By Bryant Boutwell and Charles M. Balch
When Lee Clark arrived in Houston in 1946 to lead the new state cancer center, one of his first tasks was to go to Austin and meet the legislators who held the purse strings. The M.D. Anderson Foundation trustees had provided the hospital with temporary quarters at the old Baker estate, 20 acres for the cancer hospital and dental school in the new medical center and $500,000 in startup funds. As acting director, Ernst Berner had been frugal with the funds.
While Clark was impressed with Bertner’s accomplishments, there were more buildings to add, faculty and staff to recruit and laboratories to equip. Moreover, there was the task of planning and building the permanent facilities in the medical center. This would be no ordinary hospital. Clark would design the most innovative and modern cancer hospital in the nation. It would provide the capacity for developing and implementing new treatment modalities while training the next generation of cancer care specialists. The temporary barracks of the Oaks would become relics of the past when the hospital opened in 1954 in the new Texas Medical Center.
With war’s end, restrictions on construction lifted but building costs soared. Clark needed to line up more funding for growing the temporary hospital while simultaneously planning the new. With a laundry list of funding needs, he wasted no time getting to Austin to match faces to names and learn the ropes of working with Texas legislators and power brokers. The legislature’s first regular biennium session during his tenure as director began Jan. 14, 1947, and ran until June 6. The road between Austin and Houston would see Lee Clark more than a few times during that span.
Part of Mississippi’s lure in 1939 had been the governor’s request for Clark and several Mayo colleagues to help plan a four-year medical school in Jackson. While he established a successful surgical practice as chief surgeon at the Shands Clinic, he soon learned planning a state-funded medical school was easier said than done, as Mississippi politics presented roadblocks faster than good ideas could be presented. Nevertheless, he chalked the experience up as lessons learned to be used another day. Another day was now, in Texas.
In Austin he asked questions about budget processes and timelines. No matter who he approached, the answer was always, “Ask Frances” ─ even from Beauford Jester, the state’s new governor.
So, who’s Frances? Clark already knew. His early research before arriving in Austin had told him to find Frances Goff and learn all he could.
Clark’s medical school roommate, Jack Worsham, married Clark’s sister, Dorothy, and established his medical practice in Kenedy, Texas, a small crossroads town between San Antonio and Victoria. Serendipity was alive and well in Kenedy, the kind of town where everybody knew everybody, and that included Frances Goff, who was raised right there in Kenedy in her grandparents’ Goff Hotel.
The hotel was central to the town’s social life, and Frances made a point to meet and hear the stories of its many guests, including politicians from Austin or political hopefuls on their way to Austin. Upon arrival in Kenedy, the Worshams lived in the hotel, and Dorothy and Frances became good friends.
Goff went to Austin in 1937 and worked her way up the power pole as the capable, go-to support staffer she was. She found the state’s Capitol not unlike the Goff Hotel, where new faces appeared daily. The building was open to the public all day, with constituents, lobbyists, legislators and aids coming and going at all hours. She was, in her words, a “people watcher” in a network of “good ol’ boys.” Her hotel background allowed her to blend in with ease.
She never tired of the stories and built a network of close friends who rose to top leadership positions over the years and took her with them. Capable and hardworking, she took on state budgets and increasingly difficult jobs, becoming the right hand to several governors and a networker among networkers. Governors such as Allred, O’Daniel, Stevenson, Jester and Shivers came to trust her advice and textbook knowledge on the workings of state government. In time she wrote the book on legislative protocol and the budget process. If one needed to know how things got done in Austin — it was always “ask Frances.” Dorothy’s advice to find Frances Goff proved invaluable a thousand times over in the years ahead. Even before he first arrived in Austin, Clark knew he not only wanted to find her but also recruit her to Houston if possible. Repeatedly hearing “ask Frances” had only vetted her value.
Likewise, Goff knew all about Clark and the new cancer hospital before he arrived. Behind the scenes, she had worked on Arthur Cato’s bill that passed in 1941 as well as prior failed attempts to create a state cancer hospital, even place it in Dallas. She was a master at knowing how state appropriations worked their way through the Texas Legislature to The University of Texas System Board of Regents and the new state cancer hospital.
Years later she recalled her first meeting with Clark in Austin. She noted he asked her to become his special assistant at the cancer hospital in Houston, to which she bluntly replied without hesitation, “No.”
“You don’t know anything about state government,” she recalled telling Clark. “You don’t know anything about the Legislature. You need some training.”
She pointed out that he needed to learn “because I am not going to do it for you.”
At the time, Goff was getting the budget ready for the 1947 session and understood that she could be of more help to Clark teaching him the ropes in Austin rather than serving on his staff in Houston. Not one to give up, Clark responded, “So when will you come?” This was a question he would repeat for the next five years until she arrived at the Oaks on Sept. 1, 1951.
During Clark’s first legislative session he ran into roadblocks time after time, and Goff coached him around them. Sometimes her advice worked, sometimes it didn’t, but each time he learned a valuable lesson and filed it away for future use. During the 1947 legislative session, for example, he needed substantial appropriations to fund construction for some new buildings at the Oaks, yet some Houston doctors lobbied against his hoped-for $2 million appropriation and blocked it. Goff suggested a way to obtain some unexpended balance of Anderson’s original appropriation, which had been held back until the hospital was in full operation. Bottom line, he received unexpected extra funds and returned to Houston with a smile.
“His first session did not go very well,” Goff recalled in a 1977 interview. “But every session thereafter, he got better and better and secured the funding he needed. In time, Sen. A.M. Aiken, a great friend to Clark and the cancer hospital, would tell him one day, ‘Dr. Clark, be careful what you ask for because I’m going to vote for it.’ It didn’t hurt that Aiken, also known as ‘Mr. Education,’ was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, with three prior decades of service to the committee.
At the Oaks, Goff became indispensable as Clark’s administrative assistant. Working in a tiny sewing room converted into an office down the hall from Clark, she made big things happen. As he worked with architects to design the permanent medical center hospital, Goff was by his side helping with financial issues and finding solutions to the most difficult challenges. Her contacts in Austin as well as her sheer devotion to Clark and the hospital she served for four decades was boundless.
From 1952 to 1994, Goff used her vacation time every summer to serve as director of Bluebonnet Girl’s State, a program designed to groom young women, juniors in high school, for leadership and service. Over the years, Frances put her personal stamp on the students’ knowledge of state government, leadership skills and citizenship. Only she could line up the biggest names in state government to teach and motivate the next generation of Frances Goffs. One such young woman, a 1950 graduate of Waco High School, was Dorothy Ann Willis. The nation would later know her as Ann Richards, the state’s 35th governor from 1991 to 1995.
Goff had a framed picture of Richards hanging directly over her desk. It was signed, “To Frances, I owe you everything.”
It was a sad day, Sept. 15, 1994, when she died at age 78. She’s buried in Austin’s Texas State Cemetery near the many governors and state officials she knew well.
Goff was one of a kind. She lived and breathed MD Anderson. Without her, Lee Clark would still have accomplished great things. But with her, his accomplishments were even greater.
Next article: Building the cancer station