Building Legacies: George J. Beto
June 7, 2023
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Atkins
The following is part of a Today@Sam series highlighting the individuals who have SHSU buildings dedicated to them on campus. Special thanks to Barbara Kievit-Mason and University Archives for their assistance.
Few individuals have done more to forge the relationship between criminal justice and education than George John Beto, who concluded his illustrious career with 19 years of service as a professor in Sam Houston State University’s College of Criminal Justice. He helped establish the program as one of the best in the nation and its flagship building now bears his name.
Prior to arriving at SHSU in 1972, Beto’s name had become synonymous with criminal justice in the state of Texas. His original aspirations to become a Lutheran pastor led him to teach at Concordia Lutheran College in Austin to begin his career, where he spent two decades and worked his way up to president. He racially integrated the institution, made it co-educational and raised it to junior college status. After a brief stint at a seminary in Illinois, he left to become head of the Texas Department of Corrections.
“Although Beto had no real academic training in corrections and had never served in any administrative position in corrections, he had learned incidentally,” reads the inside flap of “Walking George,” a Beto biography authored by two of his former students, including SHSU graduate David M. Horton. “During his last six years in Austin, he had served on the Texas Prison Board, a volunteer board that supervised the entire prison system. As a board member he established one of the earliest General Education Development (GED) testing programs for prisoners. Fortuitously, his years on the board came during the time when reform of the Texas prisons was the watchword.”
This reform only continued during Beto’s 10-year stint as TDC’s director, as outlined in the program printed for the ceremony in which his name was officially unveiled on SHSU’s criminal justice building:
“Initiatives to reform the Texas prison system occasioned Beto’s return to the state in 1962, where he was appointed director of the TDC. Over the next 10 years, he led the unprecedented development of an exemplary penal system, which served as a model for penologists throughout the international community.”
His most notable reform efforts included the rehabilitation of inmates and his attempt at refining the method of managing prisoners, called the Texas Control Model. He persuaded the Texas state legislature to enact a law requiring state agencies to purchase manufactured goods from state prisons, which expanded industry and training for inmates. In 1969, at Beto’s urging, the Windham school district for educating inmates became a reality, the first of its kind at any prison in the country.
Beto also confronted major controversies in the system, such as the death penalty process, which he described when quoted in the New York Times:
“In a democratic society like ours, the death penalty is capriciously and inequitably administered. Whether a person is convicted depends on the quality of his defense, the hysteria of the moment in the community and the culture.”
Following Beto’s death, close friend and state representative Allen Hightower outlined his logic and compassion in a quote reported by the Huntsville Item:
“George Beto had the ability to look beyond the desire to punish and hate of the criminal enough to hate the crime and help the criminal. I could call Dr. Beto when I had those tough calls to make regarding criminal justice issues to get advice.”
Beto concluded his stint as TDC director on Aug. 31, 1972 and began his service as distinguished professor of corrections at SHSU’s Institute of Contemporary Corrections and Behavioral Sciences the very next day. Prior to his start date, however, he had been influential in the implementation of the program. An excerpt from “Walking George” details his earlier collaborations with the university:
“When he had been a member of the prison board in 1953 and made his visits to Huntsville, his teacher mentality led him to see that cooperation between the two state institutions, the penitentiary and the college, could result in a mutually beneficial collaboration.”
In 1963, the Texas state legislature directed SHSU to develop a program of excellence in criminal justice, specifically to develop undergraduate and graduate degree programs in criminal justice, develop continuing education programs for criminal justice professionals, conduct research on the problems of crime and the administration of justice and provide technical assistance to the state’s criminal justice community.
After his 19 years of service, Beto was named a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of SHSU upon his 1991 retirement. The Beto Endowed Chair was established in 1979 and, since 1981, has sponsored a lecture series within the College of Criminal Justice.
Soon after his retirement, Beto passed away on Dec. 4, 1991, in Austin at the age of 75. The Criminal Justice Center was officially named for him in August of that year, but he passed away before the dedication event. During the ceremony, former SHSU President Martin J. Anisman delivered the following quote:
“Beto was an international and national leader in his field. We appreciate all of his service to the university in criminal justice and other areas. He was both my friend and a friend of Sam Houston State University. The George J. Beto Criminal Justice Center will long remind us of his dedication.”
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