Olan Rogers Van Zandt, lawyer and Texas state legislator, was born on March 19, 1890, in Tioga, Texas, to John Henry Van Zandt and Nancy Jane “Nannie” (Rogers) Van Zandt. He grew up in a large family and would live until the age of ninety-five despite suffering a pair of childhood accidents that left him blind. When he was a boy, a projectile fired from a slingshot put his eye out. Young Van Zandt later lost the sight in his other eye due to a freak accident when a stick broke off into his eye while he was driving cattle. Despite these injuries Olan continued with his education. His father, a Methodist school teacher for the Mt. Zion School located east of Tioga, sent him to the Texas School for the Blind where his hard work and solid grades earned him admission to the University of Texas Law School.
At UT, Van Zandt relied on his classmates for assistance in his education. None of the textbooks had been converted to Braille—thus his friends gathered and read legal books, codes, and statutes to him. Despite this barrier to his education, he prospered. Van Zandt graduated with honors and established a law in office Tioga in the 1920s before running for his first political office. Van Zandt married Beatrice Murrell Burnam on September 9, 1920. They had four children.
Van Zandt ran for state office as a Democrat for a seat in the House of the Fortieth Texas Legislature. He won and was sworn in on January 11, 1927. Even though this was his first political office, he stayed busy and served on a variety of committees including the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees. He won reelection in the next three contests and chaired the Judicial Districts Committee and Judicial Redistricting Committee in the Forty-second legislature. In 1935 he successfully ran for the Texas Senate for District 9 (Cooke, Fannin, and Grayson counties). During his first term, he chaired the Privileges and Elections Committee, vice chaired the Judicial Districts Committee, and sat on more than a dozen other committees. He won reelection to the Texas State Senate in 1939, and during the Forty-fifth Texas Legislature he continued his demanding work load by staying active on more than a dozen committees. He also served as president pro tempore. He served as a state senator in the Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh legislatures until January 12, 1943.
After his legislative service, Van Zandt contested the Grayson county attorney’s office. He won and served a single term; he lost a second bid. After two decades of successful government service, Van Zandt returned to practice law in the private sector. During World War II, while Van Zandt’s blindness restricted him from service in the military, his children took up the call. His daughter Claire served in the WAVES (United States Navy), while his only son Rogers saw action in Belgium and Germany with the 740th Tank Battalion. His son-in-law (husband to his eldest daughter Murrell) was killed in the South Pacific Theater.
As had been his custom, Van Zandt did not let barriers restrict his success or drive. Even while blind, he could freely move about Tioga and endured the playful antics of local children attempting to fool the aging lawyer by moving items around in stores he frequented. To their surprise, Van Zandt was able to discern the location and items they had mockingly misplaced and give them a stern warning to “move that out of the way before someone gets hurt.” He eventually moved his practice to Sherman, Texas, where he practiced law well into his late seventies. He was a member of the State Bar Association, Grayson County Bar Association, and was a Methodist.
Olan Van Zandt passed away on December 10, 1985, at an assisted living home in Gunter, Texas. He was survived by two daughters (Murrell and Elizabeth), eleven grandchildren, and fifteen great-grandchildren. He was laid to rest in Tioga Cemetery in Tioga, Texas.