A History-making Celt. And a Tradition of UST.
Criss Cole ’52 was one of the University of St. Thomas-Houston’s greatest Celts you have probably never heard of. But you’re about to. He was also father to UST alumnus Warren Cole ’71 and grandfather to Elizabeth Cole Clancy, M.Ed ’20.
A Modest Beginning and a Tragic Event
Before he finished high school and enrolled at St. Thomas, the young man served as a Marine in WWII. During combat with the Japanese in the Gilbert Islands, he lost his sight to a grenade and returned to civilian life in Houston. Blind. But without limits.
Failure Was Not an Option
Amazingly, his son Warren said the lack of vision only made his father’s other senses sharper. “It made him develop his hearing and touch. He would absorb anything he heard.”
Not interested in any handouts, Criss found a job after the war working for Reed Roller Bit.
“He could feel the burrs and spurs on the manufactured ball bearings and cull the good from the bad,” Warren said.
This remarkable man moved on to land a job as a legal stenographer for the City’s legal department and enrolled in prelaw courses at UST. He received his law degree in 1954 from the U of H law school where he was named Outstanding Law Student of the Year.
Warren said, “Things were so different then. People who went into the war did not come back with their hand out, wanting immediate gratification. Instead, suffering and sacrifice formed their personalities. What I remember about my dad is his perseverance, integrity, honesty … that he was his own person, never forgetting that he came from modest sharecroppers and was never selfish. Moreover, he was well-respected in the legal field and the Texas legislature.”
Yes, the Texas legislature. Criss became an acclaimed legislator and judge, serving in the Texas House of Representatives from 1955 to 1962 and in the Texas Senate from 1963 to 1970. In 1971 he was appointed to preside over what would become the 315th District Court in Harris County.
Driven to Make Things Better for Others
Known for his humility and sincerity, this devout Catholic was driven to make things better for others.
“Among the bills he helped to pass,” said Warren, “was one establishing the Padre Island National Seashore. He was also instrumental in passing a measure banning racial discrimination by state and local governments. In addition, he cared about redistricting, loan company regulation, protecting Texas waters, and vocational rehabilitation.”
Criss held a multitude of service roles, including trustee for UST, director of the Lighthouse for the Blind, vice president of the Texas Air and Water Resources Foundation, and state advocate for the Knights of Columbus. In 1969 the legislature voted to name Austin’s rehabilitation center for the blind in his honor.
With his wife Joanne Spica, he had two sons.
“He never told my brother or me what we needed to do in life,” Warren added. “He encouraged us to earn our own way. And whatever we did, he wanted us to do it well.”
Countless Tributes for Contributions and Achievements
In 1987, two years after this giant of a good and gentle man passed away, UST awarded him its highest alumni honor, the Vincent J. Guinan Alumni of the Year Award. Truly, Criss touched the lives of so many people that the awards and recognitions throughout his lifetime are hard to count. As an example, Governor John Connally named Criss “Texas Handicapped Person of the Year.” And he received Outstanding Service Awards from the National Association for Physical & Mental Rehabilitation and the Disabled American Veterans of Texas.
Criss Cole's son leaves us with something he learned from his father: “Not everyone is created equal, and you have to deal with what you’re dealt. My dad thought he was doing good for people, and that’s what drove him.”