Dolph Briscoe, Jr., rancher, businessman, legislator, and the forty-first governor of Texas, was born on April 23, 1923, in Uvalde. He was the only child of Dolph Briscoe, Sr., and Georgie Briscoe. He grew up in Uvalde and graduated from Uvalde High School as valedictorian. While a student at the University of Texas at Austin, he met and married Betty Jane Slaughter (known informally as Janey) of Austin in 1942. Briscoe earned his degree in 1943 and served in the U.S. Army during World War II before returning to ranching in South Texas.
The elder Briscoe was a business partner of Ross Sterling, who was elected governor in 1930. Following Sterling's defeat in the 1932 Democratic gubernatorial primary, the younger Briscoe wrote:
Governor and Mrs. Sterling insisted that we travel to Austin and spend the weekend in the Governor's Mansion before he left office….Governor and Mrs. Sterling let me sleep in the bed of my hero Sam Houston. It was quite a thrill for a young man to know that he was sleeping in the same bed that the great Sam Houston had slept in. From that day forward, I had a burning ambition to get back to the mansion. It was a formative experience.
Ranching came before politics, however. After returning from the war, Briscoe enjoyed a successful ranching career. In 1960 Briscoe was elected president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. During his tenure he focused the association's efforts on eradicating screwworms, which were a scourge of the ranching industry because they killed cattle, goats, and sheep.
Politically, Briscoe was a conservative Democrat and a protege of his Uvalde neighbor, Vice President John Nance Garner, who had left politics following an unsuccessful bid for the 1940 Democratic presidential nomination. Through Garner, Briscoe met many leading Democratic leaders of the day, including President Harry S. Truman, Senator (later President) Lyndon B. Johnson, and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn.
In 1948 Briscoe was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, where he promoted the implementation of the state's farm-to-market road system. He continued as a representative until 1957, declining to seek reelection so he could focus on managing the family ranching business.
Briscoe remained in touch with Texas politics during his time away from Austin, and in 1968 he sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, losing to eventual winner Preston Smith. However, Briscoe made a strong showing in the primary and was encouraged to seek the governorship when the time was right.
The Sharpstown stock-fraud scandal set the stage for a successful Briscoe candidacy. The scandal, which initially focused on charges that state officials profited from certain business deals in exchange for the passage of legislation favored by Houston developer Frank Sharp, grew to such proportions that Texas voters were in an anti-incumbent mood. Briscoe won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination against a field including both incumbent Governor Smith and incumbent Lieutenant Governor Barnes and Sissy Farenthold, a state representative. Briscoe went on to win the general election in November 1972.
Upon taking office in 1973, Briscoe said his two major goals were to restore public confidence in state government following the Sharpstown stock-fraud scandal and to ensure that state government service could be provided without tax increases. He focused on highway improvement, additional new state funding for education, and later advocated and achieved passage of the Texas Open Roads Act—a measure granting public access to the records of state government agencies. He also served as chairman of the Southern Governors Association, headed the Interstate Oil Compact Commission, and served on the National Petroleum Council.
Briscoe's tenure would also be remembered for his closing of the Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange. The matter was brought to Briscoe's attention by Marvin Zindler, a television personality with KTRK-TV in Houston. Briscoe would write that the governor has no power to order a local police official—in this case, the locally elected Fayette County Sheriff Jim Flournoy—to do anything. Furthermore, Flournoy initially opposed the closing. In response to political pressure, Flournoy advised Briscoe's staff that if Briscoe were to call Flournoy personally and "order" that the brothel be closed, Flournoy would do so. Briscoe made the call, gave the order, and Flournoy saw to it that the brothel was closed.
Briscoe served one two-year term as governor before being elected to the first four-year term for a Texas governor in 1974. In 1978 he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. The Democratic nominee, Attorney General John Hill, went on to lose the general election to William P. Clements, Jr., of Dallas, who became the first Republican governor since the Reconstruction period.
Upon leaving the governorship, the Briscoes returned to Uvalde and resumed their business, civic, and philanthropic activities. He was owner of the First State Bank of Uvalde. With holdings of more than 600,000 acres, he was the largest individual landowner in Texas. Among other activities, he established a multi-million dollar endowment at the Center for American History located at the University of Texas at Austin. Briscoe died on June 27, 2010, at the age of eighty-seven. His wife Janey had died in 2000. He was survived by two daughters, a son, and their respective families. Briscoe was buried at his Rio Frio Ranch near Uvalde.