By Anne Ruppert, Sam Rayburn House Museum
November 16, 1961 was a day heavy in the hearts of many. Early that morning, Dr. Joe Risser, Sam Rayburn’s personal physician, announced the Speaker’s death to the media gathered in his small Bonham clinic. The Speaker had been ailing since the summer, and had returned to Texas in September to recuperate. As his health diminished, local and national media reported on his condition on a daily basis. After testing at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas revealed that the Speaker was suffering from incurable cancer, the public collectively held its breath until the end came.
The fateful news of November 16, 1961 would precede the largest gathering of U.S. political leaders outside Washington, D.C. that the nation had ever seen. Rayburn’s November 18, 1961 funeral was attended by President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, former Presidents Eisenhower and Truman, and a multitude of representatives from both houses of Congress.
In preparation for the funeral services, the Bonham police chief recruited 190 Texas Highway Patrol officers, county sheriff’s deputies, and local city police to assist with the crowds and direct traffic. Hotel rooms quickly filled and soon private citizens were asked to open their homes to the visitors. Most businesses closed for Rayburn’s funeral, except for cafes, which remained open to serve the many out-of-towners. The 10,000 residents of Bonham were joined by an additional 15,000 people in mourning the Speaker.
Fifty years later, the Sam Rayburn House Museum, in cooperation with the Sam Rayburn Museum, developed the exhibit “Laying Down the Gavel” to pay tribute to the Speaker. The exhibit opened at the Sam Rayburn Museum on the 50th anniversary of Sam Rayburn’s death, November 16, 2011. In a timeline format, the exhibit expands upon the events leading up to Rayburn’s death, his funeral, and preparations for the memorial services in Bonham. The effect of Rayburn’s death on the House of Representatives and in the Fourth Congressional District of Texas and the many honors bestowed upon Rayburn posthumously are also featured in the exhibit.
Several rarely seen photos, documents, and artifacts are on display. Exhibited documents include the typed transcript from the news conference announcing Sam Rayburn’s death, status reports regarding Rayburn’s health from Baylor and Risser Hospitals where Sam Rayburn was a patient, and photos of both the funeral and graveside services.
Also in recognition of the 50 years that have passed since Rayburn’s death, both museums co-hosted a progressive history tour on November 18. The progressive tour, based on the “Laying Down the Gavel” exhibit, included the Bonham Visitor Information Center, Creative Arts Center, Fannin County Historical Commission, Fannin County Museum of History, and the First Baptist Church of Bonham. Bus service provided free of charge by the Texoma Area Para-transit System allowed participants to easily travel from site to site. The event ended at the Sam Rayburn Museum, where attendees viewed the last two sections of the exhibit, artifacts, and film footage from the day of Sam Rayburn’s funeral.
The “Laying Down the Gavel” exhibit will remain on display at the Sam Rayburn Museum (800 W. Sam Rayburn Drive, Bonham) through January 7, 2012. The Sam Rayburn House Museum is located at 890 W. State Hwy. 56, two miles west of Bonham, in the Texas Lakes Trail Region.