Pat Neff was the son of Noah and Isabella Eleanor Shepherd Neff. Noah was the descendant of German immigrants to the United States. Noah came to Texas in 1849, but returned home to Virginia several years later to marry Isabella. After the wedding Noah and Isabella rode in a carriage all the way from Virginia, a trip that took fifty-two days, with the newlyweds traveling six days and resting on Sunday.
They settled in Belton for a while and then moved to Coryell County, living in a log cabin. The family continued to grow and Pat was born in 1871, the youngest of nine children. He was named for a family friend, Captain Pat Morris. Young Pat grew up on the family farm working cattle, tending to the cotton fields and other routine farm and ranch chores. Noah died of typhoid fever complications in 1883. A sister had died of typhoid fever in 1882 and brother also died of the same disease in 1885. Pat was still a teenager when all this transpired, leaving the siblings and Isabella to work the farm.
The nearest town or community was Eagle Springs, no longer in existence, and the town is said to have gotten its name from a time when an eagle flew up from the local spring. The family endured having two of the brothers who had clashes with the law. Pat’s brother Edward was charged with murder after he killed a local farmer and rancher named Witte over a land dispute. Edward pleaded self defense. After many months of court proceedings, a jury found him not guilty. A second brother Samuel was indicted for the robbery of a Southern Pacific train. Since it involved the assault of an individual handling the United States Mail it was a federal crime. After his conviction, Samuel served a five year sentence in an Ohio prison.
Pat attended a rural elementary school as he could while doing chores on the family farm. He attended high school in McGregor. In 1894, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Baylor University which had recently relocated to nearby Waco from Independence, Texas. After graduating from Baylor, Pat taught school in Arkansas for two years before returning to Texas to earn a law degree from the University of Texas in 1897.
Neff practiced law in Waco while studying for a Master of Arts degree from Baylor. He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1899 and served two terms there, also serving as Speaker of the House for the 28th Texas Legislature. After his last term as representative, he returned to his law practice in Waco. He also served as the county prosecutor.
He was elected as the 28th Governor of Texas in 1920, succeeding former Governor William Pettus “Bill” Hobby. Neff is credited for instituting the state gasoline tax to pay for road improvements. He is also known for beginning the state park system, developing hospitals, expanding Texas colleges and appropriating money to fund rural Texas schools. He elected not to run a third term as Governor. At that time, there were no term limits, but there was a tradition that Texas governors served no more than three terms. Neff was succeeded by Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, who won the governor’s seat in 1924.
Neff had helped to developed the State Parks Board while he was serving as governor. During this time, his mother Isabella donated six acres of her land to create one of the first state parks in Texas. After Isabella died in 1921, Neff added his own acreage to it and named it the Mother Neff State Park, located on Texas Highway 236 in Coryell County. Although it is now one of the smallest state parks, it is quite scenic and offers most of the features of the larger state parks.
After serving as Governor, Neff returned to Waco and resumed his law practice. He was appointed to the United States Board of Mediation by President Calvin Coolidge and served there from 1927 to 1929. He was then appointed to the Railroad Commission of Texas by Governor Dan Moody and served on that board from 1929 until 1932.
Neff served as a trustee and President of the board of trustees of Baylor University for twenty-nine years while his former Baylor roommate Samuel P. Brooks was President. When Brooks died in 1932, Neff was elected President of the University to replace his life long friend Brooks. He served in that capacity for about fifteen years. He could not have picked a worse time to accept the position, as the University suffered with the rest of the country during the Depression. As President of Baylor, he is credited for retiring the school debt, then in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He also helped to increase its endowment funds and enrollment doubled during his tenure, increasing to around 4,000 students by the time he retired in 1947.
(Image credit: the Texas Collection, photo by Fred Gildersleeve)
During his term as President of Baylor, the Keys quadruplets (pictured above) entered and graduated from Baylor. The quads, as they were called, were thought to be the first set of quadruplets to ever graduate from a United States college. Roberta, Mary, Mona and Leota Keys had been born on June 4, 1915 to Flake McDaniel and Alma Curry Keys of Hollis, Oklahoma, adding to the Keys’ other four children. Long before the development of fertility drugs, multiple births were not as common in those days. The quads were a local phenomenon and also received a congratulatory telegram from President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Keys family were members of the Baptist denomination. After appearing with them on a program in Oklahoma, Neff courted them for Baylor, offering them full four year scholarships if they chose to attend. Their family was suffering like many others due to the Depression. The girls would say that they would not have been able to attend college without the scholarships. They were talented instrumentalists and singers. During their years at Baylor they sang and played their saxophones while making many personal appearances on behalf of the school. They also campaigned with Neff in his support for Prohibition. The Keys being of modest means, Neff persuaded local businesses to provide them with nice clothing. While the girls were students, Neff and the quadruplets traveled on a goodwill tour to promote the Texas Centennial Exposition (the State Fair). They graduated in 1937 and made many public appearances together even after graduation.
Neff was a Mason and a member of the Rotary Club, as well as other fraternal and business organizations. He also served as president of the state and national Baptist organizations. He started the tradition of leaving a Bible, the Governor’s Bible, on the Governor’s desk for the next succeeding Governor.
Neff was known for being a teetotaler, not drinking liquor. He also did not drink coffee or tea and would say that his favorite drink was buttermilk. He was well read and became a gifted speaker. He was a proud Texan who had a good sense of humor. Neff once said in a speech, “You could put New York, Colorado, and Utah, our three competitors for your next meeting, in the Panhandle of Texas and it would take the cowboys two weeks to find their borders.”
Neff’s family consisted of his wife, Myrtle “Myrtie” Mainer Neff and two children. He and Myrtie had met while they were both students at Baylor. Though their courtship had its ups and downs, once they married in her hometown of Lovelady, Texas, they were together for the rest of their lives.
Neff died in 1952 in Waco and is interred in the historic Oakwood Cemetery. Several public schools are named for him, as well as Pat Neff Hall, the administration building on the Baylor University campus.
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