John Nau, president and chief executive officer of Silver Eagle Distributors, shares memories of his Midwest upbringing, the childhood adventures that inspired a love for American history, and the center that he hopes will encourage Houstonians to learn about the region’s past.
Q | Tell us about your formative years in Chicago.
A | I was just up there a couple of weeks ago for my 50th high school reunion and as they say, it was a room full of old folks. But it brought back a lot of just absolutely wonderful memories. I grew up in a Northwest suburb of Chicago and attended a public high school with 523 graduates in our class. We were on the front edge of the baby boomers. I learned a sense of Midwestern values that I think I have been able to carry with me. I watched growth. I watched farm fields become shopping centers. I watched a real clear delineated little town become swallowed up by the expansion of Chicago. I became a big fan of mass transit because of com- muter railroads. I can remember going to Cubs games on my own with a bunch of buddies when I was eight, nine, ten years old. It was a wonderful time to grow up. There was Davy Crockett. There were Mouseketeers. We were learning, growing, establishing values and we didn’t have the shock of the 60s yet. That was to come. My dad actually took me on a couple of trips.
He was a traveling salesman all over the middle part of the country, and it was those trips that really began to set my feet in the study of American history and American leadership. If you are born and raised in Illinois, it’s almost a requirement that you make a pilgrimage to Springfield. You go to Lincoln’s home and Lincoln’s tomb. That really sparked an interest for me. A couple of years later, I was not even ten yet, I visited my first Civil War battlefield, and as they say, the hook was set. That started this quest to understand American history and American values, not just the values of the upper Midwest. And there’s one other thing we did that has stayed with me. During the summer, we would take a trip up to northern Wisconsin. It was our one vacation, and I became friends with the son of a chief of the Chippewa nation, in a little town called Lac du Flambeau. I learned about Native American heritage. I couldn’t go on an island called Strawberry Island and I didn’t understand why until much, much later in life. I learned the specialness of sacred places.
That was formative for me to understand another peoples values, even within the United States.
Q | Tell us what led to your interest in history.
A | Two interests in my family came together. By this time in high school, I was reading about Civil War battles and leaders and really beginning to understand how critical that period of time was to the creation of America as we know it today. And my mother loved old antebellum mansions. So the summer after my sophomore year in high school, we all piled in the family station wagon, which was a cultural right of passage in the 50s and early 60s. Everybody got in and you weren’t a mile down the road before you were getting into a fight with your brother or sister. That’s how it was. So we go to Virginia to tour the old homes and the battlefields, and we make the trip to Charlottesville to see Monticello. While there, we hear all about the University of Virginia. I put one foot on Mr. Jefferson’s Lawn, and said, ‘This is where I want to go to school.’ I was fortunate enough to be admitted. It was after I applied and was admitted that I learned it was all men. It was the last major public university to go coed, and that kind of shows you the depth of my research.
Q | What were the series of happy decisions or accidents that finally brought you to Texas?
A | Well, in looking back…the first was going to UVA. It was luck, or it was something, that caused the Coca Cola Company to hire a history major that had never taken a business course in his life. By that time I was married, I was a UVA graduate, and had just been discharged from the Marine Corps. My wife and I lived in Atlanta; Lansing, Michigan; back in Chicago; Des Moines, Iowa; Kansas City; St. Louis; Miami and then moved to Texas in January of 1987. During that journey I was very fortunate, in both soft drinks and beer, to learn how to ‘turn a company around.’ And so that journey led us here. Back then, it was Southwest Distributing. There wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong or broken, but it was a single dimension business. They were beer distributors. I view our role as being marketers, especially in a city as big and diverse as Houston. You have to understand your market, break it into as many pieces as you can, and then you will be successful. I guess becoming a turnaround guy through on-the-job training would be my answer.
Q | Going back, what was one of the most significant artifacts that you collected as a child that you still have today?
A | It was discovered at the Antietam Battlefield, in a place where a lot of Texas troops fought, in a cornfield. It was a bayonet, clearly used by a Confederate. It is four-sided, if you look at the tip. There are four sides rather than the typical three-sided bayonet. It was lost in the carnage at the cornfield. Back before the national park owned the land, it was owned by an elderly couple. They ran a little gift stand right there near the Sunken Road, and she gave it to me. We sat there and talked, and I was probably all of 12 or 13 years old, and I have always remembered both the kindness and her description of taking care of the land. And today, Antietam is probably as pristine as any battlefield, and I give credit to that woman, her husband, and the other people there. That’s the one I remember.
Q | Having served in the service, are military artifacts more meaningful to you?
A | What’s most meaningful to me is the connection to the individual. They say service is 95 percent boredom and five percent terror. And there is so much of a connection to the soldiers from the American Revolution to the Civil War, to today’s troops. The equipment is different, but the individual is basically the same. The Civil War was the first war that was photographed. We have a couple thousand images of soldiers, their letters, and even pieces that have soldiers’ art. They couldn’t describe a camp scene, but they drew it. And I think that’s so personal. That’s what, to me, transcends the years and connects today’s military with that of our forefathers.
Q | You have an amputation kit in your collection…
A | It’s personal to me. I know of six of my ancestors that fought in the Civil War. One lost an arm at Antietam. (I didn’t know the details of his service back when I was going to the battlefield, but I have learned it subsequently.) He loses an arm, goes back to Massachusetts, recovers, is commissioned, goes back into the Union Army, commands what is then called the United States Color Troops, fights in five more battles, and then winds up living after the war in Charleston. Another artifact I have is a crutch with a stump on it. It was made by a Tennessee Confederate in the Calvary. He lost his leg at Shiloh, made the crutch and then walked about 80 miles to his home in western Tennessee. We have that crutch. This personalizes it.
Q | I understand you have grand plans for the Nau Center for Texas Cultural Heritage. Can you tell us a little more about that?
A | We are going to tell the story of 29 counties, from Beaumont down to Goliad, and of course the greater Houston region. When you step back and think about all of the cultural resources that we have, we are missing a place to learn about the heritage and the cultures that created Houston and the region today. I think we are missing an economic development opportunity created by tourism, especially when we have conventions in town. Because, we don’t have an easily accessible visitor’s center. We have 1.8 million conventioneers and their guests that come into Houston every year, and we are viewed as a city that destroyed its past, knocked down the old places, built steel and glass. That’s not really the case. We will provide a resource to visitors, school children and residents to help them understand the sites of the region. We have old homes, we have churches and this part of Texas has many, many famous old courthouses. With the exception of the Alamo, we have every major site from the Texas Revolution. Our region is where the declaration was signed and where the Constitution was formed. People from around the country come here and they don’t know that. The Nau Center will provide a place to reflect on our past and learn about the people that had these really big ideas. Why are we one of the biggest ports in the U.S., 40 miles inland? That took big ideas and the support of the community to make it happen. My wife and I have lived in many different cities. We found this freedom in the people and the mindset here in Houston, and given my background in history, we see the Nau Center as a way for us to give back to the community. Most importantly, I think it is really to the credit of the leadership of Texas, both in Austin and the academic leadership, that 7th graders are required to take a course in Texas history. Our facility will help give them a place to connect faces, names, events with what they see in a textbook. This is not going to be the kind of museum that you and I grew up with, where you go in and it’s case after case of old stuff. We put a group of educators together, a number of them were elementary educators, and I said, ‘Tell me, what do we need to do to educate a 7th grader?’ Without any hesitation, this person looks at me and says, ‘You’re going to have to entertain them before you educate them.’ We have a firm from California and about half of their staff are former Disney writers. The facts are going to be history, but there is going to be an entertainment element utilizing technology. We will be the first 21st century visitors center. And the first 21st century, true heritage center in the U.S. If Houston is today what the rest of the country will look like in 40 or 50 years, I think we have, if not an obligation, an opportunity to tell the story of how all of those people have come together and work as one. Because we do. And there is friction among groups. There is friction no matter what your ethnicity. That’s just human nature. But the reality is that Houston really works together. You go back to the 60s. How did Houston desegregate over 48 hours and it just happened? Well, there is a story there. Why was Houston the only major city that didn’t have riots in ‘68 and ‘69? Those are great stories. And people will learn about them and help us, the city of Houston, educate the rest of the country.
Q | How important has the Texas Medical Center been in the historical fabric of what makes Houston what it is today?
A | I think the medical center is one of the biggest assets to Houston today. Not just to the city but to the region. When you think about everything that goes on…number one, it’s a job center. I was down there this morning, got out of the dentist chair alright. There are thousands of jobs and think about all of the families that are supported there. Think about the research, what’s gone on at MD Anderson and the Texas Heart Institute. I mean, heart transplants, things that 70 years ago, when the center was founded, were just dreams. They are reality today. So the Texas Medical Center is critical to the performance of the city of Houston and it’s one of the ways that Houston touches the rest of the country and the rest of the world. We do it there. We do it in energy. We do it in transportation. Those are the quiet impacts that Houston has, but the medical center to me is phenomenal. Whenever I come back on a flight from Europe, and see all of the people that are traveling in, specifically to come to Houston’s medical center, it’s very gratifying.
Q | Looking back, what have you found to be the most enjoyable or memorable experiences of your own past?
A | I would say preserving civil war battlefields. In my previous role as chairman of the Civil War Trust, we have saved over 30,000 acres all over the country. It is great to watch enthusiasts and students come together. That’s one. Two, I was fortunate to be the chairman of the Texas Historical Commission. We were able to bring business ideas to the heritage of Texas, and we created 11 different heritage trails. As soon as those Heritage Trail Maps went out, businesses in the sites that we identified went up 18 to 22 percent. I began to tell people, you don’t preserve it just because it’s old. There needs to be a purpose. So we brought economic development to the heritage of Texas. I was fortunate enough to be appointed by President George W. Bush as chairman of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. This gave me the opportunity to reconnect with Native American tribes. They sat at the table with us. I was able to formulate a treaty, and this was a memorable day. If you were representing the president, you did it in a coat and a tie. Everybody else was in traditional Native American regalia, and we signed a treaty. And I found myself smoking a peace pipe that was Sitting Bull’s personal peace pipe, with 19 other chiefs of tribes from all over the upper Missouri River system. So those are the kinds of memorable experiences…trying to advance the idea of heritage as an economic, cultural and social benefit.
Q | How do you talk to children about how exciting history is, when they have traditionally seen it as nothing more than pages in a history book?
A | Good teachers don’t just talk dates and places, they engage students in a dynamic way and make history come alive. Last summer, I took my oldest grandson, Reese, and his brother and sister to the Vicksburg Battlefield, over along the Mississippi River. I watched him become not just excited but focused. It wasn’t just the cannon, it was the story-telling, and the fact that he was on the ground. I didn’t notice, but he went over with his parents and bought a Union uniform. As I came out of the hotel the next morning, he was standing there, eight years old, in this uniform. He really connected. He wants to know when we are going to go to another battlefield. So I would say that you need to make history come alive. You either do it in an entertainment format, or literally put their boots on the ground. Take them to a place like the Alamo, or here in Houston, San Jacinto. Or go to the old courthouse and talk about what it means. There is a value component that you will never just absorb out of a textbook. And that’s what American history is about. It’s about values and what people did to make those values continue from the 1700s to today.