J. T. Rutherford – Major, United States Marine Corps Member of Congress

RUTHERFORD, J. T., a Representative from Texas; born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, May 30, 1921; moved to Odessa, Texas, in 1934 and attended the public schools; served as an enlisted man in the United States Marine Corps 1942-1946 with twenty-eight months overseas; awarded the Purple Heart Medal; retired as a Major in the United States Marine Corps Reserve; student at San Angelo (Texas) College in 1946 and 1947 and Sul Ross State College, Alpine, Texas, in 1947 and 1948; attended Baylor University Law School, Waco, Texas, 1948-1950; partner in industrial electrical construction firm and owner of advertising company; served in the State house of representatives 1948-1952; member of the State senate 1952-1954; elected as a Democrat to the Eighty-fourth, and to the three succeeding Congresses (January 3, 1955-January 3, 1963); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1962 to the Eighty-eighth Congress; consultant; is a resident of Odessa, Texas, and Arlington, Virginia.

Ex-Odessa congressman will be buried at Arlington
‘When you get down to it, I owe them my best.’ — J.T. ‘Slick’ Rutherford


J.T. ‘Slick’ Rutherford was first Odessan elected to Congress
Courtesy of the Odessa American

Former Odessan congressman J.T. Rutherford, 85, who died at his home in Arlington, Virginia, Monday morning following a long battle with Alzheimer’s, will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Services are planned for 3 p.m. December 13, 2006.

Rutherford climbed the political ladder by first being elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1948, then won promotion to the state Senate four years later.

He ran for Congress in 1954 against 10-year incumbent Ken Reagan of Midland. In truth, Rutherford later confided to intimates, he didn’t expect to win but was positioning himself to win two years later.

To the astonishment of many, he won that first congressional race by 151 votes out of 54,000.

“Rutherford, Reagan Nip and Tuck,” read an Odessa American headline the morning after the election. It was several days and a full recount later before Rutherford was certified the winner. The tedious recount cost him only three votes.
Attention to his job was a Rutherford trademark. He only missed one vote of the several thousand cast while he was a congressman.

And he had a rule that any mail to his office must be acknowledged within 24 hours. “Service to constituents is important,” he told his staff. “Nobody cares about the people of the 16th District of Texas but me. When you get down to it, I owe them my best.”

Rutherford’s district was the old jumbo 16th district, Midland being its eastmost point and El Paso its westmost. It also stretched hundreds of miles along the border with Mexico. The 19 counties it embraced covered 42,067 square miles — making it larger than the states of Ohio and Tennessee, among others.

Sometimes, Rutherford campaigned much of it by small aircraft. In non-election years, he pulled a trailer house behind his car, having decked it out as his mobile office, and visited each town in his vast district.

A moderate Democrat in a conservative district, Rutherford bucked the trend toward growing Republicanism in West Texas.

He thought his defeat in 1962 to Republican Ed Foreman may have been partially because he was one of few Texans in Congress to vote for the first Civil Rights Bill to pass since Reconstruction.

But that vote made a close friend of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who hoped to be president and needed to shed a Southern label for a western one.

The tall, rangy Rutherford, who was partial to cowboy hats and boots, was a walking western ad.

Once LBJ became president, and Rutherford had established a consulting firm following his defeat, Rutherford called upon the White House so much that he had his own reserved parking place there.

While in office, Rutherford brought home the bacon for his district.

Some of his accomplishment included improvements to the Midland-Odessa airport, the establishment of the petrochemical plant in Odessa, a national guard armory at the air terminal, a flood control project in Ozona, a radar station in Monahans, restoration of historic Fort Davis and a new bank in Odessa.

His assignments as a member of House Armed Services Committee, the Banking and Currency Committee and the House Interior Committee provided that sort of influence.

A combat Marine in the Pacific Theatre in World War II, Rutherford was proud of his membership in the “Alligator Marines” who invaded many an island and atoll. He was wounded in one battle.

As an assault amphibian vehicle crewman, he landed in the first waves on D-Day at Tarawa, Saipan — where he was wounded and received the Purple Heart — and Tinian.

He enlisted in the Marine Corps and graduated from Boot Camp in 1942. During his years of active and reserve service in the Marine Corps, he rose in rank from Private to Major.

His belief in providing good care for military veterans led him to be active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In the early 1950s, he served a two-year term as Texas state commander of the VFW.

After the war he served for many years as chairman of the 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion World War II Association, maintaining rosters, searching for missing members, publishing newsletters, coordinating annual reunions and looking after widows and families of deceased members.

After leaving Congress, he formed J.T. Rutherford & Associates, a government relations consulting firm to work on issues before Congress.

Until his retirement in 1988, he represented the BDM Corp., the Association of Military Schools and Colleges and the American College of Eadiology, among others.

Upon his retirement, the American College of Radiology developed an internship in his name for radiology residents to participate in federal government activities.

Rutherford’s daughter, Ann, said one of her father’s proudest accomplishments was being the first chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks.

She said he was awarded the U.S. Department of Interior’s Conservation Service Award in December 1962 for his efforts to spearhead conservation legislation including laws that created a new national seashore on Padre Island,

Rutherford was predeceased by his wife of 56 years, Sara Jane Armstrong, who died in 2004. They met as students at Sul Ross State College in Alpine shortly after the end of World War II.

He is survived by a daughter, Ann Rutherford of northern Virginia, and a son, Charles Lane of Texas.

J.T. Rutherford, 85, a four-term Democratic congressman from Texas who became such a regular visitor of President Lyndon B. Johnson's that for a time he had a reserved parking place on White House grounds, died of complications from Alzheimer's disease November 6, 2006, at his Arlington, Virginia, home.

Mr. Rutherford was a moderate Democrat who became one of the few Texas congressmen to vote for the early civil rights bills.

As the first chair of the House Interior Committee's national parks subcommittee, he introduced and shepherded to passage a bill that created Cape Cod National Seashore, at the request of President John F. Kennedy. For his leadership in establishing two more national seashores, Padre Island in Texas and Point Reyes in California, he received the Department of the Interior's Conservation Service Award in 1962.

In 1962, Mr. Rutherford lost reelection to a fifth term representing the 16th Congressional District, which, at the time, stretched from El Paso to Midland, Texas.

“The district was turning more conservative by the day . . . and he had this constituent from Pecos named Billie Sol Estes,” said Larry L. King, a novelist and playwright who worked on Mr. Rutherford's staff.

Mr. Rutherford arranged a meeting at the Agriculture Department for Estes, a financier later convicted of swindling federal funds and mail fraud. Mr. Rutherford's failure to report Estes's $1,500 campaign contribution in a timely manner resulted in a grand jury subpoena of his bank records. He was not charged, but opponents made hay over the connections and attempted to remove his name from the ballot. He lost the 1962 election to Republican Ed Foreman.

After his defeat, Mr. Rutherford set up a Washington consulting firm with clients that included the BDM Corp., the Association of Military Schools and Colleges of the United States, and the American College of Radiology. He retired in 1988.

“LBJ thereafter tried to take care of Rutherford, because he was trying to shed his Southern image and make it a Western image,” King said. At more than 6 feet tall, Mr. Rutherford “was a walking cowboy ad. His boots and hat made him look seven inches taller,” King said.

Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and raised in Odessa, Texas, Mr. Rutherford enlisted in the Marine Corps at the start of World War II. As a machine gunner in an amphibian tractor battalion in the Pacific theater, he was in the first waves during the invasions of Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian, said Joseph H. Alexander, a military historian who relied on Mr. Rutherford to find veterans for his 1996 book, “Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa.” Among Mr. Rutherford's military awards was the Purple Heart.

He later became Texas commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He chaired the 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion World War II Association and formed the Alligator Marine Memorial Association. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a Major.

After World War II, Mr. Rutherford graduated from Sul Ross State College in Alpine, Texas, and attended Baylor University law school. He became a partner in an industrial electrical construction firm and owner of an advertising company. He served in the state legislature from 1948 to 1954, when he was elected to the first of four terms in Congress.

His wife of 56 years, Sara Jane Rutherford, died in 2004.

Survivors include three children, Ann Rutherford of Arlington, Charles Lane Rutherford of Denton, Tex., and Jane Rutherford of Alexandria; a brother; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 05/30/1921
  • DATE OF DEATH: 11/06/2006


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 06/15/1927
  • DATE OF DEATH: 09/14/2004

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