Tom Lea: A Texas Original
Big Thicket Messenger - August 2007
by John Cornyn
Texas has produced a remarkable series of “Renaissance men”--- women and men who excelled in a wide variety of fields. Tom Lea of El Paso is just such a man.
At various times in his life, Lea was an illustrator, novelist, historian, war correspondent and studio painter. He studied art in Chicago and Italy, and his work encompassed the world.
The New York Times once captured his unique career this way: “The muralist, painter and author Tom Lea is probably the only person, dead or alive, who can say he has been threatened by Pancho Villa, interrupted by Chiang Kai-shek and regaled by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
Lea was born 100 years ago, on July 11, 1907, the son of a frontier lawyer who once served as Mayor of El Paso. Various organizations in the El Paso region are staging a dozen exhibits and other events to honor the centennial of his birth this month.
After graduating from El Paso High School in 1924, Lea studied at the Chicago Art Institute before moving back to his native Southwest, and the art colony in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A struggling artist during the depression, he secured government commissions, and painted murals for the Works Progress Administration on a princely government salary of $40 per week. His “Pass of the North” mural is the centerpiece of the old El Paso Federal Courthouse.
One breakthrough occurred when the famous Texas writer, J. frank Dobie, asked Lea in the late 1930s to illustrate several of his books. The results helped establish a national reputation for Lea as a gifted illustrator.
In 1940, with Europe under war clouds, Life Magazine asked Lea to draw an Army trooper at Fort Bliss. That led to a permanent job as a war artist and correspondent for Life from 1941 through 1945. From the North Atlantic to the western Pacific, from North Africa to the Middle East, and from Italy to China, Tom Lea traveled all over the world with the military.
Lea managed to paint portraits of important war figures while in China during 1943, including Jimmy Dolittle, Claire Chennault and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
A year later, he accompanied the initial assault landing team of the 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Peleliu in the western Pacific. He wrote two books and produced numerous paintings that depicted the violence and heroism of the bloody Pacific battles.
After the war, back in Texas, Lea painted one of his best-known works, “Sarah in the Summertime”, a portrait of his wife in their El Paso backyard with the Franklin Mountains as a backdrop. He continued to write as well. He took an interest in Mexican bullfighting, and published an international best-selling novel, The Brave Bulls, in 1949. He later wrote, over a five-year period, a two-volume history of the King Ranch in South Texas, followed later by a book about the King Ranch in Australia.
Tom Lea died in January, 2001. His voluminous work is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution, the Pentagon, the Texas Governor’s Mansion and many other places. President George W. Bush and Mrs. Bush became personal friends of Tom and Sarah Lea toward the end of his life. Lea’s painting, “Rio Grande”, currently hangs in the Oval Office.
President Bush has frequently quoted Lea to highlight the innate optimism and infectious spirit of Texans everywhere. Lea’s words are timeless and worth remembering. “Sarah and I live on the east side of the mountain. It is the sunrise side, not the sunset side. It is the side to see the day that is coming, not the side to see the day that is gone. The best day is the day coming.”
Senator Cornyn serves on the Armed Services, Judiciary and Budget Committees. In addition, he is Vice Chairman of the senate Select Committee on Ethics. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Border Security and Refugees subcommittee and the Armed Services Committee’s Airland subcommittee. Cornyn served previous as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice and Bexar County District Judge. For Senator Cornyn’s previous Texas Times columns: www.cornynsenate.gov.column.