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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
BILL SARPALIUS represented the Texas 13th Congressional District from 1989 to 1995, and from 1981 to 1989 he served in the Texas State Senate. He currently is a motivational speaker and serves as CEO of Advantage Associates International. He divides his time between Maryland and Houston, Texas.
Bill Sarpalius, with foreword by Bill Hobby
Texas A&M University Press
Hardcover, 978-1-62349-657-9 (ebook also available), 336 pages, $34.95
Under normal circumstances, it’s hard to get elected to the United States Congress.
Bill Sarpalius, who represented the Texas 13th Congressional District from 1989 to 1995, started out in life well behind almost all others who have served in the U.S. House. The tagline for Sarpalius’s new autobiography states simply: “From homeless to Congress....” Yet, as this ably written and informative book makes clear, his journey to Capitol Hill actually was long, convoluted, and tough.
As a small child in the Houston area, he had polio. Then his father abandoned his mother and left her penniless with three young children to raise. Sarpalius’s mother became an alcoholic and substance abuser who repeatedly tried to kill herself. But Honey, as her kids knew her, also tried to take care of her family, even when they were homeless or living illegally in abandoned houses. Sometimes, she managed to sober up and work. Other times, Bill, her oldest son, dug food out of trash cans to help his brothers survive. At one point before he was a teen, Sarpalius had two paper routes, and that was his family’s sole income.
One day a judge dropped by a vacant house where Honey and her children were squatting. Rather than ordering them out, he began helping them and convinced Honey to send her sons to Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch in Tascosa, north of Amarillo. Bill and his brothers would stay there until they graduated from high school.
“Cal Farley never said no to a boy in trouble,” Sarpalius recalls. “The environment I grew up in at Boys Ranch was made up of boys who had no family, boys whose families could not care for them, or boys who had committed violent crimes. When you put those backgrounds together, it was volatile.”
At Boys Ranch, Sarpalius finally learned to read and write. And he gained confident public-speaking skills through the ranch’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) program. His successes in FFA became stepping stones to his public-service career, starting in 1981 with his underdog election to the Texas Senate.
Indeed, all of Sarpalius’s political campaigns were underfunded, compared to his opponents’ fat war chests. Yet, he found ways to win that still offer good playbooks for newcomers seeking to oust entrenched incumbents in Texas and national politics.
The book’s title refers to a high honor Sarpalius received after a heavily-bankrolled Republican finally defeated him for reelection to Congress. Sarpalius is a Lithuanian name, and Bill Sarpalius had been one of the U.S. House members who helped the small Baltic states, including Lithuania, gain independence from the Soviet Union. That country’s president presented him with a medal and their highest noncitizen honorific: Grand Duke of Lithuania.
The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch is an inspiring tale of perseverance and personal courage. But it also shows how some ugly political sausage can be made in Texas and national election campaigns.
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Si Dunn is an Austin novelist, screenwriter, and book reviewer.
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