This month, in celebration of our fiftieth anniversary, we are sharing reflections from several former members of Humanities Texas's Board of Directors about their experience serving on the board. The Humanities Texas Board formulates policy, approves programs and projects, reviews grant applications, participates in fundraising, and promotes our activities statewide. They dedicate significant time and resources to advance the mission of Humanities Texas, providing guidance and encouragement with unwavering commitment. Without their support, Humanities Texas would not have the reach that we do in communities across the state.
In 1986 and 1987, when I was chair of the Texas Committee for the Humanities, the organization was experiencing hard times. Our director, Jim Veninga, was scratching his head to find solutions to our decreasing available funds and questionable future as an organization. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) was also struggling and, therefore, pinching the outflow of funds to state organizations. I remember personally calling on all the new directors and letting them know theirs was not to be just a "prestige" enhancing experience but a "roll up your sleeves" working requirement. Jim came through with the necessary strategies, and we made it through the tough times.
Other problems arose, however. NEH began to minimize the importance of the various state organizations. Jim and I entered the battle and, along with the other state organizations, helped them think about the efficacy of the state organizations, which led to my work with the NEH board itself. It was a great experience for me to work with the NEH Chair Lynne Cheney, scholars from around the nation, and the head of the states' program, Carole Watson, who became a longtime friend.
Serving on the board of the Texas Committee for the Humanities (TCH) was one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life. One of my main duties as a board member was to read and screen grant applications. Through the TCH grant program, many organizations received support for conferences, symposia, lectures, interpretive exhibits, public radio and television programming, and similar efforts. Humanities packaged programs were also made available across the state, with small museums, libraries, and historical societies as the sponsors. Many of these grants, however small, were extremely important to institutions with limited budgets, who were eager to tell their stories. At each board meeting when these applications were discussed, I was struck by the diversity and strengths of the applications and was empowered to return to my community to serve and spread the good word about TCH. Serving on this board gave me the opportunity not only to make a difference in decisions that affected the success of the organization, but also countless individuals and communities.
My tenure on the board was truly a great experience. I was impressed by the breadth of knowledge and diversity of the board members. Likewise, I was impressed with the efficiency and caring personality of Jim Veninga. He was the key contributor for direction and strategy, which determined the success of the organization, and also to building continuity and creating value for the stakeholders. I am humbled to have had the opportunity to represent the people of Houston. Happy fiftieth anniversary to Humanities Texas, and here's to many more!
It was my honor to serve two terms during the 1990s as a board member on what was then known as the Texas Committee for the Humanities. Experiencing the skillful leadership provided by the late James F. Veninga as executive director will always remain the highlight of my service. He was a modern embodiment of the committed thinkers who were much in evidence during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In furthering the role of the humanities here in Texas, Jim always had before him the goal of providing the people of this state with exposure to humanistic ideas and concepts that would enable them to better understand our world and its meaning. As such, and always of good humor, he never for a minute lost sight of the larger public role the humanities could play here in Texas. In terms of our work as board members, he was a consensus builder who had a marked ability to bring all of us together into common purpose. In so doing, however, he was always practical in terms of funding strategies, ever mindful of the need to sponsor programs which would reach the widest possible audiences.
He was also an enthusiastic supporter of humanities teachers as a means of furthering the education of young people. The Outstanding Teaching Award program still exists as a meaningful recognition of his commitment to humanities classrooms across the state. My board colleague Linden Heck Howell joined Jim Veninga in this effort to recognize outstanding humanities teachers. They worked together diligently to implement the current state-wide award. It is fitting, therefore, that the annual Outstanding Teaching of Texas History Award today bears Linden's name. I cherish the times over the years it has been my privilege to present these teaching awards across the state. And, in so doing, I always note the important role Jim Veninga and Linden Heck Howell played in establishing this significant form of recognition.
In summing up my service to Humanities Texas, I paraphrase Will Rogers by saying that I never met a board member I didn't like. To a person, they were committed, hard-working, and remarkable individuals who valued the public role of the humanities in American life. Admittedly, although each of us during my board service came from different walks of life and had varying viewpoints, we always found a common ground which enabled us to advance the cause of the humanities in Texas. I will always be convinced that all of us who have served on the board of directors have done our best to make Texas a better place than we found it by fostering public appreciation of the humanities through the auspices of this singular organization.
In many years of volunteer work, one of my great joys remains the work done on the board of Humanities Texas. I loved voting on the awards given to excellent teachers around the state. I particularly loved the exhibitions done by Humanities Texas to be sent around Texas to schools, libraries, and museums. I loved that we had grants to give to the different groups so they could order the exhibitions. It is a huge and valuable offering to both small and large venues across the state of Texas.
I became aware of the work of the organization that is now Humanities Texas through the late Tomás Rivera, who was delivering a keynote lecture held annually in Houston. It was the early 1980s. I drove up from Laredo for the event and met the staff; the two I remember most clearly, Jim Veninga and Yvonne González, became immediate friends. Since then, I have been a supporter and advocate. In my view, the humanities in Texas would not be what they are were it not for Humanities Texas. The hallmark of their work centers on the vision, outreach, and passion to engage in all disciplines of the humanities—especially history and literature—across the state to all sectors of our society.
Over the last thirty years, my service on the board of directors, my participation in the Holiday Book Fair, and being a faculty member for the teacher institutes have brought me tremendous joy as well as sorrow: joy because I saw the impact that the Humanities Texas programs have on individuals and on communities, but sorrow that we didn't do more, as there is great need for such transformational work.
Like the proverbial pebble hitting still waters, the work of Humanities Texas reaches out to Texans, first of all, but across the country as well. From veterans' programs to exhibitions to teacher institutes, Humanities Texas touches countless lives. I learned how well-regarded our organization is when I served on the board of the Federation of State Humanities Councils and when I represented Texas on the Federation's Conference Committee. I was there for the good times and the bad . . . yes, there were bad times when we felt the NEH risked dissolution and when the budget cuts hit hard, but I was also there to celebrate the good times—the celebrations of Outstanding Teaching Awards, when [former executive director] Michael [Gillette] was hired, and when Eric [Lupfer] became executive director.
Personally, I feel blessed for having had a seat at the table, as it were. Among the treasured memories are the many trips to Austin for board meetings and the feeling of satisfaction for having done good work. I celebrate and honor the experiences and the deep and lasting friendships formed through my work with Humanities Texas.
Humanities Texas has never been rich, and so its grants have never come close to providing the kind of support for large, world-changing projects like the DARPA-funded research that formed the conceptual basis for the internet or the public-private partnership that originally funded Sesame Street. But growing up in Abilene, I often heard my father say, "Mighty oaks from little acorns grow." If you look out over the wide-ranging Texas landscape, you'll see the long-term effects, like sturdy oaks, of the little acorns of experiments planted and nourished by the encouragement and attention of small grants from Humanities Texas.
Sometimes in board discussions, we board members would wonder whether what we contributed would be enough, for example, to help a filmmaker in a remote part of Texas succeed in an ambitious project. We took some chances, knowing that if an experiment failed, the encouragement our grant had offered might help further the next project, which might then succeed. One of the admirable aspects of the Texas approach to entrepreneurship, whether in technology or the humanities, is the willingness to risk and even to fail—but then to risk again. We tried to make wise choices, but we also rewarded independent humanities entrepreneurs who didn't have support systems that would help cushion their projects against failure.
One of the biggest impacts Humanities Texas made during the 1980s was through encouraging the formation of humanities institutes throughout the state. I was involved in the formation of the Salado Institute for the Humanities in 1980, which could never have flourished without not just the funding from Humanities Texas but also the wise counsel of its director, Jim Veninga. One of our first conferences, held in 1982, was on Vietnam. The Washington Post reporter who covered it caught the flavor of the enterprise when he wrote, "Strictly speaking, this isn't a town. There's no authority. Volunteers fight fires. A county patrolman fights crime" and then went on to say:
Hardly the place, you would suppose, to spend a mind-bending weekend struggling in the company of 150 Central Texans and a few visitors from more distant places for a better understanding of the horrors and the heartbreak, the angers and the agony, the origins and the tragic finale, the meaning and the consequences of the Vietnam War.
But it was just the right place as it turned out.
And sometimes these programs, with small grants from Humanities Texas, turned out to have a much wider reach. The Salado Conference on "Understanding Evil," which included among its speakers Maya Angelou in conversation with Barbara Jordan, was later a Bill Moyers PBS documentary called Facing Evil.
For impact beyond the initial grant, perhaps nothing was as far-reaching as the financial support given to explore the possibility of a traveling exhibition on the history of Texas women. The exhibition was profoundly influential, winning additional grant support and eventually leading to the establishment of a $25 million national Women's History Museum in Dallas. Although the Women's Museum is now sadly closed, the history project itself had a profound impact on the state. The women who worked on it learned how to raise money and went on to become a political force, spearheading the election of one of its members, Ann Richards, to become governor. Sometimes a Humanities Texas planning grant ends up going a long way.