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Interview with: Truett Lattimer
Interviewed by: Minnette Boesel
Date: March 23, 2011
MB: Good afternoon. My name is Minnette Boesel and I have the privilege of interviewing Mr. Truitt Latimer. Today is Wednesday, March 23, 2011, and this is for the Houston Oral History Project which was initiated by former Mayor Bill White. Truett, you have led certainly a very interesting and prolific, exciting life, I think. I have had the privilege of knowing you for well over 35 years – hard to believe – but tell us a little bit about your formative years and some of the influences that you had, where you went to school and things that influenced you in your decision making in your future life.
TL: Well, I was raised on a farm, an 80-acre farm, so I did all the things that a farm boy did. You went and got the cattle in the afternoon, you milked them, you got the eggs from the chicken house and did all those things. You got up and milked the cows early in the morning, caught a bus at 7 o’clock and went to school. It was a very rural community and that is where I grew up. It was a very wonderful time of my life.
MB: And what part of the world were you in?
TL: O.K., that would be near Abilene, northeast of Abilene about 20 or 30 miles, a little city, a little town called Lueders. To tell you how small it was – there were 31 people in my graduating class. So, a very, very small school but a great place to grow up.
MB: And then, you went on to school . . .
TL: I graduated in 1945 and like anybody graduating then, I had assumed that I would be drafted into the military and be in the invasion of Japan but our late president dropped the bomb, so the draft was canceled and I went to college that fall at Hardin-Simmons University over in Abilene. I graduated there with a major in business and a minor in economics.
MB: And then, where did you start your career path?
TL: Well, I started it there at Abilene and actually, upon graduation from the University, I started a fire and casualty insurance agency. I did not know any better. I started that and had been in that business for about 1-1/2 years. And then, the next year, at the ripe age of 22, I ran for the state legislature and was elected on my 23rd birthday.
MB: That is so incredible. I have always kind of known that but you must be still one of the youngest legislators – maybe there is no one what has beaten that record?
TL: Well, Jamie Clements from up in Houston County was elected on his 21st birthday so he bested me just a little bit.
MB: And why did you decide to run at that particular time?
TL: Well, it worked out that the fellow who had been the state representative decided to run for the State Senate and I had been inspired by Congressman George Mahon who was also a graduate of Hardin-Simmons and
Chair of the House Appropriations Committee in Washington and he came to the University 2 or 3 times a year and spoke to classes. So, he inspired me. So, I decided to run and I announced it. The first thing I knew, I had 3 opponents, so that got me started.
MB: I know you have kind of had a career path, as I recall, in 15 year sections.
TL: In increments.
MB: This is your first 15 year experience. And what do you feel were accomplishments, challenges during that 15 years of things that you saw in the Legislature and you tried to effect?
TL: Well, at that point in time, the first governor I served with was Allan Shivers and the insurance laws in the state of Texas were very, very weak and a lot of things were going on that should not be going on, with companies not having the capital that they should have, the reserves, the resources. And so, there was a lot of insurance legislation. So, I worked on that. I was on the Insurance Committee and worked closely with Governor Shivers. And so, one of the people also I worked with, interestingly enough, was Gus Wortham. I was on the Conference Committee and we were trying to establish a full-time insurance commission to oversee the work of the insurance industry in Texas. There were those on the Conference Committee that were opposed to it. I had been given Gus Wortham’s private telephone number to call if I needed help. And so, about 1 a.m. one morning, I called him and went back to the conference room and sat down and we continued our discussion and in a few moments, a couple of people from the senate side were called to the telephone and they came back and voted for the legislation.
MB: That is very interesting!
TL: That was an interesting part of my life. Also, I served on the Appropriations Committee for about 6 years and learned very early that everything circulates around the appropriations process, around the money. So, while I was on that committee, I worked very closely with staff members and so forth and we were able to do a lot of things through riders on the appropriation bill. And state agencies and so forth generally hated riders but we were able to significantly change a lot of things through riders in the appropriation bill.
MB: So, you served with Governor Shivers?
TL: And then Price Daniel – 6 years with Price Daniel and 4 years with Allan Shivers, so that was the 10 years of my legislative career.
MB: And were you working, too, at the same time you were . . .
TL: Well, yes, I still had my insurance agency in Abilene so I would be going back every weekend to take care of it. And, of course, the session generally lasted about 120 days so that gave you plenty of time during the year to work for your office back home. So, that is basically what I did, and I was very fortunate in that the 10 years I was in the House, I only had an opponent at one time so I ran unopposed for 3 times and I can tell you that is the best way to run.
MB: And then, you made a shift into actually working for state government. Did you run again? Where did you decide to move on to? Something else?
TL: Well, the people decided for me that I should not be in government any longer as far as being a member of the Legislature is concerned because I ran for the State Senate and lost that race. And then, a couple of years after that, I went to the Texas Historical Commission as their executive director and was in that capacity for 16 years.
MB: Why were you selected for that job? I think it is so interesting that you transcended from insurance and legislator into . . .
TL: Well, the interesting thing is that a former president of Hardin-Simmons University, Dr. Rupert N. Richardson, had been Chair of the Commission and knew me and liked me and supported me and so forth, and he recommended me to the Commission. And so, I was selected and started long tenure there.
MB: I guess that is when I met you, is when you were working with the Texas Historical Commission and you were so effective in so many new programs. Can you share a little bit some of your initiatives that you did and . . .
TL: Well, that was during the time that the National Historic Preservation Act passed and so we were very busy establishing that act in Texas and nominating properties to the National Register, nominating districts to the National Register, and for the first time, trying to give some very due protection to some important historic structures throughout this state and the National Register helped us do that. Also, it was during the time that they were writing the procedures because it was brand new and I was able to participate through the various preservation groups in the country in recommending different procedures and so forth, and worked very closely with them, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation which is where I first met you and you were director, I think, of the Georgia Historic Trust at that time.
MB: The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, yes. That was in the late 1970s. A long time ago!
MB: Well, also, you formulate the program for the Recorded Texas Historic Marker program?
TL: Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks and we were able to get some legislation through putting some teeth in that particular designation and we were also able to get some courthouse preservation legislation passed. Up until that point in time, county commissioner’s courts, if they wanted to tear a courthouse down, they just went out and did it and built a big new glass structure where the beautiful old historic county courthouse used to stand. And so, we were able to get some courthouse preservation statutes passed and slow down the process and at least provide a review by the county commissioner’s court before they decided to go in and tear a structure down. And it gave us and gave preservationists an opportunity to say, well, let’s look at this, let’s examine the alternatives, let’s see what else we can do and see if we can use the courthouse. I am so proud of the fact that the Courthouse Preservation Program has been continued under the Texas Historic Commission and that so many courthouses have been able to get grants and aid through various programs to restore their wonderful county courthouses.
MB: Well, and our own county courthouse right here in Houston, the Harris County Courthouse, built circa 1910, is in the process right now of . . .
TL: Of being restored, yes. Thank goodness. As you may remember, there was a lot of concern about the preservation of that particular piece of property and commissioners courts and members, in their wisdom, finally determined that it should be preserved. And so, thank goodness it will be and will remain a part of the County Courthouse Complex.
MB: Another program that I think was initiated during your tenure at the Texas Historical Commission was the Texas Mainstream Program?
MB: Tell me a little bit about how that happened.
TL: I am extremely proud of that. This was a program that was started by the National Trust and they were initially going to select 5 states to do this. And so, we made a very, very strong case and were selected as one of the original 5 states to start the Main Street Program. And so, here in Texas, I believe there are something like 85-90 town squares that have been preserved and the facades restored and it really has been a great, great program for the state. I am very, very proud of that.
MB: Well, you should be because it has really left an indelible mark across the state and even in Houston, we had I think 2 Texas Main Street programs – one over in Houston Heights, 19th Street, and then, of course, downtown around the old Market Square historic districts. So, you were there for 16 years at Texas Historical Commission and then you decided to take another career path? What led to that decision?
TL: I did take another career path, came to Houston and worked for a major construction company for about 5 years doing marketing for them. And then, in 1986, I went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science as their president.
MB: You were so incredibly successful there. How did you come upon that opportunity, that job opportunity?
TL: Well, obviously through friends who had recommended me and the chair of the board at that point in time was Ernie Cockrell. I met with he and members of the selection committee and I knew the history of the museum and knew what they had done and had not done and was very honest with them and said, “If you are not planning to do anymore than what you have already done, I am really not interested in going to work for you.” So, Ernie assured me that yes, they had other plans and really did want to do something and so I went to work for them on Texas Independence Day in 1986. By that fall, we had a capital campaign underway and then by early spring the next year, we were building the IMAX Theater and the big grand entry hall at the Museum. And so, we were really able to get things moving there. And I might say, that was in, as you know, a very severe economic time in the history of Houston.
MB: You were really, really successful and again, you have another 15 year window of your life with the Museum of Natural Science. Tell us about some of the other programs and buildings that were added during your tenure there.
TL: Well, in addition to building the IMAX Theater and the big entry hall at the Museum, we decided that we would go to Georgia and look at a butterfly center that had been established over there in Callaway Gardens. We were fascinated with it and thought it would be a great addition to our museum. We visited the New York Botanical Garden and several other places up and down the East Coast and saw things we liked and disliked and, of course, took our architects with us. And so, we were able to develop a wonderful butterfly center which has been a great addition to the Museum. We are very proud of it. We are particularly proud because children love it so much. They walk in and butterflies will land on them and they get so excited. It is just a very meaningful thing to have the Butterfly Center.
MB: Yes, it is very interactive. My children really thoroughly enjoyed it in their younger years. Also, you helped boost the collections of the Museum.
TL: We did. We were able to acquire some collections both by gift and also some purchases. We were able particularly to add to the gem and mineral collection. And so, we acquired about 3 different groups of collections to go there. And so, my personal opinion is after seeing what there is at the Smithsonian in Washington and seeing what there is at the American Museum of Natural History, that we have the very, very best exhibit of minerals that exist in the United States today.
MB: Well, I will say you brought in some real blockbuster shows and exhibitions that attracted a lot of patronage. Do you want to comment on those, that really boosted the attendance and the interest?
TL: Well, you know, I felt that Houston is a world-class city but we were not really doing anything to prove that so I started traveling to London and Moscow and St. Petersburg and other places looking for quality exhibits to bring. We were able to bring an early Faberge exhibit from the Fersman Mineralogical Museum in Moscow and while we were there, we went to the Armory Palace Museum inside the Kremlin, met the director, were able to sign an agreement, basically a letter of protocol is what they call it. And then it took us a total of 7 years to actually bring the exhibit here from the Museum in the Kremlin. Most people do not realize that the Kremlin has museums in it and so forth but it does and it was great to go over there on several occasions. Of course, we had the proper papers and so you walked down to the main gate and got in and walked around just like anybody else. So it was a great experience to be able to do that in Russia at the timeframe that we were there.
MB: The dinosaur exhibit is one that I remember.
TL: Well, we were able to get the exhibit called Dinamation which were animated dinosaurs and this was put on by a company out of California. And we brought it the first time and were just completely overwhelmed with the attendance. It was so good, as a matter of fact, that we decided to bring it a second time. And after the second time, it was so good, we decided to bring it a third time. So, it seemed like we could not satisfy the need for children to see dinosaurs.
MB: Well, that was a very innovative technology at the time.
TL: Well, the great thing for us was, as you know, it was mid 1980s and a very difficult situation here financially and we really did need to create earned income for the Museum. That really got us moving and we just never did slow down. In fact, we were able, as a result of that and the IMAX Theater and the Butterfly Center and other things we did, to increase the earnings of the Museum to steadily stay between 80% and 90% of the expenses. So that is a high watermark. I think the Pacific Science Center in Seattle is the only other one in the museum world in this country that earns that type of revenue.
MB: That is extraordinary. And the attendance – tell us about the attendance because it is quite a . . .
TL: Well, we just kept building attendance and we were building our membership and bringing in quality exhibits. And so, we got our attendance up to over 2,000,000 people, 2,200,000, I think is probably what it is at the Museum now. This exceeds almost any other museum in the country as far as attendance is concerned. I think that Houston should be very proud of the fact that we do have an institution here that is that well-attended and that well-thought of and that well-supported.
MB: Well, it is certainly a real credit to you for all that you did to build that base over 16 years. Who were some of the Houstonians of note that helped you during that 16 year period?
TL: Well, I mentioned Ernie Cockrell. The great thing about Ernie is that he was a member of a group called The Young Presidents Club, YPOs. And so, as a result of that, he was able to bring to our board some of the brightest talent in the city at that point in time. As a result of that, we were able to do what we did because if you do not have a quality board that can either give money or raise money or do other things you need to do, you just cannot get to where you need to be. So, Ernie is the primary one that helped move the Museum to where it is today. Henry Hammond has done a lot, and there are just any number of people you could name that have really been helpful. You think about foundations – you think of the Cullen Foundation has been and is a very, very strong supporter, and members of that family are very active. They are on the board, have been helpful through the years. The Wortham Foundation – very, very supportive. We have had people from that group that have been on our board, are on our board, that have been very helpful to us. The Brown Foundation is another big Houston foundation and they support us all the way through. And one of the things I learned in coming to the Museum is that if you do with peoples’ money what you say you are going to do and you do it within the budget that you say you are going to do it in, then they will believe in you and the next time you go talk to them, they will help you with the next project you are working on. So you build confidence and you build trust and that is what we were able to do.
MB: Well then, you were there for 16 years. Now you are working on your next 15 year ____ in life. While you were at the Museum of Natural Science with the IMAX Theater which, when I think it was built, was a fairly new type of technology for film. You parlayed that interest into part of your next career path.
TL: Well, while I was at the Museum, we developed 5 IMAX movies and so I thought that upon leaving there, it would be a good thing to get involved in the production of other IMAX movies. I particularly worked on one on Patagonia because it is a great part of the world that very few people know very much about. The mountains and the glaciers are unlike anything that exists anywhere else in the world. The bad thing is I have not been able to bring to the table the kind of money I need to develop that movie because what has happened in the IMAX format is about half of the movies have gone digital, half of them have gone 3D and then you have some others that are still 2D, so where you used to be able to produce a film for $5 million and bring good return to the investors, the situation now is that it costs about $12 million to $15 million to produce in all these formats and you do not get the return that you need.
MB: Well, what films have you been working on besides Patagonia?
TL: Well, that is the main thing that I have been working on, is just that particular film.
MB: I see. I know you have been traveling a lot also as part of your career path in the last few years. What other activities have you been working on?
TL: Well, I have been working with Harriett who raises money for nonprofit organizations, does capital campaigns. And so, I have been working with her on those. The big thing we have been working on is an attempt to take the Battleship Texas out of the corrosive waters of the Ship Channel and put it in dry berth. And so, that is a big project we have been working on. We have a lot of big grant requests pending and we trust that that will come to fruition because the Battleship is an important part of Texas history and really does need to be preserved. So that is one of the big things we are working on at this point in time.
MB: And didn’t you also work on the Bob Bullock Museum?
TL: I was Chair of the Bullock Museum board 2 years ago and I am still on that board and have been on it for a number of years. And so, I work with them on a regular basis.
MB: Because that is quite an extraordinary museum and a huge capital campaign.
TL: Well, it is and they have done a superb job and people have supported it very, very well. We were fortunate in that former President Bush, the second Bush, supported it very strongly because he and Bob Bullock were good friends. And so, that brought a good bit of state money to the institution to help it get started.
MB: Well, tell us about your family.
TL: Well, Harriett and I have been married for 35 years. She is a native Houstonian and a graduate of Rice University - steeped in the history and ways of Houston. She has just been tremendous in what she does here. She is involved in so many nonprofit organizations that it is just sort of amazing. I think that is sort of the Houston motif – that, you know, you are involved in organizations, you help get things done and one of the big parts of Houston is raising money. Everybody is raising money from everybody else to get things done and that is what she is doing. And then, our eldest son is in Ryan, New Hampshire and he has a wife and 2 boys. The oldest boy is graduating from high school and will be getting his Eagle Scout the last of next month. Then, I have a daughter in San Antonio and she and her husband have 2 boys that are 15 and 13. And then, Tiffany and her husband live here in Houston and they have a daughter that is 10. So I have a great family.
MB: Well, one question that we seem to always want to ask our interviewees is one about Houston. Just as you were commenting about the great spirit that Houston has and how generous they are in giving, if you believe that Houston has a discernible and unique spirit, how would you describe that spirit?
TL: Well, I think the best way to describe it is that if you can do anything in Houston, that is what makes a difference. People want to know what you can do and if you can do it. They don’t ask you, “Who is your Mother?” “Who is your father?” “Who is your grandfather?” “Where did you come from?” – all of that – they just want to know that you are sound, solid and reasonable and that you can get the job done. At least, that is the way it has been for me and I think it is for other people that come here. They want to know what you can do and how you can do it. I think that is what makes Houston very unique.
MB: Well, Truett, we thank you for your time today. Is there anything that you would like to add that we left out here? I am looking forward to the next 15 year chapter of your life.
TL: No. I just commend the Houston Public Library for doing this oral history program. I think it is so, so important and I just wish that other entities through the years had been doing that and it grieves me that the last of our World War II veterans will not be with us much longer and I just wish that we could interview all of those people.
MB: Well, that is a good thought. We may be able to add that component. Thank you very much.
TL: Well, thank you.