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SHEPPERD, JOHN BEN

SHEPPERD, JOHN BEN (1915–1990). John Ben Shepperd, attorney general of Texas and a leading political and civic activist, was born in Gladewater on October 19, 1915, the son of Alfred Fulton and Berthal (Phillips) Shepperd. Although he voluntarily ended a promising career as an elected official at age forty-one, he remained a political adviser to his close friend, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and to many other officials. He was active in law, insurance, petrochemicals, banking, and public relations in Odessa as well as Gladewater, and served on numerous national and state boards and commissions by presidential or gubernatorial appointment. Shepperd graduated from the University of Texas with a B.A. in 1938 and an LL.B. in 1941. He became a partner in the law firm of Kenley, Sharp, and Shepperd of Longview, served two years in the army during World War II, and for the last ten months of 1946 served as a Gregg County Commissioner to complete the unexpired term of his father, who resigned. It was in the Jaycees, however, that Shepperd emerged as a public figure. He was state and national president of the Jaycees, being named three times one of the outstanding young men in Texas and one of the nation's ten outstanding young men for 1949 in a group that included future president Gerald R. Ford and future senator Charles Percy. A strong ally of Governor Allan Shivers, Shepperd was appointed to a brief term on the State Board of Education, organized the Texas Economy Commission, was made chair of an election laws reform committee, and on February 9, 1950, was appointed Texas secretary of state at age thirty-four.

Quickly becoming a leader in the dominant conservative wing of the Democratic Party, Shepperd easily won the attorney general's office in 1952 and was reelected in 1954. This was a period of school integration conflicts, labor unrest, disputes over state and federal rights, and sharp differences between state and national Democratic party leaders. Shepperd moved aggressively against bossism and corruption in Duval County, a fight he began as secretary of state when he threw out the election of a district judge. His investigations led to 300 indictments against school and county officials, including the "Duke of Duval," George B. Parr. Shepperd also exposed a major cigarette tax swindle and defended Texas against other states challenging the constitutionality of the 1953 congressional act returning the tidelands to state ownership. In 1956 he was chosen president of the National Association of Attorneys General. That year Shepperd considered his efforts to restrict the activity of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Texas as one of his greatest accomplishments. He also investigated Communist infiltration of labor unions.

In late 1954, shortly after Shepperd's reelection, Texas was rocked by scandal in its veterans land program administered by the commissioner of the General Land Office, Bascom Giles (see VETERANS' LAND BOARD SCANDAL). Shivers and Shepperd both served on the Veterans' Land Board under Giles's chairmanship. Neither was implicated in the abuse of the program by land speculators but were cited for their frequent absences from the board meetings where the abuse occurred, and the investigations by Shepperd, together with legislative committees and grand juries, led to reform of the program. Giles was indicted, convicted, and served a prison term for his role in the land schemes. Yet another government scandal erupted, involving state regulation of insurance companies accused of fraudulent activities. Again, investigations by the attorney general, grand juries, and legislative committees led to indictments and to reform of the state's insurance department. But the veterans land and insurance scandals provided fodder for enemies of the Shivers administration. Shepperd was thought by many to be the logical heir to the governor's office, but on April 6, 1956, he ruled out not only a race for governor but also the almost certain prospect of a third term as attorney general. When his term ended on January 1, 1957, Shepperd moved to Odessa to become general counsel of Odessa Natural Gasoline Company, later a subsidiary of El Paso Products Company, and to form Shepperd and Rodman, a corporate legal firm. It was in historical preservation, education, and economic development that Shepperd made his mark in his later years. As chair of the Texas State Historical Survey Committee (now the Texas Historical Commission) from 1963 to 1967, he was the driving force in the development of the official highway historical markers program. He was organizing chairman of the Texas Commission for the Arts and Humanities and was appointed to three terms, beginning in 1979, on the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. He led the campaign in the late 1960s to establish the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and in 1989 a major Odessa thoroughfare near the campus was named in his honor. Over thirty years he chaired dozens of community and statewide volunteer groups and worked tirelessly to bring industry to the Permian Basin. In 1984 he was named Texan of the Year by the Texas Chambers of Commerce and in 1987 was selected Outstanding West Texan by the West Texas Chamber of Commerce. One of his last major projects was the John Ben Shepperd Leadership Forum, based at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and aimed at encouraging young people to become public leaders. Shepperd married Mamie Strieber of Yorktown on October 6, 1938. They had two sons and twin daughters. Shepperd died on March 8, 1990, at his ranch in Gladewater. He was a member of the Christian Church. In 1992 the Texas Historical Commission placed historical markers on Shepperd's gravesite and in downtown Gladewater.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Dallas Morning News, March 9, 1990. Sam Kinch and Stuart Long, Allan Shivers: The Pied Piper of Texas Politics (Austin: Shoal Creek Publishers, 1973). Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

George E. Christian

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

George E. Christian, "SHEPPERD, JOHN BEN," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsh65), accessed April 24, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on December 18, 2012. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.