Texas Congressman J.T. Rutherford; Helped Create National Seashores

Former president Harry S. Truman, J.T. Rutherford and House Speaker Sam Rayburn at an event in the 1950s. Rutherford was first elected in 1954.
Former president Harry S. Truman, J.T. Rutherford and House Speaker Sam Rayburn at an event in the 1950s. Rutherford was first elected in 1954. (Family Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 11, 2006

J.T. Rutherford, 85, a four-term Democratic congressman from Texas who became such a regular visitor of President Lyndon B. Johnson's that for a time he had a reserved parking place on White House grounds, died of complications from Alzheimer's disease Nov. 6 at his Arlington home.

Mr. Rutherford was a moderate Democrat who became one of the few Texas congressmen to vote for the early civil rights bills.

As the first chair of the House Interior Committee's national parks subcommittee, he introduced and shepherded to passage a bill that created Cape Cod National Seashore, at the request of President John F. Kennedy. For his leadership in establishing two more national seashores, Padre Island in Texas and Point Reyes in California, he received the Department of the Interior's Conservation Service Award in 1962.

In 1962, Mr. Rutherford lost reelection to a fifth term representing the 16th Congressional District, which, at the time, stretched from El Paso to Midland, Tex.

"The district was turning more conservative by the day . . . and he had this constituent from Pecos named Billie Sol Estes," said Larry L. King, a novelist and playwright who worked on Mr. Rutherford's staff.

Mr. Rutherford arranged a meeting at the Agriculture Department for Estes, a financier later convicted of swindling federal funds and mail fraud. Mr. Rutherford's failure to report Estes's $1,500 campaign contribution in a timely manner resulted in a grand jury subpoena of his bank records. He was not charged, but opponents made hay over the connections and attempted to remove his name from the ballot. He lost the 1962 election to Republican Ed Foreman.

After his defeat, Mr. Rutherford set up a Washington consulting firm with clients that included the BDM Corp., the Association of Military Schools and Colleges of the United States, and the American College of Radiology. He retired in 1988.

"LBJ thereafter tried to take care of Rutherford, because he was trying to shed his Southern image and make it a Western image," King said. At more than 6 feet tall, Mr. Rutherford "was a walking cowboy ad. His boots and hat made him look seven inches taller," King said.

Born in Hot Springs, Ark., and raised in Odessa, Tex., Mr. Rutherford enlisted in the Marine Corps at the start of World War II. As a machine gunner in an amphibian tractor battalion in the Pacific theater, he was in the first waves during the invasions of Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian, said Joseph H. Alexander, a military historian who relied on Mr. Rutherford to find veterans for his 1996 book, "Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa." Among Mr. Rutherford's military awards was the Purple Heart.

He later became Texas commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He chaired the 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion World War II Association and formed the Alligator Marine Memorial Association. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a major.

After World War II, Mr. Rutherford graduated from Sul Ross State College in Alpine, Tex., and attended Baylor University law school. He became a partner in an industrial electrical construction firm and owner of an advertising company. He served in the state legislature from 1948 to 1954, when he was elected to the first of four terms in Congress.

His wife of 56 years, Sara Jane Rutherford, died in 2004.

Survivors include three children, Ann Rutherford of Arlington, Charles Lane Rutherford of Denton, Tex., and Jane Rutherford of Alexandria; a brother; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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