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Interview with: Mrs. Albert (Lera) Thomas
Interviewed by: Louis J. Marchiafava and Everett Collier
Date: December 12, 1984
LM: 00:24 December 12, 1984. Interviewer is Louis Marchiafava. I will be interviewing Mrs. Albert Thomas. Mr. Everett Collier will also be participating. The two major topics we’ll be discussing will be President Kennedy’s visit to Houston, his last visit before his assassination, and Representative Thomas’s role in the establishment of NASA in Houston. Mrs. Thomas, I’d like to begin the interview by asking some questions about the establishment of NASA in Houston. Can you give me a bit of the background behind it and Mr. Thomas’s role and interest in establishing NASA here.
LT: Of course, NASA had been discussed quite a bit, and President Kennedy was terribly torn between California and Massachusetts to make a decision. So Albert at that time was chairman of the Independent Offices, which was the largest agency on the Appropriations Committee. He ruled it with an iron hand because men that would come before his committee, he said they had better know their lessons before they came.
EC: That was a subcommittee of the larger Appropriations Committee, is that not correct?
LT: That’s right.
EC: And provided the funds for all of the independent agencies of the United States government.
LT: Twenty-one agencies. And so at that time, Albert was working with the President night and day. And actually, he was not sleeping too good because he very definitely wanted Houston to have it, and it looked very serious that it was not going to be placed here. I’m sure that a little congressman in Texas—and at that time Vice President Johnson was working with it and asking the President, but there was a keynote to it that has never been mentioned. Albert had two bills in his committee that had been held back, and it had not been absolutely necessary for it to be brought out and passed, but it was hanging. And when it became necessary then for the President to make a decision on the placement of NASA, the two bills came to a head about the same time. So one afternoon—I remember this so well because Albert told me exactly how it happened—the President called him and said, “I have made a decision on NASA, and it will be placed in Houston.” Albert said, “Well, Mr. President, the two bills that you were interested in has just been brought out of my committee, and it will be passed.”
LM: 04:26 What year was that? Do you remember? (silence) It’s all right. Go ahead.
EC: I think it was ’62. When did they come here? I think it was in ’63. I think this happened in ’62, though, what she is talking about.
LT: Albert was so excited over it and wanted to keep it very close because the President wished it that way at the moment. So he walks over to the Senate to tell the Vice President how elated he was and how fortunate Houston was to be able to get NASA. And when the conversation ended, he said, “I’m going back to my office, and I will announce it.” And so before he got back to the office, it had been announced by Vice President Johnson, which was supposed to have been Albert’s announcement.
EC: I can pick up at that point. I had been talking to Albert, who was a close friend of mine over a period of many years, and I had been talking to him frequently about the status of NASA coming to Houston. And as Lera said a moment ago, at one point it looked very discouraging for this area because it appeared that it was going either to California or to Massachusetts, which was the home state of President Kennedy, of course. Albert told me, though, that there were two bills in his Independent Offices subcommittee that President Kennedy was very anxious to have passed. And very frankly, Albert was holding those bills over the President’s head. That’s the game that is played in Washington. It’s done all the time, so Congressman Thomas was not doing anything unethical or improper. That’s the way the game is played up there. So Albert called one afternoon, like Lera was talking about, and told me that the President had just called him. And when the President got through telling Albert that he had made the decision that NASA would be placed in Houston, Albert then said, “Mr. President, those two little old bills of yours that you’re interested in,” he said, “they’re coming out of committee this afternoon.” So I think that that is an interesting anecdote for history of how politics can bring the actualities of history.
And then, of course, Lera and I and Albert worked together also on President Kennedy’s visit to Texas in 1963. His main purpose for coming to Texas was to attend the dinner honoring Albert Thomas on the night of November 22, 1963, here in Houston. And when they first started, the first idea—I was brought in at the very outset of it because Congressman Thomas wanted me to handle the political end of it locally, and then they had an advertising agency that handled the details of getting the dinner up and all the other details other than the political. And Albert told me that he was going to invite the President, and he was going to make a personal trip to the White House to invite the President to come to it. And then Albert and I were talking very frequently throughout the period before the dinner because there were a lot of things that were going on. For example, John Connally was governor at that time. Senator Ralph Yarborough and John Connally were mortal enemies, and Connally was questioning whether or not he would even come to attend the dinner if Senator Ralph Yarborough was going to be present. Connally wanted to make certain that he would not be asked to travel in the same car in any parade with Senator Ralph Yarborough because he would refuse to do it. And it got pretty sticky. I can remember I called Albert and talked to him about Governor Connally’s attitude and his wishes on it, and Albert got very irritated. Albert was a very nice person and was very courteous. He had the old Southern courtesy about him, but if you pushed him too far, that East Texas spine of his would get up. And in this case, they pushed him too far—Governor Connally pushed him too far—and Albert reacted, and he says, “You call John Connally and you tell him that this dinner is for Albert Thomas, not for John Connally, and I will say who will sit at the head table.” So I called Governor Connally and told him that. He didn’t like it, but he did come. But Lera, you could tell us about how did the idea start to begin with of having the dinner for Albert.
LT: 11:08 It was always a very peculiar thing about politics in Houston. When Lyndon Johnson was Senator, when he was in Congress, there was always a discussion about their visits to Houston. And Mr. Johnson would say to Albert, “How do you handle politics in Houston? I can’t do it. How do you do it?” Albert said, “I do it in a personal way. I take care of my mail personally, I take care of the visits home personally, and that is the way it’s done.” So if a dinner was placed in Houston and announced by some big organization or something and they would ask Albert to come and it would be publicized, immediately, the President or Vice President or Senator would write and say, “I would like to come.” And Albert would have to take a step back. That was the way it was done throughout the whole time. We had one dinner that the then Senator gave for the election of Albert on the Appropriations Committee. He and Lyndon were brought up in the committee to who should be put on the Appropriations Committee. At that time, President Roosevelt favored Lyndon Johnson, and President Roosevelt pressed all the Texas members because they had to vote on who was to be on the Appropriations Committee. And Albert won. I can remember President Roosevelt calling Albert to the White House and saying to him, “I have found in politics if you can’t win and you’re defeated, you join the man elected.” And from then on, Albert had easy going in the Appropriations throughout all the Presidents from then on.
14:12 So then when President Kennedy was coming to Houston for the dinner, Albert was very ill at that time and had said that he was thinking seriously of not running for reelection. I think that was the main reason that President Kennedy wanted Albert to stay on. He said, “You can do more sitting in your office on the telephone than some new member coming in and taking your place, because they can’t take your place.” Then when Mrs. Kennedy, Jackie, decided to come—she had never been to Texas—we had to move from a small dinner into the Coliseum. And even then we could not have enough space for everyone. President Kennedy was so considerate of Albert at that time because he would not come to the dinner before Albert made his talk, because at that time the people presented Albert with a Cadillac automobile, which he would never ride in. (laughing) He always rode in a Ford. And so at the end of his talk, President and Mrs. Kennedy came in. We had Vice President Johnson, Mrs. Johnson, we had the senators, we had Governor Connally, and it really was quite a gala. It was an impressive dinner because everyone forgot all their politics and joined in. And Albert then made the decision to stay and run for Congress.
LM: I take it that your husband and the President were rather close politically and friends.
LT: They were very close friends.
LM: What did your husband think of Kennedy as a leader?
LT: I don’t know that I ever heard him express too much. Did you, Everett?
EC: No. He liked him, though. He liked him and admired him a lot. As to whether or not he was making an able President, I don’t think I ever heard Albert comment on that subject either. But I know that he did like President Kennedy very much.
LM: He hadn’t probably been in office really long enough for anyone to make a real judgment on that.
EC: Well, he had, because he took the oath of office in January of ’61 and, you see, this was ’63.
LM: Two years.
EC: 17:00 So they had had two years to make a judgment of him. But Albert was shrewd politically. He was experienced and shrewd. He grew up in that same era in Congress that Sam Rayburn and John Nance Garner and the other great names were—
LT: He had good training. (chuckling)
EC: He had good training. And he was close to Speaker Rayburn too and could get favors out of Speaker Rayburn.
LM: Houston owes Albert Thomas an awful lot. There’s no question about that, no question about it. NASA is just an example of it, but there were other bills that he worked on that favored this area quite a bit.
EC: He was actually much more effective than the Chamber of Commerce in getting the industries along the Ship Channel. Sheffield Steel. That decision I remember because I talked to Albert any number of times about Sheffield Steel. And then one day he called me and told me they had made the decision to come to Houston. And there were other industries the same way. None of the big industries in the country wanted to offend a ranking member of Congress and one who was so influential on the Appropriations Committee.
LM: Let me go back for just a moment. Was your husband in Dallas when the President was killed?
LT: Oh, yes. He went on that night with the President and was with the President continuously. And I was to fly to Dallas to meet them. I stayed here because we had so many people from Washington, New York, and personal friends, and I was to join him. So Albert’s car was in the third car after that, and Albert was one of the first ones that went in with Mrs. Kennedy, and she held on to Albert because she said, “I feel that I know you better than any of the others since the President came to your dinner.” And she did. She held on to his arm, he said. And that’s when they went to the plane to take off. And then Albert being a lawyer, he said, “Mr. President, you cannot take off until you’re sworn in.” And the picture that went around the world was Albert, President Johnson, Mrs. Johnson, and Mrs. Kennedy—the four of them was one of the big pictures. And Jack Valenti was behind Lyndon and others. But it was Albert who told the President he could not take off until— And they got Judge Hughes to come in.
EC: 20:57 Judge Sarah Hughes, a federal judge.
LM: Did your husband relate to you how Lyndon Johnson reacted to this catastrophe—the President being assassinated? Did he relate to you how he reacted at the time?
LT: No, because President Johnson and Albert really were good friends. They were good friends. And Albert never really felt the hurt that maybe I felt for him at times.
EC: You’re talking now about something like NASA not being named for Albert Thomas? And you’re talking about the cemetery, which we’re going to get into in a moment, not being named the Albert Thomas Cemetery.
LT: Yeah, and about the speeches in Houston.
LM: Why don’t we talk about that? Let’s talk about the cemetery. Give me some background on that situation.
LT: I think we should go back to NASA because I want to say this: When it was to be named, there was never any direct decision of what the name was going to be. So Senator Lloyd Bentsen was very influential in the Senate, and he was running for President. So he goes before the committee and presents the name, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, and it passed. So when the dedication came, Houston went all out, NASA went all out, the Johnson family came. Mrs. Thomas was not present. The Chamber of Commerce gave Mrs. Johnson the dinner. Mrs. Thomas was not present. I was too hurt because I remembered so well. But I’m glad for the Johnson family. I don’t hold it against them. They did not do it; it was done.
LM: It was politics more or less, wasn’t it? There wasn’t any personal animosity.
LT: There was no personal feeling, and I don’t know that Mrs. Johnson ever realized why I was not there. In fact, I was ill.
LM: I would imagine that she realized.
EC: 24:17 On the cemetery, something similar occurred, did it not, Lera?
LT: Yes. When Albert got the 450 original acres out here for the cemetery, there was a big fight in the Appropriations Committee with a congressman from New York. He wanted a veterans cemetery. Well, of course, Albert was able to get the bill passed, and it was dedicated out here. There is a large plaque on the mall of the cemetery where all the speeches and everything are made from. There was a large plaque on there of Albert’s name. So then it came all through the next year or two. I could not do anything with his grave. I must say this, that President Johnson was most helpful to me, because at the time of Albert’s death there was no decision of where he was to be buried. But he and I had talked about it, and I said, “The place for you to be buried is in the cemetery, your cemetery that you were able to get for Houston.” So when President Johnson came to the house that morning, he asked me where Albert was to be buried, and I said, “He wanted to be buried in the cemetery, and I would like for him to be buried in the cemetery in the main mall.” And so the President called and it was done, and I am most grateful and most appreciative because it meant an awful lot to me for Albert’s wish to be granted.
EC: What about the naming of the cemetery, Lera?
LT: Then the fight continued because the congressman had said he would see to it that it would never be named the Albert Thomas because he could not get his. So I could not do anything to Albert’s grave, and for years he had just a simple little concrete slab as second lieutenant in the United States Army because the Veterans Committee said I could not do anything with it because it was not named for Albert and until it was named, I’d have to wait. So finally, the National Cemetery Association took it over as a national veterans, and then—
EC: Lera, isn’t it true—let’s get back to the actual naming of it—the Appropriations Committee, of which Albert was a powerful member, provided the money to buy the cemetery—
LT: Oh, definitely, definitely.
EC: —but the naming of the cemetery was done by another committee in the House and not by the Appropriations Committee. It was done by the Veterans Affairs Committee of the House. Is that not accurate?
LT: That’s right.
EC: 28:07 And then who was chairman of the Veterans Affairs?
LT: I can’t remember.
EC: You don’t remember who was chairman at the time?
LT: (chuckling) No. Research.
LM: Whoever listens to the tape will have to look that up. (chuckling) Can’t make it too easy for them. (chuckling)
LT: Now, what else?
EC: That tells that, I think. That’s it. I believe that’s it.
LM: I want to thank you for the information. I hope you won’t restrict the tape.
EC: I don’t care, for my part. It’s solely up to her.
LT: Mine is very truthful.
LM: Well, I don’t see where it hurts anyone. It just sets a few historical facts straight for people to know about. I don’t see any harm in it. You certainly didn’t speak ill of anyone.
LT: To give more information on the cemetery, in later years when the veterans did take over the cemetery, they made a beautiful mall leading up to Albert’s grave, landscaped it, and we had a Veterans Day in May of the celebration. And my little grandson took the flag and everything and presented it to Albert’s grave. It was beautifully done by the veterans. And each year they do still honor him with the special flowers, for which I’m very appreciative.
LM: Thank you.
[tape ends] 30:16