Rugged Individualism

Third in a series on the Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle

The concept of belonging to something larger than self in the Texas Panhandle and the power of sustaining oneself, family and extended community is as old as the Palo Duro Canyon. The harsh regional geography drives people to band together into groups. It is the nature of the place.

In contrast to the notion of supportive communities for survival and progress is the seemingly competing idea of self-reliance. The blending of strong self and strong community requires neither the sacrifice of self nor community. It comes from the ageless realization of the human condition: Acknowledgement that everyone, no matter how able, settled or educated, is subject to forces outside of themselves. This creates a strain of humility in thoughtful individuals, nearly neediness, which helps balance strong self and strong community.

The Grange sprang to life following the Civil War to “promote the social and economic needs of farmers in the United States.” It resulted from a weak economy, falling crop prices, increasing transportation costs and reliance on silver and gold, as paper money rotted in people’s pockets. Circumstances formed a perfect storm that challenged farmers and ranchers in many parts of our nation, including Texas. The Grange also promoted the concept that agriculture was central to every aspect of life. Ulysses S. Grant was supportive of the Grange. The Grange movement contributed to populist political perspectives, and eventually, aspects of progressivism.

Today, the Grange continues to encourage families to work together in pursuit of economic success. Markedly different from many contemporary organizations, the Grange supports only policies, not political candidates or parties. Franklin Roosevelt (won the panhandle presidential vote with 87% in 1932 and 96% in 1936) and Eleanor Roosevelt were members of the Grange; as was Harry Truman, Norman Rockwell and a host of other leaders committed to the development of self-reliant people and families to sustain agriculture. Agriculture sustained the nation then and continues to do so today.

While president of the West Texas State Teachers College, now West Texas A&M University, Joseph A. Hill spoke often and forcefully on the importance of individualism to the educational process for students, the region, state and the nation. In an address to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society on April 12, 1935, Hill said, “The pioneer wherever found, is self-reliant of necessity there is no one else upon whom he can depend, likewise he is courageous… tenacious and determined… resourceful…” And further, “Institutions are like individuals: they take their color from their environment.

Citizenship is most powerful when exercised by people who exhibit toughness and commitment through action.” President Hill believed the University had an important responsibility inculcating a strong personal perspective by valuing intelligence, productivity and accomplishment. Charles Goodnight, John Adair, Quanah Parker, Thomas Sherman Bugbee and Paul Engler made lasting impacts through personal toughness and commitment—rugged individualism—to the Panhandle’s culture and values.

Some universities sacrifice the strength of individual thought and action on an altar of public, often superficial, “group-think” agreement. Others value intellectual liberty and the interdependence of thought and action, leading to a cultivated mind accompanied by effective contributions to a free society. The balancing recognition? No matter how strong an individual may be, surviving alone is nearly impossible. The people of the Panhandle possess many old fashioned Grange beliefs. Horace Greeley reportedly said on July 13, 1865, “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West, and grow up with the country.” To reiterate, 1865.

The Grange and WT share a touchstone of agreement believing in the power and importance of education. Early in the history of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, Granger Archibald J. Rose became a director on the board of Texas A&M in 1887, and from 1891 to 1896, he served as president.

While WT’s relationship to The Texas A&M University System is currently celebrating the 30-year partnership, the Panhandle shares alignment with Texas A&M University, especially its heart and soul. The Panhandle is Texas, as is WT.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at https://walterwendler.com/

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