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Walking George

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George John Beto (1916-1991) is best known for his contributions to criminal justice, but his fame is not limited to this field. Walking George , authored by two of his former students, David M. Horton and George R. Nielsen, examines the entire life of Beto and his many achievements in the fields of both education and criminal justice--and how he wedded the two whenever possible. Beto initially studied to become a Lutheran pastor but instead was called to teach at Concordia Lutheran College in Austin, Texas. During his twenty years at that institution he became its president, expanded it into a junior college, racially integrated it, made it co-educational, and expanded its facilities. His successes convinced the administrators of the church to present him with a challenge to revitalize a seminary in Springfield, Illinois. He accepted the challenge in 1959, but after three years of progress, he left the seminary to become the head of the Texas Department of Corrections. Although Beto had no real academic training in corrections and had never served in any administrative position in corrections, he had learned incidentally. During his last six years in Austin, he had served on the Texas Prison Board, a volunteer board that supervised the entire prison system. As a board member he established one of the earliest General Education Development testing programs for prisoners. Fortuitously, his years on the board came during the time when reform of the Texas prisons was the watchword. During his ten-year term as the director of the Texas Department of Corrections, Beto continued the reform program. Most notable were his efforts at rehabilitation of the inmates and his attempt at refining a method of managing prisoners, called the Texas Control Model. He persuaded the Texas state legislature to enact a law requiring state agencies to purchase manufactured goods from state prisons, which tremendously expanded industry and training for inmates. In 1969, at Beto's urging, the Windham school district for educating inmates became a reality, the first of its kind at any prison in the United States. Beto's predilection to show up on foot in front of a given Texas prison, at all hours of the day and night, ready for an inspection and tour, earned him the nickname "Walking George." After retiring as head of the Texas prison system in 1972, he became a professor at Sam Houston State University's College of Criminal Justice until 1991. His leadership and participation propelled it to become the most esteemed program in the country. Beto's personal force and unique accomplishments defined him as one of the premier American penologists of the twentieth century. This is the first in-depth biography of the man and his contributions.

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Chapter 1. The Early Years: Hysham, Montana; New Rockford, North Dakota; and Lena, Illinois (1916–1939


Chapter 1



ILLINOIS (1916–1939)


love this country,” proclaimed George Beto in a 1981 speech.

“My grandparents came from the ghettos of Prague, from virtual peonage in East Germany, and from the submarginal farms of the

Netherlands. . . . In spite of handicaps—ignorance of the language and culture of this land—they were able to carve out for themselves respectable places on the economic, social, religious, and political horizons of this country.”1

The East German ancestor he referred to was his grandfather,

John Beto, from the province of Pomerania. Pomerania, located on the flat and sandy coastal plain south of the Baltic Sea, went unblessed of fertile soil or mineral wealth. Originally the inhabitants of Pomerania had been Slavic, but in 1772 the area had come under the control of neighboring Prussia, and by the time that John

Beto was born, it had been thoroughly Germanized. Although sought after by the Germanic invaders in earlier times, it was not highly regarded as a region vital to German power, nor were its citizens held in high esteem. Otto von Bismarck, the architect of


Chapter 2. Concordia Lutheran College, Austin, Texas (1939–1959)


Chapter 2


TEXAS (1939–1959)


oncordia College, Beto’s initial place of employment, had been founded thirteen years earlier, in October 1926, and like other preparatory schools of the synod, was modeled after the German

Gymnasium. It differed, however, from the other synodical schools in that the Austin school was a college in name only and was limited to four years of secondary schooling. The school had been located on twenty acres in the northeastern part of Austin in proximity to the University of Texas. Henry Studtmann, the first president, had guided the school through its formative years and continued to do so during the Depression of the 1930s. The school was governed by a Board of Control, representatives of the synod who worked without compensation.1

When Beto first set foot on the Concordia campus he saw “a couple of buildings in a sea of Johnson grass, infested with rattlesnakes and scorpions.” The larger of the two buildings, Kilian

Hall, was named in honor of the Wendish pastor who had been instrumental in giving the Missouri Synod a foothold in Texas.2


Chapter 3. The Texas Prison System: The First One Hundred Years (1849–1953


Chapter 3




n 1849, one hundred years before Beto’s installation as Concordia’s president, the first convict was confined in the partially completed penitentiary at Huntsville. During the hundred years that followed, the administrators of the state of Texas attempted to balance public safety, the humane treatment of prisoners, and fiscal responsibility. The perfect balance was elusive and the record of the prison system is a spotty one, alternating between neglect and reform. When Beto was appointed to the Texas Prison Board, the state agency created in 1927 to supervise the prison system, another attempt at reform had just begun, and Beto became an important participant in the movement. A backward glance into the prison system’s hundred years not only establishes the context in which Beto would work, but also provides a yardstick for measuring the contributions made by Beto and his contemporaries to improve the prison system itself.


Photo Insert



Chapter 4. The Texas Prison Board: Beto, Coffield, and Ellis (1953–1959)


Chapter 4


AND ELLIS (1953–1959)


eto’s appointment to the Prison Board was a political act, and politics played a role in the governor’s decision. Even though Beto’s mother was an ardent Republican, Beto, already during his years as a student in Milwaukee, believed that the Republican party lacked

“a social conscience.”1 When Beto arrived in Texas in 1939 the

Republican Party was a mere shadow, so Beto affiliated with the

Democrats, the only party in town. Ever since the end of Reconstruction, the Democrats had easily defeated the Republicans, and the real struggles for political office took place not on the first

Tuesday in November, but on the date of the party primary.

Although the Texas Democrats supported Franklin Roosevelt and his vice president, “Cactus Jack” Garner, a Texan, during the first two terms, an increasing number of voters became disenchanted with the New Deal. This was true especially after Roosevelt chose to run for a third term and Garner decided not to be


Chapter 5. Concordia Theological Seminary, Springfield, Illinois (1959–1962)


Chapter 5




s any schoolboy knows, both Austin and Springfield are capitals of their respective states. But as any Texan will tell you, Austin is the more beautiful and exciting of the two. While Austin is situated on the lovely wooded hills of the Balcones Escarpment along the impressive Colorado River, Springfield is built on a flat, glaciated plain surrounded by some of the most productive farmland imaginable. In addition to being the political center of the state, Austin is also the home of the University of Texas, the state’s flagship institution of higher education, whereas the premier University of Illinois is ninety miles from Springfield, at Champaign. Although on occasion some university educators in Texas may have lusted after a location far away from political meddling, the interaction between the political and educational mentalities has often contributed to not only the intellectual vibrancy of the institution, but entertainment in the guise of comic relief as well. Concordia, the college that


Chapter 6. The Texas Department of Corrections (1962–1972)


Chapter 6




untsville, Texas, home of the famed Walls Unit and the administrative center of the Texas Department of Corrections (now the

Institutional Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice), is the county seat of Walker County, approximately seventy-five miles north of Houston. Founded in 1835 as an Indian trading post, the town is situated in the lush “Big Piney Woods” area of deep East Texas. The green, gently rolling hills dotted by stands of tall pine trees sustained an economy driven principally by farming, ranching, timber harvesting, and the Texas Department of Corrections. The population of Huntsville in 1962, not counting prisoners, was approximately 12,500.1

The school year no longer dictated Beto’s schedule, and on

March 1, 1962, within three weeks of accepting the appointment, he occupied his new post. The moving van left Springfield in the snow and arrived at Huntsville in the rain. Dan, a senior in high school, remained behind to complete the school year with his friends. The rest of the family moved into the director’s mansion across the street from the Walls. Built for Ellis in 1951, the mansion was a spacious building and provided 5,000 square feet of living space. Constructed of red brick and in keeping with its


Chapter 7. Sam Houston State University (1972–1991)


Chapter 7




ugust 31, 1972, was Beto’s last day as head of the Texas Department of Corrections; September 1, 1972, was his first day as Distinguished Professor of Corrections at Sam Houston State University’s

Institute of Contemporary Corrections and Behavioral Sciences.

Beto’s new career was by no means a journey into the unknown.

Although his occupational change required a different residence, it did not demand a change of communities. Six months prior to vacating his position with the TDC he had moved his family and possessions out of the director’s mansion to Wit’s End Ranch. He then became a commuter, driving the six miles to his prison office; six months later, when he joined the faculty at Sam Houston State

University, his commute was lengthened by two blocks.

The remaining differences also were minor. While his previous focus had been on corrections, his new one was broader to include all aspects of criminal justice. At the TDC he had been the administrator with total responsibility; at SHSU he was a member of the faculty. In this case no one changed his name from “Walking


Appendix A. “Prison Administration and the Eighth Amendment”


Appendix A



[On November 9, 1991, less than one month before his death, Beto delivered this address at the Valparaiso University School of Law in

Valparaiso, Indiana. This speech was part of a series of lectures given in celebration of the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. This speech was Beto’s last formal speaking engagement.]

Thirty Years of Criticism

The past three decades have witnessed a consistent criticism of

America’s prisons. In the 1960s, then Chief Justice Warren Burger, speaking before an annual meeting of the American Bar Association in Dallas, Texas, delivered a landmark speech on America’s prisons. He was highly critical of penal practices and concluded with the observation “there must be a better way.” In 1971,

President Richard M. Nixon convened the first White House Conference on Corrections. In his opening remarks he referred to

America’s prisons as “colleges of crime.” The once highly influential National Council on Crime and Delinquency ran an advertisement in popular magazines showing a young lad holding a smoking handgun, apparently as he was committing a crime. The picture carried the caption “Prisons do teach a trade.”


Appendix B. The Writings of George John Beto


Appendix B



CHI= Concordia Historical Institute

BFA= Beto Family Archives

SHSU= Beto Collection, Newton Gresham Library, Sam Houston

State University

CSA= Concordia Seminary Archives, Fort Wayne, Indiana

Letter to the editor, Lena Weekly Star, August 1931, BFA.

“Circular Letter #1” to a group of his close friends from the St. Louis

Seminary, undated, circa fall 1939, BFA.

“Circular Letter #2” to a group of his close friends from the St. Louis

Seminary, undated, circa fall 1939, BFA.

Letter to Hartwig Schwehn, October 22, 1939, BFA.

“Circular Letter #3” to a group of his close friends from the St. Louis

Seminary, January 26, 1940, BFA.

“The Marburg Colloquy of 1529: A Textual Study.” Master’s thesis, University of Texas, 1944. Published in Concordia Theological Monthly (February 1945).

“Personal and Professional Qualifications of the Housemaster: An

Introductory Study.” Lutheran Education 83, no. 6 (February 1948),

361–64. A statement of Beto’s philosophy concerning caring for the spiritual and physical needs of boys in boarding schools.



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