Texas House Speakers Oral History Project -
Byron Tunnell. Photo by Bill Malone. Ben Barnes Papers, Texas State Library and Archives Commission; #1995/037-17.
The 58th Legislature's regular session, January 8 to May 24, 1963.
Born on March 7, 1925, in the East Texas city of Tyler, Byron M. Tunnell graduated from Tyler High School in 1943 and enlisted in the United States Navy Air Corps where he became a tail gunner in the European theater of World War II. Leaving the Navy in 1946, Tunnell attended Tyler Junior College and then Baylor University in Waco, where he received a law degree in 1952. Returning to Tyler, he rose to the position of Smith County assistant district attorney, earning a reputation as a formidable trial lawyer who argued a case before the United States Supreme Court.
Tunnell first won election to the Texas House of Representatives in 1956 as a Democrat representing Smith and Gregg counties, and was re-elected in 1958, 1960, and 1962. In his last session in the House, he was selected as speaker.
During his speakership, the Legislature created the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and transferred control of what would become the Padre Island National Seashore to the federal government. While he presided over the House, the Legislature also created the Texas Tourist Development Board and passed the Texas Regulatory Loan Act, popularly known as the "loan shark bill."
Tunnell also instituted rules aimed at making the sometimes-raucous House a more dignified deliberative body. The new rules limited access to the House floor during a session to representatives, senators, credentialed press members, and certain employees of the Legislature. Men admitted to the floor of the House were required to wear suits and ties, while food and beverages on the House floor were prohibited whether or not the House was in session. Tunnell also provided for members a House lounge and a chapel.
Tunnell won re-election to the House in 1964 and intended to seek reelection as speaker, but Gov. John Connally appointed him to fill a vacancy on the Texas Railroad Commission. Re-elected to the commission in his own right in 1966 and 1972, he rose to the position of commission chairman. A year later in 1973, Tenneco Inc., a Houston oil and gas corporation, hired him as vice president and lobbyist. He retired in 1990.
Governor George W. Bush in 1995 named Tunnell to the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. He died on March 7, 2000, in Emerald Bay on Lake Palestine.
– Interviewed by Michael Phillips