Chet Edwards discusses his time in politics and the lessons he learned from a lifetime of legislating, leading, and living boldly for the right reasons
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted for our December 2021 Living Legacy event. Chet graciously agreed to be our first guest in the hot seat, though, he did note that he hopes he won’t be the last living legacy. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with Chet throughout my time as a student in the journalism department at Baylor and then continuing that relationship through Baylor Line Foundation. Over the years, Chet has been an inspiration to me in how sacrificial he strives to be for students and how personally he connects with everyone who approaches him. I cannot be more grateful for Chet’s leadership in the Baylor Family, so, naturally, he was an obvious choice to begin our Living Legacy series with.
I’ve made a few small edits to this transcript for readability and clarity (and, for you dear reader, brevity — get a politician and a journalist in a room together and the janitor will be cleaning up before we’re done).
I hope you enjoy this interview. It was one of my favorites to do simply because of how giving, open, and fun Chet is to speak with. I felt like I was talking to the same person in preparation for the event and in the green room as I was talking to on stage. I hope that comes across and that you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
If you’d like to hear the interview in full, jump over to baylorline.com/chet.
Jonathon Platt: So, okay. Chet, I want to start back to the beginning of your political career, and I want to know what was the one word that would best describe how you felt when you found out you were going to Washington as a US Congressman?
Chet Edwards: Humbled.
To think that in our country, a middle-class kid with family that didn’t come from a political background or a lot of wealth would have that opportunity.
I’ll take a little legislative license here and use a second word: gratitude.
Grateful to all the mentors. From my parents, to my third-grade teacher who had me give my first political speech, bless her heart. To my high school teacher who sent me to Washington for a week and brought politics and government alive to me and changed my life in that way. And Congressman Olin Teague who encouraged me…
What did that victory and then the years of serving Central Texas in the United States Congress teach you about life?
That it is short. And the good Lord wants us to enjoy every single day to its fullest. This is the day that Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. And that we all, in our DNA and/or our faith just want to leave this world knowing we maybe left it a little bit better. Now I’m looking at a lot of faces here who’ve made Baylor a better place. And it just so happened in my life that public service became a way that maybe I could try to make a difference in people’s lives.
I would say, as I look back on it, the greatest single person I ever served with of the thousands of elected officials I served with in the Texas Senate and in Washington, the one I admire more than any other was Congressman John Lewis, who led the Civil Rights March in Selma, Alabama on March 7th in 1965 for the Voting Rights Act. He did that as a young man in his twenties.
And what I loved about John is not only was he going to forever be a part of American history, but there was not one ounce of hate in his body, his mind, or soul. Passionate about issues. Went to prison 40 times. Been nearly beat the death by billy clubs and Alabama State Troopers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. I just relished getting to know John well over the years, and what an honor that was. In conversations with him, I did not find any hate. And so I think I learned more about life from John Lewis than from any other elected official I ever served with. And not only not hating, but I learned from John not to give up hope.
[And even] when I get in those darkest moments, I think if John Lewis, a black child who was born in Troy, Alabama—nearly killed in his 20s for marching for fundamental rights for World War II black veterans to be able to vote—if John Lewis couldn’t give up on our country and didn’t give up on our country, if John Lewis could have hope for our future, then I’m not going to let today’s partisan harsh, ugly politics take my hope away from me in my belief that our country has made it through a civil war and two world wars and a Great Depression we’ll make it through again. So, I just really… There’s so many memories I cherish, but the one person I respect and admired and learned from more than any other was Congressman John Lewis.
And I think one other thought that I sometimes share with my Baylor students when I have the honor of teaching, is that the secret John said, maybe not secret to some of you, but the secret to many Americans or the key to the success of the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties was that it was built on the foundation of Christian love.
They knew their audience wasn’t black America. Black America was already with them. It was white Americans that really didn’t understand what racism and segregation were truly all about. And if that was their audience and if they returned hate with hate, they wouldn’t win over that audience. And so they really were dedicated to Christian love. So, I’d say to any young Baylor student these days that if you want to be an agent of social change and good in our society, go back and study the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties, study John Lewis’s life and learn about the role model of Christian love being the best model for social change. And how much does our country need that kind of role model today?
How do you think that Representative Lewis’s leadership and influence on you played out in your legislating? How do you think you changed the area that you represented because of that influence?
I think civil rights is one of the reasons I was drawn into public service. I was inspired that people of good faith from all political backgrounds could come together to make our country a better place, a more perfect union. And John just reminded me of the importance of civil rights. And I think he made me more aware of its vital role in our society. And I just, honestly, I can’t even count the ways that John enriched my life. And some of you here met him. He came to Waco several times. In addition to the far more important things, I’m grateful to John because he came and campaigned for me three times in Waco, and I might not have gotten reelected if it had not been for John’s help. But he also helped me understand that a white person, no matter how hard he or she might try, you’re never going to fully understand what it’s like to feel that harsh sense of discrimination because of the color of one’s skin.
I love the word you used, enriched. That John Lewis enriched your lives. In preparing for this interview and reflecting on past interactions with you — being a student in a class where you lectured and hearing about your work across campus — I’ve realized how very accessible you were as public figure and still are today. Why do you find it important to be so accessible to people?
Well, a number of professors teach it at Baylor. They’ve made it their calling to inspire young people. And since I’ve been out of Congress, the greatest single privilege I’ve had is to be able to teach part-time at Baylor. My passion is if I can just convince one Baylor student not to become a cynic about our democracy, then maybe I’ve justified some of the space I’ve taken up in this world. Democracy is not a spectator sport as you all know. We the people have got to be involved in it. And if we allow the young generation to become cynics about our democracy, then our democracy won’t last.
And so it’s just been a privilege for me to teach Baylor students and to try to try to convince them, whatever their political background is. I don’t have a monopoly on wisdom. I said to you earlier, I never could explain black holes in outer space or the idea of an infinite universe. If there’s not an end, explain that to me. Or if there is an end what’s after the end of the universe. If I can’t explain those things and I struggle a little bit with college calculus, I have no reason to think that I should have a monopoly on wisdom.
In your time from when you were 30 years old, through your time in both the Texas and the US legislature, and even today, you’ve probably interacted with dozens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of human lives. Is there an interaction with one of your constituents that you remember most vividly?
The widow of John David Fry, Malia Fry. He was a young Marine Gunnery Sergeant born and raised in Lorena, just a few minutes south of where we are now. Was seven days from coming home from Iraq to his wife Malia and their three children all under the age of 10. Had diffused over 70 bombs that could have killed hundreds of American lives during his tour of duty in Iraq. And he didn’t have to do another thing. But a call came in seven days before he was coming home that there was a bomb—three bombs. There were three bombs planted in a key intersection at Al Anbar Province in Iraq. And it could have put a lot of American lives in jeopardy, and he raised his hand and volunteered to go out and diffuse those bombs. He said, “Let me do it. Don’t put some new person that. I’ve been doing this, let me do this.”
So, he goes out, he diffuses the first bomb, then second bomb. Gets to the third bomb and had no way of knowing that it was booby trapped. And so when he defused it, the bomb exploded and killed him. In that moment, John David saved two other Marine’s lives. And when I found out about that story, we came back, passed a bill to rename the Lorena Post Office after John David Fry. And that was well intentioned, but I’ll never forget speaking, and his three children and his widow were about closer to us than we are right now. And I looked in the faces of those three children and just thought, surely our country can do more for these children than to name a post office after their dad. And so I spent the next several days thinking about what could we do? And finally thought, no matter what happened to Malia, let’s at least see that her children can go to college. She faces tough financial times, let’s see that they can go to college.
So I go back to Washington, and ran, two days later, into speaker Nancy Pelosi in Statuary Hall. She and I had worked closely together on Veterans’ Issues. A lot of people don’t know she’s really been a champion of veterans, whatever you think of her politics. And I told her about the idea of providing a full GI college scholarship to every military child who’s lost a mother or father in service to our country. With the Speaker’s help, three weeks later, the John David Fry Bill was the John David Fry Law.
I went home after President Obama signed the bill into law. We were raising our kids in McLean, Virginia, and I went home to Lea Ann that night and just said, “If a Mack truck runs over me tomorrow, I just want you to know every one of our tough 15 campaigns was worth it. If we had just not been able to do anything but that one thing.”
So after the bill was signed, you would serve in Congress for two more years. You’d accomplished this pinnacle of your legislative career, how did that interaction with Ms. Fry and those achievements that you were able to make, how did those affect the rest of your legislative career?
It’s affected the rest of my life. I’ll spend the rest of my life in any small way I can, as many of you have. Trying to make a difference for military kids for veterans. We live in a country now where 1% of Americans put on our nation’s uniform and fight our wars and make all the sacrifices while the rest of us might be getting tax cuts while they’re getting deployed three or four times to Iraq. And knowing the Fry family, seeing their sacrifice, as well as the sacrifice of others that I had the honor of representing at Fort Hood, just given me a profound sense of gratitude to these families, whether you support a particular war or not. I hope we will always honor the warriors who do what our country ask them to.
How can someone who’s not a legislator, how can someone in daily life honor that 1%?
Thank a veteran. If you walk past them on the street, you want to take it the extra step, think about going out to the Waco VA Hospital and finding a way to let the veterans know that their service to country is not taken for granted and not forgotten.
You’ve already talked about how important it is to be in the classrooms with Baylor students. I was one of those Baylor students. I’m curious, what have you noticed about the change in Baylor students? How have they changed and how do you think that they’re impacting the world differently?
I think what hasn’t changed about Baylor students is they inspire me. They give me hope in this challenging world. They’re bright, they’re inquisitive. And I think I find more what hasn’t changed about Baylor students than what has. But I find a lot of Baylor students aren’t thinking about going into public service, government service because of the cynicism toward government and politicians and all things political. But far more than my generation, when I talk to Baylor students one on one, I find that even if they haven’t decided what their career is going to be, they want to make a difference in this world.
And that’s why teaching at Baylor has been so such a joy. And one of the many reasons why I’m so grateful to all of you in this crowd for what you have done for Baylor and your leadership and speaking out for Baylor and challenging Baylor. Every time I walk on campus, I’m inspired.
You’ve been a guide and a mentor to Baylor students. You mentioned John Lewis earlier. Who are some of those people that influenced you both in growing up and then throughout your adulthood? And maybe even to this day still?
I’ll never forget Bernard Rapoport when he was given the Horatio Alger Award. One of 12 in the country given and awarded in DC. Each speaker had five minutes and 11 of the 12 mentioned a teacher by name who shaped their lives. And I was shocked and appalled, not one of them mentioned a member of Congress by name who had influenced their life. But as I look back on my life, it makes me realize that the importance of what he said that night, that I don’t believe in a self-made man, that our parents make us, our teachers make us, our Sunday school teachers make us, our pastors make us, our neighbors make us. And I’m just so fortunate that people have mentored me and took enough of their time to believe in me and give me an opportunity to do things I never dreamed I’d be able to do.
There’s no way I can fully honor my parents and the people who mentored me. So many mentored me along the way, but I can try to at least honor them by maybe in a small way, mentoring others. And the kindest thing any student could ever say to a professor or mentor is, “You impacted my life, even in a small way.” That’s what teaching is all about.
I want to know how you and your wife, Lea Ann, stay grounded — as a couple, as a family. What are those things that you do in your daily lives that keep you connected to each other, that keep you loving each other well, and keep you able to love others as well and as deeply as the two of you do?
I think I realized a long time ago, Lea Ann was the love of my life. We’ve been married 29 years now. And that’s asking for a lot to marry an Aggie Democrat in Central Texas. So she’s put up with a lot. But somewhere along the way, I learned that careers come and go. But somewhere along the way, I realized that a lot of people have been extremely successful in their careers, whether it’s in politics or business or education or healthcare—have been terrible failures in their family. But to love someone and to be loved is really the greatest accomplishment in life. And I’ve been blessed to love and be loved. To love my wife and be loved by my wife.
Now, you talked about grounded. What she would do to me, if I came back from a muckity muck meeting at the White House and got home and kind of talked about this big important meeting I just came from. It didn’t matter which day of the week, it just so happened… That was the day I had to take the garbage out for her. So that’s how she kept me grounded.
And at the end of most classes, I’ll say, “My one piece of advice in your life, is come up with your version of the trampoline rule.” And I look at their faces and they’re like, “Hey, Edwards, have you lost it? What? trampoline rule?” So I explain that when I was in Congress, in Washington, I could go to dinners, seven nights a week. Important people and nice meals. But I always asked myself, was going to that political dinner more important than going home to McLean, Virginia, to Lea Ann and jumping on the trampoline with JT and Garrison, my two sons who were just kids at the time.
I think it’s the best single decision I made in my 20 years in Congress was to have a trampoline rule.
My last question is what has been the most challenging part of your story and having experienced that, what advice would you give a Baylor freshman or a recent graduate just starting out in her career?
I think the most challenging situation I faced was at the age of 25 coming within 186 votes of beating my former economics professor Phil Graham, and becoming the youngest member of the US Congress ever elected from the state of Texas. But I’ve shared with my Baylor students that I’ve learned a lot more in life from my failures than from my successes. I think I’d want to share with Baylor students, don’t be afraid of failure.
I always like to ask at least one controversial question per interview. So here we go… You and I are going to go eat at the definitive, absolute best, no contest, Mexican food restaurant in Waco. Which one is that?
Oh my gosh.
We need it on the record.
Well, La Fiesta for me, but it does make me think. One time I went to a troop return out at Fort Hood and during multiple troop deployments. And I went to… I’ll just never forget this young soldier. He was probably 22 years old and he was sitting next to his wife that he hadn’t seen for a year. And I said, “Soldier, next to your wife, what did you miss more than anything during your deployment?” He said, “Taco Bell, sir.” So I guess I have to put Taco Bell second.
Before we got started, you gave me five songs. They were:
- “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong
- “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland
- “How Great Thou Art”
- “The Dance” by Garth Brooks
- “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”
What does this collection tell someone about you?
That life is special. And the good Lord has given us just a short period of time on this earth. And we ought to make the most of every single day. And instead of worrying about the little things every day, realize what really counts and try to make a little difference in this world for others. The command of love thy neighbor as thyself. Wasn’t a command to having good feelings about our neighbor, it was a command action, to make a difference. So whether it’s through public service or teaching or the work you do at the Baylor Line Foundation, I’m always inspired when I meet people who commit their lives to trying to make it a difference for others.
And, finally, what are you truly, deeply, and wholly grateful for right now, in this season?
For the privilege for all of us to be in God’s world. To have the opportunity, to love someone and to be loved by someone. And that’s coming from someone who’s going to be a grandfather for the first time next week. And, look, I’ve had a lot of titles and when I was 30 in the Texas Senate, that was pretty fun to get your name in the paper and get some attention. It didn’t take very long to realize that’s not the source of happiness in this world. But other than the trampoline rule, if I had any advice I’d share with the Baylor students, that I had the honor to meet with is, if you can look back on your life and you can say, you loved and you loved and were loved, and you made a small difference in someone’s life, then you led a very meaningful life. And we all ought to realize every day is a blessing and make the most of every moment.
*Originally Published: Spring 2022 Baylor Line Living