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Heroes & Friends - Sam Biscoe

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I was born and raised in Tyler when it was a small city of 30,000 residents. When I was two, my parents separated and my mother raised me by herself. It wasn’t easy because she only had a seventh grade education.

Although uneducated, Mother was intelligent and principled. She constantly stressed four values to me: (1) the importance of a good education; (2) the need to work hard; (3) the significance of good character and solid values; and (4) the value of setting worthy goals and adopting a plan to achieve them. I still live by those values.

The Tyler I grew up in was dramatically different than Tyler today. Racial segregation was part of all aspects of life, but many courageous efforts were being made to remove racial barriers by people of all backgrounds.

I washed dishes at a “whites-only” restaurant, entering and exiting through the back door. I caddied at local public and private golf courses, but could not play there. Blacks could not work in the more desirable public service jobs. The list of segregated practices was long and rigidly enforced. Experiencing these injustices inspired me to want to make changes for the next generation. Positions in law and government were where that change could happen, but only with a good education first.

I graduated from all-black Emmett Scott High School in 1965 where I had caring and intelligent teachers. I immediately enrolled in Tyler Junior College which was just integrating and had about 50 Black students in a student body of 5,000. Even then, TJC highlighted individual merit, and I got a chance to see the “other side” of Tyler that cared more about my character than my color.

Dr. Jean Browne, Director of the Speech Department at TJC, sought me out, taught me speech and embraced me. She convinced me I could become President of the United States if I put my mind to it. She inspired and equipped me with tools for leadership. In 1967, I was selected for membership in Who’s Who in American Junior Colleges as a result of my success in the Speech Department, specifically in Debate and Poetry Interpretation. Attending college at home was one of my best, life-changing decisions.

During my time at TJC, I met David Huffman, Mr. D.K. Caldwell’s nephew and asset manager. Mr. Huffman and then Mr. Caldwell as well, both took an interest in me. I worked cleaning pens and sweeping at the zoo and they helped toward my college expenses, even after I left TJC. It meant a lot that so many people wanted me to be successful.

I completed my associate’s degree in History at TJC and was offered a scholarship to attend North Texas State University. I graduated from North Texas and then earned a Law Degree at the University of Texas in Austin. I began my legal career with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. in San Francisco, California. I worked on the desegregation lawsuit against the Austin school district and prison law reform cases against the Texas Department of Corrections, among others.

I served in private law practice before Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower asked me to be General Counsel. I worked with him on matters such as farm worker protection, ultimately forcing farm owners to keep workers out of the fields right after toxic pesticides had been sprayed.

In January 1989, I became Precinct One Commissioner and in December 1998, I was elected Judge on the Travis County Commissioners Court. I’ve tried to represent all of my constituents and to fight for just treatment of those less fortunate, because when we help those less fortunate, we lift up our entire community.

Recently, I had the opportunity to use those TJC-influenced speech skills in an address before students and teachers at the National Penghu University of Science and Technology in Taiwan, China. I gave them the same message my mother gave me: get an education, work hard, develop good character and set goals.

To those in the TJC Speech Department who saw something in me so many others had overlooked, I am eternally grateful. It’s good to have someone look out for you as you travel through life, to lift you up and inspire you to work hard, develop good character and set goals. I know there are still people like Dr. Browne at TJC, looking for students to teach, embrace and inspire. God bless you all!

TJC Hero and Friend Sam Biscoe recently retired as Travis County Judge, a position he had held the past 16 years. According to a recent article in the Austin American Statesman, Biscoe, the first black county judge, has been heralded as a peacemaker who ended the acrimony typical of Commissioners Court meetings. Commissioner Bruce Todd noted “Some would say that one cannot make an omelet without breaking an egg. Sam would work to persuade the chicken to donate the egg for the sake of the omelet.” After working for 55 years, no one thinks Sam’s retirement will last long. He and his wife, Donalyn, have two adult children.