Editor’s Note: The Caprock Chronicles are edited by Jack Becker, Today’s column is more of a personal remembrance by Scott Sosebee than a formal essay. Sosebee knew Cavazos personally and also admired him as a true “Texas Trailblazer.” Cavazos passed away on March 15 at his home in Concord, MA.
The most pervasive national mantra within the United States is that our nation allows anyone to become whatever they want, rise to the heights of wealth, prominence, prestige, or perhaps all three through hard work and perseverance.
Such is the case with Lauro F. Cavazos Jr. a son of a laborer on the legendary King Ranch to be the President of a major Texas university and then the first Latino to ever serve in a Presidential cabinet.
Cavazos was born on the King Ranch in South Texas in January 1927. His initial education came at a school for Latino students on the ranch, but a change came when his parents moved to nearby Kingsville expressly for the purpose of making sure their children received a proper education.
Cavazos’ mother, Tomasa Quintanilla Cavazos, intentionally enrolled her five school-age children in the “White” school instead of the segregated “Mexican” campus. When she was told that she “could not do that,” she sat in the principal’s office until he relented. Her children de ella became the first students of Mexican descent at the formerly segregated school. It would not be the first barrier that Lauro Cavazos breached.
After graduating high school Cavazos joined the Army. After his hitch ended he returned to Kingsville and told his father that he intended to become a commercial fisherman.
It just so happened that the two were driving past the campus of Texas A&I College (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) when he made the revelation. His father gave him a stern look, pointed at the college, and said, “Tomorrow morning you will enroll there.”
Chastened, the young Cavazos did so. He became a journalism major at A&I, but while there he discovered that he loved science. He transferred to Texas Tech University, whose Lubbock campus was about as far away from Kingsville as he could get and still be in the Lone Star State. He graduated from Texas Tech in 1949 with a degree in zoology and then earned an MS there in cytology.
He next traveled to Ames, Iowa where he earned a Ph.D. in physiology from Iowa State University in 1954. That same year he married Peggy Murdock, a Littlefield native. The couple had ten children.
The young couple moved to Richmond, Virginia where Cavazos taught physiology and anatomy at the Medical College of Virginia (now part of Virginia Commonwealth University). He was there for nine years before he took a position at the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, where they enjoyed living. He became the Dean of the medical school in 1975 and remained in that position until 1980, when he and Peggy decided to “come home.”
Lauro F. Cavazos took over as President of Texas Tech University in 1980, becoming the first Hispanic president of Texas Tech and the first graduate of the university to take the office. Texas Tech pursued Cavazos not just because of his connection to the university, but for his desire to seek out more minority students and to promote and strengthen the Texas Tech Medical School, founded in 1969.
Cavazos came to Texas Tech during an important transition period. Texas Tech, like many institutions of higher learning in the 1970s, was growing in student population, but Tech wanted to enhance its academic reputation as well as increase its student enrollment, especially in underrepresented groups.
Cavazos would serve as TTU’s president until 1988 and he would accomplish most of those goals. The school’s population grew to over 25,000, its percentage of minority students also increased, and the medical — as well as law — schools’ enrollment and reputation enhanced as well.
His tenure was not without controversy; he clashed with the faculty over his ideas about tenure reform, so much so that he received a “no confidence” vote from the Tech Faculty Senate in 1984.
Lauro Cavazos was not finished with “firsts.” When President Ronald Reagan’s controversial Secretary of Education William F. Bennett resigned in 1988, the President made Lauro F. Cavazos an unlikely appointee to the cabinet position.
The Senate easily confirmed him and Lauro F. Cavazos, Jr. became the first Latino Secretary of Education and the first Latino cabinet member in US history. After George HW Bush won the 1988 election he kept Cavazos on as Secretary of Education. Cavazos’ main focus on him during his tenure on him was to increase educational opportunities for minority students.
He would serve until he resigned in 1990, whereupon he returned to Tufts to take on the role of professor once again.
Lauro Fred Cavazos Jr. died peacefully in his sleep at his Concord, Massachusetts, home on March 15, 2022. His wife of 67 years was at his side.
If you would like to learn more about Cavazos’ life, I urge you to read “A Kineños’ Journey: On Family, Learning, and Public Service” by Lauro Cavazos and Gene B. Preuss. It is available via Amazon or Texas Tech University Press.