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Most Sunday afternoons during the 1950s, Ed Harte drove his family from Corpus Christi to North Padre Island to enjoy the beach. When proposals surfaced to develop the island, the newspaper publisher and community leader used his considerable persuasive powers to support the creation of Padre Island National Seashore, the world’s longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island.
Harte worked mostly behind the scenes to earn support for the national seashore, recalls son Chris Harte, but he also covered the subject extensively in his paper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. A decade later, Harte put the same effort behind the creation of Mustang Island State Park near Port Aransas.
Harte turned his passion for the natural world into many such efforts, including donating a 66,000-acre family ranch to the Nature Conservancy, which led to the land becoming part of Big Bend National Park. He also served as chairman of the National Audubon Society and donated $46 million to kick-start his namesake Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
“Ed loved the outdoors, every part of it, and he loved Texas, every part of it,” says John Flicker, former president of the National Audubon Society and longtime friend. “He wanted to make sure that he did what he could to take care of it.”
Harte Research Institute Director Larry McKinney says Harte gave him two reasons for wanting to start the marine research center: “One, Corpus Christi was near and dear to him and his wife, and he wanted to help put this region and this university on the map. And two, the Gulf of Mexico was really special to him. He’d spent so much time around it, and he wanted to do something on a scale that would affect the Gulf as a whole.”
Renowned ocean scientist Sylvia Earle says Harte was also inspired by her book, “Sea Change,” and he persuaded her to serve as chair of the institute’s advisory council. Earle recalls that the philanthropist didn’t want to get too involved with the details of how it would work, “but he did say, ‘whatever you do, make a difference.’ ”
McKinney notes that Harte was “very farsighted in wanting to apply science to solving problems,” leading the charge to bring together economics, policy and science at the institute, a model McKinney says is now followed by the National Science Foundation.
Harte grew up in San Angelo, graduated from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He began his newspaper career as a reporter in New Hampshire. He returned home to Texas to work as editor of the Daily News in Snyder, a paper he and a brother bought that became part of Harte-Hanks Newspapers, a partnership of Harte’s father, Houston Harte, and Bernard Hanks. In 1952, he became president of the San Angelo Standard-Times, one of more than 30 papers owned at one time by the Harte-Hanks chain. Ed Harte became publisher of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in 1962.
“As a publisher, Dad was very active in supporting an aggressive newsroom and helping to set editorial policy,” says Chris. “In many ways, the Caller-Times was the most independent and highest-quality paper in Texas. It was a leader in the state in supporting environmental causes before most people really knew or cared about them. Dad was not somebody who believed in stopping economic growth at all, but he felt that the ocean and islands had a role in the economy as well as in preserving places for public use and for wilderness.”
Harte died in 2011. “During his tenure as publisher of the Caller-Times, the newspaper’s editorial board became a strong voice for land preservation and environmental protection—an unusual stance for a Texas newspaper at the time,” wrote The New York Times in Harte’s obituary.
Harte’s passion for the Gulf of Mexico and conservation resulted in hundreds of miles of shore protected from development and a renowned center for marine research. Many who knew him were moved to join him in his efforts.
“If he could be cloned, there’d be much more hope for the world,” says Earle. “His ethic was contagious. It was hard to be around him for long and not be motivated to do everything you could to make the world better. Visionaries can see what others cannot, leaders can make others see it, and Ed had the ability to do both. He was so effective at bringing people around to see the value of nature and motivate them to do something about it.”
Those who share Harte’s love for the seashore, and the rest of the Texas landscape, can be grateful for that.
Melissa Gaskill is a frequent contributor.