A colleague told me today of the passing last month of Neil Caldwell, a former District Court Judge in Brazoria County from 1977 until his retirement in 1995. He served in the Texas House of Representatives from 1960 to 1977. He was twice named one of the ten best legislators in the House (1973 and 1975) by Texas Monthly magazine, the first time being described as “probably the all-around best member of the Legislature.”
According to his obituary, one of the things Caldwell was most proud of during his time in Austin was being a member of the “Dirty Thirty,” a group of legislators who tried in 1971 to force the then-Speaker of the Texas House, Gus Mutscher, to publicly address his business ties to a Houston developer caught up in a bribery deal. Caldwell and his colleagues failed, but they took a stand for public transparency in one of the more infamous public corruption cases in Texas in that era. Mutscher lost his subsequent re-election campaign, and was later convicted of bribery.
I never met Judge Caldwell, but he did one other thing that I’m very grateful for. In 1969 he authored the House Bill that established the Texas Antiquities Code, that provided protection for both historic- and prehistoric archaeological sites on state lands, including coastal and inland waterways. (At least two wrecks of Texas Navy vessels, Invincible and Zavala, fall under these protections.) My colleague who told me of Caldwell’s passing, who knew him well, said Caldwell was himself a metal-detecting enthusiast who joked that he introduced the legislation to “to protect sites from guys like him.” That’s funny, right there.
Then again, he was said to have a special knack for Aggie jokes, and that’s always a popular thing in Austin.
I would have liked to have known the judge. For sure, all Texans, and particularly Texans who love our state’s history and want to see it protected and preserved, owe a debt to Neil Caldwell.
God speed, Judge Caldwell.
Image: Neil Caldwell in the 62nd Texas Legislature, at the time of the “Dirty Thirty” confrontation.