American Hero

Lamar President Jimmy Simmons speaks as friends, family and colleagues of the late Congressman Jack Brooks look on.

In the end, it was fitting that the memorial service billed as a celebration of the life of Congressman Jack Brooks was held at Lamar University, a place close to his heart for more than 70 of his 89 years.

When he graduated from Lamar in 1939, it was still a junior college established in a wing of a South Park High School 16 years earlier. That changed after World War II when Brooks returned from bloody fighting in the Pacific with the United States Marine Corps. Before his 25th birthday, he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives and soon authored the bill making Lamar a four-year institution – the first new senior college in Texas in more than two decades. He never forgot his alma mater. Brooks was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus of Lamar in 1975 and his statue stands in the campus quadrangle, complete with his trademark cigar.

Dr. Jimmy Simmons, Lamar University president, was master of ceremonies for the last homecoming of Jack Brooks.

“Jack Brooks loved Lamar; his life and his service were closely tied to this university and he was my friend,” Simmons solemnly intoned. “He was instrumental in the growth and development of this university throughout his public service.”

When he died, the New York Times described Brooks as “an irascible, cigar-chomping former Texas congressman who for over 42 years defied fellow Southerners to support civil rights, investigated abuses by Presidents Nixon and Reagan and repeatedly attacked government waste, down to the cost of wrenches” and noted he was “a swashbuckling Texas character in his own right. His politics were pro-labor, pro-gun, fiercely partisan and boldly unapologetic, particularly when it came to funneling federal funds to his East Texas district.”

Those attributes and many more were on display at the Montagne Center on Sunday afternoon, Dec. 9, as the Brooks family – his wife, the former Charlotte Collins, who he married in 1960; children Jeb Brooks and wife Janice; Kate Brooks Carroll and her husband Rod, and Kim Brooks; and grandchildren Matthew Carroll and Brooke Carroll – received mourners who ranged from denizens of the halls of power to the ordinary citizens that Jack Brooks championed during his long career in public service.

Among those present were Martin Frost and Craig Washington, who served alongside him in Congress, and Sheila Jackson Lee, who has represented the 18th Congressional District in Houston since 1995. Former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes was there, as was former Houston Mayor Bill White, who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010. White served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1995.

In a service that combined plenty of laughter, tears and fond remembrances yet still clocked in at just under an hour, the speakers selected by the family followed the advice of Brooks on public speaking: “Be brief, be sincere, be seated.”

The remarks were framed by an opening prayer from Fr. Sinclair Oubre, patriotic and spiritual songs (one each) by gifted vocalist Carolyn Howard and a Masonic memorial service conducted by Beaumont Masonic Lodge No. 286.

In between were stirring anecdotes from former state Sen. Carl Parker and current state Rep. Joe Deshotel that described incidents where much of Brooks’ dialogue had to be omitted as too “colorful” for general audiences – incidents that led some opponents to call him a “S.O.B.” Brooks would innocently claim to believe that soubriquet meant “Sweet Old Brooks.”

U.S. Judge Thad Heartfield related two incidents that were illustrative of Brooks’ character. “I was visiting with the Congressman in his driveway on a Saturday morning when out of the blue he looked at me with those big blue eyes, those laser beam eyes; he looked directly at me and asked ‘You want to be a federal judge?’” recalled Heartfield, who said the offer took him by surprise. Heartfield asked for some time to discuss the matter with his wife.

Brooks replied, “That’s fine, take all the time you need. … Just let me know by six tomorrow morning.”

Heartfield accepted the offer and continues to serve on the federal bench to this day. Brooks spoke at his investiture and said, “Heartfield is a man of integrity and loyalty; he is plainly and simply put a down-right decent man,” then added, “And the fact that his grandfather, his mother and his family, his son and his daughter supported me for four generations does not hurt.”

Beaumont attorney Hubert Oxford, who along with attorney Wayne Reaud led the drive to rename the local airport for Brooks, recited a long list of civic improvements that enhanced life in Southeast Texas, each with a direct link to the former Congressman – water projects, sewer systems, flood prevention, deepening and widening the Sabine-Neches Waterway, constructing one of the largest federal prison complexes in the nation here in Jefferson County – the list went on and on.

An emotional Oxford concluded, “(My wife) and I are proud and grateful that Jack Brooks is our friend. God bless America and God bless Jack Brooks – one of our heroes.”

For a story on the legislative career of Rep. Jack Brooks, click here: