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.
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.
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.
The Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics (LEAP) and The Princeton Review recently hosted a Mock LSAT for Sam Houston State University Pre-Law Students. The test, which takes about four hours to complete, was an actual exam used by the Law School Admission Council and was professionally scored for the students. The scores, however, did not count as official scores and were not provided to the Law School Admissions Council.
“The purpose of the mock LSAT,” noted Mike Yawn, Director of the LEAP Center, “is to give students an idea of where they stand, assist them identifying the areas in which they need to improve, and help them feel more comfortable with the testing environment.”
More than forty students devoted their Saturday to taking the exam. Law School has emerged as one of the more popular post-graduate pursuits on the campus of SHSU. Since 2005, the number of students applying to law school has doubled, from approximately 60 to 120. Even more promising, the number of students accepted to law school has almost tripled, rising from approximately 20 to the 50-60 range.
According to the Law School Admissions Council, SHSU is now 141st in the nation—out of 2,774 schools—at producing applicants to law schools. SHSU recently moved ahead of Rice University, University of North Carolina, Seton Hall, and Loyola on the list.
“We’ve moved ahead rapidly,” noted Yawn. “We have a Pre-Law minor, numerous faculty with law degrees, and dozens of law-related programs per year. This is a great University to attend for students interested in pursuing law.”
“It was a challenging test,” observed Jessica Rodriguez, an SHSU Junior and aspiring law student. “It was the second Mock LSAT I’ve taken, and I improved, which is what I was hoping for. I plan to take the LSAT Prep Course in the spring and take the real thing next fall.”
The Princeton Review will be offering a Prep Course on the campus of SHSU in the spring of 2014, the only such offering in Huntsville over the next year. For more information on the test, contact Mike Yawn at (936) 294-1456 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.