John Connally became a giant in Texas politics in the 1960s. He had a long career that included service in World War II, work as an attorney, years of work with Lyndon Johnson as his right-hand man in many campaigns. He would eventually rise to become governor of Texas and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in a storied career. For Connally, it all began as part of a hardworking tenant farming family in South Texas.
John Bowden Connally, Jr., was born into a poor family in Floresville, near San Antonio, in 1917. His father was a sharecropper. Connally was one of seven children. He worked hard in his youth and still faithfully attended school.
He graduated from Floresville High School in 1933 in a time when few Texans graduated high school and even fewer Texas high schools had a 12th grade. He had many talents and many dreams, and in spite of the Great Depression and his family’s own poverty, he pushed forward and enrolled at the University of Texas while still only 16. At UT, he bloomed. He was a popular figure on campus, becoming class president. His grades were excellent, but he had to work his way through college, slowing his progress. He graduated in 1939.
It was in 1939 that he met and began working for then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson. Connally served as a legislative aide. Connally later remarked how he was always grateful for Johnson’s friendship and for all that Johnson taught him. But the two were well-known for how stubborn they could be and would clash often throughout the years. After Connally’s graduation, he entered the University of Texas Law School. While in law school, he married his college sweetheart, Nellie Brill, in 1940, with whom he would have four children. In 1941, he helped manage Johnson’s first campaign for the U. S. Senate, one that Johnson lost narrowly after more than 6,000 votes for his opponent suddenly appeared. Connally learned just how brutal Texas politics could be. He earned his law degree by 1941 and continued to work for Johnson.
He entered the Navy in 1941 as the United States entered World War II. He first served as an aide to the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and was then assigned as a naval liaison to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as he planned the American invasion of North Africa in 1942. Afterward, he was transferred to service on the aircraft carrier USS Essex in the South Pacific. He served ably amidst the heavy firefights the ship endured. During the Okinawa campaign in April 1945, the Essex suffered withering attacks for two days straight as Japanese kamikaze pilots attempted to destroy the ship. The Essex survived, and Connally was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery. He was soon transferred to the carrier USS Bennington, where he earned a legion of merit.
Connally returned to Austin in 1946. He began working for a local law firm and continued to spread his wings into other ventures. He pulled together a group of fellow veterans as investors to start a new radio station in Austin, KVET. He also managed Johnson’s re-election campaign that year.
In 1948, Connally again worked with Johnson in his bid for the U. S. Senate. Johnson was leading the Democratic primary moving into the runoff against former Gov. Coke Stevenson. On the night of the runoff, Johnson again watched his lead shrink as votes mysteriously appeared for Stevenson. Johnson and Connally had arranged for counties they knew to be favorable to Johnson to withhold their boxes and understate their totals until later in the counting process. In the end, it came down to the notorious Ballot Box 13 in Jim Wells County, whose 200 votes for Johnson led him to win by 87 votes. Stevenson’s forces accused the two of stuffing the ballot boxes, and Connally and Johnson responded with their own charges against Stevenson, but no criminal activity was ever proven against either campaign.
As part of his legal work, in 1951, Connally began working as an attorney for Fort Worth oilman Sid Richardson, one of the wealthiest men in Texas. As a result, he and his family moved to Fort Worth to work more closely with his client.
In 1960, Sen. Johnson decided to run for president. This was still a time in which decisions on nominations could still be made in backrooms by courting delegates to the national conventions. Primaries were in place in several states, but they were not as important as they would be in coming decades. Johnson entered the race too late to enter any of the campaigns and chose Connally to run his campaign at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. John F. Kennedy, however, had already won enough delegates to put him over the top for the nomination; but Johnson and Connally still tried to convince delegates to change their minds. Eventually, Kennedy reluctantly chose Johnson as his running mate.
After Kennedy won the presidency, Johnson persuaded him to name Connally as secretary of the navy. This put Connally in charge of a branch of the service that employed more than 1.2 million people with more than 270 bases and hundreds of ships at the height of the Cold War. He stepped down from the position after a year to run for governor, his first bid for elected office.
Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Ken Bridges John Connally giant of Texas politics