Trip to LBJ Presidential Library unearths unexpected family history
May 09, 2016
By Michael Barnes - American-Statesman Staff
May 9, 2016
Originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman
“Val M. Keating.”
I certainly didn’t expect to stumble on those three words while looking into a Texas group that had reformed mental health care in the 1930s.
But there in black-and-white pages was a familiar name on a list of founding directors. That would be my grandmother, my mother’s mother.
Alongside her name was an additional clue: “Texas Relief Commission.”
All along I had known that Grandma Keating — a kindly but complex woman — had been a social worker. And that she had held fairly high positions in her field.
Although I have researched diverse topics since the sixth grade, I had never bothered to find out more about her. A reminder: If you are interested in history, start with your family.
A fairly simple Google search showed that as her first job out of college in the early 1930s, she headed the El Paso Family Services Agency, and she then became director of the El Paso County Board of Rehabilitation.
By 1934, she was living in Austin as a social service consultant for the Texas Relief Commission. She later was listed as “Director of Social Services” for the group, established in March 1933 by Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson to address unemployment in Texas. The agency channeled funds to the state from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal response to the Great Depression.
I learned that my grandmother also testified before a Select Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1941 on the subject of “Interstate Migration of Destitute Citizens.” She spent the later part of her career as the regional representative for the Southwest in the Bureau of Public Assistance — now folded into the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
She is profiled on the National Association of Social Workers Foundation website as a “pioneer.”
What I discovered next should give folks another reason to visit the marble-clad monument that overlooks the University of Texas campus and is known as the LBJ Presidential Library.
Along with swell exhibits and events, you might find family history there.
The family connection
Born in Minnesota in 1901, Val McGuire — in some records, spelled “Maguire,” and later married to petroleum engineer Thomas Keating — earned her social work degree from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Some of her papers are preserved in the American Public Welfare Association’s records at the University of Minnesota. She had two children, Elizabeth, my mother, and Thomas, my deceased uncle.
But wait: Hadn’t she also donated some letters to the LBJ Presidential Library at one point? That half-memory was lodged somewhere in my brain.
My sister, Kathleen Barnes Klingshirn, confirmed that she was in the car when Grandma and her longtime companion, Katherine Taylor, dropped off the letters at the library. (She also recalls the doubts the women harbored about the future of Keating’s 12 grandchildren. Clearly, we were underperforming at that point.)
My grandmother died in 1991 at age 89. She is buried alongside her husband, as well as her companion and my father, in Mexia, a place where she never lived and rarely visited.
The red boxes
The thought of doing research at the LBJ Library has always seemed daunting to me. Anyone who has visited the Great Hall atop the library’s grand stairwell has gazed up at the glass-fronted rooms that make up part of the National Archives. One gets dizzy just staring at the row upon row of imperial red boxes.
Of course, certain patient scholars have spent — no kidding! — lifetimes there.
First tip: Call ahead. Or use email. Detailed lists of the holdings are easily accessed online. But you also need a guide. Mine on Jan. 5 was archivist Brian McNerney.
“When you arrive, please tell the front desk that you are going to the Reading Room to do research,” Library spokeswoman Anne Wheeler wrote me in advance. “There, you will fill out paperwork and meet with an archivist. This introduction/prep takes about one hour. After that, the archivist will bring your grandmother’s papers to you. You may look through the boxes, take photos, and take as much time as you’d like. Realistically, you should allow at least two hours.”
I was set.
McNerney took me to his windowless office, carefully explained all the procedures and then handed me some papers he had already pulled. He also sprinkled a bread crumb trail to other possible Keating references.
Some of those — as always in research — led to dead ends, some of them significant. I ran across correspondence between first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and LBJ about the trouble with naming an African-American to the state board of the National Youth Administration, which he headed in Texas.
Some fun things had nothing to do my grandmother, such as a Sept. 11, 1936, check from the Treasurer of the United States for 85 cents. Attached is a note from the White House dated Dec. 13, 1963: “Don’t you think it is time this is cashed?”
Almost everything else, however, was precious to my mission. Take the nine letters, dating from 1936 to 1939, exchanged between LBJ, then state director of the NYA, and my grandmother, who is listed in the files as Director of Certification and Intake for the Works Progress Administration.
(At one point, another archivist rushed to my side with laminated instructions on how to keep the proper place of each object in a box. Godsend.)
In 1936, LBJ wrote to Keating: “Nothing I would ever write could fully make you know how grateful I am for all you have done to make the NYA a success. … After you left, I saw that you left with my men a little of your own initiative and efficiency. Each was just as admiring of you as I am. … I believe that if I never listened to anyone but you for advice, the NYA in Texas would still have the best chances of success.”
Already quite the politician!
Subsequent letters prove that my grandmother took LBJ up on the offer — and that her suggestions were often “frank.” Another administrator called one of her notes to LBJ: “Harsher than it really should be.”
But LBJ was always solicitous of her help. Feb. 8, 1936: “I am confident that you will be proud of the ‘orphan organization’ you took under your wing too long ago.”
In her own voice
Not so fast! McNerney also produced the transcript of something I never knew existed: An oral-history interview with my grandmother, conducted by Michael Gillette, now head of Humanities Texas, at the LBJ Library, dated Feb. 2, 1979.
In these 21 packed pages, I heard my grandmother’s voice — smart, funny, full-throated — for the first time. The original tape has not been digitized, to my knowledge.
A perfect example: The Texas Relief Commission board had tried to force its new state director, Adam R. Johnson, to get rid of Keating. Why?
Keating: “The three reasons he reported to me was that I was not a Texan, I was a woman and I was Catholic. He said that he responded to (the board), ‘She is a Texan; she’s from El Paso. She is a woman; I can’t do anything about that. Yes, she’s Catholic, but by so-and so’ — he was a great cusser — ‘I don’t have to pray with her.’ I held the job from the beginning to the end.”
Others urged Adam Johnson to let her go because she was: “The most insidious force on the state staff.”
Gillette: “Why were you insidious?”
Keating: “I wasn’t. They were the ones who made the charge, I suppose because I spoke out rather clearly on a good many subjects that weren’t necessarily pleasant to them.”
Gillette: “Do you want to elaborate on the subjects?”
Keating: “No, I’d like to get to the subject of the discussion, namely Lyndon Johnson.”
And so my grandmother, as she would in life, gently took control of the conversation.
Gillette: “What was Lyndon Johnson like in those days?”
Keating: “He was a tall, slender, handsome, outspoken, energetic, at some times brash, young man.”
She detailed tensions between LBJ and Harry Drought, state head of the Works Progress Administration, a parallel agency whose Texas headquarters was in San Antonio.
Keating: “Lyndon was impatient and wanted things to move fast. Mr. Drought was heavy on protocol, on the legal aspects of public administration.”
My grandmother acted as the peacemaker. Often, she counseled LBJ in her sixth-floor office in the Littlefield Building.
Keating: “We would have heart-to-heart talks about how to reach certain goals. Though I think I was only 5 or 6 years older than Lyndon, I would try to keep him calm.”
One of the turf wars concerned possibly moving the NYA to San Antonio to be closer to the WPA. But even more important for LBJ was finding youths who qualified for the NYA work and could be properly certified. Local welfare offices were not sending the agency regular prospects.
My grandmother did not conclude, as others did, that LBJ used the NYA to build his political career. She recalled, however, his intensely loyal, overworked staff, an LBJ constant for the next few decades.
Keating: “I don’t remember that there were any women. I maybe should have gotten after him about that. But they were loyal absolutely.”
One thing comes across in my grandmother’s testimony: LBJ really cared about people in need. This was not an act. Time and again, she talks about his ecumenical concern for others, no matter their backgrounds.
Gillette: “What was his attitude toward blacks on NYA projects?”
Keating: “I never thought he had an attitude. I mean, maybe I saw what I wanted to see, but I always felt that he was dealing with boys and girls, human beings. I couldn’t tell you that he had an attitude for or against yellow, brown, black, white, anybody. … I believe, in other words, on that subject, he was a mature person.”
Tips for finding family history at the LBJ Library
1. Check for relevant names in the Archival Collections, Subject Guides and Finding Aids sections at lbjlibrary.org.
2. Contact the library staff at email@example.com or 512-721-1212.
3. Schedule an orientation appointment with an archivist.
4. Check in advance about parking, transportation and accommodations.
5. Review boxes of documents at your own pace with pencils only, but carefully keep folders in order.
6. Ask about which materials can be copied and how. Digital copying is encouraged.
7. Don’t forget about the Audiovisual Archives on the second floor for photos, video and audio materials.
8. Always, always ask questions. That’s why the archivists are there.