By Erica Alvarez-Smith, Nadia Medrano, Sheryhan Asha and Micaela Perales
In 1900, El Paso was a concealed sculpture, waiting for expert hands to carve and refine it with sure, skillful hands. The sculptor appeared a dozen years into the 20th century in the person of Robert Ewing Thomason. Through his selfless service as a lawyer, state legislator, mayor, congressman and federal judge, Thomason became a driving force in Texas and a leader in the development of El Paso.
Thomason was born in Rover, Tennessee, 50 miles east of Nashville, on May 30, 1879, to Dr. Benjamin and Susan Thomason. They moved with their one-year-old son to Era, Texas, 15 miles from Gainesville. Benjamin Thomason was the only town doctor and ran a country store where his son worked as a young boy after his mother died.
Image caption: Tom Lea painted this portrait of U.S. District Judge R.E. Thomason Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso Library Special Collections Department and Sherryhan Asha.
Thomason completed all of the courses available at the county college by the age of 16 and graduated from Southwestern University at Georgetown, where he had joined the debate team and discovered his penchant for public speaking.
Thomason considered becoming a doctor like his father, but Benjamin Thomason urged his son to attend law school, with warnings that a doctor’s life was full of hard work and little pay. Attending U.T. Austin’s Law School, Thomason became a member of the debate team that won competitions for the first time in the university’s history. On June 7, 1900, Robert Ewing Thomason graduated from law school, one week after his 21st birthday.
Returning to Gainesville, Thomason first practiced law with W. H. Dougherty, who early recognized the young lawyer’s political potential. Thomason won election as County and District Attorney for two consecutive terms, beginning a long career of public service. During his second term, he married Belle Davis on February 14, 1905. This union led Thomason to practice law for several years with his father-in-law, attorney W.O. Davis.
Thomason contracted malaria in 1911, and his doctors advised him to seek a higher, drier climate for his health. He sought medical attention at the Homan Sanitarium in El Paso. After a year of recuperation in the sunny town, R. E. and Belle Thomason became permanent El Paso residents.
Thomason resumed his law practice, this time with his friend Thomas Calloway Lea, Jr. The two later added partners J. G. McGrady and Eugene T. Edwards. These four lawyers were founding members of the El Paso Bar Association, according to J. Morgan Broaddus , author of The Legal Heritage of El Paso. The years Thomason spent in this law firm established his reputation in civil law, and he became well known in political circles.
In 1916, Thomason won election to the Texas House of Representatives on a ticket known for political reform against “the Ring”, a group of lawyers, politicians and others who had dominated El Paso politics by questionable tactics for decades. Thomason early introduced a bill requiring that all voters be American citizens, discouraging the habit by politicians, like those in the Ring, of paying Mexican citizens to vote. This bill later became known as the “Clean Election Law.” Another bill that he vigorously supported prevented politicians from spending tax money on their campaigns.
Joseph M. Ray, editor of Thomason’s autobiography, stated in the New Handbook of Texas that Thomason took his first term in the state legislature very seriously. He gained so much support for his second term that his peers unanimously elected Thomason Speaker of the House.
In 1917, a fire destroyed a large part of the College of Mines, now the University of Texas at El Paso. Thomason knew the importance of a higher education and pushed through a bill that allocated $100,000 towards rebuilding the college. His goal was to make the College of Mines “first class in every aspect.”
As a legislator, Thomason supported Prohibition and also women’s suffrage when that idea was still unpopular. He helped organize the State Highway Commission and supported the first “Good Roads Law,” leading to better-constructed, cleaner and safer roadways in Texas. Thomason also served on a committee that investigated the misconduct of Governor James E. Ferguson , leading to 21 articles of impeachment and Ferguson’s dismissal from office. According to Ray, when Thomason was asked about his numerous careers, he said, “I have held various public offices and for a long time but none that I enjoyed so much as the speakership of the Texas House. … No ruling I ever made was appealed or overruled.”
While still in the legislature, Thomason ran against some tough competition in the gubernatorial election of 1920, but he lost the race. Thomason declined to run for a third term in the legislature and returned to his law practice in El Paso. In 1921, Thomason lost his beloved wife Belle to a short illness.
Thomason remained out of the political arena until 1927, and then with the support of close friends, he ran for El Paso mayor. Thomason won by one vote in an election in which only seven votes separated the winner from the two candidates at the bottom of the list of eight. Two years later, Thomason was reelected without opposition. Mayor Thomason also had remarried, this time to Abbie Mann Long.
In Thomason’s two terms, he did much to modernize El Paso. He and his council implemented drainage projects and constructed deep sewers downtown. Thomason introduced the city to its first traffic light system and built the Brown Street Reservoir. He had steel fences built around the Franklin Canal to prevent child drownings. He began operating the city on a balanced budget and encouraged the rise of small businesses. Thomason also brought some of El Paso’s biggest industries to the city during his administration: El Paso Natural Gas Company, Standard Oil Refinery and Nicholas Copper Refinery, later acquired by Phelps-Dodge Refineries.
Perhaps Thomason’s greatest achievement as mayor, however, was establishing the first municipal airport. Over 10,000 people attended the dedication ceremony in 1928 of the airport, built northeast of Fred Wilson Road and west of Biggs Field. Amelia Earhart landed at the new airport the same year. Standard Airlines began the first regularly scheduled service at the airport in 1929, and airmail service was inaugurated in 1930. However, another airport begun by Standard Airlines in 1930 eventually became El Paso International Airport. In a biographical paper, writer John Rice sums up Thomason’s many accomplishments by stating that he used his four years in office to bring about “an entirely new and modern complexion to the city.”
During his second term as mayor, Thomason ran for a seat in the 16th Congressional District of the House of Representatives, then the country’s largest district in area. Thomason served in the House for 17 years. He acquainted himself with every county in his district and stayed in touch with his constituency. Ray said that a passage in one of Thomason’s speeches particularly reflected a desire to represent the entire district: “I may make many mistakes, may do some things wrong. Kick me when I do. But let me hear from you. If I can help, let me know. I shall work for this district – all of it – to the best of whatever ability I may possess.”
Thomason authored bills that led to the establishment of Red Bluff Dam and Big Bend, the first national park in Texas. He served on numerous committees, including the House Armed Services Committee, rising to position of vice chairman. Former Congressman Richard C. White said that Thomason was responsible for obtaining millions of dollars for renovations to Fort Bliss, William Beaumont Army Hospital, Biggs Army Air Field and White Sands Missile Range . One expansion added 618,000 acres to Fort Bliss. Thomason also authored a bill to establish Fort Bliss National Cemetery. The Thomason Act gave permanent regular Army commissions to qualified reserve officers. During World War II, these officers were known as “Tommies.”
Thomason might have remained in Congress had he not been appointed Federal Judge of the Western District of Texas by President Harry Truman in 1947. In the next 16 years, Thomason presided over several celebrated cases, including the perjury trial of alleged communist union organizer Clinton Jencks; the first airplane hijacking in American airline history, which took place at the El Paso International Airport in 1961; the Thelma White case in 1955; and the Billie Sol Estes mail fraud and conspiracy trial in 1963.
Robert Ewing Thomason retired in 1963 at the age of 84, after handling about 35,000 civil and criminal cases and naturalizing 9,000 citizens. El Paso’s city-country hospital was named for him and became known as Thomason General Hospital. He received a host of other awards over the years.
On November 5, 1973, Robert Ewing Thomason died, having served his city, state and country honorably. He had moved to a small city and helped modernize it, building one of the largest military complexes in the country. And he had demonstrated that politics need not be a dirty word. A man of character, vision and courage, Thomason fulfilled the prediction of a friend who said when the new congressman was ready to depart for Washington, “Ewing is going to be a great statesman."