Heatly, William S. (1912–1984)

By: H. Allen Anderson

Type: Biography

Published: January 1, 1995

Updated: October 24, 2019

William S. Heatly, Texas attorney and legislator, was born on a farm near Mart in Limestone County on September 3, 1912, one of six surviving children of W. S. and Byrta Heatly. He grew up on the family farm and graduated in 1930 from Mart High School, where he was star quarterback of the football team. During the early depression years he worked in Dallas before enrolling at Decatur Baptist College, where he graduated in 1933. He then transferred to Baylor University in Waco, where he received both bachelor's and law degrees in 1936. Heatly set up his law practice in Dallas and over the following decade moved around as a lawyer and lobbyist for various clients, among them H. L. Hunt. He lived briefly at Beaumont, then at Wichita Falls, where, on January 20, 1947, he married Jonnie Green Hawkins. They had three sons.

In 1948 Heatly moved to Paducah in Cottle County "to raise cattle and kids," as he expressed it, and to be near some oil property he had bought. Shortly thereafter he was elected county attorney and became known as the "Duke of Paducah." Although he reportedly had been a heavy drinker at one time, he launched an antidrinking crusade and was on the thirty-man committee that conducted the study leading to the commission on alcoholism established by Governor Allan Shivers in 1953; Heatly was appointed by the governor as a charter member of the commission. He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1954 and afterward had only four opponents during his twenty-eight years as representative of the nine-county Eightieth District. He became a member of the House Appropriations Committee and its chairman in 1959. In that position Heatly became one of the most influential and controversial figures in the legislature, and he seldom concealed the joy with which he wielded his power. He was credited with major investments in the state's mental-health programs, the state prison system, programs for troubled and wayward youth, and cancer research and treatment. He made several enemies because of his reluctance to spend state funds on what he considered "superfluous" programs and his generosity to favored institutions and agencies. Often Heatly was accused of using the appropriations bill to induce fellow legislators to vote his way. Though he often obtained state jobs for deserving youngsters, he was not above using his influence to put relatives on the payroll. Many colleagues complained about his ruthless, domineering behavior, which included calling up influential people in their districts to put political pressure on them. Heatly, however, defended the practice by declaring that there was nothing wrong with "practical politics" and recommending that legislators be influenced by hometown voters instead of Austin lobbyists. Governor Preston Smith endorsed him, and he obtained several state-funded projects for his home district. In 1972, however, Heatly resigned his chairmanship in the wake of the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal, a scheme from which he had allegedly made money.

Despite this political setback, he served ten more years in the legislature, where his influence continued to be felt. His twenty-four-year tenure on the appropriations committee and the twelve he served as chairman both set records unmatched for at least another decade. Frustrated by the Legislative Redistricting Board's 1980 plan for the West Texas counties, Heatly retired from politics in 1982 and returned to his home in Paducah, in order to "take some time to spoil his nine grandchildren." He was a thirty-third-degree Mason. He was also a past president of the Paducah Lions Club and an elder in the Paducah First Christian Church. On February 25, 1984, he died in his sleep at his home from an apparent heart attack. He was interred in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Paducah.

Amarillo Sunday News-Globe, February 26, 198). Dallas Morning News, March 28, 1983. Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, February 26, 1984. Vertical File, Southwest Collection, Texas Tech University.

  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

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

H. Allen Anderson, “Heatly, William S.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 10, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/heatly-william-s.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995
October 24, 2019

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