Among the challenges of a long life is that you can outlive your fame.
So let me tell you about Aaron Robert Schwartz, who died Friday in Houston at 92. The cause of death was cardiac arrest. Schwartz had suffered from a combination of health challenges in his latter years.
If you’re under a certain age, you’ve probably never heard of Aaron Robert Schwartz. And if you’re over a certain age you might not recognize the name. You knew him as Babe.
A.R. “Babe” Schwartz was a Democratic state senator from Galveston who made his mark in the Texas Capitol in a different time. He was a liberal back when Texas was a two-party state within one party: liberal Democrats and conservative Democrats.
Schwartz, a Jewish Aggie, came to the Legislature in 1955 and left — ousted, actually, and repurposed toward life as a lobbyist — in 1980 when he lost to Republican J.E. “Buster” Brown of Lake Jackson in the Reagan wave.
In the Senate, the legend of Babe was built in part on his battles with another man known by his nickname. “The Bull of the Brazos” was what conservative Democratic Sen. Bill Moore of Bryan was called, and the two went at it on the Senate floor and elsewhere enough times and with enough passion to become a main event under the Capitol dome.
Former state Rep. Glen Maxey, D-Austin, was a Senate aide during those years and remembers Schwartz as the silver-haired and silver-tongued voice of “the little guy.”
“He had a quick wit. He was bombastic. He was eminently quotable, and he was able to distill the issues of the day in terms so everyday citizens understood why it affected them,” Maxey said Friday, recalling that Schwartz and Moore “not only sparred verbally but I witnessed the pushing and shoving and fisticuffs on a couple of occasions between the two.”
Schwartz was born in his beloved Galveston on July 17, 1926. An Aggie by undergrad training and a lawyer by UT training, Schwartz ran for the Texas House in 1950. He lost. But in 1954 the people of Galveston saw the error of their ballot-box ways and sent him to the House. He also lost his first Senate race in 1958 but won in 1960.
Post-Senate, Schwartz remained a Capitol presence as a lobbyist, often as a center of attention and conversation. Everyone knew Babe. Babe knew everyone. And he liked to gab, a gift noted in 1989 when a Texas Senate resolution marking his birthday said he was an “outspoken liberal” and a “wordsmith” whose “words came tumbling out in fury and fun.”
The words inspired actions that made a difference for Texas. He championed civil rights, desegregation, public education, care facilities for challenged Texans as well as protection of natural resources, especially in his beloved coastal areas. Schwartz helped craft the Texas Open Beaches Act that guarantees public access to those precious areas.
In 1979, his last legislative session, he was a member of the Killer Bees who hid out to block action on a measure altering the state’s presidential primary system.
Son John Schwartz, a New York Times journalist, wrote a great piece in 2013 (“Reporter returns to Texas Capitol, where father’s voice still rings”) about covering the Texas Capitol where his dad’s legend lives on. John Schwartz noted that his dad was still around the building as a lobbyist.
“I could make fun of him for going through the revolving door,” the younger Schwartz wrote, “but I could never come up with anything better than the line he started using after he had brain surgery some years back: ‘My doctor said I didn’t have enough of my brain to practice law — but it was alright to lobby.’”
Friday, in announcing his dad’s death, John Schwartz told me: “Whenever I meet people with a Texas connection and a sense of history and when they find out I’m Babe Schwartz’s son, they have almost always said, ‘Babe Schwartz? He’s my hero!’ And I always say, ‘Thank you. He’s mine, too.’ ”
In September 2001, Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka, a former Schwartz aide, wrote this: “During the sixties and seventies the best entertainment the Capitol had to offer was the oratory of Galveston Sen. A.R. ‘Babe’ Schwartz.” Burka cited this Babe-ian broadside against legislation he perceived as anti-consumer: “A bill written by liars, cheats and thieves for the benefit of liars, cheats and thieves.”
Over the top? Maybe. But just as likely probably not.
A couple of things about Schwartz’s name: First, he gave himself his middle name. The son of a Polish immigrant dad, Schwartz enlisted in the Navy during World War II. Tired of writing “NMI” (no middle initial) on military paperwork, he decided he needed a middle name,
“So he invented one,” son John Schwartz has written. “At first he thought of Steven, but decided to change that after visualizing the unfortunate acronym, So he chose the name Robert and his initials became ARS.”
And he kind of gave himself the single-word name by which he became known. As a kid, his family called him “Baby” because he was the youngest of two sons. Later in life, he reported that at age 14, displaying the rhetorical skills for which he’d become famous, he had declared he’d no longer tolerate being called “Baby.” Somehow, “Babe” stuck.
And that’s good because A.R. “Baby” Schwartz wouldn’t have quite fit for a legislator who made his name speaking up — in memorable ways — for what he thought was right.
He is survived by wife, Marilyn, and four sons, twins Bob and Dick of Houston, John of New Jersey and Tom of Sarasota, Florida; the four sons’ wives; brother Steven Schwartz of Galveston; sister Phyllis Milstein of Houston; 12 grandkids and three great-grandkids.
And many, many Texans who continue to benefit from the fact that, long ago, we once had a legislator known simply as Babe.
Funeral arrangements were pending late Friday. He will be buried in the Texas State Cemetery, where, in death as in life, he’ll be one of a kind.