On Sunday, Feb. 8, at 1:30 p.m., friends and admirers of Lucile Hendricks are invited to attend the dedication of the Lucile McKee Hendricks Elementary School.
The new McAllen ISD school is located at 3900 Goldcrest in north McAllen (turn west off North Ware Road). After the 1:30 opening, there will be entertainment, including music by Razz Ma Tazz from Rowe High School under the direction of Lucile’s friend, Amby Tanner. The public is invited.
During the years when it was unusual for women to participate in decision-making positions, Lucile Hendricks was a revered leader in what used to be called “the men’s world.” Often referred to as McAllen’s “First Lady,” Lucile opened opportunities for the many women who can now expect to hold responsible positions in business, cultural arts and politics. Lucile was indeed McAllen’s First Lady in those areas.
A South Texas pioneer, Lucile McKee arrived in the Valley in 1926 with her parents B.F. and Sallie McKee. Born on Nov. 5, 1909, in Lebanon, Tenn., Lucile passed away in McAllen on Nov. 6, 2007, just one day after her 98th birthday.
When interviewing Lucile in 1998, I noted that her home was a museum of memories. Along with her great-great grandmother’s furniture and antique dishes, were books, pictures, postcards and political memorabilia tucked into every nook and cranny of her home. Her walls were covered with plaques recognizing her many accomplishments.
The tables were covered with papers and magazines to keep her abreast of national, state and global affairs. A voracious reader, she could answer questions on present issues as well as the past. At 98, Lucile was not just a “First Lady” with lovely memories, she was very much a “now” person with a grasp of the real significance of current events, which only an accurate historical perspective can impart. Along with many others, I frequently called on her for information, and she always knew the answer. Following is the story of her life as told by Lucile.
“Before I was born, my father, B.F. McKee, managed a saw mill in Arkansas,” Lucile reminisced, “but my mother got sick and wanted to go back to Tennessee. Our family moved in with my grandmother who lived on a fine little farm outside of Lebanon, and that’s where I was born. Grandmother graduated from college in 1878, which was very unusual for women in those days.
“My older brother, Homer, and I grew up in Lebanon under the tutelage of a wonderful grandmother, who taught us enjoy reading and studying,” Lucile said. “She taught us how to read when we were four. We went to a private school in Lebanon, and the school’s owner got a job at Cumberland University, so she took my brother and me there with her every day.”
“We sat in on college classes in Latin, American history and French history,” she continued. “At the end of the day my brother attended another class, so I waited for him in the law library where I listened to the lawyers talk. That was really where I got most of my education. My grandmother emphasized that we needed to read history and the classics, and her house had a reception hall that must have been 20 feet long with each side covered with loaded book shelves. She was an unusual woman for her day, and she would say to us, ‘You can leave your children all the money in the world, and they may lose it, but if you leave your children a good education, they’ll have it forever.’”
“We came to Texas on the train — the train came to the Valley as early as 1904,” Lucile reminisced, “but our family stopped in San Antonio. Since I had no credits from the private school, they stuck me in Brackenridge High, which had wonderful teachers at that time. I couldn’t go to school more than three hours a day, though, because I had to take care of my mother since she was ill. My only extra-curricular activity was the State Latin Tournament. After graduating, I enrolled in San Antonio Junior College, but then my father was finagled into coming to the Valley by John Shary.”
Lucile’s dad came ahead of his family to work in the Magic Valley as the Comptroller for John Shary Enterprises, one of the most significant developers of the Valley. “People don’t realize how much John Shary did to build this Valley,” Lucile said. “He was a marvelous businessman, and I believe his most important contribution was the digging of ditches and canals for the area’s water.”
“One reason Pappy agreed to come was because he learned that Dr. Carroll was going to start a college in McAllen,” she told me. “It was located two or three blocks South of Hwy. 83 in the middle of what is now called College Heights.” (That is how College Heights got its name.) “They had already started the construction with a basement and floor, but Dr. Carroll couldn’t finance it because of the sagging economy, so they quit and Carroll College never opened. When the depression came, it was a place for the hobos to live.”
In 1926, when she followed her father to McAllen, Lucile said that there were only 1 blocks on Main Street to the Casa de Palmas Hotel. South Tenth Street had just been written up in Collier’s Magazine as the “nickel-plated highway to hell.” For socializing, going to church was just about the only thing to do.
“We attended the First Methodist Church, in a small brown wooden building which was located on the corner of Austin and Broadway,” she said. “Our family lived in a one-story house which was located right across the street from the old Sharyland school. Mr. Shary provided it as an inducement for my father to go to work for him. However, because the streets were not paved, the dust was so bad that my mother talked Mr. Shary into later giving us a two-story house to live in, which was across from the Sharyland Estate.”
Then, she met the dashing young man who was to become her life’s partner, Harold Hendricks. A graduate of the Architectural and Mechanical School of Nebraska University, he had come to the Valley to build.
“I met Harold right away,” she confided. “We went together for about a year, and during that period I attended Edinburg Junior College. They had teacher quality you wouldn’t believe. I especially remember R.P. Ward and Mrs. Ward—they were wonderful! The school was so demanding that even though I made the highest grade in science, it was only a ‘C’. Generally, if I brought home a 99, my father always asked, ‘Why wasn’t it 100?’”
Shortly after she married in 1927, the bottom dropped out of the economy, and so Lucile and Harold struggled to make a living, while investing any loose change they could spare in property. She dropped out of school to begin many occupational adventures.
“We had a filling station,” she said. “Tom Hart said the first time he met me, I was pumping gas. I think I’ve dabbled in everything.”
The young couple lived on Lucile’s earnings and invested Harold’s. Taking some tourist courts, they made three rent houses out of them, doing all of the work themselves.
“For $600, we bought the property which is now the southwest corner of the Exp. 83 and Tenth Street and built a three-bedroom home there,” Lucile told me. Next Harold went to work for Texas Citrus Exchange for 18 cents an hour, while Lucile converted their home into a boarding house. “Since our boarders were federal employees who worked at the bridge, they were among the few who had money, so they paid well,” said Lucile, “even though I waited on them hand and foot.”
“In 1937 we built our home in an old pecan grove that is now the site of Macy’s department store. In the late ‘30s, the economy began to recover. And then when Moore Field came in, that was a big help. Harold and I constructed a chapel out there, and we built two apartment houses, which rented well to the new people who came with the base.”
“In those early years,” she continued. “I worked in the construction business from the inside — tending the books, ordering materials, figuring bids, etc., until our children went away to college. At that time, I started outside work with my first big job — the U.S.D.A. in Weslaco. Later, I built the first high school in Pharr, the post office in Harlingen, the bus station in McAllen, the Easter Seals Center of McAllen, and both of the offices for the Tavarez Medical Center, just to name a few of the commercial buildings I constructed. As the business grew, “Harold took care of the Brownsville and Laredo areas, while I handled the area around McAllen.”
Two structures at the Rio Grande Children’s Home were built by Lucile at cost: the chapel and the McKee Recreational Building. “Pappy said he would give the money for materials for the recreational building if I would donate the labor,” Lucile confided. So together, Lucile and her father built the building. “Today the City of Pharr is talking about preserving their historic buildings and one of the buildings they are looking at is the Junction Café, which I built in 1940,” she proudly confided.
After Harold passed away in 1964, Lucile continued to build, and for many years was the only woman member of the Associated General Contractors in Texas. (Another “first lady” activity.) She also was designated an honorary member of the Texas Society of Architects. About twelve years ago, she retired. “Since I was in my 80s, my friends thought I would just sit around the house, but I’ve been even busier since retirement!” she exclaimed.
As the years went by, Harold and Lucile brought two lovely daughters into the world, Ruth and Judith, who in turn presented them with two handsome grandsons, Hal and Gerry. Sadly, Dr. Ruth Whitlock, mother of Hal, passed away several years ago, but not before leaving a heritage of her own. Many of the excellent music teachers in McAllen Schools were taught at TCU by the talented Dr. Whitlock. Judith Rodriguez, a proud grandmother of two little boys herself, lives in San Antonio, but spent half-time in McAllen as her mother grew older and more fragile. “She wore me out,” Judith confided. “We went to several meetings and gatherings every week—her calendar was exhausting! I had to go home periodically to recuperate from my mother’s schedule.”
During the years she was raising her daughters, Lucile began to attend the school board meetings. For two years, she went to every meeting and served on the building committee. “Sometimes they would listen to what I had to say, and sometimes they didn’t,” she confided. “Then, they wanted me to run, but I took it as a joke. The afternoon of the deadline for filing came. I was feeling poorly and lying down, and then two or three cars rode up; they said they had a petition they could file for me. So I said, ‘Well, would all the people who signed that petition vote for me?’ They said ‘yes’. So I said that if I didn’t have to campaign, I would go down and file.” So Lucile filed, and became the “First Lady” to serve as a McAllen School Board trustee and, later, President. Re-elected twice, she was, according to her peers, a force to be reckoned with. Her mission, as a school board member, mother and business woman was to ensure that all children, regardless of their economic status or English proficiency, received a quality education.
“As a school board trustee, I was the first woman elected official in Hidalgo County,” she said proudly, “and I was the first woman President of the McAllen School Board. Later, Lucile was to serve as the “Second -Lady” on McAllen’s Planning and Zoning Commission; subsequently, she chaired the Housing Authority Commission, on which she served for 18 years, and she served four years on the Santa Cruz Development Committee. Later, Lucile was the “First Lady” to chair the Building Board of Adjustments and Appeals, a responsibility which required the expertise of a builder, architect, or engineer. During the renovation of Rio Grande Regional Hospital, the CEO, Bill Burns, brought Lucile in as a consultant, issued her a hard hat and asked her to periodically check out the construction work to make sure everything was within the code. (She called him “Hospital Bill.”)
During the term of Mayor Philip Boeye, Lucile (also a community organizer) began petitioning the city commission to build a Civic Center where plays, musical performances and religious events could be held. (Prior to that, they held cultural events in the McAllen High School auditorium, which was not air conditioned—consequently generally awful.) Finally, the Mayor appointed her to a committee, which took trips at their own expense to look at what other cities had built. They were allowed to suggest an architect, and eventually the building (which made McAllen the cultural center of the upper Valley) was built.
Subsequently, Lucile was a part of several groups which brought opera and symphonic music to the area. One of the founders of the R.G.V. International Music Festival, she chaired the organization’s Endowment Fund and was a past Valley Chairman. Several years ago, they held a roast honoring Lucile. By lending her name (and bravely sitting through a discussion of her “secrets”) she helped put $18,000 in the organization’s coffers. To make our city more beautiful, Lucile became a “tree hugger” before tree hugging was in vogue. She saved many trees and always promoted keeping McAllen green.
In her early years Lucile was a Girl Scout leader and a Life Member Honoree of the Texas Parent Teachers Association. She also chaired the McAllen and Hidalgo County “Mothers’ March on Polio” for five years. All but three years since Leadership McAllen started, Lucile presented a lecture to the classes on Early McAllen History. “I need to write a book on McAllen’s history,” she commented. “I have many papers and remembrances that need to be shared with the city’s population.” In her last years, Lucile supported the Zonta Club, McAllen Citizen’s League, the Republican Women’s Club and the Rio Grande Chapter of D.A.R. In 1983, her story was included in the book, “100 Women of the Rio Grande Valley.”
Throughout the years, Lucile was always active in politics, first as a Democrat, having served on the state Democrat Executive committee.
“Basically, Judge Thompson, the Nordmeyers and I controlled the local Democrat county convention for three or four Presidential elections,” she confided. “Gov. Allen Shivers appointed his poor little friend, Lucile, to fill a vacancy on the State Executive Committee. He told me later that he was really criticized for that, but he told his critics that I was okay because he said, ‘she hasn’t voted many times.’ When the Eisenhower-Stephenson election came up, Gov. Shivers gave a speech in Amarillo in which he said we all had to go out and support Eisenhower, so I became a part of the Democrats for Eisenhower campaign.”
“At the State Convention, Sen. Lyndon Johnson looked over my way like he knew I was going to cause trouble,” she continued. “He sent one of his henchmen to ask how I was going to vote, and I said I was going to vote my conscience, so although I was elected 100 percent by my caucus, they tossed me out since Lyndon controlled the nominating committee. Then I became a martyr—with everybody feeling sorry for me. Later, Lyndon suggested I become a Republican!”
“As the local chair for Democrats for Eisenhower,” she continued, “I met Norman Newton, a young McAllen student who, with his mother, aided in the campaign. She called me Pollyanna, because, as you may recall, Pollyanna always said, ‘Things will be better!’” Later Norman became the CEO of the Associated Republicans of Texas. Way back in his high school days, Norman began calling Lucile “Aunt Politics (instead of Pollyanna). Then he shortened it to “Aunt Polly,” used through decades by prominent Republicans all over the State of Texas—and in the White House. Several years back, Lucile received the county’s Outstanding Republican Award, and later, Aunt Polly was honored by the Hidalgo County Republican party with the “Republican of the Decade” Award.
A past Regent of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Lucile always worked diligently to support her country and her community in accordance with the ideals of DAR, an organization of women who are descended from Patriots who served in the Revolutionary War. Until her last days, Lucile provided a volunteer clipping service in an effort to keep the Upper Valley on the political radar of State and National politicians. Each day she clipped news stories from the various Valley papers and sent them to Austin and Washington D.C. to keep our legislators abreast, not only of the Valley’s problems and needs, but also of our successes.
Although having a school named for her is the most significant recognition Lucile ever received, there were many other accolades for her ongoing dedication to our community and our nation. In 1957, the sparkling Lucile was the “First Lady” to receive the McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s coveted “Woman of the Year” award. The first recipient of the “Community Service Award” from the Rio Grande Chapter of D.A.R., she also was honored with the Easter Seals’ “Humanitarian Award”, and was named a “Shining Star” by the Hidalgo County Zonta Club. When Lucile received Leadership McAllen’s “Alex Longoria Leadership Award,” she was recognized for her “early contributions to educational excellence on behalf of the citizens of McAllen who benefited greatly from her efforts.” They spoke of her as, “A woman of valor and treasure chest of knowledge.”
In 2004, when McAllen held its Centennial Celebration, Lucile was selected to receive their first “McAllen Historian Award” at the gala the night before. The next day, dressed in an historic costume, she sat in a rocking chair on a stage in Archer Park telling the story of early McAllen to enchanted listeners who were attending the Centennial event. The McAllen City Commission dedicated Feb. 24, 2004, as “Lucile Hendricks Day.”
I think that Lucile Hendricks was the most popular woman I have ever known since I have lived in McAllen. When she entered the room, people all over the room said to one another in awe, “There’s Lucile!” She commanded the respect of all the people I know — even those who have been on the other side of the many battles she has fought for honest responsible government and a good education for all the area’s children. Truly Aunt Polly has earned the title of “First Lady of McAllen, Texas.”