and recent alums Brian King, Emily Johnson and Will Phillips, who all provided great conversation through the rest of the night. The experience was new for a good portion of us, and the quantity and quality of the food was a bit surprising, as was the speed of its delivery to the table. This was one of the best possible ways to end an overall marvelous day on our visit to the Heart of Texas.
Ashley Richardson and Joycelyn Ovalle–As LEAP Center students, we strive to take initiative. It’s a good thing! This morning, adaptability and initiative shaped our Austin trip, which was almost derailed by what Austinites described as “inclement weather.” The Capitol Building Officials, however, closed down the offices, leaving us without a guided tour of the Capitol Building.
We adapted. Professor Yawn offered an impromptu tour of the Capitol, offering neat facts and historically accurate facts pertaining to politics and law. In fact, some straggling tourists soon joined the group, asking, “Is this a public tour?” Along the way, and sometimes with stragglers, we saw our favorite governors, Elizabet Ney’s statue of Sam Houston, and some Capitol art.
But we weren’t the only ones who adapted. Senator Schwertner’s Chief of Staff (Tom Holloway) and District Director (Leah Alexander) came into work despite the “snow day,” and offered us a wonderfully interesting overview of office administration, discussing staff positions, duties, and a general conversation about “life on the Hill.” For students who have learned most of their politics in classrooms and television, this real-world discussion was valuable, and many of us left hoping that we would be able to apply that knowledge on the Hill in the near future.
With those thoughts in our head, we headed to Frank and Angies, where three colossal-size pizzas were devoured.
To begin our afternoon sessions, we headed to the House Chamber, where Chris Griesel (House Parliamentarian) and Nikki Cobb (Chief of Staff to Representative John Otto), taught us about the process of shepherding legislation through the Texas Legislature.
Comparing his job to an air-traffic controller, the former lawyer turned Parliamentarian used a modified version of the Socratic Method to engage the students, while Ms. Cobb provided valuable insights from an insider’s perspective.
Having “class” in the House Chamber added to the experience, and we were sitting on the edge of the House members’ seats, soaking in as much information and advice as possible.
We concluded our visit to the Capitol with a visit to Representative Senfronia Thompson’s Office. Ms. Thompson, one of the most senior members of the Texas Legislature, invited lobbyist Todd Kercheval to speak to us. He offered motivational words emphasizing how persistence and diligence can change destiny, and he shared with us his path through various public service positions culminating with his position as lobbyist.
Although our formal schedule for the day was complete, we still had plans for dinner at Fogo de Chao, where several SHSU alumni joined us for a meal that was almost overwhelming in its profuse offerings of lamb, chicken, and beef.
To work off some of the food and to extend conversation, we took a half-mile stroll around downtown Austin, including a view of Sixth Street, adding an exciting end to an exciting day!
With the start of the spring semester, students are trying to settle in and get adjusted to an increasingly hectic schedule. That’s also true of politicians, who are facing primary elections in less than three weeks. And last night, the lives of the students and politicians intersected at the Reagan Dinner in Walker County, when TX Representative Dan Branch, TX Representative John Otto, Congressman Kevin Brady and 20 or so other elected officials mixed with students and locals in a fun-filled evening.
The event combined fun and food, with Representative Dan Branch giving the keynote address. Befitting a “Reagan Day” Dinner, Branch offered his favorite Reagan quotes, including these orders: “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency — even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.” He also generously spent time sharing stories with the students following the event.
We were doubly lucky in that our tickets were sponsored by Representative John Otto and Senator Charles Schwertner. Some of our group sat with Representative Otto and his wife, Nancy, while others sat with Senator Schwertner’s District Representative, Hayden Paul. They were very nice, spending time discussing the business of governance and providing useful advice.
While all the students were interested in the political side of things, the night was particularly interesting for Ashley Richardson who, like Otto, combines an interest in Accounting and Politics. “It was inspiring,” noted Richardson, “I hope to follow a similar career one day, and it was a great learning opportunity.”
Major thanks to Representative Otto and Senator Schwertner for providing tickets, to the organizers—Linda McKenzie, Tracy Sorensen, and Kay Deahl—for their great work, and to Representative Dan Branch for a fine speech. Their efforts opened up doors for us, and we are very grateful.
This was a perfect start to a planned three-day weekend. Following the event, we are picking up our Democrat friends, and we’ll head to Austin for more education, fun, and food!
Many thanks to Cindy Blaylock for organizing the Women’s Conference, featuring key speakers discussing women’s issues. Speakers such as Dessie Cherry, Shirley Wallace, Diana McRae, and Representative Senfronia Thompson spoke to an audience of more than 100 members, including two Political Science interns, Veronica Vera and Oscar Aguilar.
On our final day, our travel day, we still got some sight-seeing in. Although we had spent considerable time in Norman, we had focused our energies on the University of Oklahoma campus. Today, we visited the downtown area, where we checked out some of the public art…
…which included more aviation themed work.
Most interesting, though, was the statue of James Garner, the star of Rockford Files and Maverick, who grew up in Norman, Oklahoma.
Another highlight was, strange as it sounds, was getting to see a train go by…
The real highlight of the day, however, was in Denison, Texas, where we visited the birth-home of Dwight Eisenhower.
Eisenhower was born here in 1890, and he would be the last President to be born in the 19th century. His father worked for the railroad, which passed by about thirty yards in front of the house.
The site is run by the Department of Texas Parks and Wildlife, and we had a knowledgeable tour guide to take us through the home.
Our visit was made all the more appropriate with the arrival of Veterans Day.
The last day was also a day for reflecting on the trip and the different things we did. Heading home, we canvassed the group for our favorite activities, which are presented below.
1) Abraham Lincoln (Cowboy Hall of Fame and OU Law School)
2) Land Run Monument (OKC)
3) Capitol Artwork (OKC)
1) OU Campus, for OPSA and OU Law School
2) Oklahoma National Memorial and Museum
3) Segway Tour
1) Southern Politics, by Scott Buchanan
2) Public Opinion, Drug Use, and Depedence, Lauren Reinke
3) Affordable Health Care, Isaac Lutz
We were very impressed with Oklahoma City, Norman, and the people we met on the trip. We’d especially like to thank the organizers of the Oklahoma Political Science Association, who were very helpful to us.
Today had to be my most anticipated day of the trip. It was packed full of activities and I could not wait to conquer all of what Oklahoma City had to offer. We began the morning with an emotionally overwhelming trip to the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum. Learning about the devastation caused by Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Federal Building in 1995 was one of the most sobering things I have ever encountered. The museum captured the emotions of that April morning in such a powerful, striking way. I did not walk out as the same person that walked in.
In order to decompress from the Memorial, we headed to the Overholser Mansion, located in Heritage Hills area of northern Oklahoma City. Built in 1903, the home transported us back in time.
The tour guide and décor did a good job of helping us picture life in the early 1900s.
We learned of the wealthy Overholser family that lived there until the selling of the home in 1972 to the state of Oklahoma for education purposes. Drawn to the ornate woodworking and lavish furniture of the home, I really enjoyed living in 1903 for the hour-long tour. What it must have been like to live so extravagantly!
Following the wonders seen at the Overholser Mansion, my fellow LEAP Center students and I traveled to Cattleman’s steakhouse to enjoy some home cooking and western atmosphere. Now while it was hard to compare it to anything back home in Texas, the Chicken Fried Chicken and chocolate pie definitely made their way onto my list of best foods. Also interesting were the lamb fries we tried…
After a tasty meal, we then made our way over to the Oklahoma History Center. Even though we only had an hour and a half to enjoy it, I must say Oklahoma has never seemed so versatile. There were exhibits on cowboys and kitchens, dresses and divas, and even some history about Oklahomans in space. As a true Texan born and raised, I can still admit that through learning about the beauty and history of this state, Oklahoma now holds a place in my heart.
Before the sun was able to completely get away from us, we were able then to enjoy the Myriad Botanical Gardens and Crystal Bridge Conservatory in downtown Oklahoma City.
Taking in the beauty and humidity surrounding us, we spotted many exotic flowers and towering trees that would beautify any locale.
Upon leaving the Conservatory, we strolled the gardens outside and proceeded to spot a live wedding, some feisty ducks, and a child or two running loose. People-watching has never been so entertaining.
Before saying goodbye to Oklahoma City once and for all, we begged Professor Yawn to let us stop by an extravagant, tacky, over-the-top-sweets shop to indulge our inner-kid. Laden with bags of chocolate truffles, cupcakes, and sweet candies we reluctantly made our way back “home” to Norman to finish off the night at the University of Oklahoma’s historical campus. We discovered the campus’s old, gothic style buildings and, more importantly, the breathtaking interiors. Although younger than Sam Houston State University by a decade or so, OU’s history pervaded every step we took through the beautiful campus grounds.
Finally to finish up such an exciting day, we headed to a quaint Vietnamese restaurant. Each student tried something new, whether it was pho soup, lettuce wraps, or a banh mi sandwich. Full, exhausted, and ready to sleep our lives away, we sped back to the hotel to calculate the hours of sleep we would get before waking up to wrap up our trip tomorrow. Looking back on such a wonderful day, I realize how truly blessed I am to live in a country with so many opportunities and wonderful histories to learn.
Day 4 was a flurry of activity! Crisscrossing the Norman/OKC area we continued where we left off—picking up new experiences and learning more.
Our first stop was Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial, which serves as somber reminder of the tragic Murrah Federal Building bombing on April 19, 1995.
Winding through the museum you get to know the victims, discover heroes and, most important, never forget what happened that morning.
What I’ll never forget from the museum is the recording they offer of a meeting from the morning of the bombing—the audio captures the dramatic and sudden shift from casual meeting sheer panic. It left me with goosebumps.
Also poignant is the “And Jesus Wept” Statue erected by St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, located across the street from the bombing Memorial.
Leaving the memorial we arrived at the Overholser Mansion, a turn of the century Victorian style home. The home was built for renowned Oklahoma City businessman and philanthropist Henry Overholser and his family.
The Overholser family lived in opulence and their lifestyle of luxury was perfectly preserved in the beautiful home.
Lunch was the next stop, which we satisfied by going to Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in the historic stockyard area of OKC. Cattlemen’s is a continuation of the cowboy heritage and the food did not disappoint. Lamb testicles was the appetizer of choice (certainly exotic, but not overly tasty) and for the meal I had a Chopped Beef Sandwich, brought to us by a waiter who insisted on calling us “partner.”
Having satisfied our stomachs, our next stop was to learn more about Oklahoma at the State History Museum. Here we learned everything about the state: its Native American cultures, contributions to film and aviation, and its history from pre-statehood through the present. It was the state’s contributions to film that I found most fascinating, where I learned one of my favorite character actors Wes Studi (Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans), was born in Oklahoma.
Moving on from the state’s history, we went to the Myriad Gardens towards the center of OKC. The site is fascinating for its “duck pond,” which is loaded not only with ducks, but also koi; the tropical environment within the Conservancy; and the beautifully landscaped grounds.
What was most interesting to me was that the area was part of a recent urban development plan that Oklahoma has implemented to beautify the city, raising the quality of life and attracting tourists—such as us!
We stopped at a nearby gourmet dessert boutique where I picked up some delicious peanut butter truffles, and the other students indulged equally. Jessica bought $42 worth of candy, although it should be noted that she generously offered to share.
Moving on back to Norman, we walked the campus of OU, checking out the student union, the clock tower, and the reading library…
It was a beautiful campus.
Ending the day with dinner at Coriander Cafe not far from the university we had a wonderful meal. The Vietnamese cuisine was definitely outside my normal, but this trip is all about new experiences and the Banh Mi sandwich I had was superb.
In sum, this day was the culmination of everything that’s been great about Oklahoma City and Norman, and I will be leaving Oklahoma tomorrow with a new-found appreciation for the state.