A cowboy's heart
Jan. 18, 2013
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It was almost five in the morning on Sep. 17, 2000, when an airliner carrying the Texas Longhorn football team on a return trip from a late-night game in Stanford, Calif., touched down at Austin's new Bergstrom International Airport .
The players and staff awakened slowly, moving methodically toward buses that would take them to the football stadium and eventually allow them to crawl into bed, frustrated by a 27-24 loss to the Stanford Cardinal that had knocked them out of the nation's top ten.
But for the oldest of the travelers -- a pair of life-long Longhorn supporters who had joined the team on the trip -- the journey would continue.
Louis Pearce Jr. was 83 years old and Hal Hillman was 73 as they moved from the plane and into a car that would take them -- one an octogenarian and the other close behind -- on a three-hour ride to their homes in Houston. Folks offered to let them stay in Austin, but no one, absolutely no one, expected them to do it. These were men who had ridden more miles than that together, and a trip through the Lost Pines in Bastrop, on past the legends of LaGrange and down the highway into the sunrise was just another trail ride for a couple of guys who were cowboys at heart.
A lot of folks said Louis, who died on Dec. 26, 2012, just a little less than two months shy of his 96th birthday, was never the same after Hal passed away in 2004. Together, they represented everything great friends should be --similar in so many ways, and yet individuals to the end. They achieved much, and they gave much. When it came to energy and determination, there haven't been many matches for Louis Pearce Jr.
Longhorn co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite was a player on that 2000 team, and continued his relationship with Pearce -- first as a graduate assistant and later as a full-time coach -- over much of the last 10 years. The story of the early morning ride home didn't surprise him.
"He had a different tank," Major said. "He had extra gallons that the rest of us don't have."
Mack Brown developed a very close friendship with Pearce, and his staff annually gathered for a preseason planning session at the Pearce Ranch near San Antonio. The Longhorn head coach always marveled at the source of that energy.
"He was always the last guy to go to bed, and the first person up in the morning, even in his '90s," Mack recalled. "He was amazing."
DeLoss Dodds first met Pearce in the summer of 1981, shortly after Dodds had taken the job as the Texas Athletics Director. As it was for Mack and the others, the lasting image of Louis was that of his friendship, and his loyalty. The roots of that loyalty go back a long, long way.
When you ask T Jones, who was a young assistant on Darrell Royal's first coaching staff almost 60 years ago, about Louis, he begins with a simple, all-inclusive word: "gracious."
Pearce was just more than a decade removed from having ridden his way through the horse cavalry into the rank of major in the US Army serving in Italy in World War II when T Jones and Coach Royal first met him on a "get acquainted" trip for the new UT coaching staff.
Coach Royal was trying to rebuild Longhorn recruiting, and Pearce was a young, highly successful businessman in Houston.
"He was so gracious," says Jones. "We were beginning to make headway in recruiting, and he wanted to do anything he could -- within the rules -- to help. "
If that included providing a car for a coach who was recruiting, it was done. If that meant introducing the new staff to the power people in the state's largest city, it was handled. It was a pattern that would continue with every head football coach and their staff who would follow.
It was in that window of time that Pearce's love affair with his alma mater began to flourish. They said of Pearce that he had three great passions in life: his ranches, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and The University of Texas.
Dodds saw Pearce as a person who gave generously, but also served in the role of a facilitator.
"He was always willing to help. He had a wonderful lifestyle which he shared with our coaches. He was a role model who had served in World War II and had lived history. He gave great advice, and seemed to always see the past, the current and the future of any situation," said Dodds.
When Dodds embarked on an effort to create the Longhorn Foundation, he turned to Pearce for help among the Texas alumni base in Houston.
"We raised $1 million in one lunch," DeLoss recalled.
Applewhite recalled the hospitality, and the way Pearce treated people with respect.
"His whole family is the same way," said Major. "I saw that as a graduate assistant when I first went to his ranch. We would work on our planning for the season, and then take a recreational break. Some folks call it 'fishing,' but as Stacey Searels said, 'at Mr. Pearce's ranch, it's catching...not just fishing.' Everyone made sure we were given every opportunity to work and have a good time."
The ranch near Charlotte, Texas, had been the launching space for coaching staffs long before Pearce and Mack developed their special bond over the last 15 years.
"Louis never wavered in his support of Texas athletics," said Dodds. He always found a positive out of what could have been a negative."
Applewhite marveled at the stories Pearce shared (a lot of which can't be repeated), and recalled one where Pearce had invited Brown and a university administrator to ride horses in the majestic Grand Entry procession at the Houston Rodeo. Brown, who grew up in farm country in middle Tennessee, was happy to saddle-up, but the executive politely asked if he could ride in a wagon instead.
"Mr. Pearce told him, 'If you want, you can certainly ride in the wagon with the women and children,'" recalled Applewhite. "Coach Brown rode with Louis."
When he was on the streets of New York or in a business meeting, Pearce was dressed as if he had just stepped out of a Gentleman's Quarterly magazine, but deep in his soul, it was boots and jeans, and an ever-present cowboy hat on the ranch that defined him. It was more than a labor of love -- it was one of his deepest loves. Once, when Mack and Sally Brown were considering buying a small ranch near Austin, Louis advised, "If you buy a ranch, you will always have something to do. You never quit building, whether it is a fence or something else. There is always something that needs work."
And Louis Pearce never quit building. On his ranches, he grew some of the finest cattle in Texas, and, ever the horseman, he was as accustomed to being in the saddle as he was riding in that car that early morning with Hal Hillman. In the business world, he became head of one of the largest oil rig equipment companies in the world, but he never forgot his roots. It was from a ranch that he first discovered the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, with a history that dated back to the late 1930s.
When the Astrodome was constructed in the mid-1960s, Louis saw an opportunity for a venue that would take the rodeo to unprecedented success. To do it, he combined his love of animals with his sense of business. In 1966, realizing there were more than 50,000 seats in the new building they were calling the newest "Wonder of the World," he found a way to persuade Elvis Presley to appear in concert.
Presley, of course, was a world-wide super star. Seventeen years later, in 1983, Louis helped book an up-and-coming country singer to headline the show. His name was George Strait -- who went on to become the best-selling country music star in history. Strait, who was relatively unknown at the time, also recalls Pearce's generosity and respect.
"I remember that he sent his plane to pick up me and the band," Strait says.
Throughout his life, Pearce epitomized the "giver." As much as he loved The University of Texas, he reinforced his commitment to the ranching industry by donating the Louis Pearce Pavilion, a state-of-the-art facility, to the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University. Folks joked that he may have been the only UT alum to ever have a building named for him on the College Station campus.
Applewhite remembers Pearce's respect for others being manifested in the way he treated his friend and "go-to" guy at the ranch, Juan, as well as the other people at the ranch. They were, Major recalls, like family.
He was a superb horseman and an avid hunter who traveled extensively. The cottages where the coaches stayed were shared with animal trophies from all over the world. He headed state boards and earned induction into countless halls of fame, he was as comfortable at the restaurant "21" in New York as he was at River Oaks Country Club in Houston. But he was most at home, as the old song says, "on the range."
He had the rugged appearance of a classic westerner, and moved easily between the role of a tough operator and a charming gentleman who had the ability to first engage, and then envelop you.
Next Wednesday, there will be a public gathering to remember Pearce at River Oaks Country Club in Houston. Not surprisingly, the family has suggested that gifts in his memory can be made, among other places, to the Longhorn Foundation.
You can drag out all the superlatives when it comes to describing Pearce. He wasn't perfect, as he would be the first to admit. He did things, in the greatest sense of the Frank Sinatra song, his way. His generous monetary gifts to Texas Athletics are significant, but it was his friendship and his gift of service that coaches and administrators will remember most. He served on the Men's Athletics Council, and on the Longhorn Foundation Advisory Council. Most of all, however, he represented wisdom, friendship and loyalty.
Legendary Houston attorney Joe Jamail, himself an enormous Longhorn benefactor, said it this way: "Louis Pearce was intelligent, compassionate, generous, friendly, helpful and supportive of many worthy and charitable causes. He was at ease with rich or poor and treated all alike - with respect. He was a great friend to our University of Texas. He was a complicated man with simple tastes.
"He died as he lived - uncomplaining, grateful for the full life he lived with great dignity."
The team meeting room in the Longhorn football facility bears his name, and the combination of structural and scholarship gifts afford us one final reflection of Louis Pearce.
A life-size bronze statue of a man on a horse talking with a teenage boy stands outside the Astrodome in Houston. The model for the rider on the horse was Louis Pearce. Entitled "Dreams and Memories," the work is a lasting tribute to his ever-present interest in the bond between man, horse and youth.
When they asked Pearce awhile back how he would want to be remembered, he said, "As a cowboy."
Webster would sign on to that. He was clearly a successful businessman, oil man, rancher and cattle man. But to those who knew him best, it was the "boy" in him that we will cherish. For it was in that space that our friend Louis Pearce remained forever young.