Legacy of RE Thomason
R.E. Thomason left a legacy of character, vision and courage.
Robert Ewing Thomason
5/30/1879 – 11/8/1973
1917 – 1921 Member of the Texas House of Representatives
1920 – 1921 Speaker of the House, Texas House of Representatives
1927 – 1930 Mayor of El Paso
1931 – 1947 U.S. House of Representatives, 16th Congressional District
1947 – 1963 Federal District Judge, Western District
The Early Years
Robert Ewing’s father, Dr. Benjamin Thomason moved his family to Era, Texas near Gainesville in 1880 when his son was only one. Benjamin Thomason was the only town doctor and ran a country store where his son worked as a young boy after his mother died. R.E. considered becoming a doctor like his father, but was urged by his father to attend law school, with warnings that a doctor’s life was full of hard work and little pay.
Thomason demonstrated an early talent for debate and public speaking at the Southwestern University of Georgetown where he completed all the courses available by the age of 16. While attending U.T. Austin’s Law School, Thomason was a member of the debate team that won competitions for the first time in the university’s history. Robert Ewing Thomason graduated from law school on June 7, 1900, one week after his 21st birthday.
Country and District Attorney, Cooke County, Texas: 1902-1906
Thomason returned to Gainesville to practice law and soon won election as County and District Attorney for two consecutive terms, beginning a long career of public service. During his second term, he married Belle Davis on Valentines’ Day in 1905 and then practiced law for several years with his father-in-law, attorney W.O. Davis.
The move to El Paso
In 1911, Thomason contracted malaria. His doctors advice to seek a higher, drier climate led him to seek medical attention at the Homan Sanitarium in El Paso. After a year of recuperation in the sunny town, R. E. and Belle Thomason settled in as permanent El Paso residents. Thomason resumed his law practice, this time with a friend Thomas Calloway Lea, Jr. and later two additional partners, J. G. McGrady and Eugene T. Edwards. These four lawyers were founding members of the El Paso Bar Association, according to J. Morgan Broaddus, author of The Legal Heritage of El Paso. Thomason developed a reputation in civil law, and soon became well known in political circles.
Texas House of Representatives: 1917-1921
In 1916, Thomason won election to the Texas House of Representatives on a ticket known for political reform against “the Ring,” a group of lawyers, politicians and others who had dominated El Paso politics by questionable tactics for decades. Thomason early introduced a bill requiring that all voters be American citizens, discouraging the habit by politicians, like those in the Ring, of paying Mexican citizens to vote. This bill later became known as the “Clean Election Law.” Another bill that he vigorously supported prevented politicians from spending tax money on their campaigns.
Texas House of Representatives, Speaker of the House: 1920-1921
Joseph M. Ray, editor of Thomason’s autobiography, stated in the New Handbook of Texas that Thomason took his first term in the state legislature very seriously and gained so much support for his second term that his peers unanimously elected him Speaker of the House.
In 1917, a fire destroyed a large part of the College of Mines, now the University of Texas at El Paso. Thomason knew the importance of a higher education and pushed through a bill that allocated $100,000 towards rebuilding the college. His goal was to make the College of Mines “first class in every aspect.”
Progressive as a legislator, Thomason supported Prohibition and also women’s suffrage when that idea was still unpopular. He helped organize the State Highway Commission and supported the first “Good Roads Law,” leading to better-constructed, cleaner and safer roadways in Texas. He served on a committee that investigated the misconduct of Governor James E. Ferguson, which led to 21 articles of impeachment and Ferguson’s dismissal from office. While still in the legislature, Thomason met tough competition for a run as governor in 1920 and lost. Declining to run for a third term in the legislature Thomason returned to his law practice in El Paso and in 1921 lost his beloved wife Belle to a short illness.
Mayor of El Paso: 1927-1930
Thomason remained out of the political arena until 1927 when he ran for Mayor of El Paso. Thomason won by one vote in an election in which only seven votes separated the winner from the two candidates at the bottom of the list of eight. Two years later, Thomason was reelected without opposition. Mayor Thomason also had remarried to Abbie Mann Long.
Judge Thomason’s correspondence of the early 1930s reflects the dire situation of El Paso and other west Texas cities and towns during the Depression years. Yet in Thomason’s two terms, he did much to modernize El Paso. He and his council implemented drainage projects and constructed deep sewers downtown. He introduced the city to its first traffic light system and built the Brown Street Reservoir. He had steel fences built around the Franklin Canal to prevent child drownings. He began operating the city on a balanced budget and encouraged the rise of small businesses. Thomason also brought some of El Paso’s biggest industries to the city during his administration: El Paso Natural Gas Company, Standard Oil Refinery and Nicholas Copper Refinery, later acquired by Phelps-Dodge Refineries.
Perhaps, however, one of Thomason’s greatest achievements as mayor was establishing the first municipal airport. Over 10,000 people attended the dedication ceremony in 1928 of the airport, built northeast of Fred Wilson Road and west of Biggs Field. Amelia Earhart landed at the new airport the same year. Standard Airlines began the first regularly scheduled service at the airport in 1929, and airmail service was inaugurated in 1930. However, another airport begun by Standard Airlines in 1930 eventually became El Paso International Airport. In a biographical paper, writer John Rice sums up Thomason’s many accomplishments by stating that he used his four years in office to bring about “an entirely new and modern complexion to the city.”
U.S. House of Representatives, 16th Congressional District: 1931-1947
During his second term as mayor, Thomason ran for a seat in the 16th Congressional District of the House of Representatives, then the country’s largest district in area. Thomason served in the House for 17 years. Known for staying in touch with his constituency, he acquainted himself with every county in his district.
Thomason authored bills that led to the establishment of Red Bluff Dam and Big Bend, the first national park in Texas. He served on numerous committees, including the House Armed Services Committee, rising to position of vice chairman. Former Congressman Richard C. White said that Thomason was responsible for obtaining millions of dollars for renovations to Fort Bliss , William Beaumont Army Hospital , Biggs Army Air Field and White Sands Missile Range . One expansion added 618,000 acres to Fort Bliss. Thomason also authored a bill to establish Fort Bliss National Cemetery. The Thomason Act gave permanent regular Army commissions to qualified reserve officers. During World War II, these officers were known as “Tommies.”
Federal Judge of the Western District of Texas: 1947-1963
Thomason might have remained in Congress had he not been appointed Federal Judge of the Western District of Texas by President Harry Truman in 1947. In the next 16 years, Thomason presided over several celebrated cases, including the perjury trial of alleged communist union organizer Clinton Jencks; the first airplane hijacking in American airline history, which took place at the El Paso International Airport in 1961; the Thelma White case in 1955; and the Billie Sol Estes mail fraud and conspiracy trial in 1963. Robert Ewing Thomason retired in 1963 at the age of 84, after handling about 35,000 civil and criminal cases and naturalizing 9,000 citizens. El Paso’s city-country hospital was re-named in his honor and became known as Thomason General Hospital.
On November 5, 1973, Robert Ewing Thomason died, having served his city, state and country honorably. He had moved to a small city, helped modernize it and built one of the largest military complexes in the country. Through his selfless service as a lawyer, state legislator, mayor, congressman and federal judge, Thomason became a driving force in Texas and a leader in the development of El Paso. His example set a standard for character, leadership and public service which serves as a good measure to this day.
Cite: Alvarez-Smith, Erica, Nadia Medrano, Sheryhan Asha, and Micaela Perales. "R.E. Thomason Shaped City, State, Nation." Borderlands 24 (2005-2005): 16. Borderlands. EPCC Libraries.
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