The beginning of the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission goes back to 1995. I was working at the THC as the Director of the Department of Antiquities Protection, and we had just discovered the shipwreck La Belle, a French vessel that sank in 1686 off the Texas coast. Our plans were to mount a major excavation of the wreck as soon as possible and this meant we needed a lot of money. While the State of Texas would provide important funding, significantly more would be needed from private sources. I discussed the issue of privately raising funds with then-THC Executive Director Curtis Tunnell.
Staff had previously urged Curtis to form a nonprofit to support the THC’s fundraising efforts and he had declined to do so. Curtis’ argument was that the agency had twice before created nonprofits to assist the THC and each time the organizations’ boards had voted to move away from supporting the THC to take on broader preservation missions. But this time, with the discovery of La Belle, Curtis understood the importance of private fundraising for the excavation and agreed to establish a new nonprofit. I was given the responsibility to make it happen.
I worked with a pro-bono attorney in Dallas to establish the Friends. This had to be done on my own time, as I could not use state resources to develop the legal documents needed to establish a nonprofit. To prevent the Friends from following the path of previous THC nonprofits that became independent, we used the IRS tax code to establish the Friends as a supporting organization, with the sole purpose to assist the THC. With the attorney’s help, I developed the bylaws and filed for an IRS determination letter granting the Friends a tax-exempt, nonprofit status. We received the IRS letter in 1996. This determination letter from the IRS even showed my personal home address as the mailbox for the Friends!
The first officers of the Friends were Curtis as president, Anice Read (then-director of the Main Street program) as the secretary, and me as the treasurer. I also served as the bookkeeper. We received our first gift from the late Dennis O’Connor of Victoria, Texas— $250,000 in AT&T stock—and were off and running. Soon, additional funds began coming in. This support, combined with a state appropriation of $1.75 million, allowed us to begin planning the excavation of La Belle for late 1996 and early 1997. Right then, to make matters interesting, a short-lived issue arose when our Texas Attorney General representative gave his opinion that the THC was not able to use a nonprofit, and advised us to disband the Friends and send the money we had raised back to the donors. Curtis, Anice, and I considered this recommendation—and decided to not do it. If we had, likely the shipwreck of La Belle would not have been excavated, and even more importantly, there would be no Friends today. Sometime later we modified the THC enabling statute to allow us to use nonprofits to assist with fundraising.
Once the Friends was up and running, we added other board members, including Harriet Latimer, who became the second Friends president. Curtis, Anice, and I resigned from the board to let the new members operate the organization.
Having been deeply involved in setting up the Friends, I find it extremely gratifying today—25 years later—to see the great success the organization has achieved, thanks to the hard work of many dedicated and talented board members and staff members. Millions of dollars have been raised to help the THC do a myriad of critical preservation projects for the people of Texas!
Written by: Jim Bruseth