The Texas Exes Reaches 100,000 Life Members

It was a warm and slightly humid May morning at the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park just northwest of Atlanta, Georgia, when Erin Peterson was hiking among the pines.  

Peterson, BJ ’06, Life Member, absentmindedly patted her fanny pack, only to discover that her keys had gone missing. With mounting panic, she retraced her steps to the overflow lot where she had parked her car—not that it was of much use to her now that she had locked herself out. Assuming they were lost somewhere along the trail, she called an Uber home to grab a spare set of keys and returned to retrieve her car.   

The next morning, the dealership quoted her $700 for a replacement set. “I was stressed and beating myself up over what was becoming my most expensive hike ever,” Peterson says.  

Back at the park, however, a kind-hearted ranger named William Byrd had found her keys—along with a Texas Exes keytag, marked with the Life Member number 49,151 and instructions to return it to the Ex-Students’ Association in Austin, Texas.   

“Most people would have left it in the lost and found and not given it another thought. Not Ranger Byrd,” Peterson says. “He went a step further and called up the Texas Exes to see if they had my contact.”   

Within minutes, the Association’s membership team was on the phone with Peterson, coordinating the return of her car keys. Guaranteed return postage not required.  

There are many, many more of those iconic keytags out in the world. Some may be lost forever, and others have a special patina from decades of Life Membership that Longhorns are proud to show off. This spring, the Texas Exes will reach 100,000 Life Members—114 years since the first iteration of Life Membership, and 67 years after we started counting.

The membership scrolls for the first numbered Life Members.

In 1910, 25 years after the birth of UT’s Alumni Association, alumni affairs had dwindled from the Assocation’s largely successful early years of philanthropy to one “sparsely attended” annual Alumni Day, reports Jim Nicar, BA ’17, Life Member, for his blog, the UT History Corner. Ed Parker, LLB 1889, Life Member, the newly elected president of the Association, enumerated a five-point plan to turn things around, from establishing the very same magazine you’re reading now, to enforcing the membership dues payment that had gone lax. In addition, he created a $50 Life Membership that could be paid all at once or in $10 installments over five years. “There didn’t seem to be a rush of alumni eager to join at the Life Member level, but a steady trickle,” Nicar says. “The first issue of the Alcalde [in 1913] listed seven Life Members.”

Over the next few years, the Alumni Association weathered World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, and multiple attacks by governor at the time (before alumni successfully lobbied to have him removed from office). In 1919, the newest Texas Exes president Will Hogg, LLB 1897, Life Member, assumed responsibility for once again reviving the Alumni Association, including the reintroduction of $50 Life Memberships.   

This second generation of Life Members involved around 175 Longhorns, though none were assigned personal member numbers. Membership waned again with the abundance of the 1920s, into the Great Depression and World War II. “I suspect Life Memberships [became] either impractical or unimportant,” Nicar says. “It wasn’t until the economy rebounded in the 1950s that the idea of Life Memberships resurfaced.”

In 1957, while Jack Maguire, BJ ’44, Life Member, was executive director of the Association, he fielded a phone call from Jodie Thompson, BA, BBA 1922, Life Member, founder of the 7-Eleven convenience stores. Thompson wanted to join the Ex-Students’ Association (as it was called before the more colloquial “Texas Exes” name was formally adopted), but he wanted to be more than just a regular member. As legend has it, Maguire offered him the inaugural numbered Life Membership on the spot. Thompson became Life Member No. 1 for $250—or $2,779 in today’s cash.  

Since its inception, membership dues have been put in an endowment fund that ensures the Association’s longevity. In the late ’80s, too, then-president of the Exes Jack Harbin, BBA ’39, Life Member, orchestrated an effort to further protect this endowment by restricting the percentage of the total amount that could be withdrawn—and earmarking it for annual operating expenses. The price of membership has never quite caught up with inflation, however: Dues currently cost $1,000, to be paid in full or installments.  

Carol Barrett, BS ’69, Life Member, currently director of special projects and Texas Exes employee for more than 50 years, remembers how the late John Stuart, BBA ’58, Life Member and past president of the Texas Exes, used to buy a Life Membership for each of his grandchildren. “The minute they were born,” Barrett says. “And before he died, he bought one for his great-grandson. He called me every time because he wanted to sign the certificate himself.”

A newly minted Life Member rings the bell to celebrate at the 2023 Great Texas Exit.

Many families can count multiple generations of Life Members. Mikaela Rodriguez, BBA ’21, Life Member, traces it back to her grandfather Pete Alfaro, BS ’69, Life Member, who passed away in December 2023. His children—Rodriguez’s parents, aunts, and uncles—followed in his footsteps to UT.  

“My parents gifted me with Life Membership for my graduation present, and to me, it was like a rite of passage,” Rodriguez says. “I still remember the day I got my membership. [It] reminds me of the hard work, dedication, and success my family has had, which inspired me to follow my dreams and continue the Longhorn legacy.”  

Membership certificates signed by the executive director and president of the Association are now only available upon request—and new members’ names are no longer hand-calligraphed onto scrolls that hang in the Alumni Center. The latter was a practical decision: The Alumni Center ran out of wall space when the organization hit 25,100 Life Members. (Now, every Life Member’s name and number are printed into books available for perusal on the second floor.)  

Chuck Harris, BBA ’86, Life Member, executive director and CEO of the Texas Exes since 2018, recognizes that the times are a-changin’. “Back in ’57, you were a member of your family, you were a member of your church, and you were a Life Member,” he says. “The world of belonging, of membership, is a lot more crowded now, so our stewardship of this going forward needs to evolve. We don’t want to take it for granted.”

One of the longtime emblems of Life Membership has stuck around, however. You’re still likely to see the “Texas Exes Life Member” bumper sticker on cars around Austin and even further afield. A version of this decal dates back as early as 1968, inspired by the success of a sticker issued the previous year to celebrate the football team’s National Championship win.

Harris says the reasons to join have also stayed the same from the membership’s genesis to the newest generation of Longhorns: professional networking, a philanthropic instinct, access to exclusive events, and a connection with the University after graduation, to name just a few.  

“It’s the ultimate gift back to your experience here,” he says. “For a relatively small sum, you are putting another brick in the wall to ensure it stands forever. Wouldn’t you want to be one of those bricks in that wall?”  

For Rodriguez, there is also a literal brick on the grounds of the Alumni Center honoring her grandfather. “I cherish my membership even more now that he’s passed away,” she says. “I’m thankful to have a small piece of him at the University he loved so dearly.”

If you ask Roy Vaughan, Life Member and executive director of the Texas Exes from 1976–94, after 13 years in Jack Maguire’s office, this is the real meaning of the membership and the ultimate purpose of the Alumni Association—to preserve an enduring relationship with The University of Texas.  

“When I picked up Jim Boon at the airport [in 1994] when he was coming in to be the [next executive] director … I had an Oldsmobile, and I threw him the keys, and I said, ‘The business is relationships. That’s all you need to know.’”  

“RV” (as the stalwart is known around the Alumni Center) also advised Boon, BBA ’69, MBA ’72, Life Member, to take frequent walks across campus to remind himself of the most important relationship of all: “It’s through the Association that you have a relationship with the University,” Vaughan says.

During his time as executive director, Vaughan saw the milestone of 10,000 Life Members. Despite having worked at the Texas Exes since 1963, he had decided to wait to join until he could claim Life Member No. 10,000 for himself.  

His opportunity finally arose in 1977—but that was also the year Earl Campbell, BS ’79, Life Member, won the Heisman Trophy. Vaughan decided Campbell was more deserving of the special number.   

Vaughan’s keytag reads 10,001 instead. It looks golden, which would be fitting for such a formative figure in the Association’s history, but it’s actually the brass that has long since worn through its silver coating.  

When Vaughan and his late wife Billie, BS ’71, Life Member, moved to College Station to be closer to their children and grandchildren, Billie made a point of replacing their Texas Exes Life Member car decal every year to keep it fresh and visible within rival territory. And Vaughan still makes the drive into the Alumni Center with their dog, Holly (who could be a very cute Life Member No. 100,001 to match her owner, in this writer’s opinion. Once again, the round number has gone first to a University icon: Bevo was assigned Life Member No. 100,000 in 2013 in anticipation of the milestone.)  

“I hope the University continues to be a place that is important enough in people’s lives that they want to keep a relationship with it,” Vaughan says. “As long as that happens, there will be Life Members.”

A 1960s-era mail campaign to recruit members.

“I remember checking the mail one afternoon to find my Life Member kit, which contained a brand-new Texas Exes metal license plate frame. My dad and I eventually affixed the frame to my Camry, its burnt-orange edges glistening against the red paint of the car. Over the past couple years, my car with its burnt-orange frame has traveled far and allowed me to experience a new set of adventures post-graduation. I still get excited whenever I see another Texas Exes license plate or Longhorn car decal while driving; it’s a small, special reminder of the enduring presence of the UT and Texas Exes community.” 
—Shilpa Rajagopal, BSA, BBA ’21, Life Member No. 91,871  

“I was going through a very lonely time … when I learned that I could pay just $25 every other month for a long time, and then I could be a Life Member. I needed to be part of something bigger that I loved. I’ll never forget how I felt when I finally finished payments and received full membership. I got a big package of burnt-orange stuff! The Texas Exes was there for me, and you still are. Thanks so much.” 
—Nancy Mowry Toberman, BS ’76, Life Member No. 63,902 

“My Texas Exes memory is a monthly one. My grandfather, Johnnie Wayne Bartek, BBA ’70, Life Member, gifted me a Texas Exes Life Membership when I graduated. Every month, we race to find the albino squirrel in the Alcalde. It is so silly, but something I look forward to each issue. Here is a photo of us with the last issue!”
—Alyson Ware, BS ’14, Life Member No. 78,195

CREDITS: From top, Matt Wright-Steel (2); Texas Exes (2); Matt Wright-Steel; Texas Exes (8); Nancy Knight; Alyson Ware


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