State’s history makes a difference in Texans’ lives

March is Texas History Month, and our state’s rich heritage is as much a path forward as a look back. Just ask youngsters taught their unique heritage in fourth and seventh grades or adults who kept those childhood history lessons close to their hearts throughout their lives.

Appreciating Texas history has contributed to the enduring pioneer spirit of Texans who believe ours is a land of opportunity and the sky is the limit whether you were born here or came along as soon as you could.

Our hard-fought independence was observed this month with Texas Independence Day and Texas Flag Day March 2, coincidentally Sam Houston’s birthday; Alamo Heroes Day March 6; and Goliad Heroes Day March 26.

Of course, we also celebrate on April 21 the defeat of Santa Anna at San Jacinto in 1836. From that day forward, the people of the Republic of Texas would forever be synonymous with bravery, honor, tenacity, guts, grit and dedication to a worthy cause. That fabled fortune spilled over into the creation of the state of Texas, the 28th to join the USA, and its shadow fell on generations to follow.

Our heroic ancestors fought to preserve the rights of Texans — relative newcomers and long-established Tejanos — to seek fruitful lives in this gigantic and geologically diverse state with hills, prairies, deserts, piney woods, rivers, beaches and a plateau so flat you can see forever.

Some of the state’s most successful natives credit, at least in part, their success to growing up in this land of possibility with a melting pot of courageous, bigger-than-life role models.

A “sense of place” is the way former CBS News anchor Dan Rather phrases it in an interview for “Growing Up in the Lone Star State: Notable Texans Remember Their Childhoods,” a recently published compilation of oral histories of well-known natives.

They recalled just what it was about growing up in Texas that inspired them to follow their dreams. Not surprisingly, studying Texas history ranks high in their memories.

Wharton-born Rather said, “One of my earliest memories from first or second grade is learning all the words to ‘Texas, Our Texas,’ which is the state song. And certainly, learning Texas history. That’s part of giving you a strong sense of place. We had the American flag, and we had a Texas flag. As you get older, it all fits into this good, strong sense of belonging. If you don’t belong anywhere else, you belong in Texas.”

Dr. Lauro Cavazos, the first Hispanic appointed to a U.S. Cabinet post, shared that same love of learning Texas history in a two-room schoolhouse on the sprawling King Ranch.

“My favorite subject was history. Oh, I loved it. In fact, when I was in grade school, I told one of my teachers that I liked history so much that I may teach it someday. I remember that was my first ambition before I got into biology, sciences, anatomy, health care and all that other stuff.”

All that other stuff led him to become the first Hispanic president of TexasTechUniversity and dean of the school of medicine at TuftsUniversity.

Baseball Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan, born in Refugio, still remembers the only field trip during his school days. It was to the San JacintoMonument, and the trip was a big deal.

He said: “When you don’t go anywhere in your life, that’s pretty special. It’s been a lifelong pursuit of mine to read Texas history and to have kind of an understanding about how Texas developed.”

While the Republic of Texas is the heart of our history, we know it’s not the beginning or the end. The diverse story of Texas encompasses dinosaurs, indigenous peoples, ranching, cattle, small towns, big cities, oil, wind, entrepreneurs, politics, football and much more.

More recent history continues with space exploration, a literal sky-is-the-limit enterprise. Remember, Neil Armstrong’s first word transmitted when the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the surface of the moon was “Houston,” as in “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Obviously, not all our history is that inspiring, but it is our history and Texans wear it as a badge of pride.

Teaching Texas history in schools is an imperative we must continue no matter how the winds of education flutter.

If highly accomplished Texans were inspired to work hard to reach their potential because of the example of their forebears’ courage and sacrifice, we must make sure young Texans also learn to take pride in their heritage and have the daring to reach for the stars.

Gaylon Finklea Hecker and Marianne Odom co-authored “Growing Up in the LoneStarState: Notable Texans Remember Their Childhoods.” July 2021, Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.