Every Texas ranch has a story. In South Texas, few ranches have more stories than the fabled King Ranch, where Janell Kleberg was recently honored in the prestigious South Texas Charity Quail Hunt. Here we learn more about her service to the region as well as her book of photographs reflecting the area’s character, Waiting For Daylight.
By Dr. Fred Bryant
Photographs by Janell Kleberg and Dr. Michael Tewes
This year Janell Kleberg was honored by the South Texas Charity Quail Hunts, Inc. as their South Texan of the Year. This distinguished honor has in past years been bestowed on individuals such as Nolan Ryan of Dallas, Peter and Juliana Holt of San Antonio, Barry Andrews of Dallas, Frank Horlock of Riviera, Gary and Ollabelle Hall of Houston, Dan and Carolyn Pedrotti of Corpus Christi, Bill and Judy Colston of Riviera, and last but not least, her husband Tio Kleberg of Kingsville. The common thread among these people is their love for South Texas and their philanthropy toward it, especially their undeniable support for wildlife conservation, ranch management, and better health care for a rural region of Texas.
Janell Kleberg is honored for good reason. After graduating from Texas Tech University and an Army tour of duty in El Paso, she and Tio settled in Kingsville Texas in 1971 where they became engaged in the business affairs of King ranch and the local community—and raised their 3 children Chris, Adrian, and Jay. Janell was the driving force behind many significant achievements in civic affairs such as La Posada-A Parade of lights and a Celebration of Christmas, nature tourism, and restoration of the Flato Opera House. In the business affairs of King Ranch and Kingsville, she developed marketing and catalog strategies for the King Ranch Saddle Shop, a world-renowned business venture.
Her magnificent eye and passion for photography resulted in an award-winning book, Waiting for Daylight, which captured King Ranch during an era now passed, as some of these images depict.
For pleasure she worked cattle with the vaqueros on the King Ranch, rode two-year colts to settle them down, participated in NCHA Cutting Horse competition nation-wide. Kleberg also honed her shooting skills such that she is legendary in her ability to hit wild quail on the covey rise with a .410 shotgun. It was in education and university affairs where Kleberg made her most significant impact. Her desire to help others came with her first job as a schoolteacher. Her first involvement was to work with then Texas A&I University to write and produce a musical comedy “Tales of the Wild Horse Desert” with the university’s theatre department, which raised scholarships for theatre majors for many years. Later, she led the charge to create Academy High School on the campus of Texas A&M University-Kingsville. This program was a laboratory school that now graduates high school students, many with at least one to two semesters of college credit and some with an Associate’s Degree.
Similar to her mother-in-law Mary Lewis Kleberg, who served on the South Texas University Board of Regents, Janell Kleberg’s early involvement WAS in the university’s charitable foundation. This placed her in a position to see the actual proposal submitted by Dr. Charles DeYoung in 1980 which gelled into the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, after receiving approval from the Caesar Kleberg Foundation for Wildlife Conservation in 1981.
The Trustees of the Caesar Kleberg Foundation at the time were Leroy Denman Jr., Duane Leach, and Tio Kleberg. Without knowing what was to come, this fledgling Institute set the stage for what then was a regional teaching college and helped transform it into one of the top research universities in Texas. “We are very proud of our University for being in the Top 10 in research funding among all public universities in Texas”, said Dr. Steve Tallant, President. “With great support from people like Janell Kleberg, who serves on our President’s Leadership Council, we are poised to reach even loftier goals as a research institution”.
Kleberg’s life-long experiences with the nature has driven her to support wildlife research which she believes is fundamental to conservation of the 600+ wildlife species that live all or part of the year in South Texas. Species like the endangered ocelot is one such species on the brink of extinction in the U.S. and Dr. Michael Tewes, the Frank Yturria Chair in Wild Cat Studies, has been working with ocelots since 1981 and has become a world renowned expert on wild cats. His research began with North American cats like cougars, bobcats and ocelots and now includes his work with African lions and Thailand snow leopards. “I have been blessed to spend my career at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute working on wild cats,” Mike Tewes said. “This has been my dream job since I was a boy growing up in South Texas.”
The migratory species also depend on the lower Texas coast for their survival as they migrate from nesting grounds in Canada and the northern U.S. to faraway places like Costa Rica and Argentina. One of the most exciting projects to date has uncovered the incredible number of birds and bats that hug the lower Texas coast on their migration routes. “The number of birds and bats that we have recorded with our radar units is more than four times what has been recorded anywhere else in North America,” remarked Dr. Bart Ballard, a world-class wetland bird and waterfowl specialist at the Institute. “My graduate students have done ground-breaking work and I am very proud of them for their commitment to the Institute and its mission.” Ballard holds the prestigious C. Berdon and Rolanette Lawrence Chair in Waterfowl Research.
“The work of these scientists is just an example of the research programs in what we call The Last Great Habitat,” says Dr. Fred Bryant, Executive Director of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute. “We are so proud of the science team we have assembled here. We believe our 17 scientists are as good as ANY in the United States. Without great supporters like Janell Kleberg we would be hard-pressed to fulfill our mission of training the next generation of wildlife biologists and making new discoveries each day about how wildlife and wild places of Texas live and breathe. The fact that the Tio and Janell Kleberg Wildlife Research Park is a focal part of our on-campus research efforts vividly demonstrates the impact they have had on our program. ”
Kleberg beams with pride as she has witnessed the growth and development of the research and education ongoing at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. Research programs like The Natural Toxin Center, Environmental Engineering, and Chemistry are nationally known entities for the science they produce. Educational programs such as a world class Music Department, Biomedical Science (which feeds into the Pharmacy School on campus), Fashion Merchandizing, Human Nutrition, and Doctorate Programs in Education, Wildlife Science, Agronomy, and Environmental Science make her proud. Interesting to note is that The King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management is the only Master’s degree program in the world in ranch management. Javelina Pride is the motto of TAMU-Kingsville and we are surprised Kleberg didn’t coin that phrase because she certainly lives it every day of her life.
It is South Texas Charity Quail Hunt’s where Kleberg, along with her husband Tio, a small group of dedicated volunteers and the phenomenal generosity of King Ranch, have all made their greatest impact. This charity event has raised over $9 million since its beginning. Lives have been changed in this underserved region of South Texas. Emergency medical care is available, with donations from the charity event focused on a new Emergency Room, a new Trauma Center in Kingsville’s Christus Spohn Hospital. By helping Halo-Flight provide emergency ambulance service, the helicopter can go where no ambulance on four wheels can. The added support for wildlife conservation and ranch management make this charity event one of the most unique and special events in our great state.
The final measure is how their children see her impact. Janell Kleberg is described by her daughter Adrian, and sons Chris and Jay, “We have an appreciation for our Mother’s unwavering dedication and service to her family and community. She has a unique gift for articulating a vision and bringing diverse groups of people together to make that vision a reality. We were fortunate to grow up in a hard working, innovative culture that she and our father cultivated at King Ranch. In her words ‘Life in South Texas is a great adventure, fueled by a passion for the native habitats, livestock and wildlife. It is shared by those who live each day with a sense of wonder in all creation.”