Lauro F. Cavazos Jr., a Texas ranch foreman’s son who rose to become the first Latino to serve in a presidential Cabinet as U.S. secretary of Education during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, has died.
His death at his Massachusetts home Tuesday was confirmed by Texas Tech University, where he served as president from 1980 until 1988. He was 95. No cause of death was given.
A Democrat whose entire career up until his appointment had been spent in academia, Cavazos was named Education secretary in 1988 late in Reagan’s second term, a move seen by some as a cynical attempt to boost Bush’s presidential aspirations among Latino voters, something that Reagan denied.
He was seen as less outspoken and less confrontational than his predecessor, the highly conservative William Bennett.
He vowed to seek better funding for schools, focus federal services on high-risk children, and improve opportunities for Latino, Indigenous and immigrant students. In his two years as Education secretary, Cavazos was known for promoting the idea of giving parents the option of deciding where to send their children to school — with limits to prevent segregation — and advocating bilingual education.
He called the dropout rate among Latino students “a national tragedy” in September 1989.
Despite attempts to keep out of politics in Washington, he found it difficult.
“I don’t like politics,” he told Texas Tech Today in 2015. “I went there really to try and improve education, and I think we did a pretty good job. I can take pride in the fact that as secretary of Education I really focused the federal government on the need to improve the education of minority students and how to do it.”
Cavazos resigned his Cabinet post in December 1990, but according to Associated Press reports at the time, he was fired for failing to make enough progress in reaching the administration’s education goals.
“I am especially proud of the contributions I was able to make in expanding choice in education, promoting the executive order on excellence in education for Hispanic Americans, and raising awareness of the growing diversity of America’s student population,” Cavazos wrote in his resignation letter.
Following his resignation, he came under scrutiny by the Justice Department for allegedly using frequent flier miles earned from official travel to obtain free airline tickets for his wife, who often traveled with him on official business. Federal regulations at the time required employees to turn over travel bonuses to the government. The investigation was eventually dropped.
Cavazos grew up on the King Ranch near Kingsville, Texas, and his family became the first Latino family at what had been a segregated school district, according to Texas Tech.
After a stint in the Army from 1944 until 1946, he enrolled at the Texas College of Arts and Industries, which is now Texas A&M University-Kingsville. Originally a journalism major, he discovered a passion for biology and transferred to Texas Tech.
He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas Tech, and a doctorate in physiology from Iowa State University.
He taught anatomy for 10 years at the Medical College of Virginia, then moved to the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston from 1964 until 1980, including five years as dean from 1975 until 1980.
During his time at Tufts, he became known as an accomplished investigator in endocrinology as well as for his work in academic health planning.
“Dean Cavazos was passionate about education and led the medical school through an important time in its development, helping to strengthen its reputation for academic excellence,” current Tufts medical school Dean Helen Boucher said in a statement.
He was president of Texas Tech from 1980 until 1988. After his government service, he returned to Tufts as a professor of public health and family medicine.
“Although Dr. Cavazos became a force in higher education, he came from a humble background, and he never forgot that or the impact his work had on students in similar circumstances,” Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec said in a statement.
He and his wife, Peggy, married in 1954 and had 10 children.
One of his brothers was Gen. Richard Cavazos, the first Latino four-star general in the U.S. Army. He died in 2017.