The Road to the Future

Howard Wolf, '59

Howard Wolf pulled his smart phone out of his pants pocket, held it out and considered it. “Austin to Beijing in a nanosecond,” he said.

Wolf had come to this moment of clarity during his months leading something called the Texas Transportation Restructure Council. The mission of the council was to remake the Texas Department of Transportation, a complete structural reform that had never before been undertaken. After a storied career in corporate law with Fulbright & Jaworski leading to a string of business successes and public service, Wolf had accepted the voluntary post at the invitation of his good friend, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, insisting on a token salary of one dollar a year.

Wolf’s council discovered in a series of reports critical of the Department of Transportation that Texans were somehow going to have to find between $300 billion and $350 billion to keep pace with road construction and maintenance needs in the state through 2030.

The council was convinced that neither taxpayers nor the environment could tolerate a culture of perpetual road building developed over generations by a management top-heavy with engineers. Without wholesale changes in the leadership structure and without a vision embracing technological innovation, the council decided, Texas was on its way to California-like highway gridlock in all of its major cities.

No change could begin, the council concluded, without members of the Legislature abandoning crisis budgeting, the pouring of billions into the transportation budget to address road problems in the short term to mollify agitated constituents and shore up their reelection bids.

In January 2011, Wolf delivered a plan to the state Transportation Commission that, if fully implemented, would transform what is arguably the state’s most powerful agency, with its $9 billion annual budget and a payroll of eleven thousand.

The report was something else, something more. It was a glimpse of someone at the age of seventy-five making a breathtaking run at the future. Wolf had issued a challenge to Texans to reimagine transportation. A halt to the endless paving and inevitable gridlock and planning that accounts for the way technology will increasingly connect us.

 “The problem we have since the invention of the wheel is the inability to rise above it and see what the next big thing is, even as it’s being developed,” Wolf said, with a twentieth-floor view of Austin behind him. “We always seem to be planning as if we believe we’ve reached the apex of our achievement. We always forget that the only constant is change.”

Wolf gained this edge on the future by understanding the past. Wolf likes to say that he is a product of genetics, but that shortchanges the most important story in his life.

Wolf’s grandparents were Russian Jews who wanted to make sure a son of promise was not destroyed by the vicious pogroms that set the stage for the Russian Revolution. Turned away at Ellis Island in 1910 and put on a tramp steamer eventually headed back to Europe with a load of cotton, Wolf’s father jumped ship in the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston Island.

An illegal immigrant for seven years, Wolf’s father joined the Army in 1917 at the outset of American involvement in the First World War. At a swearing in, a judge in San Antonio told Wolf and some of the other men that citizenship was their reward for volunteering. It was the proudest moment of his life, his son said.

After knocking around for a few years, Wolf’s father set up a small oilfield supply company in the little West Texas town of McCamey. Wolf married a woman whose father was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. Their son, Howard, was born in 1935.

As a member of the only Jewish family in a town of three thousand, Wolf developed an instinct for fitting in, although he says he can never remember a time when anybody in town made an issue of their religion. Clearly, no one questioned the family’s love of country.

Looking back on it, Wolf said his father’s zeal for America made his choice of studying the foundation upon which his country was based an easy one. Wolf’s choice of school was no tougher.

“In those days when you wanted to go to college, everybody wanted to go east,” he said. “For a boy from West Texas going east to college was going to the University of Texas. That was as prestigious as anything I could ever imagine achieving.”

Wolf was a fine student, popular, and at one time the president of the school’s Interfraternity Council, his longtime friend and Austin attorney Richard Keeton said. At the end of his second year of law school, friends persuaded Wolf to run for president of the student body.

Keeton, then an undergraduate and the son of Page Keeton, the powerful dean of the Law School, was Wolf’s opponent.

“He beat my ass, did he tell you that? He loves to rub it in,” Keeton said, following it with a gust of laughter. “Seriously, he’s one of my closest friends and somebody, I think, who symbolizes everything that UT Law School stands for.”

Because of Keeton’s father, Wolf also came to stand for everything the Law School aspired to be.

In the months before he graduated in 1959, Wolf had made up his mind to practice law somewhere close to his West Texas home. A law school friend of his in charge of finding good candidates for his Houston firm to recruit on campus begged Wolf to apply to make him look good.

Wolf’s interview, his friend later told him, put him at the very top of the list of candidates. But like the other top law firms in Houston, his friend told Wolf his employer had no intention of hiring a Jew.

There had been other Jewish law school graduates at UT, but until Wolf none had taken their story to Dean Keeton.

“I told him I didn’t think that I had been applying for this job on religious grounds. I had never experienced right-in-your-face anti-Semitism,” Wolf said. “He didn’t say a word. He just listened.”

What Keeton did after Wolf left was to summon the faculty liaisons to the five Houston law firms to make clear that unless their unwritten and pernicious policy was abandoned they would no longer be welcome on campus.

Leon Jaworski, a partner with what was then known as Fulbright, Crooker, Freeman, Bates & Jaworski, was the first to relent. Jaworski, who would gain renown in the early 1970s as the Watergate special prosecutor, got word to Keeton that if a qualified Jewish candidate were to come to Houston, his firm would hire him.

Keeton’s emissary, Professor Kenneth Woodward, suggested to Wolf without exactly saying it that it would be good for all concerned if Wolf agreed to be the qualified candidate.

By the time Richard Keeton had graduated and gone to work for a law firm in Houston, the issue of Wolf’s faith had been buried by his performance.

“All you had to say was the name Howard,” Keeton said. “Everybody knew who you were talking about. He’s not your typical lawyer.”

Wolf’s reputation at Fulbright grew so large that the firm was reluctant to let him go. When they learned that he was considering retiring in 1998 so that he and his wife, Glenys, could raise their young twins, Everett and Elliott, in Austin, the partners convinced Wolf to stay on another five years in their Austin office.

With the move, Wolf offered his help in Austin to David Dewhurst, whose Houston energy investment company, Falcon Seaboard, was a client and who, in November of 1998, had been elected Texas Land Commissioner. Dewhurst made Wolf the head of his transition team.

In 2003, Dewhurst appointed his campaign treasurer a citizen member of the Sunset Advisory Commission and reappointed him to a second two-year term in 2005.

Lawrence Sager, who became dean of the School of Law in 2006, said Wolf was among the first alumni to meet with him. His respect for Wolf grew after hearing the Page Keeton story.

“The longevity of his vigor, the clarity of his vision, and his command of a broad range of policy issues are what is remarkable about Howard,” Sager said. “In many ways it is the most exciting aspect of UT Law, seeing extraordinary alumni living lives that represent human flourishing.”

Dewhurst didn’t hesitate to turn to Wolf when Transportation Commission Chairman Deirdre Delisi was looking for someone to head the rebuilding of the Department of Transportation. Jay Kimbrough, who joined the restructure council at the invitation of former House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, was as eager as Wolf to engage in overhauling TxDOT. David Laney rounded out the council.

The council was treading a familiar path. In 2008 the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission told the Legislature the Department of Transportation was no longer an agency that could be trusted. The Sunset Advisory Commission’s report called for top-down management change and the dissolution of the Transportation Commission in favor of an appointed commissioner of transportation and a legislative oversight committee.

In that same year, a committee formed by Delisi to study the state’s transportation through 2030 estimated that Texas would need $315 billion—or $14.3 billion a year—just to keep up. TxDOT currently spends less than half that annually.

But it was a $2 million 628-page study done for the Legislature by government analyst firm Grant Thornton the council followed most carefully, Wolf said.

“What we found was the Grant Thornton report was an accurate portrayal of TxDOT,” Wolf said. “It is an agency in a state of failure and in a state of denial about the failure of its mission.”

Wolf said he found the most powerful people in transportation—within the department and the Legislature—did not understand the difference between management and leadership. Department heads pushed forward, doing the same thing they had done throughout the twentieth century: plan, build and maintain roads, he said. Much of the effort and the funding goes into remedying congestion in the state’s six major metropolitan areas, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, and McAllen. The remedy, he said, is never a cure.

“We have a highway system that is slowly, but inevitably, devolving into gridlock,” Wolf said. “You have people screaming for relief and our elected officials give them the raw meat to get them through to the next election cycle.”

From the 647 recommendations made by Grant Thornton, the Restructure Council selected sixty-two for their report to the Transportation Commission. Most important, Wolf said, was a recommendation that the Legislature hire a management firm to direct a complete management and culture change at TxDOT.

The council estimated that to do it right such a management firm would cost about $10 million and would need as long as five years to affect real and lasting change.

The Restructure Council delivered its report to the commission in early January. Before the month was out Amadeo Saenz Jr., who had worked his way up from engineering lab assistant in 1978 to executive director of TxDOT, announced that he would leave this August. The commission has asked the department to create a search team to find his replacement.

The commission also asked for—and the department is in the process of drafting—a request for proposal to receive bids from change management firms. The selection of a company may take as much as a year, Wolf said.

Kimbrough, the trusted policy and crisis expert for Governor Rick Perry and counsel for the Texas A&M University System said he found Wolf experienced and wise. With Wolf’s guidance, he said, the council produced a report that was, in equal parts, pragmatic and visionary. Kimbrough was most proud of Wolf’s work creating a database so that citizens could track every one of the recommendations made in the report to see if the Legislature and the department carried them out.

“He brought a great perspective to large institutions. He was receptive to my ideas. He is definitely a man who says what he means and means what he says,” Kimbrough said. “He had an ability to look at the larger issue of transportation. I’d never worked with anyone who worked in that way before.”

Wolf’s ability to focus on the practical and the visionary is trussed by a steely willingness to make proposals that make people uncomfortable. In March, Wolf arranged a meeting with Delisi, the heads of the House and Senate transportation committees, House Speaker Joe Straus, Dewhurst, and others and offered to raise as much as $10 million privately to insure the TxDOT transformation was done right.

The commission rejected the idea for the same reason the Legislature recently rejected the Sunset Advisory Commission’s recommendation to create a single transportation commissioner, Wolf said.

“It’s about power and control,” Wolf said. “I only wanted to make sure the job got done.”

Dewhurst, a powerful figure in state politics and a favorite should he confirm speculation and run for U.S. Senate, has long relied on Wolf to tell him the truth. Dewhurst said he counts on the opinions of only two people who are free to tell him what he doesn’t necessarily want to hear: his wife, Tricia, and Howard Wolf.

And when he recounts the many times Wolf has been there for him as an advisor and friend, the normally composed Dewhurst falters with emotion.

“I’ve lost count of the times he has called, unsolicited, to tell me he has been thinking about something important to me,” he said. “I will never forget his friendship and there is nothing—I repeat, nothing—I wouldn’t do for Howard and his family.”

Wolf claims he keeps charging ahead because he was afraid retirement would have set a bad example for Elliott and Everett. That isn’t close to being the entire truth.

As the council completed its report, an analyst for a consultant that had previously done a mammoth and damning report on the Department of Transportation, gave Wolf a gloomy forecast for their success. Wolf took it as a challenge.

“She told me that they could not find a single instance of the transformational restructuring of a government agency of the size, age, and footprint of TxDOT,” Wolf said. “I told her I want a precedent. Lawyers love precedent.”

Wolf believes he has reality on his side. Texas cannot afford the $360 billion over the next generation to keep on laying down more highway. Our economy will not tolerate the burden of more commuter gridlock. The environment isn’t going to bear it, he said.

Just as quickly, Wolf brightens. Why continue to make twenty or thirty students come to a classroom to hear a renowned professor’s lecture when the world can hear it without leaving home? With the technology we have already developed why not an unmanned high speed rail line from Mexico delivering produce to Chicago?

“Younger people, the next generation—they get it. They’re comfortable going all over the world without getting out of bed,” he said. “They aren’t in control yet, but they’re already living that vision of the future.”

Wolf intends to be part of it.

“I believe you can’t begin to envision the future unless you plan for it, lay the foundation for it,” Wolf said. “I don’t know what the next big thing is but if you look back at history there has always been transformation triggered by technology. I’ve always been captivated by the future. It gives me fantastic optimism.”—Mark Lisheron