College Founder Prospered as Accidental Criminologist

George Beto talks with inmates in prison
George Beto was the Director of the Texas Department of Corrections.

George Beto, Ph.D., whose name is synonymous with the College of Criminal Justice, didn’t start out in a career in criminal justice.

The son of a Lutheran minister, Beto was a graduate of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis when he received his call to come to Concordia College in Austin to teach, eventually serving as president of the institution. He was later appointed to the Texas Prison Board, which began his service in prisons and the criminal justice discipline that stretched from Texas to Illinois to Alabama.

Following the untimely death of O.B. Ellis, director of the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC), Beto was tapped to head the statewide agency.

George Beto at his desk
After serving as President of Concordia College for 20 years, Beto set his sights on corrections.
As the head of TDC, he was approached by a state legislator named David Crews, who lamented the lack of cooperation between the department and nearby Sam Houston State College. “I recall his saying at that time that he would prefer to see Sam Houston famous for a Criminology Program rather than as a cheerleader school,” Beto said in a speech during the College’s 25th Anniversary.

By teaming up with Arleigh Templeton, President of Sam Houston State College, the pair successful lobbied the legislature, and the Institute of Contemporary Corrections and Behavioral Sciences opened its doors in 1965. The idea was to train law enforcement, corrections and court officers and to study crime and rehabilitation using the Texas prison system.

An inmate stands before a stained glass window in the TDCJ chapel.
Beto, a graduate of a seminary, believed in rehabilitation over punishment.
“He was an academic in the early 50s, he didn’t know anything about prisons, but he was a quick study,” said his son, Dan Beto, who headed the Correctional Management Institute of Texas. “I fall back on a quote that he used quite frequently by correctional scholar John Conrad, ‘Prisons ought to be lawful, safe, industrious, and hopeful and if you try and achieve those four goals everything else falls underneath it.”

To help the vision become a reality, Beto hired many of the Institute’s students to work in the prison system, tailoring their schedules to meet class demands. He also opened the prisons up for research for faculty and students trying to unravel the causes of crime and delinquency.

At the same time, the Institute also sent its professors to cities across the state to provide education to police officers and correctional officers where they worked, often providing back to back sessions to capture several shifts. He participated in Interagency Workshops, in which professionals from all facets of the criminal justice system assembled to address problems in the systems.

Newpaper article with a picture of Beto and inmate on the grounds of the prison.
Beto started the Windham School District to teach inmates a trade.
Beto served at the Texas Department of Corrections for 10 years. He was known as "Walking George" because he would show up at prisons at all hours of the day and night and walk the halls. He also would frequently interact with inmates to find out what worked – or didn’t work -- in the system. He started the Windham School District to provide educational opportunities to offenders and establish a diagnostic center that separated first time offenders from hard core criminals. He hired the first African American guards. He modernized the Texas prison systems, stressing the importance of rehabilitation over punishment.

“For him, it was all consuming,” said Dan Beto. “He would wake up at 2 in the morning and go out to a prison and check it out. Some of the wardens would say to employees 'anytime you hear 1101 – that was his call number -- or see a black car driving up, you find me, you let me know.'”

Upon leaving the Texas Department of Corrections, Beto joined the faculty at the College, teaching from 1972-1991. He shared lessons and experiences from his time in prison systems and helped foster ideas and initiatives to help the program grow to international renown. Many of the first dissertations from the College were on prison practices and programs. As Interim Dean from 1977-1978, he ushered in the use of the courtroom for criminal trials, and participated in international programs.

Beto with student and child at the College of Criminal Justice
Beto (r) mentored many students at the College of Criminal Justice.
Larry Hoover, director of the College’s Police Research Center, noted that Beto’s influence molded the current commitment of the College to translate theory to practice.

“Practice without theory is a slave to anecdote,” said Hoover. “Theory without practice is mere speculation. George Beto’s legacy transcends bricks and mortar, more important is the enduring commitment of the College to the marriage of the theoretical and the applied.”

In 1992, the Criminal Justice Center was rededicated in Beto’s honor. He didn’t live to see the day his contributions were celebrated.

A photo, boots and hat of Dr. Beto displayed outside the criminal justice center.
The College of Criminal Justice bears the name of its founder: George Beto.
The history of George Beto – pictures, proclamations, books, letters and mementos -- have a place of honor at the Center in the Beto Conference Room, and his legacy is etched in the brick and mortar of the building that bears his name. The annual scholar series, the Beto Chair Lecture, which brings leading researchers in the field to SHSU, continues to stimulate students and faculty. The Beto Endowed Scholarship, created by the family after his death, will educate new generations of academics and professionals for years to come.

At the 25th Anniversary of the College of Criminal Justice in 1990, Beto reflected on his hopes and dreams for the future of the institution. He hoped the College would contribute to the reduction of crime. He hoped to advance professionalism among criminal justice personnel. He hoped that a bachelor’s degree would be a requirement for police, corrections, probation and parole officers. He hoped the academic standards would remain high.

“When our successors gather 25 years from now to observe the Golden Anniversary of this endeavor, I can hope that they will be as pardonably proud as we are today,” Beto said.

Member of The Texas State University System