Everett Fly has had the second-longest tenure of any Humanities Texas board member, serving for eleven years from 1988 to 1999. He is a licensed architect and landscape architect, with over thirty years experience. Fly has worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service, and various state and local historical societies and governments on projects including the restoration and extension of the Texas Capitol building.
Fly is an acclaimed pioneer in the field of historic preservation, beginning with his study of historic black settlements as a graduate student at Harvard. Through his efforts to document and preserve African American community sites across the U.S., he has secured National Register of Historic Places designation for diverse locations including Eatonville, Florida, the oldest incorporated African American municipality in the nation (and the setting for Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God). Fly was featured in an April 2012 article in The Alcalde, the alumni magazine of The University of Texas, and was also recently interviewed for a profile on preservation leadership by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Everett Fly's commitment to creating a more complete American history through an exploration of historic places and the people who built and used them led to his service on the Board of Humanities Texas, then the Texas Council for the Humanities. He served as Vice Chair in 1992 and Chair from 1993 to 1994. His expertise and commitment to the humanities are vast; during his time on the state council board he also served on the board of the Federation of State Humanities Councils (1991–1994), and as a member of the prestigious President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (1994–2001). He reflected on these experiences in an oral history interview with Humanities Texas staff member Erica Whittington on July 23, 2013.
UPDATED: Everett Fly was awarded a 2014 National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on September 10, 2015. The National Humanities Medal honors an individual or organization whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the human experience, broadened citizen engagement with history and literature, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to cultural resources.
Everett Fly: I'm a native of San Antonio, and was born and raised there. I went through high school there, and then went to The University of Texas at Austin, where I studied architecture. Then I went to he Harvard University Graduate School of Design and studied landscape architecture. During both of those sets of studies, I was always interested in how people related to buildings, not just physical styles of buildings or building materials, not just the abstract aspects of architecture and landscape architecture. I wanted to know how people related to them. Why did people settle in a place, or why did they build a building a certain way?
When I got into my graduate studies in landscape architecture, that helped me to be more sensitive to the place and the landscape—cemeteries, why people took certain routes and used certain trails and roads, things like that. While I was studying at Harvard, I began a project that I still call "Black Settlements in America." And that was part of a history class that I was taking from John Brinkerhoff Jackson. Some people called him a cultural geographer. Some people called him a cultural landscape analyst. He didn't particularly care for either of those. He and I actually got to be quite good friends, and after I graduated, for the last seventeen years of his life, we corresponded back and forth. He lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and my wife Linda and I would go out to Santa Fe and visit with him and talk. Jackson helped me to understand the importance of what today people call "cultural landscapes"—the way people live or congregate and how they relate to their physical place: the land, the trees, and the environment. What I was looking for in the Black Settlements research was simply to begin to understand, aside from the obvious ethnic reasons for a settlement, how they related to place, the soil, the plant material, and the wildlife.
The Black Settlements project gave me a chance to study and travel quite a bit. That's how I wound up, for example, in Colorado. A lady named Bertha Callaway heard about my research. She was a native of Denver, but at the time she contacted me she lived in Omaha, Nebraska, where she had started an African American house museum, but she had been a Girl Scout growing up in Denver. She had recollections of going to Winks Lodge in the mountains of Colorado because that was their summer activity. She loved it so much that she wound up buying the lodge, and she owned it in the early 1980s. When I met her, she was trying to figure out what to do with it. Since I am from San Antonio, where historic preservation is so prominent, one of the thoughts that came to me was to gather the history and see if we could get it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. We combined Mrs. Callaway's research—she had one of the original guest books where people signed in by hand and some of the original posters that they used to sell the lots in the Lincoln Hills Development Company—with my perspective on Black Settlements, and that's how we did the background and the documentation for the National Register designation.
Erica Whittington: So you worked as a landscape architect but also had this burgeoning historic preservation practice.
EF: I am a licensed landscape architect. I had the good fortune of growing up in San Antonio and being exposed to all that history. My family would go downtown for business or to shop, so I grew up driving by the Alamo, walking up Houston Street by the Majestic Theatre or the Texas Theatre, and crossing the San Antonio River. So it was just by exposure.
I love to do preservation, but I also do modern and commercial projects. There are so few minority sites, for example, in the National Register of Historic Places. I think there was a report done not too long ago that states that fewer than two percent of all the properties on the National Register are listed under African American historical significance. Clearly, African Americans and Native Americans and others have contributed greatly to the history of America. But the places and the buildings that they influenced or worked on have not been recognized. One of the reasons I've worked so hard to help the groups and families that I work with is to help them realize that everybody contributed, all these groups contributed to the history of America. They've earned their right to be recognized, and it's a great education, especially for the young people today, to be able to learn about all the different groups and how they contributed and worked together. There are remarkable stories of how they worked together even against great odds or social conflicts and disagreements. There were still people working together, and that's how we got where we are today, and that's how we'll get wherever we're going in the future.
EW: I bet you have people who are just waiting for you to come and help them do that too.
EF: We are careful about how we advertise, because I don't do these projects just as nostalgia, or just because they're ethnic. I choose them strategically because they tell a unique or broad story. It's not bad to have a nostalgic passion for something, but there are lots of those, and there are so many sites that are disappearing or threatened. That's why the different organizations—the Texas Historical Commission, the National Trust for Historic Preservation—have these endangered properties lists, because so many of them are disappearing and have disappeared so quickly. I kind of pick and choose. You're correct in the sense that over the years I've had a number of inquiries. A lot of students, especially, want to know about the projects. As I mentioned, I recently redesigned my website so I can blog about what I'm working on. That way I don't have to answer every call and every inquiry.
EW: You were involved with this work before you got involved with the humanities formally. How did you get involved with the Texas Council?
EF: I served six years on the State of Texas National Register of Historic Places Commission. One of the historians on the review board was Dr. Ben Procter. He was at Texas Christian University at the time, and he and I hit it off on the Texas Historical Commission board. After my time was up, I guess Dr. Procter could tell that I wasn't just interested in the bricks and the mortar; I was also interested in the human history behind the things we were working on. About a year after my term on the Texas Historical Commission board ended, Dr. Procter called and said, "I think there's something that you would be interested in working on." I said, "What's that?" He had served on the Humanities board and he said, "I think the Humanities board would be a good fit for you, and you could make a contribution. I want to put your name in." I said "OK." Sure enough in 1988, they called and said that I had been nominated and approved, and would I come to the first board meeting? That's how I got involved.
EW: What was it like when you first came on to the Board?
EF: I thought you might ask that. At the beginning of my time on the board, in the late 1980s to early 1990s, I guess you would say the board was geared more toward traditional humanities. Many of the board members were academicians, historians, or from a college department. There were public members like Ellen Temple and Bill Wright, and they certainly had a passion for the humanities, but I'd say the board had more of a traditional point of view. In fact, at one of my first board meetings, a couple of people asked why there was an architect on the Humanities Council board. I had to explain to them that architects design buildings for people, and that's the way I look at it. It's not just the bricks and mortar. At that time, the common perspective on the board was that a more academic approach was appropriate for the humanities board, as opposed to an interdisciplinary approach. My interest was always interdisciplinary.
After the early 1990s, the board gradually became more and more interdisciplinary. In 1991, three years after I joined the board, we approved a grant for The Accordion Kings for Traditions in Texas Music. I always enjoyed the grant review because there were so many different perspectives, and most board members were able to debate and discuss the grants in terms of the discipline or the merit of the grant. Nobody took it personally, most people didn't. I loved to listen to the discussions. It was just great. When The Accordion Kings proposal came up, there was a huge discussion because Francis Abernathy was on the board at the time, and he was quite a folk musician. He just didn't get what this accordion stuff was; what did it have to do with the humanities? Now, I grew up in San Antonio, and as a child, to entertain me, my mother would put me in a chair or on the bed and give me a magazine. She would put on the local radio station, and back then, there weren't that many. But San Antonio had Latin and Mexican American radio stations. So I grew up hearing this music, accordion conjunto and the polkas, so when this grant came up I said, "Why not?" But Francis Abernathy (we used to call him Ab) was like, "This is not quite. . ." It was a great debate, but eventually it was approved in the fall of 1991. For at least the next two years, at every board meeting, somebody would say [in jest], "Well, as long as there's not another Accordion Kings!" Or, "this one makes me think about…" The Accordion Kings, for the next two years, was the point of reference. It just so happened that I was at a President's Committee for the Arts and the Humanities meeting in Washington in 2000. Mr. Santiago Jimenez Jr, one of the "Accordion Kings" had just been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship. He played an impromptu song for the Committee, and I had a chance to thank him directly.
To me, 1991 was a turning point, when that grant was approved. It opened the minds of the board, and more and more people began to appreciate it, because it was a very successful grant. Every cycle, the staff would report on the results of the grant program and what happened in the audience, and The Accordion Kings drew a huge audience. People were clamoring for more, and from that point on, the grants that came in seemed to change. That was really interesting to me. The board became more diverse, and it was exhilarating to be a part of that.
EW: You reviewed the grants and then was there also some social time?
EF: When they could, board members would come in Friday evening for some kind of informal get together, touching base, getting to say hello. If it was a city where a board member lived, they might host the board for dinner. Folks would head back Saturday evening or Sunday morning. Pretty much all day Saturday would be the grant review, and sometimes depending on the number of grants, it would be a marathon session. A lot of it depended on the dynamics between the board members.
EW: Yes, I wonder what kinds of personalities you had on the board and how everyone interacted.
EF: Another thing that happened in 1991, aside from The Accordion Kings, was that the [Texas Humanities] Resource Center did a borderlands exhibit working with the Laredo United Independent School District. It was a collaboration between Laredo's United Independent School District, the Laredo Public Library, and Laredo State University. It was a combination of exhibitions, public lectures, and discussions at the public libraries and the high schools. That one was a foundation for several others that came.
To me, the Laredo border project was just part of what we did, and being responsive to our constituency. Now, when I look at all the discussion in 2013 about the border and the borderlands, I think back to 1991 when we were already discussing these issues. Folks like Norma Cantú helped elevate that consciousness. Dr. Juan Almendárez was from San Antonio, but he really understood the borderland situation. Dr. Roberto Salmon was really excellent at helping board members that didn't have experience or knowledge about that history and helping them understand in very good diplomatic terms.
Then in 1992, Dr. Amy Freeman Lee came on the board. Of course, the reason I remember Amy is because she was from San Antonio. I remember Amy wanted to talk about every grant in depth, and she couldn't understand why it was so critical to send them out in advance and then rank them. Amy's perspective was that if the people went through the trouble to send in a grant, then we should go through the trouble to have a discussion on it even if it got a low ranking. I know certainly when I was the Chair, Amy got after me because inevitably once we got so far down in the rankings and the available funds, somebody would say, "I make a consent motion that all these others we just send them a nice letter and say thanks, but no thanks." Amy would respond, "No, we have to discuss every single one because they went through the time to send it in." That was interesting, but Amy was brilliant and very insightful. I learned a lot from her.
EW: I wonder if she rescued any of those from the bottom.
EF: Occasionally, sometimes yes, there would be discussion of those low ranks. Somebody would say, "I just really want to talk about this one," and occasionally somebody might resurrect one from the bottom of the list. If there was money left over they'd say, "Well, we'll give them something to encourage them because it's got potential." That was really educational for me, thinking about the constituents and the groups and how to encourage them. Dr. Diana Natalicio came in 1991, and it meant so much to me to have a sitting college president show up at the meetings and participate. She would really participate, which made the discussion diverse and helped expand it. It wasn't just associate professors or just the professors. She's a first-class educator and collegiate leader, and it was just great. We always loved seeing her at the meetings. Dr. Herman Saatkamp was the same, a very great intellect. Those two had great intellect.
EW: So you had representation from different parts of the state, because she came from El Paso.
EF: Exactly. I mentioned Dr. Almendarez. Bridgette Berry didn't say much at the grant review, but when she would say something it was right on the money. She didn't waste a lot of words. It was refreshing to have somebody that wouldn't just ramble on, and she would get to the point. Norma Cantú and Sam Moore were great as well. He was an attorney and having that perspective added a lot. I just can't think of anybody that was hard to get along with.
EW: It sounds like you enjoyed each other's company, too.
EF: Oh, yes. Attendance was always high. I can't remember anybody or anytime where we were worried about making the quorum or having enough people. Just about everybody did their homework and reviewed their grants.
EW: Were there certain emphases in the committee on things they wanted to fund or a disagreement on what kind of areas should be focused on?
EF: During my time, I don't remember a disagreement. It seemed like we kind of hit the same chords about education and expanding the constituency.
EF: When I started as a board member, my goal was simply to serve the organization. Then in 1989, I came to a meeting and either Sam Moore or Jim Veninga needed someone to go to the Federation of State Humanities Councils meeting. The person they wanted to go wasn't able to go, so they asked, "Everett, do you have time to go? It's kind of last minute." I said, "OK, I'll go."
I went to the Federation meeting in 1990. You had to introduce yourself, and I said, "I'm Everett Fly. I'm from Texas." A lot of people had heard about us, the quality of the programs, the perspective we had, how we worked together. I'm not making this up, Erica, but people would just come up to me and say, "You're from Texas? I hear they have such a good program there. How do you do it and what do you do?" I was like, "Wow." I went back from that meeting to the board, and I said that lots of people were looking at us and see us as a good model. They all listened and took it to heart, but as I went on to the Federation board, more and more it came out that Texas was really a model not just for the grants we attracted, but the way we handled our grants, how we had the workshops on setting up our long-range plans, and what we were going to do next. People would say, "How did you think of that?" Well, we'd just talk about what was relevant to us and the world. I had no intention of spending that much time on the Federation board, but as I made these reports, Jim Veninga and Sam Moore and Bill Wright would say, "You've got to stay on the board. We want to know what people are thinking."
Then when [Texas Humanities] Resource Center and the Humanities Council merged in 1992, that was a big deal to the other state councils. Many of the other councils did not have a resource center. They saw ours as a model, and a lot of the board members enjoyed the Resource Center because it was a tangible product. You could see some result of a grant or a program—either an exhibit or a speakers program or something like that. So a lot of the board members seemed to like that and it helped them appreciate what we were doing even more. A lot of the outside boards of other state councils saw that as a model. Every time I would go to a meeting, somebody would ask me about it. I believe that our reputation was one of the things that brought the Federation meeting to San Antonio in 1994. It wasn't so much my lobbying for them to come, but that reputation. We'd give reports at the Federation of what our state council was doing. I'd give the reports and people became curious and said they wanted to go to Texas and see what it was all about. I think that's a big part of the reason that they came.
EW: You created a lot of work for yourself, because you got to organize that Federation meeting, right?
EF: Yes, but as I said, it wasn't so much of a request from me that they would come, but the Federation board. Jim Veninga had a tremendous reputation and then they heard me talk about what we were doing, they said, "Well, we want to come." Then I came back to our board and told them. The board said, "Tell them to come, but you have to be the host," because San Antonio was one of the easier places to get in and out of. There was great support from the board. I don't remember a single person on the board complaining about why they were coming and why it was in San Antonio or anything of that nature.
EW: The Federation meeting must have been a lot to put together.
EF: You know how they say that if you have good material to work with, it seems easy. I think Ab Abernathy did a session on folk music. Norma Cantú did something on Hispanic writing. There was such a wealth of resources, and we simply set up an agenda where people got to see and do a lot of different things. Then of course, the setting of San Antonio helped, and we used a lot of things that the Resource Center had already created or produced. As they say, "The show was on." It was a team effort.
Around the time I started going to the Federation meetings, there was a lot of debate in Congress about funding the arts and humanities. Nationally everybody was worried about it. They were even concerned about the leadership from the Chairman of the Endowment. Before Dr. [Sheldon] Hackney came on board, I went to a Federation meeting where everybody was on the edge of their seat, between presidents and concerned about who the president was going to appoint, and would that person be able to represent the humanities effectively to Congress. Would they be able to make our case so we wouldn't get cuts, that kind of thing. It was partially overlapping the time of the Mapplethorpe issue, and when I would go to Washington for the Federation meetings, people would say, "Mapplethorpe, oh my goodness." It was a constant worry. That was the one example that people who were opposed to arts and humanities funding would always pull out of the hat.
When Dr. Hackney was appointed, the Federation board was able to get an audience with him. They told us all to come to a dinner in Washington. Dr. Hackney was sitting directly across me at the table, and so we just started talking. He asked me where I was from, and all I said was that I was from San Antonio. He said, "Tell me more." Then he asked me what our state council was doing, and I told him, having such good ammunition. The next thing I know, he's inviting me to the National Press Club to accompany him to his talk. Once again, all I was doing was carrying the Humanities Texas message and the examples of what we were doing.
After that, Dr. Hackney called me and said that the NEH was going to have another summit. They were still trying to figure out what we could do collectively to make our case. Jim Veninga was very involved in that. A group of us went to Washington. Again, we had a dinner with Dr. Hackney in January of 1994 and talked about strategies and that kind of thing. Dr. Hackney called and said, "I have another assignment for you." I thought it was simply to attend another meeting, and that's when he said, "I want to nominate you to the President's Committee." I said, "What president?" and he said, "The President." I really tried to get out of it. I said, "Dr. Hackney, I'm not a PhD, I'm just a crazy architect working in the humanities." He said, "No, that's fine. I'll take care of it. I'll tell them it's OK. You watch for the FedEx truck because the FBI is going to send you the papers." Sure enough, the FedEx truck showed up with all the background papers to fill out. Then I had to send it back and, as he said, he took care of it. So I was his appointee representing the humanities on the President's Committee. Once again, I'm simply telling people, "This is what we're doing in Texas." Not that everybody has to do what we do, but that's my point of reference and background. Even people on the President's Committee were impressed with our reputation and the kinds of things we were doing and the way Jim managed the humanities programs. It just went from there.
The Federation meeting actually overlapped the beginning of my time on the President's Committee. All the board members would know this, but that next year was supposed to be my last year. I went to the last meeting expecting to say goodbye. At the time the bylaws stated that once a member served as chair, she/he would serve one last year and rotate off the board. That would have been fine for me. Jim had talked to Dr. Berry and they got up and made a motion to change the bylaws so that if anyone was a current sitting member on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, they could serve at their pleasure as long as they wanted. I tried to talk them out of it. They didn't have to do that, but that's what they did. The board voted yes, and that's what allowed me to stay eleven years instead of just going away. That was also great because I could always keep the board up-to-date on the current national discussion related to the arts and humanities. Even the President's Committee board got interested, and Texas, at that point, was starting to shine more prominently in all kinds of things: business, culture, and so forth. The President's Committee wanted to come and visit San Antonio. Once again, by that time Jim had moved on to the Institute of Salado, but [then-director] Monte Youngs came and made a presentation to the President's Committee, and I think we used at least one or two Resource Center programs to help exemplify what we were doing in addition to the Texas Arts [Commission] and local organizations in San Antonio.
EW: Was the President's Committee chaired by John Brademas and also Hillary Clinton?
EF: Hillary Clinton was the Honorary Chair. She wasn't just a figurehead. She really understood what the humanities involved and what they were about. She and Brademas and President Clinton had worked together previously. Prior to that, the President's Committee had been more ceremonial, but the time I was on we really worked. This was at the tail end of all the debate on the arts funding and culture wars and all that business. The first three years, 1994 to 1997, we met quarterly in Washington. Every quarter there was a meeting, and then on top of that, Jim and the Texas Humanities Council would tell me to make sure I was at their meetings. I told Jim, "Let's make a deal. I'll come to the meeting as long as I don't literally have to read the grants, because I can't read all the grants and then go to Washington." That was our deal; I didn't actually have to read the grants and vote as long as I brought reports back and so forth from Washington. Those first three years we met that regularly, and then after 1997, it was two or three times a year. After 1997, the President's Committee would make a point to get out of Washington. Their strategy was to get to places where they could see what people were doing, but also tell them what we're doing and use the presence of the President's Committee. That's why they wanted a Texas representative at the meeting and the Texas Arts [Commission] that would elevate the exposure to what they were doing.
EW: You're being very modest, but it had to have been a really huge boon to TCH to have you in such a prominent place with NEH and with the President's Committee and the Federation before that, too. I think during this time wasn't there tension between how much funding to give to the states versus to give just to NEH? Was that kind of conversation something that was active in the President's Council?
EF: The funding debate was very active on the President's Council. It seemed like we were always trying to figure out who we could approach and how we could approach Congress, because they were going to make the decisions on the vote. The President's Committee did, in my opinion, a really great job. The times when we would go to Washington, they made sure we got to see the work inside of the National Archives or the working side of The Library of Congress or the working side of the National Gallery. It wasn't just a beauty contest, seeing the stuff out front, but really understanding what real national benefit they offered and then being able to take that back to wherever we were from and see if we could put something together or make some connections. One of the programs was an at-risk-youth program that one of the President's Committee members came up with. A version of that is still active. Another example was "Save America's Treasures," which was great for me because it tied into historic preservation and how to keep that active.
EW: Did the President's Committee review grants too? Was that part of what it did?
EF: Good question. The President's Committee was separate from the NEH and NEA. The reason I'm laughing is that I can clearly recall a number of times that the Endowment for the Arts staff and the Endowment for the Humanities staff always knew when we were coming. Having such great scholars and people on that committee, they wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. I literally remember walking down the hall in the Old Post Office building—that's where the meetings would be—but the staff was there waiting. They would give one or another of us grants that they were thinking about, and you're walking and they'd say, "What do you think about this?" like a spot analysis. I know many times we contributed that way, and the staff would make progress reports on different initiatives or things that they were thinking about and we would give feedback that way.
EW: It was a committee on the arts and humanities?
EF: The arts and humanities. It was thirty-two members. Dr. Brademas was the chair. Dr. Lerone Bennett, who at the time was the executive editor of Ebony, was on the board. Irene Hirano was on the board. She was the executive director of the National Japanese American Museum in California. The CEO of American Express was on the board because American Express has a worldwide initiative to protect heritage resources. Celebrities, like Rita Moreno, were on the board. She would sing to us and talk about why it was important to save musicals and Broadway theatre. David Henry Hwang, the playwright who wrote M. Butterfly, was actually one of the key people that came up with the at-risk youth initiative. I'm not exactly sure what inspired him, but I remember leading that discussion, and it actually turned into a White House initiative during the Clinton years. That's how we would respond. Having those resources, if we came up with an idea, there were people on the board that had the wherewithal to make it happen. There was none of this, "We have to go back and talk," or "Let's think about it." Instead, it was, "So-and-so would do this, and so-and-so would do that, and by the next meeting we're going to have this thing running." It was great.
EW: So you were really advocating trying to find ways to put. . .
EW: That sounds like a colorful group of people.
EF: That's one way to put it, yeah.
EW: What was it like being among all those different personalities?
EF: When Dr. Hackney appointed me, he just said it was the President's Committee, and it had been inactive so you couldn't Google it or look anything up and find out. They just said, "Be in Washington on such-and-such day in September, and the President is going to swear you in." So Linda and I got on the plane and went to Washington; my mother went too. I went ahead to the meeting and told Linda, "I'll call you back and give you any details that I find out." It was at the Old Post Office building. I checked my paper to make sure I was in the right place, and as I opened the door, the first person I saw was Quincy Jones. I said, "I'm in the wrong room." I very quietly closed the door, but before I could close it, a staff member ran up and said, "Mr. Fly!" I said, "How do you know me?" and he said, "Well, we know." I said, "I'm here for the meeting," and he said, "Yeah, you're in the right place." I walked in and, as I said, it was Quincy Jones, Lerone Bennett, Rita Moreno. At first I was like, "I'm really in the wrong place," but they were all extremely cordial.
They encouraged everybody, whatever your discipline or area that you were representing, whether it was the arts or the humanities, to have some input. Everybody had to serve in at least two working subgroups, and they'd give us time. That made it easier. There could be smaller groups of people, so that's how I got to be friends with Irene Hirano and some of the others that I'm still in contact with. As it went on, it was such a press to deal with those issues: what funding the states get, what funding the NEH and NEA get, what can we do to ensure the survival of the arts and the humanities. You didn't have time to really worry about. Quincy Jones would just say, "Everett, what do you think?" and you'd have to get the words out and couldn't be tongue-tied. You'd just go from there. Many of us got to be friends, and that made it work better. As it went on, Mrs. Clinton asked for the report on the Culture in America. Again, this was work; we weren't playing. They broke us up so that we could get those chapters/sections of the report out. That was a great fulfillment to be able to see that. I remember bringing the report back to the Humanities Texas board meeting and being able to pass it out. A lot of the members said, "We're doing this and we're doing that, but we could put it with some of the other ideas." That really helped. It made me feel like I was really helping us too.
EF: I think Humanities Texas always wanted to have more Texans involved, and it always seemed a challenge because of how big and spread out the state is. It was always a challenge to keep people engaged, give people opportunities for the exposure, education. That seemed to always be nipping at our heels. You know, what could we do? You couldn't just focus on the east or the west, and I think we did a pretty good job during the time I was involved on that issue. Sometimes it seemed like we didn't get the most cooperation from our state legislators and those kinds of people, but folks just kept working at it. People like Bill Wright; Bill seemed like he never got tired. He always had an angle or always had a contact or something like that. Sometimes I would tease him. In the mid to late 1990s I saw Bill more often in Washington than I saw him here. I would tease him and say, "I knew if I came to Washington, I'd see you, Bill!" We'd have a big laugh because he was very dedicated to the Endowment for the Humanities and they loved him for his passion.
EW: You both got to become lobbyists for. . .
EF: Exactly, that's right.
EW: Did you spend a lot of face time talking to people about TCH?
EF: My interest was more local. I was happy to do the work with the Federation and the President's Committee, but I wasn't always trying to get to talk to the senators. I was really excited to get to talk to local people because I felt that would add to the momentum. At one point in 1998 or 1999, I was still on the President's Committee. The committee was talking about ways to find, for lack of a better word, prominent people or celebrities that might speak on behalf of the humanities and the arts. If I remember correctly, we were at a committee meeting in Washington, and Rita Moreno was there, and she and I got to talking. I think it was Steven Spielberg that had offered to do public service announcements if we could find some prominent people to star in them. He would produce them because of his film and Hollywood connection. Rita Moreno and I got to talking about how we could get some sports figures involved and who we knew. I'm pretty sure she mentioned David Robinson. At the time he was one of the big stars of the San Antonio Spurs. She said, "Just call him." I said, "If I call him and he says yes, then I'm going to call you," and then we just got into that.
I came back and by this time Harriet Fulbright had taken over as the executive director of the President's Committee. Harriet was a former schoolteacher. I came back to San Antonio and did some research, digging, and discovered that David Robinson is an accomplished pianist. We thought we could attract him because of the arts. At the time he had a foundation in San Antonio, and I called and asked if they'd give me ten minutes because I wanted to go and talk to them about this. His executive director said, "Sure, come on in." I sent a resume and some information on the President's Committee and went and met her. I made this pitch that we understood that David was interested in performing art and music, and we wanted to encourage more kids to be involved in this. She said she really liked it, and she would talk to David. He was in the latter years of his career, and he wanted to make what they call a legacy contribution to San Antonio, but they didn't know what. To make the story short, I had another meeting and actually met with David. I talked to him about education and the arts and that kind of thing. It was in the beginning of the pre-season as they call it, and he was going to the West Coast. The President's Committee was going to meet on the West Coast, so I called Harriet Fulbright, President's Committee Executive Director at the time, and I said, "If I can get David to meet, would you be willing to meet?" and she did. Harriet, David, and I met, and she talked to him about arts education. I think as a result, he developed his academy, his charter school in San Antonio. When you look at the curriculum, it's very heavy in arts education. We weren't able to get him to be in the public service announcements, but that's how we brought the conversation and how I did what I could to get local people involved. Harriet gave David some contacts for people that helped him develop the curriculum. I actually did the master plan for the property that he used to build the school.
EW: Is this the Carver? Is it a community center?
EF: The Carver Community Center is there, and he called it The Carver Academy. That's the kind of thing that I was really interested in and still am—Texas and the local communities—because I think we have so much to offer and so much to learn from ourselves that it'd be great if we could take advantage of all this.
EW: When you met with the President's Committee, was that also something that was new to people or they learned about—not just what New York was doing in the arts, but all the programs coming out of Texas?
EF: I think so, and the curiosity about Texas, which is why the Federation came here for the 1994 meeting. We were just ourselves. I remember we had one group who was a group of Mexican American businesswomen in San Antonio. I had seen them do an oral history presentation. They talked about how from one generation of women to another they passed on lessons on how to live, treat people, ethics, the value of education, the value of family. They had never heard of the Federation, they had never thought of themselves as humanists. So Linda, my wife, and I went to one of their meetings, and we talked them into doing their oral presentation at the Federation meeting. These women stood up, and the first woman says, "I'm the great grandmother, and these are my traditions, and these are my values," and the next one says, "I'm the grandmother, and then I'm the grand-daughter and so on." To us it was just really wonderful, but it was like oral humanities. Nobody had ever approached them, but they were interested. It just happened that there was a Federation meeting coming up in Washington, and they sent a representative with us to the Federation meeting kind of to verify and see who we were and if they would really fit. The young lady went with us, and she really liked it. We introduced her to the Federation staff, and she saw the program and went back to San Antonio and said, "I really think our group should be in the meeting, in the program when they come to San Antonio." They did an excellent job in their oral presentation. I can't remember how many people in the audience came to us afterward and said, "We've never seen anything like that at a Federation meeting. It's always an academician talking about a book or talking about a theory, but we get it, the human part of this culture."
Things like that, that's what we like to do and that's what we were able to do, put them in context and connection, because these women thought of themselves as just a local group, or that nobody cared about what they thought. But the Federation folks really embraced them. The other programs that came from the Resource Center and other things that Humanities Texas had done were included in the program. It wasn't just all outsiders making the presentation. There were local people and visitors throughout the program.
It was interdisciplinary and really a broader brush of American culture. Not just the academicians or the abstract.
EW: During your time on the board were there things that you found that worked or that didn't work, lessons that you might have learned from some of these projects?
EF: Again, I'm being honest, my experience was very positive. A number of times we were disappointed that we didn't have enough money to fund everything. There were many times there were worthy applications, and we just didn't have the money. Sometimes we were broken-hearted because we wanted to encourage those people to come back, and a lot of times we would really spend time. At the end of the grant meeting, somebody would verbally dictate an outline with certain points instead of sending them the form letter, so that hopefully they revise it and send it back. That was kind of one of the realities, just not having enough money. Otherwise, I really can't recall any bad problems. It was a really good experience.
The Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries exhibition in 1991 was a blockbuster. I'm saying this being from San Antonio. We're used to tourists, but it really made us feel good to see that many people come to a humanities program and event. That was exceptional. I'll never forget that.
Also, the teacher awards really made an impact on a lot of the board members. I remember when Sam Moore first spoke about it, there were some folks that were lukewarm. They weren't necessarily against it, but kind of lukewarm. Then they came up with the idea of having a board member present the award to the teacher. When we started doing that, there were board members that hadn't been excited about it, but they came back and talked about how the teacher reacted and how the teacher's class reacted. Then there were board members that I remember specifically that said, "Put me on the list! I'll go wherever there's an award to be made," because they then realized how much it helped and how much it meant to the teachers. It was a way for us to show appreciation.
And now all the television stations have a teacher's award! I remember when we started that.
EW: It seems there was a lot of long-range planning that took place when you were on the board and a lot of the work happened in committees on issues like international awareness and cultural exchange.
EF: Yes, and those generally worked out well again, because they were small groups. People could offer their opinions and their thoughts, even if you weren't disposed to talk in larger groups. I really appreciated that.
Cultural exchange was well received. The audiences really seemed to appreciate learning about other cultures, places, and people, and other perspectives in those cultures. Sometimes I wish in the current times we had more opportunities to do that. Kind of like the phrase from To Kill a Mockingbird, "Til you walked in that person's skin or that person's shoes…" I just think that the humanities are an excellent way to do that.
EW: Texas is perfectly poised for that conversation. I really appreciate you stopping by to talk to me.
EF: Again, it wasn't my intent to be on the Humanities board for eleven years. When you get to spend that much time with people, at the end it seemed to me that there was more representation from professional people, attorneys. I remember Diana Bravo was an architect and two-year designer who came in the end. I didn't feel too much out of place being the only architect. A number of the professional people helped the balance, and once they got involved, they seemed to catch up to it and became good advocates for the humanities as well.
EW: We're certainly appreciative because all of that foundation that was laid in the 1980s and the 1990s, during a time of culture wars. Did that play a part in your decisions, like funding?
EF: Again, it seemed like we were just more ourselves. We were aware of all the pressures and all the challenges, but I don't really remember us collectively saying, "We have to fund this one because it's politically correct." It was just a real good group of people who were well grounded, down to earth. That was one of the reasons why I kept staying as long as they would keep me on the board, because the dynamic to me was always healthy. We didn't always absolutely agree or initially agree on everything, but it seemed like we could always talk it through.
The staff was great, very positive. I actually still use the staff as a point of reference when I come across one group or another and I comment, "These guys are not as good as the Humanities staff." I mean really, especially doing things like the President's Committee and the Federation, where you have an opportunity to see other groups and other organizations, and it's not so much a personality comparison, but a commitment comparison—[about] dedication and even working relationships, about good team atmosphere. I very often use Humanities Texas as a point of reference. That's the other thing. When others say, "We can't," I know better. "Yes, you can." I've seen it done, and all you need to see is one example where it has been done and no one can use that "I can't" because somebody has done it.