The Deep Aggie Roots Of Would-Be President Rick Perry

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Cushing Memorial Library and Archives / Texas A&M University / Texas Tribune

Rick Perry as a student and a cadet at Texas A&M University.

From his first “Howdy!” to the frequent thumbs-up gestures that punctuate his speeches, Rick Perry may seem over-the-top folksy to many who are watching him for the first time. But for those who share his cultural past, if not his political persuasions, Perry is sending a clear message, easily understood by a select but global group of insiders. That “Howdy” is akin to a password. The thumbs up a shared signal of determination. Translation: “I am a proud Texas Aggie.” That’s what graduates of Texas A&M are called. Perry is Class of 1972.

“Howdy” is not some corn-pone affectation, but the official greeting every Aggie freshman learns to say to friend and stranger alike, and it is just one of many Aggie traditions that the Governor who would be President cherishes. “People see it as folksy,” says Noel Freeman (Class of ’03), “but to not say ‘howdy’ would be unnatural for me.” The tradition helps teach courtesy, respect and helps young freshmen students, many from small town Texas, to reach out beyond their narrow origins. These days, howdy is as likely to be uttered by a South American president or a Saudi prince, given the worldwide span of Aggie alumni.

Aggie tradition spans political differences. Freeman is a Democrat and an Obama supporter. Both men proudly wear their class rings. Perry’s can be seen as he flashes those thumbs up signs, often paired with a “gig ’em” admonition–a frog hunting term uttered in 1930 by A&M regent Pinky Downs (Class of ’06) as a threat to the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs.
The two men, Aggie graduates 31 years apart, share another key bit of history. Both men belonged to the Corps of Cadets, the 2,200 strong military organization that dates back to 1876 and serves as the supreme symbol of Aggieland. “I can honestly say the Corps played an enormous role in making me the man I am today, and continues to have a positive impact on my life and career. I would probably be a 2%er if it weren’t for being in the Corps,” Freeman recently wrote on his blog “Boots on the Bayou.” It is a sentiment Perry shares, crediting the discipline and proud traditions of A&M with shaping his character, noting in a past interview that he likely would not have survived college life as a fraternity member at a less structured school.

To outsiders, it is hard to grasp the impact A&M has on many of its students. But stand for a moment or two in the quad outside the Corps barracks and listen to the Aggie band play the music from the movie Patton, hear the bugles echo off the walls, and it is quickly apparent this is a place that compels loyalty and inspires friendship. Here traditions go beyond wearing hog hats or driving backwards on campus. The most famous traditions are Silver Taps and Aggie Muster. On April 21, the day Texas won its independence from Mexico, Aggies gather in over 300 locations around the world to hear the roll call of fallen Aggies, alumni who have died since the last muster–the most famous muster was held in the tunnels of Corregidor during the fall of the Philippines, then a U.S. colony, to invading Japanese troops in World War II.

Silver Taps is held once a month during the school year to honor any Aggie student who has died. Lights are extinguished and dorm room windows covered as students gather. Bugles play taps, three times, once to the west, north and south, but not to the east because, tradition holds, the sun will never rise on the late Aggie student again. Silence is the code as students somberly walk back to their studies.

This is the stuff that Perry, a young West Texas farm boy with a cheery smile and a penchant for mischief, absorbed as he arrived in Aggieland in 1968. Perry came to College Station at a crucial time in the university’s history, recalls former Democratic Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro (Class of ’70). A small land grant school with an emphasis on engineering and agriculture, A&M (which originally stood for Agricultural and Mechanical, but was changed to simply A&M to signify an expanded mission in 1963) had attracted many GIs returning in the years after World War II. Then enrollment began to fall. The requirement at the all-male school that all students be members of the corps was just one reason the numbers were falling in the early 1960s, Mauro says.

A year after opening its doors to women, A&M dropped the Corps enrollment requirement in 1965, a move that rankled Aggie traditionalists. Mauro was among a group of non-Corps student activists with liberal leanings who argued that they could be just as loyal to the Aggie Spirit as their uniformed fellow students. He was one of the first non-Corps yell leaders, male cheerleaders elected by the student body–a position Perry, who did belong to the Corps,  would later win. (In 1998, Mauro would lose the governor’s race against Perry’s predecessor, George W. Bush.)

Back when they were in school together, Mauro recalls, Perry did not strike anyone as a future governor, let alone presidential candidate. But, he says, the signs of his conservative leanings and dogged campaigning abilities were there. Unable to run for elective student office due to mediocre grades in his first three years at A&M, Perry finally achieved a 2.5 average in his senior year and ran for yell leader. Mauro, one of the last liberal Democrats to hold statewide office in Texas in recent years, says Perry exhibited a conservative, “reactionary” bent in his campus campaign. “He was one of the most popular guys in the corps,” Mauro says, but he had a “mean streak” when it came to campaigning, urging his followers not to say “howdy” to women students and non-corps members, according to Mauro. “He got [Corps] outfits in his class behind him and marched his supporters to the polls,” Mauro says. The episode may have been an omen of Perry’s future political career.

Still, until the 1970s, most Aggies had a “disdain for politics,” Mauro says. Many  hailed from blue collar backgrounds, like Perry, with hard scrabble roots. An A&M degree was a ticket to a good job in the oil patch, or a career in the military (“Texas A&M is writing military history in the blood of its graduates,” General Douglas MacArthur wrote in World War II, adding, “Whenever I see a Texas man in my command, I have a feeling of confidence.”) Mauro, former Texas Comptroller John Sharp (Class of ’72) and former Congressman Chet Edwards (Class of ’74 ) were among the first Aggie alums to venture into the political arena.

But Perry rose above the rest, becoming the first Aggie governor in Texas history. In 1998, he defeated Sharp, a Democrat, in a tight race to become lieutenant governor. Sharp and Perry had been close friends and members of the same unit in the Corps. During that 1998 campaign, they reminisced about their students days for an Abilene newspaper. Sharp recalled Perry’s penchant for hijinks–tossing fireworks down plumbing pipes to explode in bathroom stalls, or stashing live chickens in a senior commander’s closet.

It was very quickly evident that politics was no joking matter for Perry. “Anyone who underestimates Rick Perry is silly, stupid,” Mauro says. “He is the only incumbent governor I ever watched win re-election without a single major newspaper endorsement,” Mauro says. “Normally, a governor gets co-opted by the establishment. It’s not hard, the establishment looks at the incumbent as an investment. But he didn’t get co-opted.”

Still, Aggies like to be loyal to each other. Sharp came close to beating Perry in 1998, but failed. But, read into this what you will, this week the Texas A&M Board of Regents, Perry appointees all, named Sharp the next chancellor of the university. Sharp said Perry could have blocked the appointment if he desired. “I would assume if he’d spoken ill, he could have nixed this pretty well. The board has a great deal of respect for his opinion,” he told the Texas Tribune. He went on to say the two get along very well, evidenced by Sharp’s appointment in 2005 to a Perry tax reform commission. “We were really good friends at A&M,” Sharp said. “There was a brief time around 1998 that we pretty much hated each other, but our relationship is very good.”

Sharp also warned that anyone running against Perry should “bring their lunch.” As for Perry, he praised the appointment, calling Sharp “a gifted individual who is truly passionate about Texas A&M.” A passion shared by Sharp who called the new job “a dream come true,” adding “Everything I ever will be is because of Texas A&M University. I am looking forward to returning to mecca.”

It’s possible Aggie tradition may be more important than anything else. In addition to what he shares with Perry, Noel Freeman is also the president of the Houston Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Political Caucus and was, in fact, the first openly gay member of the Corps. Some of his memories of his college years are not as rosy as others, but the overwhelming message he took from the experience was how to be “a solider, a statesman or a knightly gentlemen,” the call all Corps members are required to meet. “All Aggies have a bond that transcends most things,” Freeman says, adding that when he married his partner recently his straight executive officer from the Corps was at his side, holding his wedding ring. “Outside [A&M] people can’t understand it. Inside, we can’t explain it,” Freeman says. “My husband laughs and says we’re a cult!”

What Freeman and other Aggies fear is that the world-class university and the first to open its college military ranks to females (in 1973, three years before West Point) will become a punching bag for late night comedians. But Mauro suggests that if Perry succeeds, their alma mater likely will deserve closer study. With no small amount of pride, he says, “If he becomes president, everybody will be going to A&M to figure it out.”