John Adams, the nation’s second president, once wrote, “I must study war and diplomacy so that my children may study math and science and that their children may study art and philosophy.” Thus is the story of Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross, a man who beat the proverbial sword into a plowshare, leaving a lasting legacy on Texas government and education. Ross was a soldier, governor, and educator.
“Sul” Ross was born in the Iowa Territory in 1838. His family moved to Texas in 1839. His father, Shapley P. Ross, was an early settler of both Milam and McLennan counties and a Texas Ranger.
As a child, his father was often in battle against frontier Native American tribes. These experiences, coupled with the kidnapping of an uncle by one tribe, led Ross to develop a great deal of animosity against the tribes. When he came of age, he served with the army in raids on the Comanches, even briefly leaving college to fight. He graduated from Wesleyan College in Alabama in 1859 and joined the Texas Rangers in 1860, engaging in numerous battles against the tribes in the Young County area and northwest toward the Pease River.
He entered the Confederate army when the Civil War began. He became a colonel with the 6th Texas Cavalry and participated in the bloody Confederate losses at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, and Corinth, Mississippi. In 1864 he was promoted to general, and at age 26 was one of the youngest in the Confederacy.
He returned to Texas in 1865 and rebounded from the war. He expanded his property holdings and was elected sheriff of McLennan County in 1873. As Reconstruction came to an end, he was elected as a delegate to the state constitutional convention that drafted the 1876 constitution the state still uses.
In 1880, he was drafted to run for state senate. The county Democratic convention could not agree between two candidates and chose Ross as a compromise. Ross reluctantly accepted and won in a landslide.
As early as 1884, newspapers began calling for Ross to run for governor. In 1886, he threw his hat into the ring and won the election with a resounding 73 percent of the vote. In 1888, he presided over the dedication of the new State Capitol building, rebuilt after its destruction in an 1881 fire. He pushed the legislature to fund a new state orphanage and a Confederate veterans nursing home. He ran a comfortable budget surplus for Texas. Republicans did not nominate a candidate in 1888, and Ross was re-elected easily, defeating the Prohibition Party candidate.
As his term was winding down, he was chosen to be the third president of what is now Texas A&M University. The college had struggled since its founding in 1876. He raised student fees in order to construct a new cafeteria and a new dorm (named Ross Hall). He expanded the curriculum and began allowing women to attend the college (though only the daughters of professors). Enrollment rose dramatically and the school’s money problems soon vanished. The university band was formed and the first football teams were organized. Students also began publishing their own newspaper and yearbook under Ross.
In 1894, he was a offered a seat on the Railroad Commission, but he declined in order to continue serving as president of the college. Ross was a popular figure on campus, and students developed a great deal of loyalty toward him. However, he died suddenly at the age of 59 in 1898. University students accompanied Ross’s body to Waco where the funeral was held.
In 1917, the state established Sul Ross State Normal College in Alpine in his memory. Nearly 3,000 students now attend Sul Ross State University. Ross’s influence continued to be felt at Texas A&M. A street on campus was later named in his honor. A statue of Ross was placed on the Texas A&M campus in 1918. Students to this day often place pennies at the feet of the statue for good luck on their exams.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@ gmail.com.