Q: I’ve heard of this or that famous person being made an honorary Texan, but who gets to decide who makes the cut? And how does one qualify?
Mike Konczal, Plano
A: Of the many flattering labels one might be given to a person—dame, grande dame, world champion, supreme potentate, “world’s greatest purveyor of fine advice and astute observation,” and so on—the term “Texan” is perhaps the most awe-inspiring. inspiring.
After all, being a Texan means being celebrated — or at least recognized — around the world. Even in the farthest corners of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, South America, Antarctica, and the lost continent of Lemuria, you’ll have a hard time finding a soul unfamiliar with the Lone Star State.
A few years ago, for example, while doing his best to complete a transaction with a seaside coconut seller on a remote island off the Yucatán Peninsula, the Texanist tried, as is his habit, to communicate his place of origin to the bewildered youth man through a bad man broken Spanish, a slew of animated gestures, a variety of grunts, and the syrupy slow repetition of the word “Texas.” If the patient Coconut seller finally lit up and responded with three solemn shots—Bang bang bang– from his two-finger pistols and let go with an enthusiastic “Texas!” the Texanist knew a breakthrough had been made. Later that same afternoon, when the same young man sold the Texan a cold and refreshing mango, he once again greeted this proud son of the Lone Star State with a spirited “Texas!”
Sorry for the digression, but you see what the Texanist says. Wherever Texans go, people know where they came from. Or at least a rough stereotype of where they came from. Global familiarity is not the only advantage of being a Texan, however. We also enjoy an oversized—Texas-sized, some would say—pride in our Texanness. Do Connecticuters, Illinoisans, Michiganers, New Mexicans, Oklahomans, Oregonians, or Dakotaners of Northern or Southern persuasion so unashamedly revel in the sense of identity they derive from association with those particular places? The Texan doubts it.
Because Texas is considered such an extraordinary place, receiving the honorary degree of Texan is considered a great privilege by many non-Texans. Do other states even grant such symbolic citizenship? Is there such a thing as an honorary Oklahoman? Before researching this column, the Texanist would have bet against it. However, after dealing with the matter, the Texan realizes that he would have lost such a bet. Oklahoma actually awards honorary degrees for Oklahoma. Ask Carol Channing. And many other states, too, although the Texanist can’t help but wonder who the hell longs to be called an honorary Connecticuter.
To pull this thread, the Texanist did a little Googling and was able to informally determine that Texas honorary citizenship is far more popular than honorary citizenship of any other state. For example, “Honorary Oklahoman” gets 524 results. “Honorary Florida” shows 992 links. “Honorary Californians”, 5,950. Interestingly, “honorary Connecticuter” pops up. “Honorary Texan”, on the other hand, results in 33,200 Texan hits.
This encouragingly popular tradition of naming people honorary Texans reportedly dates back to the 1930s, and over the practice’s nearly century-long existence, many well-known individuals have received this honor. Unfortunately, there is no main catalog of recipients. But if such a list existed, it would include the likes of Chet Atkins, Mexican comedic actor Cantinflas, Phil Collins, Russell Crowe, Italian-born sculptor Pompeo Coppini, Bob Dylan, Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi from the 19 posthumous appointment, presented in 2011 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, to recognize a man who “was a defender of liberty, not unlike those who died at the Alamo”), Rudy Giuliani, Bob Hope, General Douglas MacArthur, Shirley MacLaine, Don McLean, Chuck Norris, Sarah Palin, Arnold Palmer, Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini, Prince Michael of Kent and Princess Michael of Kent (aka Michael George Charles Franklin and Baroness Marie-Christine Anna Agnes Hedwig Ida von Reibnitz), Red Skelton , Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 100th Battalion” which consisted of Texas troops), the parents of Jerry Jeff Walker and John Wayne (a we itere posthumous honor given in 2015, 36 years after the Duke moved on to that great herd of cattle in the sky).
As he made his way through some of the Texan honorary records housed in the Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives and Library building in Austin, the Texanist paused when he came across the name of Robin Doughty, a scholar in the field of geography who taught the Texanist the University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s. In the same boxes, the Texanist also came across the name of one of his professional ancestors, Iowa-born Abigail Van Buren, the original “Dear Abby.” It’s a small world, Awestruck thought in Austin.
Famous people and former Texan college professors do not make up the majority of volunteer Texans, however. In fact, such illustrious personalities make up only a small fraction of the total. There are tons of everyday volunteer Texans who have received the award while flying under the radar.
To get an idea of the numbers, it’s helpful to know that Gov. Greg Abbott has signed more than 1,000 honorary Texanhoods since 2015. Among this crowd are undoubtedly children born out-of-state to Texas parents or children born out-of-state who were adopted by Texas parents, newly arrived residents wishing to expedite the assimilation process, visiting dignitaries, and fans of Texas who are there are celebrating notable birthdays.
However, a gubernatorial decree is not the only way to become an honorary Texan. The two chambers of the Texas legislature, working separately or jointly, may also bestow the honor by resolution on an individual — although the governor may be required to sign such laws to make them official. So did Phil Collins, country singer Leona Williams (who actually recorded an album titled Honorary Texan) and running back Ricky Williams became honorary Texans, among many others.
So, to answer the first part of your question, Mr. Konczal, it is mostly the governor who decides, sometimes with a nudge from the legend. As for what qualifies someone to be an honorary Texan, well that’s a bit easier because there don’t seem to be any guidelines. The only ironclad rule seems to be that the candidate hasn’t lived much of their life in Texas.
If one finds even these minimal criteria too difficult, it should be noted that there are some less formal routes to Texan honorific, although these do not carry the weight of any sort of official state imprimatur. The Texanist speaks of credentials and articles acquired through the novelty trade—semi-official-looking certificates, bumper stickers, T-shirts, and the like, bearing the phrase “Honorary Texan,” often in a shabby, mock Old West A Texas flag is reproduced in writing or adorned thereon.
Or, if you have the resources, you can make a Hollywood feature film set in Texas and be named an honorary Texan by the Alamo Instagram account, as was recently done by the writer-director of this year’s well-received film Revenge, Massachusetts-born actor BJ Novak, formerly in television The office.
That’s how it all works, Mr. Konczal. Thanks for the letter. And let the Texanist conclude by noting that while being made an honorary Texan confers no real powers or privileges in the real world — just like a ceremonial key to a city is not paired with an actual lock and does not permit it Giving holders access to places they can’t already get to — Texanists feel it’s still preferable to be called honorary Oklahomans. Or even the world’s first honorary Connecticuter.
Have a question for the Texanist? He is always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.