Judge Clifton Mott Caldwell
HSU Trustee 1919-1965
Clifton Mott Caldwell was born May 1, 1880, in Palo Pinto County, 10 miles north of Gordon, Texas, to James S. and Janie Mott Caldwell. He attended rural schools until the age of 13 when he had to drop out to help on the family farm. He returned to school two years later in Colorado City, and eventually qualified for a teaching certificate.
At age 16, his family moved to Breckenridge where he met his future wife, Cora Belle Keathley. By 1901, he had saved enough money for the couple to marry, and with his buggy and Cora’s horse, they began their life together. Their first home was in Caddo Community where Caldwell was teaching. They lived in a former one-room school house that was located next to the new school building. He purchased the house for $20, and the couple pasted newspapers over holes in the walls to help block the winter wind while they hunkered near their potbellied stove.
With a strong belief in the importance of education, Caldwell was appointed principal of the Caddo school in 1905. He was able to be an effective disciplinarian by counseling and guiding his students rather than using the more traditional methods of the day of thrashing and whipping.
The young couple welcomed their first child, Guy in 1904, with Mildred and Agnes to soon follow. In 1908, with three young children in tow, the Caldwells took their life savings and moved to Austin, where he was to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a lawyer. He entered the University of Texas Law School, but expenses were more than their savings could cover. They rented a large house adjoining the university and Mrs. Caldwell took in boarders to help support the family of five. In addition to studying law, Caldwell worked at the library and in a bookstore to supplement their income.
He performed well in law school, serving as secretary and vice president of his class. He graduated in 1911 at the age of 31, and returned to Breckenridge where he began his law practice. In 1912 he was elected county attorney, and in 1916 was appointed county judge, and later district judge. He held these posts briefly, but the nickname “Judge” stuck with him for the rest of his life.
As a county attorney and judge, Caldwell used the same tactics he had applied in the schoolroom, choosing to counsel with the person rather than pressing charges or levying fines.
During this time, Caldwell developed a business partnership with Breck Walker, which involved leasing mineral rights on surrounding farms. He and Walker later entered into the banking business, Caldwell as a director of the First National Bank of Breckenridge and Walker as president.
In 1917, shortly before the Ranger oil boom, the Walker-Caldwell Oil Company was formed. Caldwell invested in property and at one time owned over 225,000 acres on four ranches around Toyah in West Texas. He also bought smaller tracts of land around Breckenridge and in Callahan and Shackelford counties. Feeling it was his civic duty, he also invested thousands of dollars in the Breckenridge community, financing a dam and pipeline to replace the Breckenridge water-wagon business. He was also largely responsible for bringing the railroad to the area.
In 1922, Caldwell moved his family to Abilene, where he again gave of his time and resources to the community. When HSU president, Dr. J. D. Sandefer, approached Caldwell about contributing to the building of a fine arts building, Clifton and Cora gave $100,000 – enough to cover the total cost of the building. This donation was the first of many contributions to HSU to come from the Caldwell family, including those made by his children and grandchildren.
Caldwell served on the HSU board of trustees from 1919 until his resignation at age 85 in 1965. He also served as a director of the Texas and Pacific Railroad during the 1920s and again in the 1950s. He gave the land to build Hendrick Memorial Hospital and served as a hospital trustee. He also served on the boards of two of the city’s leading banking institutions, Citizens National Bank and Abilene Savings Association, for more than 40 years.
He served as director of the West Texas Chamber of Commerce, working toward his goal of making West Texas the “most democratic section on earth, including right living and the Golden Rule.” He chaired the war loan drive during both world wars, raising over $40 million in war bonds and stamps.
In 1951 he was named the Top Citizen of the Year by the Abilene Chamber of Commerce, and in 1953 the Boy Scouts of America recognized him with the Silver Beaver Award. He was honored by many resolutions of appreciation, including one by the State Legislature on January 29, 1969.
In his later years, Caldwell stated that his most treasured title of all was Baptist Deacon. Caldwell’s humility and caring are well illustrated in a letter he wrote to one of his grandsons:
“I always had an ambition to try to learn something, but I didn’t have the early opportunity and therefore I haven’t learned fast enough. If I could have had the opportunity my children have made for their children I believe I could have made a stronger, better, and more useful citizen. I am counting on you….I just want you to make one of the best citizens Texas has….I want you to learn how to make a living for yourself and be able to help others who are less fortunate than you.”
C. M. Caldwell died at the age of 88 on August 8, 1968, one of the best citizens Texas has ever claimed.