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Outgoing DeWitt County judge served public for three decades

By Sonny Long
Dec. 27, 2010 at 6:27 a.m.

Judge Ben Prause's term as DeWitt County judge will soon come to an end after serving 24 years as county judge and 10 years as mayor before that.

IF YOU GOWHAT: Come-and-go reception for outgoing DeWitt County officials

WHEN: 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: The first floor of the DeWitt County Courthouse, 307 N. Gonzales St.

WHO: Officials being recognized include County Judge Ben Prause, County Clerk Elva Petersen, Commissioner Joe Machalec and Commissioner Alfred Rangnow. Petersen has been with the county since 1984, Prause since 1987, Machalec since 1991 and Rangnow since 1981.

CUERO - Ben Prause has dealt with the public much of his life.

A musician who played his first dance at age 15, Prause has been DeWitt County judge for 24 years, was mayor of Cuero for 10 and a reporter for the Victoria Advocate for more than 20.

Public service came naturally.

"I didn't have any trouble with it because I had worked with the public for so many years. I was used to interacting with the public. There's always the occasional (disagreeable person). But they are few and far between," he said. "If you take the time to explain things, they may not always agree, but they'll understand. Give them a reason."

Prause's reason for his love of music is genetic.

"My whole family was musical," said the 1950 graduate of Cuero High School. "My father had a dance band, The Benny Prause Orchestra."

Prause, 77, started on the clarinet and saxophone and later played the bass horn, trombone and trumpet.

He took his musical talents to the Navy during the Korean War, serving in an admiral's band in a heavy cruiser division that performed when they were coming into and going out of port, for special events and to entertain the troops.

"We didn't play at sea, of course," Prause said. "We pulled regular duties in the admiral's combat information center."

Prause got out of the Navy one day shy of his 21st birthday. He attended Victoria College and later St. Mary's University in San Antonio, where he changed his major from music to foreign affairs and foreign relations with an eye on foreign service.

But family intervened.

He married Shirley Pickett, of Victoria, in 1955, the daughter of the superintendent of schools, and went to work as a reporter for the Cuero Record, where he stayed for six years. He spent a year on the staff of the Pasadena newspaper before beginning a 23-year career at the Advocate.

He worked mostly from his home in Cuero, covering DeWitt, Lavaca and Goliad counties.

He recalled a story about bodies being buried in Shiner as the one that stands out over the years.

"I was covering city councils, school boards and commissioners courts," he said. "So when several people asked me to run for mayor of Cuero, I thought, 'Why not?' I go to the meetings anyway."

He continued as a reporter during his tenure as mayor.

"I had to be very objective. We never had any problem with that," he said. "We didn't have any major issues where I was even tempted to slant my reporting."

Prause made the move from city hall to the courthouse in 1987.

"Frank Sheppard, the county attorney, asked me at Mass one day if I had ever considered running for county judge," Prause recalled.

After others asked him to run, Prause took the plunge.

The county had to raise taxes "six or seven cents" the first two years he was in office, and he had a friend who told him he was going to be a "one-term" judge.

"After that, over the years I'd remind him, I'm in my second term, third term, fifth term," Prause laughed.

Gilbert Pargmann, who served with Prause as a commissioner for 18 years, called the county judge "the stalwart of the commissioners court."

"He kept us running on the right track," Pargmann said. "And he was always there to provide counsel. He never overstepped his bounds or tried to influence your vote one way or the other."

The November 2010 election was the first Prause ever lost.

He acknowledges that the Republican straight party ticket votes were likely what "put him out to pasture."

"I had many good, conservation Republicans, people of integrity, vote for me," said Prause, a Democrat. "We made it close."

Prause said he has no regrets during his more than 30 years as an office holder and calls the growth in the county jail as the biggest change he's seen.

"When I became county judge, the sheriff told me we needed to hire three jailers. We didn't have any when I became judge. Now we have 25," he said. "The new jail was built with future growth in mind. It's a win-win situation."

He cites the new jail, the renovated courthouse and the courthouse annex as major achievements during his tenure as county judge.

"In DeWitt County, we don't do anything frivolously. It is conservatively operated," he said. "The county is in good shape as I leave and I am proud of that."

Prause said his wife's health will dictate how he spends his spare time after the first of the year.

"I'd like to read more. I love to read," he said. "I might do some volunteer work."

After playing with the Tommie Vanek Band for many years, Prause stopped playing the trumpet regularly three or four years ago, though he still plays taps at programs on Memorial Day and Veterans Day at the courthouse.

"I might pull out the old trumpet and start practicing, too," said Prause.

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