Ellen Clarke Temple is an independent publisher and writer, a philanthropist, an environmentalist, and, fortunately for Texas, a woman of determination with a strong commitment to improving her home state. She has advanced the humanities and learning in Texas for many years, in various capacities. A graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, she was appointed by Governor Ann Richards to the UT Board of Regents from 1991 to 1997. Temple has served on numerous boards and advisory councils, and was chair of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center from 1997 to 1999. Her passion and record of service has been recognized with several awards, including The University of Texas Distinguished Alumna Award in 2000, and the Pro Bene Meritis award from the UT College of Liberal Arts in 2010.
Ellen's contributions to the humanities began in the late 1970s, when she worked with Ann Richards and others at the Foundation for Women’s Resources to create the Texas Women's History Project. Temple recalled, "We were not trained historians. We were all interested in history, but the focus on it as a discipline grew out of our need to find our stories." In 1978, the project received a $40,000 grant from Humanities Texas to survey the state for institutional and personal holdings on women. It developed into a bibliography, an exhibition, several publications, a museum, and an increased awareness of the roles—and possibilities—of women in the story of Texas.
Ellen served on the board of Humanities Texas from 1984 to 1989, in 2004, and as board chair in 1988. She reflected on her involvement in and advocacy for the humanities in an oral interview with staff member Erica Whittington on September 12, 2013.
Ellen Temple: I grew up in Lufkin. My mother had been a librarian. She directed my reading when I was a child, so I read all the classics. She was the one who introduced me to the humanities: to literature and history. That's just been an abiding interest of mine since I was a child. I always loved to read, always loved libraries. I loved books, and I credit that to my mom.
I actually moved to Lufkin when I was in the tenth grade, and I graduated from Lufkin High School in 1960. I then went to The University of Texas at Austin and majored in English and history. I was so excited to arrive at the University. I left Lufkin, a town of fifteen thousand people, and settled into a university with a nineteen thousand-person population—and that was just the students. I was so thrilled to be here. I loved the libraries, loved the learning, the research. My stack permit was my most prized possession, because we used to actually go up in the tower. If we had a stack permit we could go up there and retrieve books when we were doing research. So, the humanities, especially English and history, have been an abiding interest of mine since I was a child.
Erica Whittington: First tell me how you first became aware of the Texas Committee for the Humanities.
ET: Ann Richards gathered some of us together, and asked if we would help find the history of Texas women. This was in 1978. There were a lot of naysayers who said, "You won't find anything! There's just nothing out there." Mary Beth Rogers was the project director, and she was working for the Foundation for Women's Resources. I joined the board later, in 1980. But at that time I was on the advisory board helping Ann. And we needed a grant to survey the state—libraries, universities, museums, and individuals—to find the material that we knew had to be there. So Mary Beth wrote a grant to the [Texas] Committee for the Humanities, and we met with them. I joined her on some of those occasions, and they gave that $40,000 grant which made it possible for the Texas Women's History Project, as we called it, to survey the state and find the holdings. That included a publication.
It's an actual bibliography of the holdings that institutions and people had in Texas. That was the beginning because we had proof that there was plenty of material out there to do a history of women. That was my introduction, and it was a very positive one.
EW: Did you and Ann Richards know each other from other things? How did you get together?
ET: Most of us were in Democratic politics. That's how I knew Ann and Mary Beth. I wasn't involved in the Women's Political Caucus; I was over in East Texas. But a lot of the Austin gals—Martha Smiley, Ann, Jane Hickey, Judith Guthrie, Sarah Weddington, and Cathy Bonner—they were all really active in the Women's Political Caucus.
That's how we got to know each other. Then I was back in East Texas, and I was writing for our local newspaper in Diboll. I had all these babies, but I wanted to keep my hand in. I saw Ann at a fundraiser here in Austin. She said, "Ellen, you know I have a women's history project that I want to get going because I went to this Texas history exhibit in San Antonio, and we weren't there." Count me in! So I joined that advisory board.
I was writing women's history, but I didn't call it that. I just happened to be interested in who ran the boarding house. My first article for the Diboll Free Press on history in East Texas was on the women's suffrage movement in Angelina County.
EW: So you were doing women's history?
ET: Yes, but I didn't call it that. I think it was the National Women's Conference in Houston in 1977. Really it was the Texas women who organized it. It was Ann and that group, the foundation group. I came in for that, for the state-level conference. Each state had one and then the national conference was in Houston. I went to a session on women's history, Texas women's history. There were a lot of us who continue this work that were there, and there wasn't even a leader. So we just talked. There wasn't anybody there to talk about, so we just started visiting about it, and it was kind of "Oh my gosh, boing!" That raised Ann's awareness too. She was very active in that conference. Then that moment down in San Antonio when she realized that we [women] were not there at all was the catalyst, really. I think that National Women's Conference and the state-level meeting that we had before we went to Houston opened our eyes to the importance of our knowing our story. To know where we've been, to know where we want to go, is really important.
Everybody was kind of getting on the same page about the same time. I covered the Houston conference for the Diboll Free Press. So when Ann asked me, I said, "Of course." That was a remarkable thing. Mary Beth Rogers was really the leader of it. She would direct it, and we all were helping her. I raised money; a lot of us were raising money and just did what we could.
EW: That's such an interesting story, though, because there was some academic interest at this time with Gerda Lerner and Anne Firor Scott.
ET: Oh yes, they were both a big influence on us.
That's where it started, and that's what the Texas humanities council supported. Without that support for all these different facets of history, I don't think it would have happened. Maybe it would have eventually. That would be an interesting story. We were the only state that did the Women's History Project. We were the first state. I wonder if humanities councils in the rest of the country were helping bring that grassroots need for their stories, if they were helping fund some of that? I bet they were.
It didn't just happen. It didn't come out of academia. It came from the grassroots here, with support from Humanities Texas. Humanities Texas helped to bring the grassroots and academia together. Beverly Stoeltje with UT was out there, but you didn't hear what she was doing. We didn't have women's history or women's studies.
EW: How did you come to serve on the board?
ET: It was several years later. We had our exhibit, our Texas Women's History Project, and moved on with lots of projects in connection with that. Then, Bob Bowman, who was chairman of the board in 1983, nominated me. He asked me about my interest and I said, "Yes! I love that organization because of what they did for Texas Women's History." So he nominated me, and then the board elected me to join them, which I did in 1984.
EW: What did you call the organization?
ET: We called it TCH.
ET: Yes, the Council. It was a Committee first, then a Council, and now Humanities Texas.
EW: You served on the board from 1984 to 1989. So what was the organization like when you first came on the board? Who were some of the people that you met with TCH?
ET: Jim Veninga was the director, and he was so enthusiastic. He had a vision for the importance of the state humanities councils. He was the one who really picked up the ball and got it moving. He was very persuasive. He caught our imagination about how important the work that we were doing was. I think those meetings where we had a chance to give grants were a great learning experience because it was like a journey through the various cultures in Texas.
Multicultural history didn't even have a name then. But there was a grassroots movement. We who did the Women's History Project, we were not trained historians. We were all interested in history, but the focus on it as a discipline grew out of our need to find our stories. The same thing was happening with history and black history. It was our need to see ourselves in the story of Texas. We had grown up and gone to school and college without exposure to a full picture of the history.
When we looked at those grants, we were getting grants about our Mexican legacy, and black history, and then, of course, women's history. The beauty of it is, the humanities council continued support for women's projects. We had these traveling exhibits, and so a museum in Lufkin would apply for a grant to bring in a scholar to talk about the women and the history that was in one of those traveling exhibits. The Institute of Texan Cultures traveled them first, but then the humanities council picked them up and kept them going. I think we did two or three different refurbishings of the exhibit because they were so popular. There were six of them. The complete exhibit didn't travel. It's at Texas Women's University. But the smaller ones were very, very popular. They continue to do that with the Citizens at Last exhibit from the book that I published in 1988 that grew out of the original project. They've just refurbished it and are keeping it traveling. You know, I loved those meetings. I've seen what rich culture and rich history we had in Texas—which I didn't see in the textbooks, or in the movies, or anyplace else.
EW: What were those grant sessions like? It seems like you spent a lot of time talking about those different proposals. What was it like being a part of that?
ET: The staff did the background work for us and presented them. They organized it very well so that we could deliberate in a fair and honest fashion. We were ever mindful, because Jim reminded us that this was public money and that we were stewards of it. Taxpayers' money. We were, as I said, mindful of that, and tried to do our very best to pick the best projects.
It seems like we had pretty good agreement. Just about everybody was focused on spreading the grants around to the different communities, being fair in our deliberations. We always considered every grant that came before us. Then we'd rate them, and then they'd compile a rating. We'd start with that, but we never just threw one out, as I recall. I remember spirited discussions. It was a lively, good exchange of thoughts. We were all from different parts of the state. We all had different backgrounds. Some of us were academic, some of us were from the public sector. So discussion was always lively and a great deal of fun. Wonderful people on the board.
Nicolás Kanellos was on the board, from Arte Público Press; that was just in the beginnings of its publications. He was very focused on telling the story of Hispanic history Texas. So we knew where he was coming from. They knew I was coming from a women's history point of view, and always payed very close attention to those issues. Then there were some, like Betty Sue Flowers, Plan II Honors at UT, she had a very broad focus. She could give us the academic perspective. So there were some large personalities, but I don't recall anybody ever trying to dominate. We exchanged ideas and didn't try to ram them down each other's throats.
Just fabulous people have served. I made a lot of good friends through that. Yes, friends for life: Sam Moore, and Bill Wright, and Betty Sue Flowers, Ab Abernathy, Everett Fly, an architect out of San Antonio, Norma Cantu, and Maceo Dailey.
EW: What makes for a good board member?
ET: You're looking for somebody who really cares about the mission, primarily, and supports the programs and the director and the staff. You're looking for somebody who has connections and resources that they can bring to support the organization, and somebody with a passion for learning, with an open mind and a passion for learning. Not so much with Humanities Texas, but I think governance experience, experience on other boards, is always good.
EW: There was a lot taking place with women's history and other areas in the 1980s. It seems also to have been a time of culture wars and heightened political sensitivity. How did this environment affect your work with TCH or with humanities in general in Texas?
ET: There was a conflict because you had those—like [Harold] Bloom—who were very outspoken proponents for the core, for traditional humanities. And then you had these masses, like we were, who wanted a broader story. So there was a clash. It manifested itself in the funding.
When I was chair in 1988, one of my first duties was to go to Washington and lobby the Texas delegation and to convince them to give the state councils more than either the administration or the National Endowment for the Humanities had recommended. There was a tension between the NEH and the humanities councils. We hosted a reception for our congressional delegation and we had wonderful attendance. Martin Frost was there. We had representatives from the offices of our other Congressmen, and then we had the key Congressman Charlie Wilson, he was my Congressman from East Texas. He came and he was on the Appropriations Committee. We made our case. Charlie was a big reader; he was a historian, especially of the First and Second World Wars. He was an expert, really. So he was very sympathetic, and since he was on the Appropriations Committee, we had his ear, and I like to think that Charlie spoke up for us in that Appropriations Committee, because we did get what we wanted. And that wasn't always true; that didn't always happen.
EW: What was it like talking to all of those legislators, trying to sell TCH and more money for the humanities? Was that a difficult task?
ET: I did more one-on-one with the people I knew, like Charlie and Martin. But Jim Veninga made the case very eloquently when he testified, and then the others with the Federation, including Nancy Stevenson. Their presentations were very eloquent and persuasive. But then we worked more one-on-one in that social venue.
The councils hosted a breakfast for congressional leaders, and we had our Texas delegation there. We received a higher amount of money for the state programs—a much-needed increase, and I gave Charlie credit. I learned that citizen lobbying works. Congressmen and women do respond to their constituents.
EW: What were some the big challenges that you faced on the board and as the chair of the board?
ET: The funding was always an issue. We had some luck that year.
Our project, "Preparing for Texas in the 21st Century," and our education program, which I was able to preside over, were very exciting. Here we were in 1988 looking ahead to the twenty-first century. We were way ahead of our time. Ann Richards was our keynote speaker, and I introduced her. She was state treasurer at the time. We had key public figures in higher education and public education to chair those committees. That was a wonderful conference. We had the kickoff in the morning with talks from those political leaders. Then we broke up into groups and talked about the future.
One of the things that came out of that "Education for the Future" conference was a heightened need for programs for teachers and recognition for teachers. I think that the programs for teachers started then on a small scale. Now Humanities Texas has carried them to a new level, and they are just fabulous and actually use state funding for that. We never did get state funding—we were always trying to; I made many trips to leaders in the House and Senate to try to get some state funding for those programs, and we just didn't make any headway. Most of the focus was on science and technology when it came to grants, and we didn't really get any state money until recently for those teacher institutes. But we were always trying, just trying to educate people about the importance of the humanities. It's finally catching on better now.
EW: It seems like a big part of the job of being chair is lobbying and talking to people.
ET: Yes, it was. We had state legislators there for that education conference. Then we would go by and ask them for help for teacher seminars. Especially when the legislature started the science and technology grant fund in Texas, and it didn't include the humanities. I went to see quite a few folks on that one. I said, "You know, we really need to include the humanities for funding and for research grants."
EW: That sounds like a never-ending task.
ET: It is. It's always a challenge. But the humanities council here was totally dependent on the federal grants, and Jim Veninga started trying to raise money. We raised money for our first teacher awards. I think the Temple Foundation had given the first grant to help fund those awards. So, it started, but it was slow building. Now it's going very well. I think having a home here close to the Capitol, a place where foundation and business leaders can come, has really helped. We've been lucky to have strong leaders. They have really done amazing work in making this council successful.
EW: Did you have a sense, when you were on the board, and especially when you were chair, of the place of Texas in the nation, the place of the state council in Texas, and how it was regarded or where it stood next to other councils?
ET: I did. Jim Veninga was clearly highly regarded. When we went to Washington, they deferred to him and his opinion, and appreciated Texas's help with our delegation in Congress. Because so many [Texans] were in influential positions back then. So yes, I think that Texas was highly regarded. I know Bill Wright went on to serve on the Federation board, and then on the NEH council. So I think they recognized that it was good to have a Texan aboard.
EW: What was it like being on the board at the time  when there was a 30% reduction in staff and constant anxiety about "will we be here tomorrow?"
ET: I never did really feel the doubt that we would be here.
EW: Okay, so it wasn't as dire as—
ET: It was dire, but I didn't think we were going to fold. I thought we retracted and then regrouped, but I never felt like we were going to fold. There were anxious moments over funding—probably more for the staff than for us. I remember the crisis [in 1986], and I know Bill Wright played a big role in leading the council out of that crisis, a big role. I got to step up when everything was pretty good.
But by 1988, with that success with Congress and with our appropriation, we were feeling good. I know some states have been able to raise endowments and get state funding, and we were very mindful of how important that was and tried. But it takes a while to build that kind of support.
EW: Were there any grants that you remember that stick in your mind?
ET: In Lufkin, there was a program on the Renaissance. It was in the Lufkin Museum of East Texas, and it included the exhibit from the resource center here. They received one of the council's mini grants of $1,500 to invite a scholar in to speak. They had four different scholars at different times, and a total of four thousand people, over time, came to this exhibit! I don't think you would have had a soul if it hadn't been for those scholars coming in giving their lectures, generating excitement. It was wonderful.
Another program that was so successful, and it was just a small one, was supporting the Library of America, which other states had done. I think California had made sure that all of their schools and libraries had a collection, the Library of America, which was a collection of the reprints of the classics, and there were some new volumes too. They did one on Vietnam and a collection of Susan B. Anthony's papers. They're still in business. That was a wonderful little small grant program that made it possible for small-town libraries, even school libraries, to acquire these books.
EW: For low-cost, right?
ET: Yes, just a small grant. The Library of America set up a program where they could get funding from other sources to help. We gave the grants to the libraries, and then they paid for the Library of America sets. That had quite an impact, and it was just a small program.
The teacher award programs also proved very successful. That's still ongoing. They bring in the Congressmen to have his or her photo made with the recipient and then just make a big deal out of it. That has grown beautifully. That started back in the eighties.
EW: What would you say, having served on the board in the 1980s, and then coming back in 2004, what would you say was a turning point, or were turning points, in the history?
ET: One thing that turned out very well was the decision to buy the building on Ben White.
EW: The Banister place?
ET: Yes. We'd been moved out of the center of town, which was terrible. I stayed in touch with Jim. When he needed help, I was always willing to help. It was a good move to buy that building. It wasn't a good location, but at least it gave us some equity that we could use to finally help with this building. The purchase of that building was a turning point, and then the restoration of this one [Byrne-Reed House]. Those are tied together, really.
The building way out on Banister was so far removed. You felt a little away. It wasn't a place that people would want to visit. Humanities Texas bought that place so they had equity and then saw the need to have a decent place where people wanted to come for programs, and that is close to the heart of the city and the heart of Texas. This building is very much a turning point, both Jim's direction in purchasing that building, and Mike's stewardship with this one. The story of uncovering this beautiful building under a shell was very compelling. I supported the fundraising, but I wasn't on the board when that actually was going on. I came to a lot of functions in support of it and was happy to do that.
Access to the Internet has also been a turning point because you can do things like the current Texas Originals program. But instead of just one little vignette over the radio, it lives on. You've got it, and then, like you are doing, you can expand on it. I mean, the learning has just increased. The newsletter has also been huge. Oh, it's just wonderful. I love it.
EW: You've listed quite a few, but in terms of strengths of the organization over the years, what have you seen that are some of the bigger accomplishments? And maybe during your time as chair too, since you were in charge of it?
ET: I think that the "Texas in the 21st Century" discussions and the education conference in 1988 were important. It was just so wise to begin looking then at where education would go and what the role of the humanities would be.
The teacher awards came out of that, the renewed emphasis on seminars for teachers and a renewed emphasis on the importance of our supporting public education. Everybody agreed that public education was a focus that we needed to have and that you reached the teachers with the scholars. Put the scholars and the teachers together and wonderful things happen. They love these institutes. That's huge, and they've garnered our first state support. That's another turning point. Those teacher institutes have such a great reputation that they have the confidence of the legislature and the leadership, and they're willing to appropriate funds for them based on their excellence. So that was a major contribution.
EW: Are there other lessons learned from your time on the board or anything we might have not touched on?
ET: My experience on the board was just so positive. It was my first time to serve on a statewide board, other than the Texas Women's History Project. I really had a positive experience, and I learned that I liked to be in charge. I loved my stint as chair, even though it was a short one, but I really enjoyed it. I got a taste of leadership in a statewide organization, and so I was eager to continue doing that.
EW: A lot of people benefitted from that because you went on to do a lot.
ET: But I benefitted more than anybody, because I really have had just a wonderful time and made so many good friends and enjoyed every minute of it.
And I would love to see Humanities Texas have a sustainable funding source. With the capable leadership now, under Mickey Klein and people like that, I know that they're working to come up with a way to endow the program. So you don't have to be worried about losing federal funding—all of it. Hopefully they never would take all of it.
It would be everybody's goal to have it be on sound financial footing. I think the kinds of discussions and programs that Humanities Texas supports and generates are more important than ever in our civic life. I want to see it continue.