By Vickie Moon Merchant
Friends of the History Center for Aransas County
The San Antonio Express News, Jan. 28, 2015, declared Clara Driscoll one of the “20 most influential people from 1865 until 2015, who significantly shaped the city of San Antonio, put it on the map, or otherwise did wonderful things for people.”
Driscoll was born in St. Mary’s, Texas on Copano Bay in Refugio County on April 2, 1881. She was the granddaughter of Daniel O’Driscoll, an Irish immigrant, who fought in Texas’ War for Independence from Mexico.
O’Driscoll was awarded a land grant near Refugio. Robert, Clara’s father, and Jeremiah, her uncle, served as privates in the Refugio Home Guard during the Civil War. After that, the two men expanded the family’s cattle operations by joining Dan Doughty and John Howland Wood to purchase land and cattle in Refugio, Victoria and Bee counties. Other ranches were purchased around 1900, one being La Gloria in Duval County. The towns of Driscoll and Robstown were named after Robert Driscoll.
In the early 1890s, when Clara was only nine, she was sent to Mrs. Gregory’s School in San Antonio to begin her education and then on to Miss Peebles and Miss Thompson’s School for Girls in New York City. To complete her education, she attended finishing school at a convent in Bornel, France, Château de Dieudonne. Even though she grew up on a ranch, and lived in a boarding house in Rockport, she spoke four languages by the time she returned from Europe in 1898 and settled in San Antonio.
In 1903, the neglected Alamo was to be replaced by a hotel. At that time, the State had purchased the Alamo’s Mission Chapel from the Roman Catholic Church, but gave custody of it to the City of San Antonio. The city had made no improvements to the structure and the State would not pay to add the Alamo Long Barrack Fortress, where most of the famous battle occurred. Alarmed by the state of the Alamo, Clara stated in the San Antonio Express the “unsightly obstructions near the Alamo should be removed to allow the Alamo to stand alone.”
Adina Emilia De Zavala, granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala, another soldier during the Texas Revolution, enlisted Clara Driscoll to join the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) and to raise money for this cause. As the deadline drew closer and the money not yet raised, at just 22 years old, Clara Driscoll stepped forward and offered $75,000 of her own money to protect this sacred site of Texans. Though others were also responsible, she became known as the “Savior of the Alamo.” Driscoll is also remembered for the beautiful Laguna Gloria Villa she and Hal Servier, her husband, built on the Colorado River in Austin. This mansion and its grounds became the original home of the Austin Museum of Art.
In 1904, Clara’s book, “Girl of La Gloria”, was published. That was followed by a series of short stories, “In the Shadow of the Alamo.” She also wrote a musical, “Mexicalla,” which opened in the Schubert Brothers’ Lyric Theater in New York City. In 1928, Clara was elected to the Democratic National Committee where she served for 16 years and became a confidant of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
After her brother’s death in 1914, she managed her family’s land and cattle. Despite suggestions to lease the land and sell the cattle, Clara kept all of the cattle and the land, thus preserving the Driscoll empire. As the Corpus Christi area began to grow, Clara supported the building of the naval base and built the Driscoll hotel.
When Driscoll died in 1945 at the age of 64, her body lay in state at the Alamo’s Mission Chapel, in recognition of her work to preserve it. Because she had no children, Clara Driscoll’s will created a fund to maintain a charitable hospital for indigent children. With the help of Clara Driscoll’s physician, McIver Furman, MD, Driscoll Children’s Hospital on Alameda Street in Corpus Christi opened in 1953 and in 1970 had its status changed from charity only to not-for-profit, so it could provide care to all children in South Texas.
Additionally, her will also called for the creation of the Robert Driscoll and Julia Driscoll and Robert Driscoll Jr. Foundation. The foundation was to be run by trustees, who would be in charge of handling the assets and financially taking care of the hospital. Driscoll Children’s Hospital has grown from a 25-bed facility to one that has a medical staff comprised of pediatric specialists in more than 32 medical and 13 surgical specialties. Every year approximately 6,500 children are admitted for inpatient care, more than 3,500 patients for day surgery, and 132,000 children for outpatient care. Driscoll was the first hospital in South Texas to provide emergency services exclusively for children and today emergency care is provided to approximately 40,000 children a year. Driscoll was an author, a politician, an activist, a cattlewoman and is referred to as the “Savior of the Alamo.” Her stubborn will, business sense and leadership skills made her powerful; however, it was her compassion, spirit and generosity that made her great. Even today, her gift is an extraordinary blessing for South Texas.
Learn more about the settlement in which Clara Driscoll was raised by viewing the exhibit, “1845: Annexation of Texas to the US”, which is on display until June 18, 2016 at The History Center, 801 E. Cedar St.
Information about the people living near El Copano, Lamar, St. Mary’s, and Aransas City on Copano Bay can be found on posters along with artifacts collected near its shoreline. The History Center is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. and is a venue of Aransas Pathways. For more information, call 727-9214 or go to www.aransashistorycenter.