He was not gigantic in physical stature, but in his no-nonsense approach to government, he stood tall, this proud Texas governor who was the first West Texan to hold the office.
His name was Preston Smith, who died 18 years ago at age 91. Though he maintained a tie-always-straight appearance, the only thing keeping him from letting his hair down at times was his pronounced baldness.
Tabbing newspaperman Jerry Hall to be his press secretary, Smith needled him regularly. “Thanks to Jerry, the name ‘Preston Smith’ is a household name throughout the length and breadth of Lubbock County.” Smith laughed, careful to observe a long pause after “household name.”
Smith was in politics before automobile air-conditioning was common.
On a hot summer day, he was campaigning with his entourage in Midland, where most motorists seemed to be driving high-dollar automobiles.
“When we enter Midland, be sure to roll the windows up so we can look like we have air-conditioning,” he joked.
A Lubbock movie theater owner, he was a “commoner” his entire life, never giving in to shortcuts that sometimes mar public office.
He returned to Lubbock after leaving office in 1973.
Friends in town always called him “Old Preston,” and he liked it that way.
Though I didn’t know him personally, I noticed that he used a few humorous stories prior to making serious remarks in public appearances.
I heard him skillfully tell some stories several times, and it always worked.
Even though many in most audiences had heard them, laughs abounded. He read audiences well and knew when to pause. On top of that, he was a masterful storyteller.
Following is a yarn he used repeatedly.
A construction worker was perplexed when his claim for workers’ compensation was kicked back. The claims office said that more information was needed.
Blaming “poor planning,” the poor brick layer said he was working alone on the roof of a new six-story building. Turns out he had some 240 pounds of bricks left over. He dreaded carrying them down six flights of stairs, so he rigged up a pulley, barrel and rope to lower them.
He secured the rope at ground level before loading the bricks and attaching the rope to the barrel. When he untied the rope from the stake, he learned quickly that his 135-pound body was no match for the brick-loaded, falling barrel. Still, though, he doggedly held on to the rope.
“I should have turned the blame rope loose, but I held on,” he moaned. “When the barrel and I collided at the third floor, I sustained a fractured skull, minor abrasions and a broken collarbone, as I explained earlier on the claims form.”
Sadly, he continued his rapid ascent. Two of his fingers were mangled by the pulley.
When the barrel hit the ground, its bottom fell out, spilling the bricks.
Immediately, the man weighed more than the barrel. It started up as he started back down.
Again, there was a third-floor collision. This time, he sustained two fractured ankles, a broken tooth and leg lacerations.
But his luck turned slightly. The second collision slowed his descent, thus softening the landing. This time, his injuries were less severe—three cracked vertebrae and additional abrasions.
Stunned, he sprawled there in pain, unable to move. He gazed at the empty barrel, six stories skyward.
“I guess I lost consciousness, for it was then that I let go of the rope. The barrel dropped rapidly, conking me on the noggin again,” he whined. “Are these enough details to warrant my getting workers’ comp?”
Another favorite story referenced his answering his home telephone in the middle of the night.
He listened to the prattle of an Arlington woman who was upset with her water bill. He urged her to contact then-mayor Tom Vandergriff.
“I tried, but his residential number ain’t in the phone book,” she complained.