His Challenge to Party Brought Kennedy to Texas in '63

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

Don Yarborough, 83, who was a three-time gubernatorial candidate in Texas during the 1960s and whose challenge to incumbent Gov. John B. Connally was one of the reasons President John F. Kennedy decided to make a swing through Texas in November 1963, died Sept. 23 at his home in Houston of complications from Parkinson's disease.

Along with the better-known Ralph W. Yarborough, a political ally but no relation, Mr. Yarborough represented the liberal wing of the state's Democratic Party. Making his first run for governor in 1962, he built a coalition of labor, minorities, women and liberals and came within 27,000 votes of defeating Connally, the candidate of the state's business-oriented conservative Democrats.

Running again in 1964, Mr. Yarborough accused the incumbent of being "a wolf in sheep's clothing," because Connally -- who would later become a Republican -- did not support Kennedy on civil rights and other progressive issues.

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, himself a Texan, was concerned that Mr. Yarborough might defeat Connally in 1964 and that his liberal views would drive conservatives into the Republican fold, thus jeopardizing Kennedy's reelection chances in 1964. Johnson convinced Kennedy that a presidential visit to Texas would help unite the famously fractious party.

When Connally was shot while riding in the car with the president, he became a national hero, and he easily defeated his liberal challenger. After losing another governor's race in 1968, Mr. Yarborough retired from politics.

Texas voters confused Don Yarborough not only with Ralph Yarborough, a U.S. senator from 1957 to 1970, but also with a political unknown named Don Yarbrough. In 1976, Yarbrough relied on the familiar-sounding name to get elected to the Texas Supreme Court, but he was indicted on criminal charges a year later.

Donald Howard Yarborough was born in New Orleans, where his father was president of a bank that went bust during the Depression. The elder Yarborough got a job with the federal government, and the family lived in the District for a few years before moving to Houston.

Mr. Yarborough served in the Marine Corps at the close of World War II and was made a company commander at age 19. He received his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1950.

After serving with the Judge Advocate General's Corps during the Korean War, he returned to Houston, where he opened a law firm. He first ran for political office in 1960, losing a bid to become the state's lieutenant governor.

After leaving politics in 1968, Mr. Yarborough moved to Washington and was a lobbyist for a group advocating medical treatment for spinal cord injuries. He maintained that "more people could be helped through science than through politics" and supported efforts to cure aging, which he believed was simply a disease like any other. He returned to Houston in 1981.

Mr. Yarborough's marriages to Trin "Kay K" Edwards Yarborough and Gail Brandis Yarborough ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 25 years, Charity O'Connell Yarborough of Houston; four children from his first marriage, Inez Vanderburg of Austin, Francey Yarborough of New York, Leverett Yarborough of Bend, Ore., and Sophie de Vise Yarborough of Garrett Park; a son from his second marriage, Daniel Yarborough of Los Angeles; two children from his third marriage, Donald "Patrick" Yarborough and Mollie O'Connell Yarborough, both of Houston; and four grandchildren.

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