Jessica Rodriguez: Austin Tour, Day 2

Jessica Rodriguez, Day 2 of Austin Tour

What an honor and what a pleasure! This morning was unlike any other, as a matter of fact; unlike most Americans’ typical morning. This Friday morning I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. For those not familiar with Justice O’Connor, she was a ground breaker and a pioneer in the Supreme Court. She was the first female appointed to the Supreme Court.

Junior Fellows a Few Feet Away from Justice O'Connor

Junior Fellows a Few Feet Away from Justice O’Connor

President Ronald Reagan, during his campaign, promised support for a female Supreme Court Justice; and he delivered. She is truly an inspiration to every woman. Whether your political ideologies match hers or not, her hard work and dedication in law and government are quite an inspirational story!

Justice O’Connor truly illuminated the room as she walked in.  Not only were we in the presence of a history maker, but her sense of humor made us laugh in less than a minute.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Justice O’Connor spoke to us about the importance of civics and the amount of work she has put into iCivics, a program designed to help understand our government.  (Check out

Not only has she put in great efforts to develop this online interactive game, but she also offered us some valuable advice for those of us looking into careers in law. First, “Read fast!” Second, “Write well!” I will definitely listen to Justice O’Connor’s advice.

On a special note, I was able to ask her if she endured any hostility as a newcomer in a Supreme Court full of men.  In her reply she did not play the victim.  In fact, she stated, she noted that she already knew Justice Rehnquist, and she pointed out that she was as curious about them as they were about her.

I cannot thank enough the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life for putting such a unique opportunity together.

During the afternoon we visited the Harry Ransom Center on the UT Austin campus.  I walked in those tall, spotless glass doors thinking I would get to see a Gutenberg Bible, which I did…

The Gutenberg Bible!

The Gutenberg Bible!

but voila…I was also fortunate to see an antique photography exhibit.

My excitement did not end there.  In another exhibit I ran across a recording of Russ Hodges’ call of Bobby Thomson’s 1951 home run, immortalized as “The Shot Heard Round the World.”  Although I’m not a sports fan, I’ve heard this clip of the announcer shouting excitedly, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! … I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it! …”   The emotion one can feel through the announcer’s voice — it’s quite amazing!  It was part of a larger exhibit called “Literature and Sport”…

The Harry Ransom Center's "Literature and Sports" Exhibit.

The Harry Ransom Center’s “Literature and Sports” Exhibit.

…where we were able to see works by Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and others.  I would definitely recommend checking out the Harry Ransom Center.

As if these activities weren’t enough, we also had a tour of the Capitol.  There, we were able to see Elizabet Ney’s statue of Sam Houston.

Junior Fellows with Sam Houston

Junior Fellows with Sam Houston

I also had the chance to visit the House Chambers…

Jessica Rodriguez, House Chambers

Jessica Rodriguez, House Chambers

…and, in fact, the staff even let us take a photograph running the House, just like the Speaker–perhaps a sign of things to come!

Junior Fellows Presiding Over the House

Junior Fellows Presiding Over the House

We also had the chance to tour the UT Tower, the site made famous by Charles Wittman, who climbed the tower in 1966 and went on a killing spree.

UT Tower

UT Tower

Despite the history, the tour is enjoyable and the views from the top are beautiful, whether offering a close-up of the clock face…

Clock Face on UT Tower

Clock Face on UT Tower

…or the beautiful views of the surroundings…

UT Tower View

UT Tower View

It was an exciting day, one that offered not only beautiful views of Austin and what it has to offer, but also–perhaps–a beautiful view of the future…




Michael Connelly Book Signing

Jessica Rodriguez–The Junior Fellows had the honor of attending a book signing by best-selling author Michael Connelly, author of two of the most popular series in modern publishing: Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller.  One of the Haller books, The Lincoln Lawyer, was recently released as a movie starring Matthew McConnaughey.  But it is the Bosch series that kicked off Connelly’s career, and it was the latest in the series, The Black Box, which prompted last night’s book signing.

The title is a direct reference to Connelly’s first novel, The Black Echo, published twenty years ago.

To ensure a seat at the book talk, we arrived early, and I took time to browse.  Crime, mystery, and thriller are my favorite genres, and I picked up The Drop (by Michael Connelly), The Monster of Florence (Douglas Preston), and The Black Box, and I plan on doing some interesting reading this winter break.

Connelly discussed his writing techniques and updated the audience of about 200 people about the latest in his publishing world.

Michael Connelly Interview

Connelly thinks Harry Bosch will soon make his way to television, being featured in a cable series based on the books.  Connelly prefers a new and unknown actor to play Bosch, and the crowd, unsolicited, seemed rather emphatic that the macho Bosch NOT be played by Tom Cruise.

Tom Cruise

The author also discussed the origins of the plot of his newest novel.  The narrative involves the 1992 LA Riots and, in fact, Connelly dedicated the book to “the man that got him through the crowd.”  In 1992, Connelly was an LA reporter, and he was in the midst of the dangerous riots following the Rodney King verdict.  A man reached through the crowd and led him to safety.  Twenty years later, the man received Connelly’s thanks by way of the dedication.

LA Riots

After the talk, we were able to get our books signed.

Jessica Rodriguez with Michael Connelly

Mine, by the way, reads: “To Jessica, all the best from Harry and Me!”  (At least that what I think it says.)

The Black Box, Signed by Michael Connelly

On the way home, we ate at Jerry Built Burgers, a creatively designed restaurant.  I had a 100% angus beef burger with a delicious vanilla milkshake made of Blue Bell ice cream.

Shake and Burger at Jerry-Built Burgers

It is always great to try new places, and take the usual “meal” to a new level. Jerry Built Burgers definitely does.

Chili-Cheese Fries

After dinner, we set out for Huntsville on a full stomach and great conversation about Michael Connelly’s many books!

Santiago Casas with Michael Connelly

Southern Culture Tour, Day Two: Taylor Parker

 The Junior Fellows started early this morning by walking along the streets of New Orleans…

Morning in the French Quarter

…with a 6:00am breakfast at Café du Monde. I had the chance to try beignets, French doughnuts that taste much like exquisite thick funnel cakes (with plenty of powdered sugar, of course).  After a quick breakfast we started our day with a trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. Walking along the beach was a bit eye-opening, given that Hurricane Katrina had destroyed the area only a few years before.

We walked along the water, collecting a few shells here and there, and walking out to the end of the pier. After our walk we climbed the Biloxi Lighthouse, a nationally recognized icon. The lighthouse had been damaged during the many tropical storms and hurricanes Biloxi has endured over the last century. Thanks to restoration efforts, the lighthouse continues to symbolize hope to those in the areas most affected by the storms over the years, as well as admired by many tourists.  The trip to the top yielded us a nice view of the coastline.

Junior Fellows at the Top of the Biloxi Lighthouse

Perhaps the highlight of my day was our stop in Monroeville, Alabama. Monroeville is known for being the model town in the famous novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Here author Harper Lee grew up alongside author Truman Capote, a favorite of mine.

Truman Capote Historical Marker in Monroeville, AL

Although neither of their houses are standing, the site of both homes can be found just two blocks from the iconic county courthouse.

Remains of Truman Capote Home, With Harper Lee Home Site in Background

Inside the courthouse, now the Monroe County Historical Museum, we had a first-hand look at THE courtroom around which the plot of Lee’s novel unfolded. I felt as if I were standing on the set of the film adaptation of the novel, a movie I would encourage all to see. It was surreal to look up to the balcony from the judge’s bench and visualize the onlookers awaiting a verdict. This stop definitely helped me decide to give the novel another read.

View From Judge’s Bench

As we continued our journey east toward the Georgia Political Science Association annual conference, the next impressive stop occurred at the spot of Rosa Parks’ protest: Montgomery, Alabama. I cannot stress enough how remarkable it was to see, feel, and immerse myself in the moment that occurred years ago where I then stood: I could see the bus stopping, hear the angry shouts, and feel the tension of Parks’ triumph.

Rosa Parks’ Historical Marker

In the same city stands Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King served as pastor.  A couple of blocks over we visited the city’s civil rights memorial, a simple but bold wall of flowing water, engraved with some of Dr. King’s famous words. This was the heart of the civil rights movement and achievements, and it felt inspiring to soak in the history personally.

Junior Fellows on the Balcony of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

On the opposite side of the downtown area, however, stands the symbol of the Confederacy.  We saw an elaborate statue and the old Confederate White House, both complete with engraved quotes of praise for the intentions of the Old South. Regardless of historical atrocity, the historical aspect of these cultural landmarks was interesting and something I wanted to see.

To top off our time in the capitol city of Alabama, we trekked to the Capitol itself. Brilliantly lit against the night sky, the building towered over us, once again giving me inspiring chills. An impressive place of work for an impressive job, a job I hope to hold one day.

Junior Fellows at the Alabama State Capitol

And, following a quick stop at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Home…

Junior Fellows at the Home of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald

…it’s on to Savannah, Georgia. We plan on making it in around 3:00am “tonight,” just in time for a nap before waking up for a big day of conference panels and tours. For now, we’re passing the time with a viewing of To Kill a Mockingbird and a nap.

It’s all in a day’s work for the SHSU Junior Fellows.

Southern Culture Tour, Day Two: Deanna Tyler

Our day began at 6:00am with breakfast at New Orleans’ famous Café du Monde. We had delicious beignets (French fried donuts), a quick photo op at Jackson Square, and then it was time to hit the road for Biloxi, Mississippi.

Brian King, Deanna Tyler, Taylor Parker, and Annel Gonzalez at Jackson Square

Biloxi was my favorite city on today’s leg. We began our time in Biloxi walking along the gorgeous beach.

The Gulf Coast

Along the way we found seashells and interesting baby jellyfish. The water looked a lot like Galveston’s; however, the beach was a lot cleaner.  Close by the beach is the famous Biloxi Lighthouse.  Built in 1848, the lighthouse is a historical landmark in Mississippi as it has survived several hurricanes, including Katrina.  It is a local symbol of sustaining difficult times.

Also in Biloxi, running parallel to the beach, we found detailed tree sculptures created by Chainsaw Artist, Dayton Scroggins, in honor of Hurricane Katrina survivors. The tree sculptures included various creatures such as birds and fish. It’s incredible to think of the patience and skill needed to carve a full-grown tree!

Biloxi Tree Sculpture

We also drove through Alabama, stopping in Monroeville and Montgomery. Monroeville is most famous for being the hometown of two award-winning authors, Harper Lee and Truman Capote. At the Monroe County Heritage Museum, we learned about how both authors were childhood friends and remained close as they rose to the top in their careers in writing novels that became some of the most sought literature in the world. The Monroe County Heritage Museum also houses the original courtroom which was used as the model when Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck.

Monroe County Courthouse, Model for To Kill a Mockingbird

In Montgomery, we found the site where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white man.  This act led to a bus boycott and the civil rights movement that changed America forever.  Standing on the exact spot where such a brave woman stood up for her rights was an eye-opening experience.

We also stopped by Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from 1954-1960 during the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement.  Coming across this landmark sent chills through my spine as I realized all that took place in Montgomery to achieve equality for African Americans. Although it was more than fifty years ago, it put into perspective for me that we take our civil rights for granted.  Located just blocks from the Baptist Church, the Capitol Building of Alabama is an incredible example of detailed architecture on a grand scale, especially the large pillars and clock tower.

Our final stops included two other literary figures and one musical figure. We saw the historical marker for Hank Williams…

Hank Williams Historical Marker


We saw F. Scott Fitzgerald’s home in Montgomery…

F. Scott Fitzgerald Marker

…and a marker for Alexis de Tocqueville, who stopped at the old Crawford County Courthouse in Knoxville, Georgia during his 1831-1832 tour of the United States.

Although we saw many places across three states, the sites all helped define “Southern Culture” and our 2012 tour.

Southern Culture Tour, Day Two: Brian King

The second day of our Southern Culture trip consisted of visiting Biloxi, MS; Ocean Springs, MS; Monreoville, AL; and Montgomery AL.

The day began with me enjoying Biloxi’s 27-mile long, man-made sand beach tracing the coastal line of the Gulf of Mexico.  It was my first visit to a beach, and it was a great experience.  I was able to see the seashells and even a live jellyfish.

Taylor, Annel, Deanna, and I in Biloxi

More impressive was the Biloxi Lighthouse, which stands as a beacon for ships at sea.  The lighthouse has been around since 1848, so it has seen its share of storms, which it has marked at the door of the structure.  The water mark for Katrina was the highest, at twenty-one feet.

Me, Standing in Front of the Biloxi Lighthouse

We also visited the Jefferson Davis home in Biloxi.  Known as “Beauvoir” (or beautiful view), the house was built in 1852 and includes an in-profess presidential library and a confederate cemetery.  The house is pretty impressive and, for the most part, has withstood the damaging hurricanes in the area.

Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s Home

I really enjoyed visiting the hometown of Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird) and Truman Capote (author of In Cold Blood).  Monreoville, Alabama is the county seat, and the Old Monroe County Courthouse was the model for the courtroom scenes in Mockingbird.

Monroeville Courtroom–On Which the Courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird Was Based

Further east, the town of Montgomery, AL contained numerous historic landmarks including: Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church (where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from 1954-1960), the spot where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, as well as an interesting Civil Rights Memorial. Deanna, Taylor, Annel, and I enjoyed the opportunity to traverse spots that were key battlegrounds in the civil rights movement.

Standing on the Balcony of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Where MLK Served As Pastor from 1954-1960

Once again, the food of the South was very filling and enjoyable. We started out with breakfast at Cafe Du Monde in the French Market of New Orleans, Louisiana, ordering coffee, beignets (cake donuts topped with powered sugar), and hot chocolate. I seriously recommend the beignets for those with a sweet tooth. For lunch the Junior Fellows stopped Ocean Springs, Mississippi at Bayview Gourmet.

Bayview Gourmet

The grilled shrimp taco on a wheat wrap was very flavorful, as was the fried artichoke appetizer. Satisfying our sweet tooth, we indulged in a lemon-glazed muffin with poppy seeds. For dinner, we visited Tomatino’s in Montgomery, Alabama, a pizza shop that is a college hangout.  It had good pizza (Supreme) and a nice atmosphere0, a fitting close to a nice day.

Southern Culture Tour, Day Two: Annel Gonzalez

The second day of the trip began as the sun rose over the Mississippi River in New Orleans. We walked down the chilly street to Cafe Du Monde where I enjoyed a hot chocolate accompanied by my very first beignet, and then a second because they were delicious!

One of the most interesting parts of the day was our time in Alabama, where we had the opportunity to see a great deal of historical sites that one would never imagine were in such proximity.  For starters, we visited the site on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.

Further up the street closer to the Capitol Building of Alabama we had the opportunity to see the church where Dr. Martin Luther King Junior served as pastor.  We also saw an impressive Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law center, making for quite the civil rights thread.

On the other hand, the City still preserves its confederate past.  On the Capitol grounds is a confederate memorial and, in fact, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as President of the Confederacy on the steps of the Alabama state capitol.

About a block away is the Confederate White House, the  home in which Davis lived for part of his presidency during the Civil War.

Intriguingly, we had toured Davis’s private residence in Biloxi, MS, earlier in the day.  The home, called Beauvoir, was impressive with extremely detailed interior designs that lined the walls and roof.  The home was beautifully built with high ceilings, door-size windows and a spacious porch.

Jefferson Davis’s Home: Beauvoir

Biloxi also featured a most impressive lighthouse, which we were able to tour.  This was my first time to go to the top of a lighthouse and although looking down the winding steps was scary once you reached the top it was completely worth it!

More generally, the Biloxi beach was a lot of fun and pretty, too.  Following the destruction of Katrina, the City commissioned various tree sculptures—artistic creations from the dead or dying trees in the hurricane’s wake. There were tree sculptures of birds and fish. The weather was perfect! The sun was shining but the breeze was nice and cool.

Biloxi Tree Sculptures

On a more literary note, we were able to visit the court room featured in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.  It was a wonderful experience to stand in the courtroom and be able to visualize all of the characters of the book. We learned about the making of the film and Harper Lee’s friend Truman Capote, the author of In Cold Blood, and a childhood friend of Lee’s–they both grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, where the museum is located.

The last part of the day involved mostly driving, a long stretch from Montgomery, AL to Savannah, GA—a leg that took us six hours to travel.  The drive was enhanced by an in-van showing of To Kill a Mockingbird and a stop at a historical marker in Knoxville, Alabama, where Alexis de Tocqueville stopped in the early 1830s.

If it’s C-Span, it Must Be Legit!

The next leg of our journey is in four hours—the GPSA in Savannah.  It’s my first conference, and I better close this blog so I can usher in my conference experience having had a little rest.

Bush Presidential Library; Brazos Bookstore

The Junior Fellows had a nice time Thursday night, taking  Susan Andrews, Angela Andrews Fabry, and Carl Rollyson to the Bush Library, where Rollyson and Susan introduced Laura.

Susan Andrews Introduces “Laura” at the Bush Presidential Library

The film was well attended, with more than 100 people in attendance.  Carl, who watched all of Dana’s films while writing the biography, has seen Laura ten times; Susan, Dana’s daughter, has seen it twelve times, including this viewing.

Susan, in the audience, watching her father, Dana, on the screen…

Friday brought new adventures.  Hellieth Pedroza escorted Carl, Susan, and Angela to the First Baptist Church, where Dr. Bonnie Thorne and two dozen other First Baptist Church members provided lunch and a tour.  CF Andrews, Dana’s father, was the pastor at the First Baptist Church from 1924-1929.

Later that evening, the Junior Fellows, Fabry, Andrews, and Rollyson drove to the Brazos Bookstore in Houston, where Carl discussed his book and signed books.  Interestingly, several more members of the Andrews’ family showed up, as did Brenda Gunther, who met Dana Andrews in 1986 when she attended SHSU.

Carl discussing his book, Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews

If you have the chance to go to the Brazos Bookstore–go!–it’s a great place to book browse.

Rollyson Display, Brazos Bookstore

The Junior Fellows did their share of browsing…

Browsing for Books

And Annel tried to prove that she really did read…

Annel And Her Book

But mostly the Andrews family had a chance to catch up.

Andrews Family at the Brazos Bookstore

Afterward, we all went to Black Walnut Cafe, where we had good food, nice conversation, and a late night before returning to Huntsville.

Santiago and Hellieth, Enjoying Time With Carl Rollyson, Angela Fabry, and Susan Andrews