“It was probably the broadest-based education program in modern U.S. history,” White said. “I was very proud of what we accomplished.”
White appointed Dallas billionaire Ross Perot to lead a special panel on education that developed some of the key changes. The no-pass, no-play initiative, which barred students from playing school sports if they were failing a class, was a politically tricky and unpopular move in a state crazy about its high school football. It had to survive a challenge in the state Supreme Court.
White underestimated the passionate resistance to no-pass, no-play that sparked protests and a few threats of violence.
“It was horrible,” White said. “I misread the intensity of it until I saw it for myself in West Texas. My security people thought I should go by myself: ‘Here’s my gun. You go.'”
A state district judge blocked the provision before the state Supreme Court ruled it was a legitimate function of the state’s goal to provide quality education. But White still had to defend the rule during his losing campaign in 1986.
“Leave it alone,” he implored state lawmakers as he left office in 1987. “Let’s be real: Anyone who can study a playbook can study a textbook. Americans didn’t get to the moon on a quarterback sneak.”
Lawmakers heeded his advice — and no-pass, no play remains the rule in Texas high school sports.
“He cared about Texas deeply,” Andrew White, one of the former governor’s three children, said Saturday. “He realized that this wasn’t about getting re-elected. This wasn’t about being popular. This was about making Texas a better place.”
White also pushed Texas to move further from its agricultural roots and ties to the oil economy by trying to attract new industries. During his term, dropping oil prices worldwide shook the state’s economy.
White considered himself the symbolic leader of new breed of Texan who embraced the emerging era of high technology and warned the state’s residents they would not find their future at the bottom of an oil well.
On his inauguration day, White dramatized his opposition to what he called the “privileged class” by walking a block in a cold rain to the Governor’s Mansion. Once there, he used gold-painted bolt cutters to cut a chain that had been strung across the front gate and shouted “Come on in,” to followers. Several hundred did, forcing White to stop them at the stairs leading up to the master bedroom.
White struggled with many of the same issues that have faced Texas governors for generations. Drought plagued West Texas, and a Christmas freeze in 1983 wiped out citrus crops and most of the winter vegetables in fields that normally employed thousands of workers.
Plunging oil prices walloped the state economy, and drug smuggling on the border led White to implore the federal government to help control the border with Mexico. He also pushed for Texas’ seat belt law, which went into effect in 1985.
White grappled with staggering unemployment on the Mexico border that was blamed on the poor economy, the devaluation of the peso and immigration.
“I learned it’s a lot harder to govern the state when the price of oil drops to $9 a barrel,” White said in 2011.
Despite the struggling state economy, White pushed for and won the big tax increases he needed to pay for education and roads, breaking a campaign pledge not to raise taxes.
“I asked for a tax increase and said, ‘Blame me,’ and you did,” White told state lawmakers on his way out of office. “So much for guts and glory. Whatever happens in the next four years, don’t blame me.”
As governor, White supported the state’s use of the death penalty. While Texas executed 20 inmates during his administration, White later said the death penalty was most distasteful thing I had to do” as governor.
By 2009, White had reservations about capital punishment. He urged lawmakers to reconsider its use and the risk that the state could send an innocent person to their death. White worked with the Innocence Project on behalf of wrongfully convicted inmates.
Mark Wells White Jr., was born in Henderson on March 17, 1940. His family moved to Houston where he attended public schools before attending Baylor University, where he earned degrees in business administration and law.
After several years as an assistant attorney general, White went into private practice. He was appointed secretary of state by Gov. Dolph Briscoe in 1973 and was elected state attorney general in 1979.
After returning to private law practice, White made a last stab at public office by running for governor again in the 1990 Democratic primary but was defeated by Ann Richards, who went on to become governor. He also went into private business as owner of a security company.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report from Houston.