Lauro Cavazos, First Hispanic Cabinet Member, Dies at 95

Lauro Cavazos, the United States secretary of education from 1988 to 1990 under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and the nation’s first Latino to serve in a cabinet post, died on Tuesday. He was 95.

Texas Tech University, where he served as president, confirmed his death.

A Texas ranch foreman’s son and a sixth-generation Mexican American, Dr. Cavazos, after an academic career, was Reagan’s education secretary for only four months before being reappointed by Bush, the professed “education president,” to his cabinet in early 1989.

While Dr. Cavazos was regarded as highly qualified for the post, his appointment by Reagan in the fall of 1988 appeared aimed at drawing Hispanic voters to Vice President Bush’s flagging presidential campaign. Doubts about the appointment’s political nature were dispelled when it was learned that only three Hispanic candidates, including Dr. Cavazos, were being considered by President-elect Bush for education secretary.

Dr. Cavazos, a Democrat with no political experience, served under two Republican presidents and under intense pressure to succeed in a department that Reagan once threatened to eliminate as a waste. Education in America is largely left to state and local school districts, with no direct federal jurisdictional control and a limited Education Department mission, to foster scholastic interests.

Dr. Cavazos, moreover, went to Washington at a time of deepening crises in public schools, with inadequate funding, sagging academic performances, high teenage dropout rates and a proliferation of substance abuse, particularly marijuana. Colleges and universities were grappling with racial preferences in admissions policies and other issues.

He pledged to work with the education establishment, including the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union. And he set his priorities: a reduction in high school dropout rates, particularly among minority students; greater accountability by teachers; and efforts to “reawaken in every child in this country the thirst, the cry, the hunger for education.”

But the Cavazos tenure of two years and three months was marked by few initiatives beyond support for financing Head Start preschool programs and for giving parents more flexibility to choose their children’s schools. Critics said his leadership lacked a clear, forceful agenda.

In December 1990, Bush asked him to resign. The catalyst was a ruling by the Education Department’s civil rights division that college scholarships designated solely for a racial minority were discriminatory and illegal, and that federal aid would be denied to any college that awarded them.

The ruling infuriated many educators and civil rights advocates, who said it might undo years of educational progress for minority students. Politically embarrassed, the White House reversed it, and Bush named former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to replace Dr. Cavazos.

Months after Dr. Cavazos’ departure, the Justice Department said it was investigating his wife’s use of frequent-flier mileage that he had accumulated as secretary. His wife, Peggy Ann Cavazos, a former nurse, had held no official position but had gone with her husband to work every day, attended meetings, helped edit his speeches and policy papers, and accompanied him on trips. Officials later said that no charges had been filed and that the investigation had been quietly dropped.

Lauro Fred Cavazos Jr. was born on Jan. 4, 1927, the oldest of five children of Lauro Sr. and Tomasa (Quintanilla) Cavazos, whose ancestors settled in Texas long before it became a state in 1845. Lauro and his siblings were born on the King Ranch, the state’s largest spread, near Kingsville. It is now a National Historic Landmark.

His father was the foreman for the ranch’s showcase Santa Gertrudis cattle, and his mother was descended from Francita Alavez, the “Angel of Goliad,” who saved the lives of many Texas prisoners in the Texas Revolution, a rebellion against Mexico in 1835-36.

The siblings spoke English to their father and Spanish to their mother, and attended a two-room schoolhouse on the ranch for the children of King laborers. Starting in 1935, they went to public schools in Kingsville. After graduation from high school in 1945, Lauro joined the Army and served in the stateside infantry in the last days of World War II. One of his brothers, Richard E. Cavazos, who died in 2017, became the first Hispanic four-star general of the Army.

At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Lauro Cavazos earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1949 and a master’s in zoological cytology, the study of cells, in 1951. He earned a doctorate in physiology in 1954 at Iowa State University.

In 1954, he married Peggy Ann Murdock. They had 10 children: Lauro III, Sarita, Ricardo, Alicia, Victoria, Roberto, Rachel, Veronica, Tomas and Daniel.Information on his survivors was not immediately available.

Dr. Cavazos taught anatomy for a decade at the Medical College of Virginia (now part of Virginia Commonwealth University), rising to associate professor and serving on the editorial board of the college’s medical quarterly. In 1964, he joined Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston as a professor and as the chairman of the anatomy department. He was also dean of the medical school from 1975 to 1980.

In 1980, he was named president of his alma mater, Texas Tech, and of its medical school, presiding over the education of 24,000 students — the nation’s largest school to be headed by a Latino. He increased enrollments of Black and Hispanic students and earned a reputation for budgetary discipline.

But critics said he often took actions without consulting the faculty and students. In one dispute, he proposed tenure revisions to require faculty members to undergo performance evaluations every five years. The faculty responded in 1984 with a vote of no-confidence. He softened his tone, but the proposals, with modifications, were adopted in 1986.

In May 1988, he stepped down as the university president to resume teaching. But months later he accepted the Reagan appointment as education secretary, apparently with an understanding that if Bush were elected president he would have an inside track for reappointment.

After he resigned in 1990, Dr. Cavazos returned to Tufts as a professor of public health and family medicine.

Dr. Cavazos, who lived in Concord, Mass., and Port Aransas, Texas, wrote two memoirs: “A Kineño Remembers: From the King Ranch to the White House” (2006), and “A Kineño’s Journey: On Family, Learning, and Public Service” (2016). (Kineño, or king’s man, was the name adopted by residents and employees of the ranch.) He also wrote articles for technical journals and textbooks on the physiology of reproduction and the structure of cells and tissues, and on education for general periodicals.

Asked early in his cabinet tenure what he would like people to say about him when he left office, Dr. Cavazos told The New York Times: “Here was a person who brought the nation together to address a serious problem, and started people thinking toward a solution.”

Edgar Sandoval contributed reporting.

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