Ruben R. Cardenas, a McAllen attorney who was appointed as the first Mexican-American chairman of the Texas Department of Public Safety and who was known for his humor and commitment to community development, died Sunday. He was 88.
His was a personality that, even after his death, brought laughs to friends and family when they recounted memories of Cardenas.
“He always told great jokes,” said Bill Stocker, a close friend. Cardenas’ two living children, Diana Albrecht and Carlos Cardenas, confirmed their father’s penchant for jokes. So did others.
“Whenever you called him, whether it was for business or for pleasure, he always had a joke or something clever to say,” McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said.
Cardenas is survived by his wife, Dardanella, whom he met during his second year at the University of Texas School of Law. Before moving to Austin, Cardenas grew up in the ranchland of northern Hidalgo County where he rode a school bus for 64 miles — roundtrip.
Before he was 15 years old, Cardenas enrolled at St. Edwards Military Academy in Austin, followed by a stint in the U.S. Air Force, where Dardanella said he flew the borders of the U.S. during the Korean War.
It was after his time in the military that Cardenas began law school.
“He wasn’t interested in suing anyone,” Dardanella said. So Cardenas took up a legal career dealing mostly in real estate law.
A complementary career in community service also took shape, perhaps punctuated at the local level by his time as a ‘greeter’ with the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. Just before 1960, a volunteer group including Cardenas formed to welcome visitors to McAllen.
“Longest serving volunteer as part of the greeters,” said Steve Ahlenius, President of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.
The greeters dressed up in proper attire: Vest, bow tie and a smile. And perhaps most notably, they were armed with border buttermilk.
“It became synonymous that when you had events and conventions in McAllen, part of that means border buttermilk,” Ahlenius said
The drink was simple — a margarita with pink lemonade.
“We’d get letters: Our people loved it down there, they didn’t understand what border buttermilk was, but after three of them, they understood,” Stocker said.
While the drink became a staple of the greeters, they hoped their work left an impression on visitors.
“It was an easy way of saying, ‘We like you here,’” Stocker said, adding of Cardenas: “He was the only original greeter that died a greeter.”
Cardenas was a staunch Democrat, though his family described him as a fiscal conservative and social Democrat, strongly advocating for education.
“The best inheritance a parent can leave for their child is an education,” Carlos Cardenas recalled his father saying.
“He dreamt of us having a medical school down here,” he added.
After all, the elder Cardenas was involved in the initial formation of University of Texas-Pan American, Dardanella said.
“And he was so excited when UTRGV happened,” she said, even though Cardenas was not involved in the university merger earlier this decade.
He had been involved in the University of Texas System for decades, and in 1991 was awarded as a distinguished alumnus of the University of Texas. His family said that honor meant a lot.
Aside from his time on the UTPA board, Cardenas was appointed chairman of the Texas Department of Public Safety by Gov. Ann Richards, Carlos Cardenas said. He served on so many boards and was involved in so many causes that his children just learned about some of them.
Carlos Cardenas described going through his father’s office recently and learning about commencement speeches his father gave that he previously was unaware of.
“It was amazing, all the things he did,” Carlos Cardenas said.
And Stocker was alongside Cardenas for much of his life, as he tried to help develop McAllen.
“We just wanted people to contribute,” Stocker said. “And I’m not talking money. I’m talking time and energy. And Ruben was on the forefront of some of that stuff. He contributed great energy to this town. He was always there, he was always involved. And Dardanella was right next to him the whole damn time.”