Democrat finds purpose in faith, politics (w/video)

Elena Watts By Elena Watts

Feb. 19, 2014 at 11 p.m.
Updated Feb. 18, 2014 at 8:19 p.m.

Calhoun County Democratic Party Chairwoman Evelyn Burleson, 78, of Port Lavaca, laughs during a potluck dinner at a monthly Emmaus gathering at the First United Methodist Church in Bloomington.

Calhoun County Democratic Party Chairwoman Evelyn Burleson, 78, of Port Lavaca, laughs during a potluck dinner at a monthly Emmaus gathering at the First United Methodist Church in Bloomington.   IAN TERRY for The Victoria Advocate

Evelyn Burleson waited for a friend in her teal blue Morris Minor convertible outside Sheftall Jewelers on the "Drag" in Austin.

It was Aug. 1, 1966.

Across the street, a young man was knocked from his bicycle to the ground by gunfire as Burleson watched.

She later learned he was the nephew of "John the bartender" at Scholz Garten, where she and her friend were going next that afternoon.

Charles Whitman had opened fire on the University of Texas community with the small arsenal he had hauled to the observation deck of the University Tower.

For the next hour, Burleson witnessed the horrors of that afternoon from underneath her convertible.

"Civilians were trying to stop cars from driving down the Drag," she said. "And then, the ambulances started to come."

Historic events in state and national history punctuate Burleson's life like scenes in an epic drama.

Burleson, 78, who has lived in Port Lavaca the past 33 years, has found purpose in her Methodist faith and Democratic politics.

"My church and party are so alike," Burleson said. "Jesus fed and healed the poor and sick, and the Affordable Care Act calls on us to take care of people in South Texas."

Burleson's political views began to take shape at an early age.

During the Great Depression, her family moved from Arkansas to Texas by way of Alabama. Her father found work in the Houston shipyards.

"We rode the trains with the men who were going to war, and there was no room to sit down," Burleson said.

Burleson's parents were intelligent people who taught their five children to think by the example they set, she said.

"I had never been around black people, and there were no prejudices," she said. "Everyone in the northeast corner of Arkansas looked like me."

Burleson, who was about 7 at the time, was struck by the awfulness of discrimination when she watched a black woman squat in the road to relieve herself because there was not a bathroom for her.

At 12, Burleson began cleaning her church to earn extra money. In high school, she worked at the Houston Chronicle in the complaint department where she made Jewish, Catholic and Baptist friends, whom she would never have met in her own neighborhood.

A successful Houston attorney, Cooper K. Ragan, hired Burleson as his legal secretary after she graduated from high school.

She joined the Harris County Young Democrats and became the club's secretary. She later became treasurer for the Texas Young Democrats and, eventually, the national committeewoman.

Burleson has never forgotten Ragan's words when he purchased an airline ticket for her to attend a state Democratic meeting in Fort Worth.

"Those meetings aren't for me, but I'm glad they're for you," Burleson recalled her boss telling her. "He believed in me."

At 21, her first marriage took her to Port Lavaca, where she lived for several years and started the Calhoun County Young Democrats.

Her precinct was the only one in the county that did not endorse Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960 Democratic primary.

"That time stands out in my mind because we went against the current," said Adan Chavana, 84, longtime friend of Burleson's who was precinct chairman at that time.

Burleson urged voters not to commit to a presidential candidate until they heard exactly what each would do for them. As national committeewoman for the Young Democrats, she attended the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where Kennedy was nominated.

When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Calhoun County residents filled Burleson's home. Burleson still remembers Chavana's words that day because they showed that he recognized his connection to the world.

Chavana expressed his concern that they had killed Kennedy with their votes.

People have lost that connection, Burleson said. They need to get involved and understand they can make a difference.

"Don't look at your streets as places to throw garbage," she said. "Look at them as your streets."

Burleson worked for 17 years to have a sidewalk installed on Tilley Street, home to three elementary schools and a middle school.

"Do you think I gave up?" she asked. "The children needed a safe place to stand and walk without getting their shoes and socks dirty."

Burleson left Port Lavaca for Austin when her marriage ended. She studied pre-law and business at the University of Texas at Austin and took part in the many demonstrations of that time.

On Labor Day in 1966, she and her friend joined the Rio Grande Valley Farm Workers March at St. Edward's University. In high heels, they marched to the Texas State Capitol with the thousands of protestors who had marched 400 miles in support of decent wages for farm laborers.

"My friend insisted we march in spike heels so they couldn't say we were all hippies," Burleson said. "Gov. Connally did not even bother to meet with us."

In 1968, Burleson loaded up her olive green Morris Minor and moved to Washington D.C. with her Beagle named Sugar.

She made a point of passing the Pennsylvania Turnpike during the night to see the Teamster workers on strike sitting around a bonfire. In Washington D.C., she found a place to stay and a job as a procurement assistant with the United States Coast Guard.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated that year, and Burleson found herself in the middle of the riots that overtook the city.

Thick smoke obscured the Capitol building; an embargo was placed on gasoline; one grocery store remained open, and police officers patrolled the streets outside Burleson's apartment with billy clubs to enforce the curfew. Burleson, Sugar and her friend found safety for a time at Andrews Air Force Base.

That same year, thousands of peaceful protestors converged on the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool as part of the Poor People's Campaign. Burleson wore her black solidarity button on the bus.

She returned to Austin to coordinate efforts in five states for the Office of Economic Opportunity, which administered War on Poverty programs.

"I felt like the most fortunate person on Earth to be able to enable people," she said. "And I worked with so many high-minded people."

When President Richard Nixon assumed office, Burleson moved to Dallas to start the Head Start division of Health, Education and Welfare. She married Dallas journalist Earl Golz in 1971, and they had one son, Bryan Golz, in 1974.

When that marriage ended, she reconnected with an old friend, John Burleson. They married in 1981, and she returned to Port Lavaca.

At 59, the empty nester became a parole officer and interviewed prison inmates for the parole board. She was transferred to Victoria, where she worked in the field visiting former prison inmates.

Burleson has served as chairwoman of the Calhoun County Democratic Party since 2002 and also served for two years in the mid-1990s.

"She is a very good organizer," said longtime friend James Gleason, who taught history at Victoria College for 40 years before he retired. "She is a very enthusiastic cheerleader and the epitome of a good county chairwoman."

Burleson also attended the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, in which John Kerry was nominated for president and President Barack Obama delivered his first speech.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the state Legislature used to reach across the aisle to get things done, she said.

"We're all in this together," she said. "I can see around the corner, and I'm hopeful that they are not going to sit up there sucking their thumbs not getting the job done."



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