Merle Estella (or Estelle) Butcher O’Daniel, First Lady of Texas and wife of Governor Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, was born to Albert Stanbury Butcher and Nancy Isabelle (French) Butcher on December 7, 1894, in Granada, Colorado. She had five siblings, and by the time she was five years old, her family resided in Kendall, Kansas. Records indicate that her father’s occupation was in dry goods. Her father died in 1907, and her mother later remarried. Merle attended Salt City Business College in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1913. By 1915 she worked as a stenographer for attorney Arthur L. Maltby in Hutchinson. She met Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel (who had previously attended Salt City Business College). Merle Butcher married O’Daniel on June 30, 1917, in Hutchinson. Together they had three children—Pat, Molly, and Mike.
The O’Daniels initially made their home in Kingman, Kansas. In 1921 the family moved from Kansas to New Orleans, and in 1925 they moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where Wilbert O’Daniel became the sales manager for Burrus Mill and Elevator Company and began a successful career in radio advertising. He later became manager of the Light Crust Doughboys, a western swing band, and he subsequently organized his own band, the Hillbilly Boys, and started his own flour company, Hillbilly Flour.
Pappy O’Daniel became interested in politics and ran for Texas governor in 1938. Reportedly, Merle helped manage his campaign. He won the governorship and was inaugurated in 1939. The O’Daniels moved into the Governor’s Mansion with much of their own furniture, but Merle redecorated as well. She had the kitchen repainted and requested a budget for new linoleum floors. Her days began around six in the morning, and after breakfast, she planned the meals and shopping for the day. Many days the O’Daniels entertained multiple guests. The First Lady enjoyed gardening and had several old sheds removed on the grounds to put in a star-shaped rose garden. She often weeded the red Texas Centennial roses herself.
As First Lady, Merle O’Daniel excelled at hosting large events. When their daughter Molly married Texas oilman John D. Wrather, Merle hosted approximately 25,000 Texans at the Governor’s Mansion and grounds, where attendees could watch the happening and listen over loudspeakers. She oversaw the celebration of Pappy’s second inauguration on January 21, 1941, when more than 20,000 Texans showed up for a massive barbecue. The trimmings included some 1,300 pickles, a thousand pounds of potato salad, 3,500 loaves of bread, and 19,000 pounds of beef.
Although Pappy O’Daniel sought and won a seat in the U. S. Senate in 1941, changing political tides soon found him well outside his political party’s favor. He did not seek reelection in 1948. The family returned to Texas and never gained further political prominence. Pappy O’Daniel died in 1969. Merle Estella Butcher O’Daniel was living in Dallas when she died at Baylor Hospital on July 16, 1972. She was laid to rest in the Sparkman Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Hutchison (Kansas) News, July 2, 1917. Carl R. McQueary, Dining at the Governor’s Mansion (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003). “Merle Estella Butcher O’Daniel,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/89071410/merle-estella-o'daniel), accessed June 30, 2021.
Texas in the 1920s
World War II
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Albert J. Knabe,
“O'Daniel, Merle Estella Butcher,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed September 26, 2021,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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