Skip to main content

Former Texas Gov. Bill Clements Dies

Former Texas Gov. William "Bill" Clements Jr., 94, who broke the Democratic Party's century-long hold on the Governor's Mansion with his election in 1978, died Sunday.

Gov. Bill Clements

Former Texas Gov. William "Bill" Clements Jr., who broke the Democratic Party's century-long hold on the Governor's Mansion with his election 33 years ago, died Sunday. He was 94, had suffered a stroke and had been ill for some time.

A brusque and colorful Dallas oilman, Clements shocked the political establishment by beating Democrat John Hill Jr. in the 1978 gubernatorial election. Hill, then the attorney general, had unseated Gov. Dolph Briscoe in the Democratic primary, and Capitol power players — as overwhelmingly Democratic then as they are Republican now — assumed the race was over.

Clements, spending freely from his own bank account, overtook Hill and became the first Republican elected governor since Reconstruction. While he hadn't been elected to office before, he had been involved in GOP politics, and he served as deputy secretary of defense, a civilian post, from 1971 to 1977, in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

He lost a re-election bid to Mark White in a Democratic sweep in 1982, and then won the office back from White in 1986, after outrunning Kent Hance and Tom Loeffler, without a runoff, in a three-way Republican primary. His second term was marred by revelations of a football scandal at Southern Methodist University; Clements admitted that he and others on the university's board of governors had approved a plan to continue to pay football players who'd been promised pay by boosters. The rationale was that they were honoring a deal; the NCAA, in response, shut down SMU's football program with an administrative "death penalty."

Clements was born in 1917 in Dallas, studied engineering at SMU, served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in World War II and then went into the oil business. The company he and others began in the late 1940s became SEDCO, at one time the biggest oil drilling contractor in the world.

As governor, he was known for his plaid sports jackets, an affinity for hamburgers and a knack for ditching his security detail. He sparked what became the tort reform movement in Texas government, pushing lawmakers into several special sessions in fights over workers' compensation insurance and other issues that pitted businesses against trial lawyers. He appointed Republicans to a Texas Supreme Court that was dominated by Democrats. And he helped plant the political seeds that grew into the current Republican domination of Texas politics, both in employing people who rose into positions of power and influence later and in building the Republican infrastructure — politics, finance and policy — that allowed the party to overtake the Democrats in state government in the 1990s.

He continued his involvement in politics after he left office and gave away some of his fortune, notably contributing $100 million to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Clements is survived by his wife, Rita, and by a daughter. His son, Gill Clements, was murdered last year by a neighbor in East Texas.

Here is the statement from the family:

The family of Bill Clements sadly announces that his life on earth ended today, Sunday, May 29th, at age 94 after a brief stay in the hospital.  He was surrounded by his wife, daughter, and numerous family members.

Though he had been ill for several months and grieving over the death of his son, his optimism, personal strength, and interest in others sustained him throughout.

He loved and valued his family and his many close friends. We are thankful for the support and encouragement he gave to each of us.

It is somewhat fitting that he died Memorial Day Weekend since he so appreciated the opportunities he had to serve his state and country.

Remembrances and official statements are starting to come in. 

From Gov. Rick Perry:

Anita and I are deeply saddened today as our state and nation have lost a true pioneer, and a larger-than-life entrepreneur, public servant and, most of all, a Texan. Gov. Clements was a mentor and someone I admired and respected greatly. As the father of the modern day Texas Republican Party, Gov. Clements is responsible for the growth, success and election of Texas Republicans in every corner of our state. Today, Texans and Americans have lost a leader whose leadership, service and patriotism were unparalleled. Anita and I send our deepest sympathy to Rita Crocker Clements and the Clements family during this difficult time.
Today, I have ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff in honor of the life and service of former Texas Governor William P. Clements, Jr.

"He was an exceptional individual," said state Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington. "He had a keen insight into what was best for Texas at the time. He was just truly an exceptional individual. I think it's very sad that he's gone, but he contributed so much to the state."

Harris hinted at Clements' personality when asked whether he has any particular memories that stand out. "The ones that stand out I'm not going to tell you about."

Former House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said he had fond memories of Clements and talked to him every day during the legislative session while Clements was in office. "He knew what needed to be done and how to get it done," Craddick said. "I think he was a really great governor."

He recalled Clements as a "crusty guy."

"I went to a couple of events in Dallas, and people would come in in suits and ties," he said. "He'd come in off the farm in old dirty boots and khakis. He was kind of a one-of-a-kind."

Houston Democrat John Whitmire served under Clements in both the House and the Senate. "You always hate to lose a leader," he said. "He served the state a long time.

"I have good memories. ... He very much ran the state like you would expect a CEO to do," Whitmire said. "He ran it like it was a business. A no-nonsense guy. Didn't handle fools very well. I always admired him, but he was certainly in a different era than we are."

House Speaker Joe Straus issued a statement:

Julie and I are saddened by the passing of former Texas Governor Bill Clements, with whom my family enjoyed a decades-long friendship," Speaker Straus said.  "We extend our deepest sympathies and heartfelt prayers to Rita and the entire Clements family.

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Tom Phillips was appointed to a district judgeship in Houston and then to the top civil judicial post in the state by Clements. He didn't meet the governor until the announcement he was joining the Supreme Court, and said he'd been avoiding him after hearing that Clements didn't want his judges involved in party politics.

"There's a famous story of a judge he had appointed who went to a rally to thank him," Phillips said. Clements acknowledged the thank you and then the judge some advice that got passed around: "I appointed you to work, too, not to eat a tamale on a Wednesday afternoon."

Because he was a Republican governor in a Democratic state government, Clements had to pick his shots. Phillips said his biggest influence might have come though his appointments. At a Harris County Republican precinct meeting, Phillips said, someone raised their hand and asked the governor if he would use his appointments to build the party. He didn't get the answer he wanted, Phillips said. "No, if I'm elected, I'm going to appoint the best people to the job," Clements replied. "If you want a political hack, there are other candidates."

"You knew where he stood, whether he was for you or he was against you, and that was refreshing," Phillips said. 

James Huffines was 24 in 1978, when he became the "yard sign and literature chair" for Clements. In the governor's second term, Huffines was Clements' appointments secretary, and he went on to his own career in business and in GOP politics.

"He loved Texas," Huffines said. "He loved the state as much as anything else. In my opinion, Bill Clements was a real trailblazer, whether it was in business ... to blazing a path to being the first Republican guv elected in 105 years."

Huffines has fond memories of the first campaign. "Nobody gave him a chance. We made 10k yard signs in a warehouse in Dallas," he said. "I had a privilege to be on a phone call late that night and he was directing traffic about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning about locking the boxes up in Jefferson County."

He noted, as Phillips did, that Clements was particularly good about hiring young people. "We were all in our 30s in that administration," he said. "It was an incredible honor to work for Bill Clements. I learned a great deal that prepared me for my career."

Another young appointee, Geoff Connor joined Clements' legal staff in 1988, fresh out of law school, and stayed until the end of the governor's second term. Connor, who later became Texas secretary of state, remembered going with Clements to a meeting with a judge who was deciding whether the state should be on the hook for prisoners being held in county jails. The counties were suing, and Connor was there as the governor's legal adviser. He said he was worried that Clements might fire off an answer to a question and get the state into a fix. He hadn't counted on the power of personality. "When they asked on of those questions, he would give them that direct glare," Connor remembers. "They would just lose their nerve to finish the question."

From U.S. Sen. John Cornyn:

From his humble beginnings in the Texas' oil fields to his time as the first Republican Governor since Reconstruction of our State, Bill Clements' was a true Texas conservative icon and legend. He was the father of modern conservatism in Texas and began a movement that made our State one of the strongest and most prosperous states in the nation. Sandy and I will continue to pray for his family and loved ones, he will be missed.

From Comptroller Susan Combs:

Governor Clements was one of the most courageous and hard-working men I have known. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps after his family lost everything in the Depression to become a highly successful businessman and a record-setting governor of Texas. He was tough-minded and tough-talking. But his gruff exterior hid a warm and generous heart that made him a champion of Texas historic preservation and the arts. And his support of the Boy Scouts by giving of his time and philanthropic efforts on behalf of the Boys Scouts is legendary. I will miss him and I know that Texas is a better place because of Bill Clements.

From Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst:

I was saddened to hear about the passing of former Governor Bill Clements – a true Texas legend.  I will always have tremendous respect and admiration for Governor Clements and will always appreciate his personal counsel, friendship and support.

From R. Gerald Turner, president of SMU

Bill Clements’ generosity and guidance have made a significant impact on academic programs throughout SMU, with major gifts supporting engineering, theology, mathematics and history. By endowing the Clements Department of History, including a new Ph.D. program, and the Clements Center for Southwest Studies, he enabled students ranging from undergraduates to doctoral fellows to learn more about the history and cultures of this region. Bill and Rita Clements also made it possible for SMU to acquire, rebuild and offer academic programs at SMU-in-Taos, located on the site of historic Fort Burgwin in northern New Mexico. This facility has given generations of students and faculty a tremendous and unique resource for teaching, learning and research.
Earlier, as chair of SMU’s Board from 1967-73 and again from l983-86, Bill Clements led the formation of an endowment committee resulting in dramatic increases in market value. He led funding of the campus master plan that continues to guide our academic offerings, and with an eye for detail in bricks and mortar, he preserved the continuity of SMU’s Collegiate Georgian architecture. All this he accomplished with his typical no-nonsense approach and direct style of communication. His legacy as a business leader, public official and supporter of SMU will stand the test of time. He was a member of the SMU community for more than 70 years and he will be greatly missed.

George Bayoud Jr., who started as the aide driving candidate Clements around the state and remained a close associate until the governor's death, issued a short statement in lieu of an interview:

Bill Clements personified Texas grit.  He personified tenacity and, what he often used in urging others to action, a Texas can-do spirit. He lived that spirit. If Bill Clements considered you a "true Texan," you measured up. Bill Clements was a true Texan indeed.

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Yes, I'll donate today

Explore related story topics

State government Governor's Office Rick Perry State agencies