W. Lee O'Daniel

"Pappy O'Daniel" redirects here. For the fictional character, see O Brother, Where Art Thou?
W. Lee O'Daniel
United States Senator
from Texas
In office
August 4, 1941  January 3, 1949
Preceded by Andrew Jackson Houston
Succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson
34th Governor of Texas
In office
January 17, 1939  August 4, 1941
Lieutenant Coke R. Stevenson
Preceded by James Allred
Succeeded by Coke R. Stevenson
Personal details
Born Wilbert Lee O'Daniel
(1890-03-11)March 11, 1890
Malta, Morgan County, Ohio
Died May 12, 1969(1969-05-12) (aged 79)
Dallas, Texas
Resting place Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Merle Estella Butcher
Profession Musician; politician
Religion Baptist

Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel (March 11, 1890  May 12, 1969) was a conservative Democratic Party politician from Texas, who came to prominence by hosting a popular radio program. Known for his populist appeal and support of Texas's business community, Pappy O'Daniel was the governor of Texas and later its junior U.S. senator. Excluding the 1960 race for the Democratic presidential nomination in which Johnson contested none of the primaries, O'Daniel was the only person ever to have defeated Lyndon B. Johnson in an election. O'Daniel was also a songwriter who composed "Beautiful Texas".[1]

The 2000 Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou featured a character played by Charles Durning and named Governor Pappy O'Daniel, loosely based on the real O'Daniel, and set in Mississippi.[2][3]

Early life

O'Daniel was born in Malta, Ohio. His father was killed in an accident while O'Daniel was a boy, and his mother remarried. The family moved to a cattle ranch near Arlington, Kansas. O'Daniel attended local schools and graduated from the two-year program at Salt City Business College in Hutchinson, Kansas. In 1909 he relocated to Anthony, Kansas to become a stenographer and bookkeeper for a flour milling company. After time with companies in Kansas City, Missouri and New Orleans, in 1925 he began to work for the Burrus Mill flour company in Fort Worth.

Radio fame

In the late 1920s, O'Daniel assumed responsibility for the Burrus company's radio advertising. To that end, he wrote songs, sang, and hired a group of musicians to form an old timey band to back his vocals. Originally called the Light Crust Doughboys, notable musicians such as Bob Wills got their start with O'Daniel. After the Doughboys split up, O'Daniel formed the Western swing band, Pat O'Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys. The new group was named after O'Daniel's own Hillbilly Flour Company. O'Daniel also hosted a regular noontime radio show heard statewide, which gave him his nickname after a catchphrase used frequently on air – "pass the biscuits, Pappy"—and propelled him into the public spotlight. By the mid-1930s, "Pappy" O'Daniel was a household name in Texas. As a national magazine reporter wrote at the time: "At twelve-thirty sharp each day, a fifteen-minute silence reigned in the state of Texas, broken only by mountain music, and the dulcet voice of W. Lee O'Daniel." The show extolled the values of Hillbilly brand flour, the Ten Commandments and the Bible.[4][5][6][7]

Political career


In 1938, he ran for governor of Texas as a Democrat. O'Daniel's campaign hailed his flour and the need for pensions and tax cuts. He promised to block a sales tax and raise pensions. O'Daniel won the Democratic primary election with 51 percent of the ballots over twelve opponents. In office, he went against his campaign promise by proposing a new sales tax, which was voted down by the Texas Legislature. Despite this position change, he remained personally popular and handily won re-election in 1940. In both elections, his main competition came from Texas Railroad Commissioner Ernest O. Thompson, the former mayor of Amarillo.


In 1941, O'Daniel ran for the United States Senate in a special election. He defeated Lyndon Johnson by 1,311 votes in one of the more controversial elections in state history. His victory made him the only person to ever defeat Johnson for elected office. As a senator, O'Daniel was ineffective, and most of his legislation was defeated. He endorsed the anti-Roosevelt Texas Regulars in the 1944 presidential election. O'Daniel refused to run for another term in 1948.

Later career

After leaving the Senate, O'Daniel bought a ranch near Fort Worth. He invested in real estate in Dallas and was also active in the insurance business.

O'Daniel ran for governor in 1956 and 1958 and claimed that the Brown v. Board of Education decision was part of a communist conspiracy. He finished third in the Democratic primaries both times.

Death and burial

O'Daniel died in Dallas on May 12, 1969. He was buried in Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas.


  1. http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/treasures/characters/btexas-1.html
  2. Sorin, Hillary (August 4, 2010), "Today in Texas History: Gov. Pappy O'Daniel resigns", The Houston Chronicle, retrieved 2011-08-02, Many cultural and political historians think the character Gov. Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel of Mississippi is based on the notorious Texas politician, Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel.
  3. Flensted-Jensen, Pernille (2002), "Something old, something new, something borrowed: the Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou", Classica Et Mediaevalia: Revue Danoise De Philologie, 53: 13–30. Flensted-Jensen elaborates on the connection between the fictional and the real Pappy O'Daniel on pp. 27–28.
  4. "W.L. O'Daniel, Handbook of Texas Online, s.v.,". (accessed May 26, 2010)
  5. Malone, Bill C. (2002). "The Cowboy Image and the Growth of Western Music". Country Music, U.S.A.: Second Revised Edition. University of Texas Press. p. 151. ISBN 0-292-75262-8.
  6. Crawford, Bill (2004). Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy: Pictures of Governor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel. John Anderson. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-70575-1.
  7. Woods, Randall Bennett (2007). "Pappy". LBJ: Architect of American Ambition. Harvard University Press. p. 148. ISBN 0-674-02699-3.
Political offices
Preceded by
James V. Allred
Governor of Texas
January 17, 1939 – August 4, 1941
Succeeded by
Coke R. Stevenson
United States Senate
Preceded by
Andrew J. Houston
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Texas
Succeeded by
Lyndon B. Johnson
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