Monte Monroe wants to hear your stories and help preserve them.
Monte Monroe will come right out and say he doesn't know exactly what caused his interest in history. But once he begins talking about his life, it becomes immediately apparent that perhaps it's because he's been able to personally witness – or interact with those who witnessed – many key events in American history.
As a young boy living in Houston, Monroe had a firsthand encounter with President John F. Kennedy the day before his assassination, and he got to see the birth of the space program with his own eyes.
"My folks always made sure we would get out to places like Ellington Air Force Base and see the first capsule, the capsule the first chimp had gone up in, Alan Shepard's capsule for the U.S.'s first human spaceflight and John Glenn's capsule, in which he became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth," Monroe said. "Everybody was excited about the space program at that time. The Johnson Space Center wasn't built yet, but it was about to be."
These early encounters have come full circle now through Monroe's work as an archivist for the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library at Texas Tech University, but other vignettes from his life have been equally important for his new role as Texas State Historian.
Bonnie and Clyde
After he finished the fourth grade, Monroe's family moved from Houston to Orange, a town of about 25,000 people at the time on the Texas-Louisiana border. He grew up working in the farm fields, baling hay with his brother and cousins. As a reward for their hard work, his maternal grandfather, C.H. Meriwether, would often take them to his cabin on Indian Lake – an ox bow of the Sabine River – where they could swim, fish and listen to his stories about the pirate Jean Lafitte.
"He was a great storyteller," Monroe said, remembering his grandfather. "If you ask me what may have influenced me, I don't know whether it's him or not, but I know that he was an outstanding storyteller.
"And one of the things he never would have told us about happened just by accident."
Monroe knew Meriwether served as sheriff of Orange County during the Great Depression, but he didn't know about his grandfather's involvement in one of the most infamous crime stories of all time.
As a teenager in the mid-1960s, Monroe went with his mother to buy a cutting horse in Beaumont. During the transaction, they began chatting with the man selling the horse and realized he knew Meriwether. When the man came to deliver the horse, Monroe's grandfather drove up in his old, beat-up Ford. While Monroe's mother, father and brother took turns riding the horse around the pasture, Monroe listened to the two men talking.
"All of a sudden, I heard this man tell my grandfather, 'Well, they're making us out to be murderers.' That gets your attention real quick, so I went over to ask my mother what they were talking about," Monroe said. "She said, 'Oh, that has to do with Bonnie and Clyde.' And I said, 'You mean the bank robbers, Bonnie and Clyde?' She said yes."
The 1967 film "Bonnie and Clyde" had recently been released, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, so Monroe's interest was piqued.
"They had depicted them as social bandits, out robbing from the rich bankers and giving to the poor people," Monroe said. "And that was not the way it really was; these were vicious, hardened criminals."
At the time, Meriwether was dying of cancer. Not long after that day, Monroe's mother sent him, his brother and their cousin to visit and pay their last respects.
"We didn't understand last respects; we didn't know that would be the end for us, the last time we saw him," Monroe recalled. "But we got to talking and said, 'Grandpa, tell us a story.' We wanted to know about Bonnie and Clyde. So he spent all of one morning and past lunch. He just laid it out for us how they had tracked these people.
"All the law enforcement 'county mounties' in East Texas had tracked them, all with the help of the Texas Rangers."
Meriwether explained that the Rangers had heard a rumor Bonnie and Clyde were hiding out with Clyde's uncle at a farm on a dark road and would come into town at night to check the newspaper, see if there was any mail and then return to their hideout.
On May 23, 1934, these East Texas law enforcement officers, led by the Texas Rangers, found themselves in Louisiana, on a dirt county road lined with bar ditches and trees.
"He said they saw the car coming and I'm pretty sure he said it was the Ranger Cpt. Frank Hamer who stood out the middle of the road with one of those old school signs that used to say STOP, you know, that crossing guards would hold, and they had a bullhorn," Monroe said. "Hamer said, 'Stop, this is the police,' and the car sped up.
"My grandfather said, 'I don't know. I don't know who shot first or what happened; I just know that we all saw this glistening in the windshield on the right hand, on the passenger side, and next thing you know, bullets were flying everywhere.'"
Meriwether pointed at his Browning automatic rifle hanging on the wall.
"He said, 'I don't know if I hit anybody, I just know I aimed toward those lights and I unloaded a clip toward those lights.' Ultimately the car continued to speed up but then it clearly swerved and went off into one of the bar ditches. He said, 'We went over there very cautious because these people were vicious, and we could see that they were both dead. Bonnie had a machine gun across her lap to the right, so we figured she was starting to shoot across the window, because there were bullet holes in the window and it was a pattern.'"
Soon after verifying that Bonnie and Clyde were dead, the Rangers sent the county law enforcement officers back to Texas with a promise that they would take care of it.
"They may have changed the story a little bit or whatnot, but we killed them," Meriwether said to Monroe. "We gave them fair warning to stop, and they didn't stop."
Years later, Monroe told the story to his daughter at a family gathering and his brother confirmed the story.
"So I knew that, even though my brother and I had never talked about this ever since, my story is pretty straight the way I remembered it," Monroe said. "Those kinds of things surely impact young minds. I think perhaps that's one of the things that helped me become a historian or gave me an interest in history early on."
After graduating from high school in Orange, Monroe moved to Nacogdoches to attend Stephen F. Austin State University. To pay his way, he got a job as a janitor for the Nacogdoches Independent School District.
"I used to sit out on the back porch during our breaks with an older African American woman by the name of Lucy Moore," Monroe recalled. "Her husband was King Moore, and King was the janitor of the Nacogdoches High School for many, many years. During the Christmas breaks, we would all go help King clean the high school, and we'd all sit on the back porch and they would just tell stories of all sorts."
After a few years, Monroe became a janitor for the Nacogdoches County Jail.
"Some nights, as I was mopping or stripping and waxing floors outside the district courtroom, I'd listen to the trustees, who would always be laying on the couch out there, talking to me, telling me their jailhouse stories," he said. "The deputies would have me take them in my car to get donuts."
After finishing his bachelor's degree in English literature, history and philosophy, Monroe's first "real" job was as a hot-mix rake-man and dump-truck driver for the Nacogdoches County Road Department. There he labored beside an interested cast of characters who routinely showered him with tales of every stripe. Daily he and his colleagues would eat lunch, and often nap under their dump-trucks, at historic Spanish Colonial-era missions or presidio sites, where they would swap all kinds of stories.
"You have to remember that everybody I grew up with and worked with were either World War I veterans, World War II veterans, Korean War veterans or people who lived during the Great Depression," he said. "So everybody had a great sense of mission and history."
After a year of working for the road department, in July 1979, Monroe married his sweetheart, Laura Pitcher, an aspiring lawyer. On their wedding night, they drove to Lubbock for her to begin law school at Texas Tech.
Monroe began working at Acme Brick Company but the economy soon forced him to find another position. He wound up at the university, managing the Hulen/Clement residence halls. His secretary, Elsie Munoz, was the German war bride of Shauno Munoz, a U.S. infantryman during World War II. Her husband was one of the guards during the Nuremberg Trials, the series of military tribunals to prosecute Nazi leaders after World War II, and his stories fascinated Monroe.
"He got to meet all the big German officers and political people, so he would tell stories about that experience as well as his military experience," Monroe said. "Those things kind of start to impress you."
Outside of working hours, Monroe held a second job teaching martial arts. But after three years at the residence halls, he took up Taekwondo full time.
After the untimely death of Jon Chu, his Taekwondo master, Monroe was mentored by the president of the national Taekwondo organization, Dong Ja Yang of Howard University, until he became a master in his own right.
"I became president of the New Mexico State Association at that time, and me and a couple of my colleagues were among the first 10 native-born Americans to become international referees in the sport of Taekwondo," he said. "This was long before Taekwondo was recognized at the Olympics."
He refereed the World Taekwondo Championships, the Pan American Taekwondo Championships, and the Pan American Games in Indianapolis when the United States was first included. He ultimately became the Secretary General of the Pan American Taekwondo Union, which encompassed 33 countries in Latin America.
While refereeing tournaments in Latin America, Monroe met other Taekwondo masters from around the world. Many of the Korean masters were Korean War veterans, and some were former prisoners of war. As fairly recent American immigrants, they were very interested in U.S. history, and Monroe was happy to discuss it with them.
But while discussing history, he also made it.
"Ultimately, I became the first American to officiate in the Olympic Games the first time Taekwondo was a demonstration sport in Seoul, Korea, which is the home of that sport," Monroe said. "That was magnificent. I was one of 27 people in the world chosen, out of literally tens of thousands of referees."
Monroe remembers he was changing his son's diaper when he got a call four years later from Col. Bae, the executive director of the World Taekwondo Federation. He said, "Monte Monroe, you referee Barcelona Olympics."
"This is a Korean War veteran, a high-ranking Republic of Korea colonel and he had been a prisoner of war for a short time," Monroe explained. "He just told me, 'You do it.' So I went back a second time."
But Monroe had already been preparing for something new. Shortly after the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, he talked to his mentor, Yang, who told him the academic life – with its free summers – was a good pairing for his Taekwondo role. So, with the goal of becoming a college administrator, he enrolled in education courses at Texas Tech under Dayton Roberts.
"Now remember, by then I'm a fourth-degree black belt," he said. "I'd just come back from the Olympics, I was the only American to do it out of 27 people in the world. I was pretty cocky. I was in my early 30s; I could jump and kick a basketball goal.
"But somewhere along the way, after about nine hours, Dr. Roberts told me that you would garner more respect on a college campus if you had a master's degree in a major field of study in addition to a doctorate in education."
When his adviser asked him the fateful question, "What do you like?" Monroe's answer was clear.
"By that time, I was doing genealogy, encouraged by another great storyteller, Mrs. Nan West, the daughter of Dr. M.C. Overton, the pioneer doctor of early Lubbock and the South Plains," he remembered. "Folks like Nan piqued my interest in American history and everything like that, including local history. And so I said, 'I think history.'"
Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library
Monroe focused his studies on 20th-century environmental history and got involved in various Texas historical associations. His professors – including notable historians Alwyn Barr, Paul Carlson, Dan Flores, Alan Kuethe, Brian Blakeley and David Murrah, then-director of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library – made sure history graduate students went out into the community to do presentations, not just research. He also had the "privilege" of teaching in the classroom, something he continued for 19 years.
Along the way, Monroe got his minor in archival management – a choice that would be crucial down the line. After he finished his doctorate, an archivist position became available with the Southwest Collection.
"It turned out that this has been one of the greatest things that ever happened in my life," Monroe said. "This is an outstanding institution, the Southwest Collection. It reaches all over the country and all over the world, and I have a chance to meet extremely interesting people, up close and personal.
"Even though I no longer teach history in the classroom, archives is history. It's more than an archive; it's history and people involved with history."
Through his position with the Southwest Collection, Monroe has interacted with many interesting people.
"Just the other day, I was with Jane Chandler, the daughter of Gov. Coke Stevenson, whose papers we now have here in the Southwest Collection," Monroe said.
"I've had the chance to ride around with people like Col. Steve Lindsey, who was chief of the astronaut corps when the Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas. I remember going out and watching it disintegrate that day. I had my kids come out and watch the TV; you felt for these people. I knew exactly where it went down in East Texas, because I used to fish in that area. I never thought I would get to meet anybody connected with that event.
"But I'm now dear friends with Evelyn Husband Thompson and her husband, Bill Thompson, who also donated his father's World War II materials here. And I'm also close friends and fellow Rotarians with Audrey and Barry McCool, the parents of Columbia pilot and Coronado High School graduate Willie McCool."
Evelyn Husband Thompson is the widow of Col. Rick Husband, a Texas Tech alumnus who was the commander on the ill-fated Columbia mission. She donated her late husband's materials to the Southwest Collection.
"In the past several weeks, I've been in close contact with Kaz Fujita, the son of Ted Fujita," Monroe said. "Most people don't think of wind science as a history, but it is a history – especially when you're in place like Lubbock, where the first documented Category 5 tornado hit. I'm sure they've hit all over the place before, but this was the first one that helped Fujita create his theory, which became the Fujita Scale and, later, the Enhanced Fujita Scale through the efforts of faculty in Texas Tech's National Wind Institute. He also determined that it was a multiple-vortices tornado, and we have his hand-drawn maps here."
Monroe serves as a member of the recently formed Tornado Memorial Gateway Project in Lubbock that hopes to honor the lives of Lubbock citizens lost on that fateful day in 1970.
In his position with the Southwest Collection, Monroe has become well known in Texas historical circles. He spent 15 years as editor of the West Texas Historical Association Yearbook, a 90-plus-year-old academic journal that eventually was renamed the West Texas Historical Review. He has been on the board of West Texas Historical Association for nearly 18 years and is now on the board of the East Texas Historical Association. He is a member of the important Texas Historic Records Advisory Board and chairs the Archives Committee of the Texas State Historical Association. In 2019, he will end a four-year term as president of the National Meriwether Society, a genealogical organization based on his grandfather's ancestry.
"It's celebrating its 40th anniversary, and I've probably been involved almost all of that time, but we're going back to Jamestown, where our immigrant ancestor landed," Monroe said. "He shows up on the records as the clerk of the Governor's Council at 21 years of age. And we don't have a clue how he got here. But his structure has been excavated on Jamestown Island. It was one of the bigger homes there. He had gotten the land from Nathaniel Bacon, who was the uncle of Nathaniel Bacon, the rebel."
The Southwest Collection serves as the archives for the national family history association.
As Lubbock approached its 100th birthday in 2009, Monroe was one of two historians on the Lubbock Centennial Committee. He's proud to say he was involved with the Centennial Committee in funding the new West Texas Walk of Fame and laughingly said he even wrote its plaque, "in a rush one morning."
"The wonderful thing about this region is, there were still children and grandchildren of the pioneers who came out here and created Lubbock," he said. "So I got to hear all kinds of great stories during that time."
When asked about his favorite records in the Southwest Collection, Monroe shakes his head.
"I love it all," he said. "There's nothing too small, nothing too big. We have everything from sports history to revolutionary history to Spanish colonial history, so it's hard to say.
"But one of the most interesting things that came to us out of the Gov. Coke Stevenson collection was the famous Smithwick letter, written by a former deputy sheriff admitting to Gov. Stevenson that he had been involved in stuffing the famous ballot box No. 13, which gave Lyndon Johnson the Senate seat and paved the way for his role in the White House. So that's kind of interesting to have here.
"Another interesting thing is the letter that Rick Husband wrote as a young engineering student here at Texas Tech to NASA, asking about the criteria to become an astronaut."
Monroe said these types of personal correspondence are the things that really bring history to life for him.
"All you have to do is hold a letter or a diary," he said. "You hold these things in your hands and you're hooked on history. They're just priceless nuggets; they put flesh on the bones of history. It puts flesh on the bones of the people of history."
That's what makes it especially galling to Monroe when such treasures are lost.
"I cannot tell you how many places we've gone to and found out that the son or the grandson had already thrown out boxes," he sighed. "We found out a local man had thrown out 12 boxes of correspondence between his grandparents while his grandfather was serving in World War I and when his father was overseas during World War II. And by the time we got there, it was all gone. I just happened to see these empty, two-penny-stamped envelopes and said, 'What was this?' And he said, 'Nothing, just all letters. I threw them away two weeks ago.' And so their history is out in the city dump right now."
He emphasizes that the historic ranching records on which the Southwest Collection was founded were almost sent to the dump decades ago. Had it happened, it likely would have meant the end of the Southwest Collection.
But, because of Curry Holden and other visionaries, the archive continues and Monroe and his colleagues get to work with ranchers like Ninia Ritchie, the owner of the historic JA Ranch that at one time encompassed more than a million acres in the Texas Panhandle, and preserve their records.
"To me, history from the ground up – from average people up – is important," Monroe said. "We've got presidents' papers in the national and other archives. At the Southwest Collection, we even have many congressmen's papers, including George Mahon, Kent Hance, Larry Combest and Randy Neugebauer. We have all those leaders' papers, or what's left of them. What we don't have are the stories of those common people who lived history, too."
Texas State Historian
In his newest role, as Texas State Historian, Monroe will have numerous opportunities to talk to people around the state and encourage them to preserve their nuggets of history. In fact, that's one of his key duties.
"I can't think of a better platform in which to do this," he said. "I'm the first archivist to be state historian; I'm the first West Texan to be state historian; I'm the first historian from a Carnegie Tier One institution; and I am a public historian vs. a classroom historian."
Monroe's job will be to advise state leaders who are interested in Texas history; to speak on topics familiar to his expertise, "and since I'm an eclectic historian, I can talk on the whole range of topics," he said; share history with students and the general public; and encourage the teaching of history in schools.
But if you had told him a year ago that he would be here now, he wouldn't have believed you.
"Last February, one of my predecessors as Texas State Historian, Light Cummins, called to ask me if I would allow my name to be put forward as one of three nominees; I was thunderstruck," he said. "I promptly told him I was not an academic historic and didn't have all the publishing credentials that all these guys had, nor did I have the time that my immediate predecessor Bill O'Neal had to travel all over the state. But he convinced me and I said, 'Yes, I'll do it.'"
After being nominated by a joint committee of Texas State Historical Commission and Texas State Historical Association members, Monroe went in for questioning led by Tom Phillips, the former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
"He was sitting right across from me in a big room, and there was one lone table out in the middle. I came around and he said, 'Monte, you're on the hot seat now.' So they all started asking questions, and I thought I handled myself quite well," Monroe said. "But by the time I got from San Marcos to Fredericksburg, where we stopped to get gas, I had talked myself out of it. I told my mentors Drs. Barr and Carlson, 'I blew it.'"
Having resigned himself to the pleasure of being nominated, Monroe didn't think about it again. Busy preparing for a lunchtime presentation a few days later on March 12, he silenced a call from an unknown number and promptly forgot about it. Afterward, he and his wife packed up and flew to Galveston, so they could relax and she could recover from a recent hip surgery.
"That night when I'm plugging in my phone, I see that number down there, and there was a voice message," Monroe said. "I turned it on and, lo and behold, it was the spokesman for the joint committee, John Crain of the Texas Historical Commission. He talked for about a minute and I thought, 'Would you please hurry up and tell me I didn't get this?' Then he said, 'And you are the unanimous nominee.' My wife jumped up out of bed, even though she couldn't really walk, and kissed me on the forehead."
On Sept. 26, Monroe was officially appointed Texas State Historian by Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Who would have ever thought that I would have been here? But when I look back and reflect, I can see those threads and strands of history from the ground up that brought me to this place," Monroe said. "And that is what I see as one of my missions. I want to talk about average people and how they lived history, their experiences. I want to help them preserve that history, because most history is thrown in a dumpster. It is destroyed by neglect, war or by great-grandsons, silverfish and foolishness. So the history we have is the history that's left; just little tidbits, little nuts and bolts, not all of it.
"I want to encourage them to save as much as possible. That's my job: to encourage them to preserve that history. Whether it's personal or not, it has some kind of reach. For example, while the Meriwethers may never know the place and parents from which their immigrant ancestor emanated, there are many folks today who are first- or second-generation Texans. Perhaps I can encourage them to document their stories of how and what drew their ancestors here. For scholars to document history, they have to have these nuts and bolts. My job is to try and preserve history, care for it and make it accessible for research purposes."
Looking back now, Monroe said perhaps he does know what interested him in history.
"It's the people," he said. "The people made me a historian. I just love their stories and I love listening to them all the time. Once you get into these historical associations, you hear all the academic history, but I like to hear from the people themselves, what their memories are. In talking to people, you get that."