Padre Island
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Public Relations and Special Events, 1962-1970

Long before Padre Island National Seashore opened to the public in 1965, Superintendent Bill Bowen recognized the importance of public relations for the park. The prolonged struggle for legislative endorsement of the park had polarized North and South Padre Island. As park development got underway in the mid-1960s, the perceived favored treatment for North Padre further contributed to the polarization. Many South Padre residents and property owners, some formerly opposed to the park, now resented the lack of attention.

Superintendent Bowen took the first step toward improving public relations in the south by assigning Art Partin as district ranger, South District, at Port Isabel on October 25, 1964. [1] In a later report in 1965, the superintendent stated that the Park Service may have to rethink scheduling all construction on the north end through 1968 simply because "cold, hard political facts-of-life may indicate some adjustment." [2] By December 1965, Bowen seemed resigned to developing the park on South Padre at the same rate as that on North Padre. [3] Shortly afterwards, the park staff reversed this position because of the legal problems and challenges on the property south of Mansfield Channel.

Padre Island administrators continued the development of park facilities on North Padre as the legal battles raged over South Padre Island. In April 1965, the park staff opened the doors of their new headquarters building in Flour Bluff. [4] In 1969, several years later, the staff opened the Malaquite Beach Pavilion and facilities. Early National Seashore employees, however, remember April 1968 as the most significant event in the park's initial years.

Dedication of Padre Island National Seashore, April 8, 1968

In February 1968, Bill Newbold from the National Park Service Division of Interpretation in Washington contacted Superintendent Ernest Borgman requesting that the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, visit Padre Island for the park dedication. Borgman and staff had delayed making dedication plans until the first buildings were completed. Development activities, however, were behind schedule and it seemed unlikely that construction on the Malaquite Beach facilities would be completed within the year. Moreover, Borgman knew that it would be difficult to fit into the First Lady's travel agenda at another time. After several telephone calls, Borgman and Newbold agreed to arrange a formal dedication of the National Seashore with the First Lady presiding during the first week in April. Their selection of the April date left only a month for all preparations. [5]

The park staff hurriedly planned the dedication. They prepared and mailed more than 3,500 invitations. Park rangers constructed a speaker's stand and covered it on all sides with driftwood collected on the Padre Island beaches. [6] Superintendent Borgman and the rangers placed the stand at the northern end of the National Seashore near the site of the proposed Malaquite Beach complex. For added local flavor, rangers erected a flag pole near the stand and added a podium or lectern covered with driftwood. Park employees later recalled this month as one of their busiest and most stressful. [7]

On Monday, April 8, 1968, Lady Bird Johnson arrived at the Naval Air Station for the second stop on her "Crossing the Trails of Texas" tour. Just two days before, the First Lady had opened the Hemisfair grounds in San Antonio for the first world's fair to be hosted in Texas. She now would open Texas' second national park.

The day began with overcast skies thick with fog and threatening rain. By midmorning, however, the fog lifted, leaving the balance of the day a balmy 70 degrees. The First Lady's motorcade drove directly from the Naval Air Station to the dedication site. Hundreds of cars lined the narrow road as invited guests made their way down to the still incomplete park grounds. Superintendent Borgman, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, National Park Service Director George Hartzog, and Senator Ralph Yarborough led the dedication party. Mrs. John Young, "standing in" for her husband Representative John Young who was "called back" to Washington by President Johnson, Representative Eligio de la Garza, Representative Abe Kazan, and Admiral and Mrs. McPherson of Naval Air Advanced Training, accompanied the First Lady. Mayor Jack Blackmon and his wife and Ed and Mrs. Harte completed the list of local dignitaries. Governor John Connally, present only a few days before at the Hemisfair dedication, failed to attend or send a substitute. Although unable to attend because of poor health, Cameron County Judge Oscar Dancy would be mentioned later by several members of the dedication party. [8]

Lady Bird Johnson, the principal speaker, arrived at the dedication site shortly before the 11 o'clock scheduled ceremony. Mrs. Johnson greeted the audience and brought an air of gentility and warmth to the seashore setting. Despite these good feelings and the congratulatory comments of the participants, two significant events cast dark shadows on the dedication. After Borgman and Newbold arranged the April dedication, President Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. This announcement shocked many citizens and brought even more attention to the lingering Vietnam War. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the symbol of civil rights for blacks, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Out of respect for Dr. King's death, the park rangers flew the flag at half mast except during the national anthem. [9]

Secretary Udall served as the master of ceremonies, giving tributes and accolades to the work of many that led to Padre Island National Seashore. Senator Yarborough, who followed Udall's introductions, spoke eloquently of the four-and-one-half year struggle for Padre Island's recognition. He too credited the work of many citizens but gave special credit to Ed Harte, editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, for writing numerous editorials in support of the bill, and Judge Oscar Dancy. In an unusual deference to Lyndon Johnson, Yarborough stated that the great impetus for passing the Padre Island legislation came from a Congressional trip led by then Vice-President Johnson and Secretary Udall in 1961. The Senator then turned to more recent events, describing the King assassination as the "tragic event that struck this nation." In conclusion, Yarborough focused on the natural resources of Padre Island giving special attention to the "king of oak trees" that grew "in little groves of Quercus." "These trees," Yarborough stated, "grow nowhere else except on Padre Island." [10]

The First Lady followed Senator Yarborough. Her speech, later printed in the local newspapers and quoted in the syndicated presses, began with an introduction of some 40 journalists from 13 European countries. These special guests were accompanying Mrs. Johnson on the Texas tour at her invitation. In her opening statement, the First Lady asked a simple question "What does it take to make a national park?" and then began to answer it:

To create a national seashore?... It takes a dream... as it did with Judge Oscar Dancy some thirty years ago. We've known him for all of those thirty years and more. It takes endless hours of hard work by the 'believers,' people up and down the island span; not only people, but newspapers like the Corpus Christi Caller-Times who helped educate the readers to the advantages and won an award for it. [11]

Mrs. Johnson then recognized the work of Senator Yarborough and United States Representatives Young and de la Garza. As a follow up, she brought in the special interest of President Johnson emphasizing his fondness for calling the national seashores "the nation's necklace of national seashores." In her concluding comments, Mrs. Johnson noted the "delightful" driftwood and weathered rope that graced the speakers stand. She ended by referring to potential interpretation in the National Seashore:

Legends of early Indians, of shipwrecked Spanish galleons are part of Padre Island, and I hope, Mr. Hartzog, that there will be occasions when some gifted storyteller could bring them to life as part of the regular program here. I've been to so many national parks, and that is one of the great things they do. They weave in the history of the island, the history of man and nature -- the whole ecology -- sitting around the campfire or in the visitor's center. [12]

With her final gesture given to the future visitor activities at the park, Mrs. Johnson stepped down from the speakers' stand to unveil a plaque commemorating the day on a large piece of driftwood.

Following the ceremony, Mrs. Johnson and her traveling party changed clothes in tents especially erected for them. They then participated in a beachfront fish fry sponsored by the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce. Mrs. Johnson, Secretary Udall, and the traveling party set out for an afternoon walk on the beach. The newspaper accounts later remarked on the relaxing afternoon and vividly portrayed the barefooted First Lady decked in her large-brimmed hat and casual clothes. As a special treat, Park Naturalist Derek Hambly traveled with the party stopping occasionally to tell the visitors about the island. Afterwards, the First Lady returned to Corpus Christi for an evening cocktail party and dinner. She continued to Goliad the next day to complete her tour of Texas.

For Superintendent Borgman and his staff in 1968, the dedication day was a significant milestone. The staff banded together and in a very short time put together the first major event in the park's short history. The staffs scrapbook of photographs and memorabilia reflect the pride of accomplishment that had largely eluded the park staff in its initial years. National Park Service managers and local officials forwarded numerous congratulatory notes to Borgman and his staff in the months following the dedication. In many ways, the success of the dedication proved that Padre Island National Seashore was a viable park entity that was here to stay.

Public Relations and Special Events, 1970 - 1990

The completion of permanent park facilities communicated a positive message to the public in the late 1960s, but the park staff became the best means for developing good public relations in the 1970s. National Seashore staff members often spoke to community groups on the Park Service and the resources of the barrier island. Park rangers met the public daily and, to the surprise of some visitors, were excellent ambassadors for the new park. [13]

In 1972 National Seashore Superintendent James McLaughlin reported that in addition to the large number of talks presented by staff, that several events that year strengthened public relations. A campfire program at Malaquite Beach in March brought more than 60 park visitors. After McLaughlin told the crowd of the history and development of the National Park Service, the park staff led them in group singing and showed the film "Our Living Heritage." Later that year, the park sponsored a "Tenth Anniversary" celebration. Park staff presented special programs and conducted tours of Little Shell Beach. In the evening Superintendent McLaughlin again talked about the National Park Service and the Flour Bluff High School band played musical selections under the Malaquite Pavilion. [14]

The National Seashore staff grew into an extended family in these early years of the park. To facilitate communication, the staff published what was first called the "Padre Island National Seashore Employee News," that was changed in March 1972 to the "Gulf Breeze." This publication often reported on a special park organization for the National Seashore women. The group met occasionally and participated in area community activities such as the Festival of Flowers in Corpus Christi. Their exhibits often covered topics like dune preservation, beach combing, and anti-litter campaigns. [15] The group continued to meet through the end of the 1970s.

On a more regular basis, the National Seashore sought ways to serve area residents. Local television stations sometimes produced special stories on Padre Island, such as on grass fires and beach tar. The staff also began to offer beach and surf condition reports on a regular basis to local broadcasting stations. This was later expanded by installing a 24-hour answering service that gave callers information on tides, surf conditions, fishing, weather, and driving conditions. [16]

In the 1980s the National Seashore developed few new programs or methods of outreach to the public. On special occasions, the park staff arranged exhibits on the park or topics related to activities at the National Seashore. Chief Naturalist Robert Whistler often organized these events. In 1980 Whistler and other staff members sponsored a booth at Padre Staples Mall in celebration of the Year of the Coast. He again led the park staff for Public Lands Day in 1988 that recognized the 1986 Public Lands Clean Up Act. [17] In 1989 under the new Chief of Interpretation John Lujan, the staff set up special exhibits for Bayfest and the Ultimate Yacht Race Festivals in Corpus Christi. [18] A few special events also occurred in the 1980s. The most notable even took place in June 1987 when the National Seashore dedicated a new Visitor Information Center in Flour Bluff.

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Last Updated: 14-Jun-2005