May 15, 2014–LEAP Center students had a rare opportunity to hear directly from Croatian President Ivo Josipovic. The Croatian head of state was in Houston to discuss business relations, global diplomacy, and relations with Russia. The theme of the speech, however, was oil and energy, a nod to the 5,000 odd energy firms in the Houston area.
Josipovic spent little time talking about himself, which was unfortunate. He is an attorney, composer, and a music professor professor–in addition to being president.
The event was also an engaging cultural opportunity for us. Traditional Croatian dancers were on hand to demonstrate folk dance, and a very fine singer performed a couple of Croatian songs, including the country’s national anthem.
Following the event, we visited Cafe Pita, a Bosnian/Croatian restaurant on Westheimer. We explored various intriguing offerings–including fried anchovies.
It was a great evening with a great group–one that included some special guests: Leanne Woodward (whose grandfather immigrated to the US from Croatia) and Megan O’Flaherty, former President of the Junior Fellows.
This was the eighth head of state that LEAP Center students have seen in person. The others include: US Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama; former Presidents of Mexico Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon; and the President of Guana, John Mahama.
To round out the weekend of legislators and legacies, we started at the LBJ Presidential Library & Museum. The Library is located on the grounds of the University of Texas at Austin, a scant distance from the Texas capitol, an appropriate sort of geographical as well as biographical tribute to a Texas politician and 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The Library “reopened” in late December 2012 following a yearlong renovation effort, and that effort paid off in terms of developing a contemporary look and feel for a large slice of Texas and US history.
The exhibits have been updated, modernized, and expanded to highlight more of LBJ’s presidency, particularizing on timely issues. One favorite new item was the “display” of several of LBJ’s private phone conversations the President – phones were interspersed through multiple exhibits, inviting visitors to “please hold for the President,” to listen in on conversations with anyone from other legislators to the press, pertinent to the exhibits. There were several theaters for short films…
dozens of pens used by LBJ to sign bills into law;
a talking LBJ mannequin;
the Oval Office…
and a favorite for poses: a cardboard LBJ giving the “Johnson Treatment.”
One small difference, discovered at the front door, is that the LBJ is no longer a free museum. However, the low cost of admission was well worth the updated exhibits. Even if you’ve been before, is definitely worth a return trip.
After several hours wandering the Library, we headed back to Huntsville, via the northern route, in order to stop for a late lunch at Meyer’s Texas BBQ in Elgin, Texas. Despite being a large group, there wasn’t a lot of talking until we had all wrapped up our lunches, which everyone agreed was well worth the wait.
It was a long weekend of touring the capitol, meeting with and getting an in-depth glimpse of a legislative office’s inner workings, touring LBJ’s multiple shrines, and experiencing Austin in a whole new way. But for the students, who range from graduating this May to just starting this year, it was an experience they agreed they won’t forget. During the return trip, we usually recap the excursion’s events and discuss lessons learned and favorite stops and sights, and this trip was no exception. For our regular readers, though, we thought that with eight students, compiling one list seemed an efficient way to present favorites:
The Johnson Treatment Audio Tapes: The photo backdrop in the LBJ Library gift shop was almost as big a hit as the audio tapes found throughout the museum.
The pens LBJ used to sign bills into law: The Great Society to be furthered by the next generation…
The Johnsons’ bedrooms: The Johnsons’ clothes of the day and closet space in the Texas White House was the point of much speculation.
It was a great trip. We had the chance to meet legislative staff and expand our networks; meet a very interesting artist; sample some good food; do a Segway Tour of Austin; and meet with SHSU alumni. We can’t wait for the next trip.
Saturday, we began our day with a drive from the state capital to Johnson City, Texas to visit the boyhood home of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. The home sits in a National Park in Johnson’s name and encompasses a good portion of the area. The home was modest looking but was a nice home for the early twentieth century. Created in the style of a “dog-trot” home, the house was well furnished and equipped with the newest technology and modern conveniences of the time: telephone, running water, and expensive furniture uncommon in households of the 1920s-30s.
Our group was fascinated with one of Mrs. Johnson’s key teaching tools, a Charles Allen Gilbert work titled, “All is Vanity.” This piece is an illusion she used to teach her pupils to look beyond the surface and see what’s really there, a lesson not lost on LBJ the politician.
Once our tour of the home was over, we loaded up and went to find the “Texas White House,” the Johnson family-owned ranch used by President Johnson during his tenure in the White House. Johnson spent 25% percent of his presidency at the ranch working with staff and officials on policy issues. Of note, the parking lot had been converted from a runway President Johnson used for his Lockheed VC-140 jet, jokingly called “Air Force One Half” due to its smaller size.
The house itself progressed over time. The original one-room home was made of native limestone, but was steadily expanded throughout the Johnsons’ ownership. They had an array of art and artifacts including a letter from Texas President Sam Houston to one of the Johnson’s ancestors. Intriguingly, it was written from Huntsville, Texas. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in the home, so we could not document the letter.
Other interesting features of the home included evidence of President Johnson’s obsession with information. In both the living room and the bedroom, Johnson had three televisions set up, one for each network. He even ensured that his seat in the dining room had a direct line to the televisions in the living room. Lady Bird Johnson was said to only have control of one TV, in her sitting room, to watch her favorite western show, “Gunsmoke.” On the other hand, she got the best bedroom, so perhaps it was a draw. It was neat to see how the Johnsons lived while in Texas and to see the surroundings in which much domestic and foreign policy was discussed.
Once we finished our tour of the home, we ate lunch at East Main Grill in Johnson City, choosing from a selection of sandwiches. We used this time to discuss what he had learned that morning and what we were going to do for the rest of the day, as well as a short rest before hitting the road again!
At the entrance to the Benini Studio and Sculpture Ranch we were greeted at the gate by the awe-inspiring “Marathon,” a massive Texas longhorn designed with three types of steel.
This sculpture was a true indication of what to expect. The six-mile trek to Benini’s actual studio was in itself an adventure, winding through Texas hill country, passing various sculptures. One included parts of a Walgreens’ sign entitled “He Kept Telling His God ‘Give Me A Sign’.” At the studio we were greeted by Lorraine Benini, the artist’s wife and business partner, who was a gracious hostess.
After a quick overview of the workings of the 140-acre property, she let us explore the art gallery at our leisure.
A recurring theme in Benini’s work, predominantly his sculptures, was exploiting available materials and transforming it to art, an object to prompt conversation and unveil the object’s true meaning.
Benini was kind enough to give us insight in to his work process and also offer a few wise words. He explained that his art was “controlled chaos,” but he truly prided himself with his “masterful and unique” ability to mix colors unlike any other artist.
One of the lessons that really hit home was his suggestion that life, like artistic inspiration, will force you to adapt, and accepting that fact will serve you well—whether as an artist in the Hill Country or as a legislator in the Texas Capitol.
A quick fifty-five mile drive later we found ourselves zipping up and down the streets of Austin on a “Haunted” Segway tour.
When we weren’t racing up and down the sidewalks, we were being terrified, or at least mildly agitated, by the different ghost stories spawned by tragic events in Austin’s history. One story told by our tour guide highlighted the tale of a suicide in the Driskill Hotel, a tragedy that has prompted tales of hauntings and ghostly sightings.
We brought the day to an end with an amazing dinner at Kerbey Lane Cafe, where we met with SHSU alum Blake Roach, who is employed in the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott. Blake gave us a more informal perspective of the career path many of us are pursuing. He explained how both the Junior Fellows, predecessor to the LEAP Center, and his attitude allowed him to make necessary connections to get ahead in his career. Blake’s words brought home the theme of the trip: to get ahead, you have to work hard, make connections, and develop professional skills.
Joycelyn Ovalle–On Saturday morning we met up with SHSU alum Will Phillips, a former Junior Fellow and POLS graduate, and headed to Johnson City, the home of former president Lyndon Baines Johnson. Our first stop was his humble, yet peculiar, “Boyhood Home”. We were guided through the home by a National Park Ranger, who offered insightful tales of LBJ as a boy. When the future President was in middle school, for example, he was referred to as “First Base Johnson” for his baseball skills, but he didn’t really enjoy baseball.
He played to make contacts, a political player more than a sports fan. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a local politician. The two of them would often go to the Texas Capitol together and, by the age of 11, LBJ was claiming he would one day be President. He was correct.
As President, Johnson often referred to himself as the son of a “poor dirt tenant farmer,” but his childhood home suggests otherwise. The family owned a telephone and a gas stove, items that weren’t in many early twentieth century homes. As we continued to explore the works of President LBJ, we moved away from his “Boyhood Home” and transferred into the home of the president – “The Texas White House”. We made a stop at the Lyndon Baines Johnson National Historic Park and we spent our afternoon enjoying the weather, admiring his ranch, and learning about his works as a president and his last days as a Texan. The Johnson’s residence was filled with historical artifacts and well preserved personal items.
From his flamboyant convertibles to his shoes and shorts, there is no doubt that “The Texas White House” truly resembled President LBJ.
It was extensive and distinguishable from the outside, but welcoming and refined from the inside. Another note worthy artifact was a framed letter hanging in the Johnson’s living room. As Bearkats, everyone wanted to see it, particularly because it was sent from our hero, Sam Houston and was written from Huntsville, Texas in 1838.
After building up hunger from the walk around the LBJ Ranch, we stopped at a popular Johnson City restaurant in the heart of town called the East Main Grill. It is an exquisite southern restaurant providing delicious arrays of soup, salads, and sandwiches. While all of the food items sound fantastic, there was definitely one that stood out from the rest. The Ultimate Grill Cheese sandwich consisted of fresh apples, tomatoes, swiss, cheddar, and gorgonzola cheese. Only a few students were smart enough to try it, and they were not disappointed.
Following lunch, we made our way down to the Benini Studio and Sculpture Ranch, which is owned by the Italian artist Benini. Driving through the Hill Country of Texas, you could not help but appreciate the natural brush terrain it’s known for. Sculptures are placed throughout the property, and they become more elaborate as you approach his studio. While the sculptures were impressive, Benini is best known for his painting. His ability to blend colors to create depth and shades without the use of an airbrush is what sets him apart from his contemporaries, and it was a pleasure (and an adventure) to meet and explore the mind of Benini.
He talked about his childhood growing up in Italy during a time of turmoil. With political unrest, war, and problems with his father, Benini began to copy things, and this turned into his art. He spoke freely about his life experiences and gave us a tour of his studio, the place where he imagines and creates his pieces of art.
It was a rare experience, and we were all appreciative of the opportunity and the ability to not only see his art, but to learn more about it and the processes he used to create it.
But the art did not end at his gallery; his whole ranch was filled with trails leading to different sculptures, a hand cropping out of the hillside; a massive drum set (with drums!) beside a pond; a glass figure looking over the beautiful hill country. It was an intriguing and educational afternoon.
Our evening events concluded with a night out under the Austin sky. The Leap Students ventured on a haunted Segway tour in downtown Austin. We had the opportunity to ride around the Texas State Capital, through the streets of downtown Austin and various city attractions. Our group had to quickly learn how to master the Segway, learn how to go up and down hills and most importantly how to brake! Throughout the tour the guide told 3 ghost stories based off of local downtown buildings. The first was told at The Driskill, which the guide said is “the fifth most haunted building in America”. The second story was told near the Speak Easy, and was a tale of two young girls who died in an elevator. The last story was told at the west wing of the Texas State Capital, where it is said a former governor shot his wife and her ghost haunts the apartment in the capital. The Segway Tour was both fun and educational as well as a neat way to view Austin.
The final stop of our night was at Kerbey Lane Café. We met up with Sam Houston State Alumni Blake Roach, who is living in Austin and works for Attorney General Gregg Abbot. The Leap Students had the opportunity to both pick his brain about his successes while enjoying a wonderful meal.
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!