- By Ken Herman American-Statesman Staff
When it comes to state government, Harry Bradley knows where the bodies are buried.
For 23 years, he was superintendent at the Texas State Cemetery in East Austin. He supervised workers, he took turns at the mower and the edger, and he took care of the needs of folks dealing with a recently departed loved one, often one of some prominence and importance.
And, perhaps most importantly, Bradley was a good enough amateur politician to navigate among the big egos of the professional politicians with whom he had often had to deal.
“It was his life,” said longtime friend Joe Turner. “He took care of the West Austin rich and famous but he also took care of the people who worked there. He cared about the people that worked there, and I guess that’s what got him into the mess.”
The “mess” hit the fan last October, when Bradley was escorted from the cemetery and fired. That’s also when Turner became Bradley’s lawyer amid an investigation that ended with no charges. After 23 years during which Bradley says he was at the cemetery almost every day, his first day back there since he was canned was this past Wednesday when I talked him into going there for a photo to go with this column.
“Nice,” he said at the north gate when I asked him how it felt to be back. “They need to mow the grass though.”
He stood still for the photos but declined to go beyond the gate.
Now a robust 75, Bradley was among the last of a breed that once had many of its members ensconced in various nooks and crannies of state government: Bullock people.
Bob Bullock died in 1999. He had been state comptroller from 1975 to 1991 and was a powerful lieutenant governor from 1991 through 1998. Bullock was a man of his times, times that were far different than our current times. He carved a life and career of excess and success into legendary status. The state history museum is named for him because the state history museum exists because of him.
Bradley was a Bullock guy, including a stint as a top volunteer in Bullock’s lite guv campaign. Prior to that, Bradley had been a legislative staffer, aide to Gov. Mark White and honcho of varying ranks at several state agencies. Bradley recalled that in the early 1990s Bullock called and said he and then-Gov. George W. Bush and then-Speaker Pete Laney were “going to fix up the State Cemetery, and you’re the new superintendent.”
Bradley says he had one question for Bullock: “I said, ‘I never heard of the place, where is it?’”
As was generally the case when something caught Bullock’s attention, he was the driving force for the impressive effort that transformed the cemetery from embarrassment to treasure. Part and parcel of the project was creating a three-member State Cemetery Committee to run the place under the aegis of the state’s General Services Commission.
Things changed in 2015 when the Texas Legislature moved oversight of the cemetery from the Texas Facilities Commission (the renamed General Services Commission) to the State Preservation Board, which also oversees the Capitol, Bullock State History Museum and Governor’s Mansion. House Bill 2206 also reduced the Cemetery Committee’s autonomy.
Big ol’ mistake, according to Bradley, who says he’s now speaking out about his firing because of his concern about the cemetery’s future.
“They have a set way of doing things — and it is old and it is bureaucratic and it is slow,” he said of the State Preservation Board. “As I said one time to one of them over there: ‘How many people you ever buried?’ None. ‘How many graves you ever dug?’ None. ‘In other words, you don’t know a damned thing about what we do out here.’”
Let’s pause here to note that Bradley knows some folks will hear his warnings as the grunts of a disgruntled fired employee.
“My point is not Harry Bradley,” he said. “I got food in the ice box. That’s not my problem. My problem is Bullock wanted a committee to run the thing because it can make decisions faster.”
“Besides,” Bradley added, “the Preservation Board doesn’t give a damn about it. … It’s just another building to them. And that’s why I’m upset.”
Benjamin Hanson of Austin, current chair of the Cemetery Committee, says the transition to the new structure “has been both productive and constructive.”
“While change is always hard and, as a result of the legislation, the (committee) lost a bit of its prior autonomy and span of control, especially around budget and personnel, the relationship with SPB and its leadership, and the interplay between our respective bodies, has been genuinely positive and something that we’re all very proud of,” said Hanson, who was appointed to the committee by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2015 after the new structure was put in place.
Bradley knows he can’t raise his concerns without talking about his firing last year after two state-owned vehicles disappeared from the cemetery. Turned out, as he expected, an employee had taken them. Instead of immediately reporting the theft, Bradley says he spent two days looking for the trucks and the employee he correctly suspected had taken them. Failing, he eventually filed the report and police found the trucks. The employee was fired but not charged with any offense.
“The reason I didn’t turn it in the first day was basically — and it’s not a very good answer. It’s good for me, but it’s not a very good answer — is I never had a better, harder-working employee than this guy,” Bradley said, claiming his intent was to “try to at least smooth it out just a little” for the employee.
“So when I turned it in, all hell broke loose,” he said.
“Hell” in this case involved Texas Department of Public Safety troopers who showed up at his State Cemetery office in late September or early October, notified him he’d been suspended and escorted him from the grounds.
A registered letter dated Oct. 5, sealed the end of the Bradley era at the State Cemetery: “This letter serves to communicate that your at-will employment with the State Preservation Board is hereby terminated effective immediately. The recent circumstances existing at the State Cemetery have led the agency to lose trust and confidence in the performance of your job. The agency believes new leadership is needed going forward.”
The letter didn’t elaborate on “the recent circumstances” but referred to the agency policy manual that says reasons for termination include “any conduct which promotes a lack of or loss of confidence in the agency and/or its employee.”
State Preservation Board Executive Director Roderick Welch ended the letter with this: “The agency recognizes and appreciates your many years of state service.”
Don Clemmer, director of special prosecutions for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, said a late 2017 meeting involving the Public Integrity Unit and DPS investigators resulted in a decision that there was no criminal case to pursue. Clemmer also said in 2013 or 2014 the DA’s office looked into Bradley’s time sheets. That also resulted in no charges.
Welch had little to say about Bradley’s firing from the $138,000-a-year job. He declined to expand on the “recent circumstance.” The job posting period for finding a replacement has expired, and one could be selected soon.
As I sat in Bradley’s home and listened to his story as he periodically chomped on an unlit cigar, I realized the challenge he faces in not trying to sound like the proverbial former employee who thinks nothing will be as good without him. Bradley also understands that and says his concern about the cemetery’s future is sincere.
“I answered the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They’re not going to do it,” he said of the new regime. “I’ve buried people on Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas. I buried people at 7 o’clock at night. I buried a guy one time it was 26 degrees and the wind was blowing. Shortest funeral we ever had.”
He says he’s done more than 700 State Cemetery funerals.
At the Preservation Board, Welch says things are on track, including work on a master plan aimed at taking the cemetery many years into the future.
Says Bradley: “They had to get rid of me sooner or later.”
As we stood at the cemetery gate, I sought acknowledgement that Bradley eventually will return to the placid place at which he long worked.
“You mean forever?” he asked me about his return. “That’s the intent.”
Bradley’s approved for burial in the cemetery’s Republic Hill, Section 1, Row H, Number 13.