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Political Trailblazer

Governor Bill Clements promoted parks, game wardens and TPWD's foundation.

By Lydia Saldana

Bill Clements was a trailblazer throughout his long life. He turned his early experience as a roughneck in the oil fields of Texas into the world’s largest offshore oil drilling contracting firm, making a fortune along the way. When he turned his attention to Texas politics, he was elected governor in 1978 in a stunning upset, becoming the first Republican to win that seat in more than a century.

He lost his first re-election bid to Mark White in 1982 but turned the table four years later by challenging him and winning a second term. His two nonconsecutive terms set the stage for the next generation of Republican leaders in Texas, turning a blue state red in the process.

From his very early years, Clements was grounded in strong outdoor traditions. On his 12th birthday, he joined the Boy Scouts and decided he would earn Eagle Scout status in the minimum
time possible.

“From the time you start out as a Tenderfoot, if you do everything exactly on time, you can become an Eagle Scout in 14 months,” Clements recalled in an interview 60 years later. “So I did it.”

Clements

Clements’ father was one of the founders of a now-legendary hunting and fishing club in East Texas, still going strong today. The bond between father and son was cemented in the outdoors. Clements also shared his love of hunting and fishing with family, friends and business colleagues throughout his life.

“My dad was not a hunter, and he prevailed on Governor Clements when I was 7 or 8 to take me hunting,” recalls Ed Cox Jr. “And he took me on my first deer hunt. And my first duck hunt. I remember him taking me on his back through a duck marsh and setting me on a beaver mound. That was an absolute thrill.”

Soon after the 1978 election, Clements called Cox and told him he wanted to appoint him to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, the body that oversees the work of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

“Governor Clements’ awareness and support of Texas Parks and Wildlife — the commission and the department — was unprecedented,” Cox says. “He was very adamant about his conservation perspective and really took it very seriously when he became governor. I can remember the conversations he had with new appointments to the commission — that it was our duty to take care of the fish, wildlife and parks of our state for future generations of Texans.”

At the time, there was more emphasis on hunting and fishing than state parks.

“While many of us were focused on the hunting and fishing side of things, he also came to have a deep concern for the park system and how the money was spent,” Cox says. “Even back then, Texas was having a very hard time taking care of the parks.”

Longtime TPW Commission-watcher and Clements family friend Bubba Wood observes that Clements’ commission appointments were not just political picks.

Clements

“He got real sportsmen that were really interested and knew they would have to answer to him,” Wood says. “And they all knew this wasn’t just a way to say thank you for helping him get elected. Governor Clements expected them to work hard and run the Parks and Wildlife Department for the benefit of the people of Texas.”

At the tail end of Clements’ second term, a discussion began about the creation of a nonprofit with a single focus of supporting TPWD’s mission. Clements appointee Chuck Nash was serving as chairman of the commission at the time.

“Governor Clements always understood the power of philanthropy,” Nash says. “He was very involved in the early discussion about the creation of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. The idea was percolating in 1990 in the months leading up to the gubernatorial election.”

Ann Richards won that election, and with her support, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation was created in 1991. Since then, TPWF has invested more than $170 million in transformational conservation projects across the state.

“While Governor Clements was in office, and up until the very end of his life, we never asked for one thing he didn’t support,” Nash says. “He hosted early fundraisers that helped get the foundation off the ground and supported key projects in the years to follow.”

One of those projects was the Game Warden Training Center in Hamilton County. The foundation led fundraising efforts for the facility. Clements always had a strong affinity for the work game wardens do across the state.

“He was a very strong supporter of TPWD from the outset of his first term,” says Pat Oles, who served as chairman of the foundation’s board of trustees and helped raise money for the Game Warden Training Center. “One reason among many was his admiration for the game wardens. He knew Texas game wardens as an elite law enforcement unit, a group that had its act together.”

Clements

Oles remembers taking Clements to lunch to update him on the activities of the foundation, and specifically the fundraising efforts for the training center.

“He zeroed in as he always did and immediately got to the heart of the matter,” Oles recalls.

“The governor said, ‘Tell me about the money. How much do you need?’ I told him our goal was $10 million in private support. He looked at me and said, ‘I’ll give you two. One now and one later.’”

Clements was also TPWF’s landlord, offering free rent to the new foundation in its first 20 years of existence. Clements had an office in the same building. Oles laughs as he remembers the call from an intern in the office the same day as that lunch.

“She called and said, ‘Mr. Oles, an old man just walked in with a wrinkled-up check for $1 million. What am I supposed to do with it? He also told me to have you call him to remind him about the other million.’”

Clements attended the dedication of the Game Warden Training Center in 2010 and was delighted to see the state-of-the-art facility.

“His view was that Texas game wardens lead the country in terms of quality and performance, and he wanted to make sure our wardens had the best training and facilities possible,” Oles says. “He couldn’t have been clearer on his intentions and desire to make that happen.”

Clements had a rich, full life with Texas-sized accomplishments. For those who spent time with him in the field, he is also remembered for his accomplishments in the state’s woods and waters.

“He could look at a stretch of water and just read the water and know where the fish were,” Nash says. “He was just a natural outdoorsman.”

He was also a role model.

“Growing up and for many years afterward, he was my hero,” Cox says. “I really looked up to him. He was hard-core, and he believed what he believed, but by God, if he believed it, he was going to make something happen. I always had such great respect for that.”

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