Poage, William Robert (1899–1987)

By: Laura Woolsey Duggan

Type: Biography

Published: May 1, 1995

Updated: April 19, 2018

W. R. (Bob) Poage, United States congressman, the eldest of the three sons of Helen Wheeler (Conger) and William Allen Poage, was born on December 28, 1899, in Waco. His father was a pioneer rancher and cattleman who once drove cattle up the Chisholm Trail. Poage spent his early years on the Lazy 'leven Ranch in Throckmorton County and in Shackelford County. His early childhood experiences there provided the foundation for his interest in rural Texas life and the economic and social plight of the farmer and rancher. Throughout his life he sought to improve rural living and working conditions; he billed himself as the "farmer's friend" in his race for the United States Congress. He continued to own farm and ranch land until his death. In 1913 his family moved back to Waco, where Poage graduated from Waco High School and enrolled at Baylor University in 1918. He attended summer school at the University of Texas in 1919, while his father attended a special session of the legislature in Austin. Poage returned in the fall to Baylor, where he graduated in 1921. Shortly afterward he began study at the Baylor law school, where he organized a debating society called the Senate and served as its first president. His friend and classmate Leon Jaworski began the Forum, a society providing a venue for public speaking and student debate at the same time. Poage graduated with the second class of the Baylor law school, in 1924.

He continued his affection for and interest in Baylor throughout his life. He taught geology, his major, there prior to his graduation from law school and then taught classes in the law school from 1924 to 1928. He later endowed the university with gifts of land and mineral rights. His friends at Baylor dedicated the Frances C. Poage Map Room in the Carroll Library building in honor of his wife, Frances Cotton Poage, whom he married on February 14, 1938. Baylor named the W. R. Poage Legislative Library in Poage's honor; it houses his papers, a legislative archive, and the office he used after his retirement from Congress until his death.

During his last semester in law school, Poage, a Democrat, decided to run for the state legislature, where his father once served before ill health forced him to retire. He was elected and served from 1925 to 1929. After an unsuccessful bid for state senator, he briefly practiced law in Waco until his successful election in 1931 to the Texas Senate, where he served until 1937. During this period he began his advocacy of farm interests by serving as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He sponsored the Senate version of the bill that became the motor vehicle licensing law. Poage made his first run for Congress in 1934 and lost. Two years later he was easily elected. As a freshman congressman in Washington in 1937 he asked to serve on the Agriculture Committee, and he was assigned to it in his third term. In 1940 Poage contracted Menier's Syndrome, which caused him extreme headaches and finally left him deaf in one ear. The disease did not prevent him from performing his congressional duties or from serving as a member of the American delegation to the Interparliamentary Union, an international peace organization with which he became affiliated in 1947.

Since the Eleventh District was then primarily dependent on agriculture for its livelihood, Poage kept his focus on the needs of his constituents. Known to some as "Mr. Agriculture," this conservative Democrat spent his career trying to improve life in rural America. He consistently supported government programs protecting farm prices through federal subsidy. As a member of the Agriculture Committee, he helped write early rural electrification law and establish the Rural Electrification Administration. He also sponsored the 1949 Rural Telephone Act, which established a financing system to extend rural telephone service. Recognizing the need for clean water, Poage drafted what he considered to be his most significant contribution in Congress, the Poage-Aiken Act of 1965, which established water and wastewater systems in rural areas nationwide. Marvin Leath, Poage's successor from the Eleventh District, called him the "Father of rural electrification and soil conservation."

Poage helped write the Rural Development Act in 1972 and an agricultural expansion bill in 1978. He served as vice chairman of the Agriculture Committee for fourteen years. He became chairman in 1967 and served until 1974, when a group of Congressional reformers opposed to the seniority system instigated his replacement; Poage then resumed his role as vice chairman and held the post until his retirement in 1978. He was the author of five books. After The Pioneers (1969) and My First 85 Years (1985) are both autobiographies, while How We Lived (1980, 1983) is a biographical account of early Texas families. McLennan County-Before 1980 (1981) is a history of the county and its people, and Politics-Texas Style (1974) takes a historical look at political issues and trends from Spanish colonial times to the early 1970s. Poage died on January 3, 1987, at Scott and White Memorial Hospital in Temple, while undergoing coronary bypass surgery after an automobile accident in Waco. He and his wife had no children. They were Presbyterian. They are buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Waco.

Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.


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

Laura Woolsey Duggan, “Poage, William Robert,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/poage-william-robert.

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May 1, 1995
April 19, 2018