A Most Loved and Effective Congressman
By Gail Fagan
As originally published by Texas Border Business newsprint edition April 2017.
Rio Grande Valley, Texas – March 29, 2017 – U.S. Congressman Eligio de la Garza was a legend on Capitol Hill over the course of his protracted political career. And today, in the wake of his death earlier this month at age 89, the man widely and affectionately known as “Kika” remains a big man on campus at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
De la Garza died March 13, 2017, leaving a legacy of public service and meaningful legislation during his 12-year term in the Texas Legislature (1952-1964) and his 32-year tenure as a congressman for U.S. District 15 (TX).
Colleagues and constituents alike will attest to his career-long commitment to the people of the Valley and to the growth and betterment of the region, which included his support for higher education initiatives – most notably, throwing his support behind the then-controversial move to make Pan American University part of the UT System, and in 2012, donating the voluminous collection of his documents to UT Pan American. In 2000, a scholarship fund was established to create the E. “Kika” de la Garza Endowed Scholarship, for students interested in pursuing government or public service.
He was one of the founders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and served as chair of the House Agriculture Committee from 1981-1994, overseeing transformational agricultural legislation to assist farmers and encourage rural economic development, not only in South Texas but nationwide. He also was integral in the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).
“Kika de la Garza had such a positive impact on many people during his lifetime, and his support of higher education should not go unnoticed,” said Guy Bailey, UTRGV founding president. “Thanks to his donation of his archives and the establishment of his endowment, Kika’s legacy will live on forever at UTRGV.”
When de la Garza retired from public service in 1997, he came home to the Valley, bringing with him his entire Congressional archive, which he donated to UTRGV legacy institution UT Pan American. Now housed at the UTRGV Edinburg Campus Library, the archive was unveiled publically in 2012.
“This is home … this is where I started,” de la Garza said at the unveiling ceremony. “I hope students who investigate the collection are inspired to aspire. Years from now, the students here will say, ‘Kika de la Garza pasó por aquí (came through here).’”
Sean Visintainer, head of Special Collections and Archives, said UTRGV is lucky to steward the De la Garza congressional papers, calling him “one of the great figures of modern Rio Grande Valley history and the person perhaps most responsible for the development of the Valley since he went into public service in the 1950s.”
“The collection of papers is huge,” Visintainer said. “If you stretched the boxes out end to end, they would comprise more than 400 feet of documents, including photographs, speeches, departmental files, scrapbooks, correspondence and legislative materials.”
The archive, which is open and available for research, is used frequently by students, historians and media, from the local Monitor newspaper to The Washington Post.
“His archive, which helps form an important nucleus of political papers in our university’s holdings, will be protected and made accessible to our students, faculty, staff and community of researchers well into the future,” Visintainer said.
Commitment To Higher Ed
De la Garza’s first venture into higher education after returning from his U.S. Navy service in World War II was at then Edinburg Junior College, which later went through numerous changes to become UT Pan American. Records show he even played football at the college before going to St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean conflict.
When he was elected to Congress, de la Garza was the first Mexican-American to represent the 15th District, and only the second whom Texans had elected to Congress. He became a popular public official, and was re-elected 15 times by his constituents.
Former UT Pan American President Dr. Miguel Nevárez, who served from 1981-2004, said de la Garza’s support of then Pan American University’s transition into The University of Texas System in 1989 was important in gaining the approval from the community, as well as from the Regents.
“He is so well respected in the community because of his role as a congressman, and he was supportive of joining the UT System,” Nevárez said. “It was a very close vote, so having his support – and the community support he garnered for it – was important.”
Nevárez said that, as a U.S. Congressman from 1965-97, de la Garza played a big role in obtaining numerous federal programs to provide academic and financial support for Valley students at the university, including the TRIO programs, like Upward Bound and Talent Search, the Learning Assistance Center, and work-study and research opportunities.
“He also arranged for visits here by high-powered people from Washington, D.C., to make them aware of the university,” Nevárez said of de la Garza, whose tenure in the House spanned the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton.
Nevárez recalled de la Garza as being down to earth and easy to talk to, despite the high achievements of a man who, as a boy, shined shoes on the streets of downtown Mission, Texas.
“You didn’t have to convince him of the needs that would support the institution and our entire region,” he said. “Kika was a guy who asked, ‘How can I help you?’”
De la Garza, along with his wife of 63 years, Lucille, visited the campus frequently and enjoyed meeting students at an annual donor scholarship luncheon, where they could talk with students who benefitted from the E. “Kika” De La (change to de la) Garza Endowed Scholarship established at the university.
“They (students) say it (the scholarship) helps a lot,” de la Garza said in an interview at the 2014 luncheon. “Having a college education makes a lot of difference. In life, your success is geared to your level of education. That’s why higher education is so important. I’m proud that we have higher education at this level here; it is something we should be proud of.”
For more information on how to support the E. “Kika” de la Garza Endowed Scholarship, contact the UTRGV Division of Institutional Advancement at (956) 665-5301. Gifts can be made online at www.give.utrgv.edu/utrgvfoundation. Choose “Other” and reference the E. “Kika” de la Garza Endowed Scholarship. TBB