Susan Combs Stands Tall for Texas’ Children

By Natalie England – January 1, 2014

It’s not delicate, and surely not dainty, but sheering sheep demands a combination of agility and strength that can often go unappreciated. Shaved wool releases a wax that is quite greasy, though the sheep don’t exactly lose their heft.

“Lanolin ladling” is how Texas Comptroller Susan Combs describes the task.

Whatever it is, it won’t get you hired at a New York advertising firm. And Combs knows a little about this as well. A fourth-generation Texas rancher, Combs grew up around her family’s Marathon, Texas, cattle operation, often assisting her father with the sheep. But the intricacies of that labor don’t really lend themselves to post-collegiate resumes.

“It was not helpful,” Combs recalled, “because I went looking for a job in New York. I tried to explain that I had heaved sheep over fences, I could clean out a file cabinet.”

It may have taken some time for Combs’ rural renaissance background to take hold on Wall Street, but a Vassar education and University of Texas law degree, coupled with comfort around cattle pens and cacti, made Combs a political wonder in the Lone Star State. Sharp-witted and articulate, Combs also cuts quite a figure at a slender 6-foot-2. “I’ll stand tall for Texas” was her common campaign-trail refrain.

In 2003, Combs was sworn in as the state’s 10th—and first female—commissioner of agriculture, and she took over in 2007 as comptroller, which serves as the state’s accountant, treasurer, and revenue estimator. Essentially, the comptroller is the chief financial officer for Texas—the person who writes the checks, pays the bills, and oversees all the monetary details that ensure the state’s continuing prosperity. Combs, 68, has announced that she is not seeking re-election, and as she strides toward retirement from public office, she’ll be long remembered for demanding transparency regarding statewide expenditures.

Her legacy, however, edges toward something much more sustainable and infinitely more rooted in a west Texas ranching lifestyle that requires fitness as much as it does rainwater and cow feed. After all, what happens if you’re out on the property in your truck, run over some barbed wire, and it wraps around the tire axle?

“You walk. Once I had to walk five miles back to the house,” Combs said. “Back then, people didn’t run around. Your life was running around. Your daily activities were fitness. We were the last ones to get a TV. We didn’t have air conditioning. We really were outside all the time.”

Combs was engineered for action, and it was through that lens in late 2002 as agriculture commissioner that she began to start putting certain puzzle pieces together. At a San Marcos, Texas elementary school to host a fruits and vegetables assembly, Combs walked the hallways and noticed they were lined with soft drink machines. Once the classes were gathered in the gym for the presentation, Combs found herself fixating on the back of a young boy who was obviously overweight.

Sugar vending machines, a reduction of recess and physical education, expanding waistlines—the dots were starting to connect. “‘We are killing them,’ I said to one of the administrators, and he said to me, ‘I know, but we need the money,’ Combs recalled. “That still makes me upset, makes me want to weep. How dare we profit from a potential lifetime of ill health, from health problems that we as grown-ups are supposed to help stop?”

And so began Combs’ calorie crusade. In 2003, she worked behind the scenes with the governor’s office to get the federal school nutrition program transferred to the Texas Department of Agriculture, eventually launching the nation’s most stringent public school nutrition policy. As agriculture commissioner, Combs had oversight of the vendors, and she initiated a groundbreaking junk food ban.

For a statewide school system that had grown addicted to vending machine revenue, which reached upwards of $100 million, it was, to say the least, a culture shift. One Dallas high school had to close down a campus store that sold candy to pay for classroom technology and choir music.

Combs wasn’t exactly widely popular. She even joked she wouldn’t get in her car without a long-handled mirror to inspect the undercarriage, but it was a fight Combs was willing to take on, because the way to have healthy adults, Combs reasoned, was to start with the children.

Fiscally, it also makes sense to trim the fat. As the state’s comptroller, the official in charge of keeping the ledgers checked and balanced, Combs has released two reports on the obesity crisis plaguing the nation and, specifically, Texas. With 66.7 percent of adult Texans currently overweight or obese, the comptroller’s office estimates that epidemic could end up costing employers $32.5 billion annually by 2030.

“She really changed the game and made a big impact on getting people’s attention about what they should be eating and the sugar addictions that we have. She cared enough to stand up for it,” said Paul Carrozza, a longtime wellness advocate and fitness ambassador here in Austin. “You have to have the endurance to withstand all the opposing forces. Susan did the hard work to get everyone’s attention, and it will affect generations.”

Tied to Texas
The Combs family rode in on a cattle trail from Missouri in 1859, and they’ve been established in the cattle business ever since. Combs’ great-grandfather served with Terry’s Texas Rangers, and her father, David Sinclair Combs, later took care of the ranch while commuting back and forth to San Antonio.

Susan Combs was raised and schooled in San Antonio, and she would spend a few days every month at the ranch in Marathon helping her father and generally enjoying the outdoors. After heading off to Vassar College in New York, earning degrees in French and religion, Combs worked as a secretary in New York City for six years before returning to Texas to study law in 1973. At the University of Texas, she met her eventual husband, Joe Duran. “I had a friend, and she told me that I just had to meet her brother, said he was really great,” Combs remembered. “I asked how she defined great, and she said, ‘6-foot-4,’ and I said, ‘Well, I do too.’”

Combs’ advocacy for children’s welfare began during her days working in the Dallas district attorney’s office. She was a prosecutor handling child abuse cases, and often it was her job to remove children from unsafe or unstable homes. “I saw a lot of starvation, depravation,” Combs said. “Back then, I truly would have never thought we would be feeding our kids to death.”

Combs left Dallas in 1980 to apprentice under her father and eventually take over the family cow—calf ranch operation. She emerged as a rational voice for property rights, and her political career blossomed. As the first female rancher appointed to the board of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Combs was chosen to represent the group in front of the state legislature. Combs eventually ran for a spot in the House of Representatives, where she served two terms.

“I didn’t know her mother or father, so I don’t know where she got it, but she has it,” said Ed Small, a ranching lobbyist who also ran Combs’ House campaign. “She’s high-energy and won’t take no for an answer. That energy gets things done. I’ve never seen her when she wasn’t ready to roll.”

As agriculture commissioner, Combs was working to make what farmers do on the land relevant to the urban dweller. She started going into schools, establishing grants to build on-campus gardens. One downtown Houston middle school, for instance, would send its crop to a nearby restaurant. It was during those visits, teaching about food and nutrition, that Combs started to perceive the obesity that was raging throughout classrooms. Junk food and soda were not only readily available, they were also being marketed as incentives and rewards for good grades and good behavior.

As standard serving sizes grew to twice the size they were 20 years ago and natural physical activity, like walking or biking to school, has reduced, America’s children have unknowingly suffered. The national childhood obesity rate has tripled in the past decade, and one in three Texas children is obese or overweight. A recent study by the American Heart Association shows that children’s fitness has declined over the last three decades. For instance, it takes children 90 seconds longer to run a mile than it did 30 years ago—meaning today’s kids can’t keep up with their parents.

“There’s a tremendous relationship between exercise and the improvement of productivity and memory,” said Dr. Ken Cooper, noted doctor, author, and founder of the Cooper Institute in Dallas. “Exercise is like fertilizer for the brain.”

In 2007, Combs, as comptroller, worked with the Texas Education Agency to start Texas Fitness Now, a grant program that awarded millions of dollars in aid to disadvantaged middle schools. The requirement was that the money be used to improve the school’s physical education programs, curriculum, and equipment, while also allowing students to be physically active for at least 30 minutes per day.

The Cooper Institute developed FitnessGram, a fitness test that measures children’s body composition, aerobic capacity, strength, endurance, and flexibility. With the help of Combs’ Texas Fitness Now grant money, Texas schools started employing FitnessGram testing in 2008. A year later, the Cooper Institute correlated physical fitness testing data with school district academic data. The “Texas Youth Fitness Study” showed significant associations between physical fitness and high academic performance, low disciplinary incidents, and low absenteeism.

The Texas Legislature did not fund Texas Fitness Now beyond 2011. Combs’ answer was to launch Reshaping Texas in November 2012, a program that coordinates with public and school libraries to shelve more than 25,000 health and fitness books and DVDs. “We’ve sailed our kids down the river of ill health,” Combs said. “We are harming them if we don’t create a healthy environment.”

Setting the Standard
As a mother of three boys, Combs was mindful to create a healthy atmosphere. She didn’t have junk food in the home and rarely served dessert. Daily activities like running the ranch or chasing after the kids kept Combs fit for most of her life. She claims she was lucky with her heredity.

In her late forties, she started running, rowing, and working out with a trainer two mornings a week. “I wanted to be healthy. I want to be around for children and grandchildren,” Combs said. “I don’t want to find myself incapable of action.”

Activity is simply a Combs hobby. A few years ago, she and Carrozza dreamed up the idea that became Marathon to Marathon, a point-to-point, 26.2-mile race that started in Alpine, Texas and ended in Combs’ beloved Marathon. The race, in many ways, represents the purest form of marathoning—wide-open spaces and frontier tackled only by feet. When Carrozza was preparing the logistics of the race, he called Combs to see how many intersections there were along the route, and she said none.

“She would listen to all my ideas, and then she would keep them in the realm of doable,” Carrozza recalled. “You see how people respond to her. No one handed that to her. She earned this influence…she is who she is because of her leadership abilities.”

Combs even insists that, though she is leaving public office, she’s not retiring. In fact, her fight against obesity might really just be beginning. She likens this battle of the bulge to the war on cigarettes. It took nearly two decades of education for society to understand the dangers and ill effects of smoking. Combs is joining a national effort spearheaded by The Public Good Project out of New York. The plan is to launch a program called “A Healthy America” in 2015.

“We’re looking at this as a two-decade project as well,” Combs said. “We’ve tried legislation, but there’s very little mood in any state to mandate stuff. We have to try something different. What you have to do at some point is change a culture.”


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