Though born in Mexico City, Robert Estrada has lived a quintessential American Dream.
From a small-town upbringing in Brownville, Texas, to service with the Armed Forces Reserve during the Vietnam War, to a job as a television news reporter when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, to working in the White House for George H.W. Bush, to a wildly successful career in law and investment banking, Estrada has seen and done more than most can ever dream of.
A common thread in his life and success for the past 50 years has been his connection to—and service for—The University of Texas. That includes two degrees, a B.S from the Moody College of Communication in 1969 and the J.D. he earned from Texas Law in 1983.
Estrada enjoyed a seven-year term as a U.T. System Regent from 2001-08, and more recently was appointed by the Regents to serve on the commission that tapped Jay Hartzell to be the university’s president.
This past year, Estrada has taken on another challenge central to the life of U.T. Austin: President of the Texas Exes. A Life Member of the Exes and a 2018 Distinguished Alumnus Award honoree, he has been charged with guiding the organization through an exceptionally challenging year. (“I have the unique title of being the First (and hopefully last) Virtual President we’ve had,” he quipped in an email exchange.)
The law school’s Christopher Roberts spoke with Estrada to learn what’s happening with the Exes, his love of the university, and what his future holds.
CR: Thanks for speaking with us, Mr. Estrada.
BE: My pleasure! I’m always happy to talk about the Texas Exes—and to talk to my beloved law school.
CR: Just in case some of our readers aren’t sure, can you explain what the Texas Exes is, what it does, and its larger mission?
BE: The Texas Exes is about connecting graduates of the university to each other and to our campus, and about helping tell the story of all the great things that happen at U.T. Austin to the rest of the world. One thing many people don’t understand, and I want them to know, is that the Exes is a freestanding, separate entity! We’re affiliated with the university and are the official alumni association, but we are independently funded and operated. Even for the alumni center, the land and building are solely owned by the alumni association.
CR: I didn’t know that!
BE: Oh, yes.
CR: Obviously, this is an unusual time to be president.
BE: First of all, being President of the Board of Directors is a great honor. If you look back on 50-plus years of history and see the roster of names of previous presidents—famous historic figures and Texas legends—it’s very humbling. This year, everyone on the Board is working overtime to do what we need to do. What makes the alumni association so famous and beloved are our gatherings on campus for football, for dinners and luncheons, and honoring graduates and recognizing their accomplishments. This year everything is virtual and all our communications and gatherings must be done by computer. But we’ve been finding ways to keep in touch with emails, announcements, news bulletins.
We’ve also been involved on campus with the new president. We serve as a source of input for President Hartzell and his administration. Of course, he once served on the Board of the Exes. In fact, I first got to know Pres. Hartzell through the board during the year I served as president-elect. He really understands us and has a good feeling for the association, so that’s been terrific. I have great regard and respect for him. And we stand at the ready to support him and his vision for what UT needs to do.
CR: You mentioned the Exes’s long history of “honoring graduates and recognizing their accomplishments.” We are always so excited to see law alumni receive the Distinguished Alumni Award—as you did in 2018!—and the 2020 list of honorees includes Arleas Upton Kea ’82 and Paul Begala ‘90. What’s the current plan for a ceremony?
BE: I hope people really understand what an amazing tradition the Distinguished Alumni Awards has. It always starts with many hundreds of nominations, coming in over a year before the honors are given. So many great people are nominated. And it is essential to us that when we do have that small group of winners that they feel how deeply we respect and cherish them. So, we have decided to honor the 2020 award winners in October of this year and not name a second 2021 roster of honorees. That was a hard decision to make but we don’t want anyone to miss out on an in-person ceremony. I had the honor of receiving the Orange Jacket in 2018 and it was an experience of a lifetime. We don’t want anyone to miss that!
CR: As hard as it may be to wait, I imagine that when we can finally get together in person for a ceremony, it will be all the more special and joyous.
BE: Oh, yes, it certainly will, especially with our alumni. We know how to celebrate.
CR: The University of Texas at Austin seems to have been a big part of your life. Can you talk about that?
BE: When my siblings and I were born, our parents made clear the importance of education and that we would go to college and get degrees. There was no question that was going to happen. So, my parents were very important in that regard and it was the fulfillment of that vision they had and that I had when I came to the university.
And I see for myself the role that education plays in the hopes and dreams of all people. I’m passionate about arts and my family and many causes, but the most important priority on my agenda is education. I’m enthusiastic about the whole U.T. System, across the state. But of course, The University of Texas at Austin is special to me for the influence it had on my life.
CR: It seems as if we’re entering a complicated, unpredictable time. The post-COVID world, once we get there, may be quite different. Jobs will be different, large parts of the economy could be transformed. How might the alumni association serve the university, students, and alumni in the future?
BE: One of the amazing things about the Texas Exes is that it is run by a comprehensive, large board who represent a great cross-section of majors, of schools (within the university), of careers. There are so much depth and knowledge and experience, and we always have a representative from the president’s office and from the deans. With that wide range of perspectives, backgrounds, and experience, we are always looking at “what does the future hold?” and “How are we going to stay connected with new generations of alumni, and how are we going to provide value to them?” In part, it’s about learning the language of students today and talking to them directly.
We have a challenging next four years, in politics, in the economy, in the communities of America. We need more than ever opportunities to gather in community and peace and in common purpose. I look forward to Texas Exes being leaders in our country, bringing civility at every level—government, cities, communities. Good, positive civic engagement is a big part of what we do at the university at the LBJ School, at the School of Law, at the Moody College. We can play a big role in making a more perfect union, a better country. We’re going to be a leader in that, and our graduates are going to go off and be leaders.
CR: That’s inspiring to hear. One of the things that makes us most proud at the law school is when our graduates take on leadership roles in their communities, whether in business or public service, or education.
BE: There’s no question that leadership was an important value at the law school when I was a student there. I was always willing to raise my hand to volunteer, to serve an organization, to take on responsibilities in the community, and at Moody when I was an undergraduate and later, at the law school, I was always surrounded by people who had the same attitude.
CR: Before I let you go, what’s next for you personally, after your term is up? Any other leadership opportunities in our community you’d love to try next?
BE: Honestly, I want to take a deep breath and spend time with my ten grandkids! I want to turn my energy for mentorship and coaching towards them. My biggest dream at my old age is for one or more of my grandchildren to graduate from Texas Law! In addition, I’ll still be on the Board of Directors at the Texas Exes and will stay in touch with Jay Hartzell, to be of whatever help I can be. I’d also love to do more speaking, especially at Moody and elsewhere on campus.
CR: I can’t want to hear what you will have to say then. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us.
BE: Thank you for asking me!