This is the story of a real Texas family.  Locations and names have been changed to protect the family’s anonymity.

Notes from a casual conversation between office coworkers:

He: “What are you gonna do this weekend?”

She: “Host a family reunion.”

He: “How many will be there.”

She: “466.”

He (surprised at size and exactness of number): “How many are in the family?”

She: “469.  One is in the hospital; two are on a world cruise.  All the rest will be there.”

Corporate relocations caused me to lose track of my friend shortly thereafter.  Fifteen years later, I ran into her again.

“How’s the family?” I asked.

“Stronger than ever,” she replied.

There was obviously too much going on here to ignore.  An extended family that was not dysfunctional or dissolving?  I called my friend again and asked for an interview.  It took several months to arrange.  Many of the older family members were dead set against revealing anything about the family.  I finally convinced them, however, that their story needed to be told and that other families, struggling with a world that seems intent on destroying them, might benefit from it.  Finally the permission came, and I headed out for the tiny town east of Houston that is home base for the Dawson family.

The flat Texas plains roll out east of the towers of Houston into grass and scrub-tree country.  Thirty miles out, the land is in transition from cattle country to bedroom community.  The great oilfields are still 50 miles to the east; this is land hard-won by the labor of cotton farmers and ranchers.  The town that the Dawsons call home is struggling to stay alive.  The brick streets were once piled high with cotton bales, and the constant flow of wagons kept residents awake at night.  Those days are long gone.  The 80-year-old theater (owned by the third generation of movie operators), which opened during the silent-film era and still has the same seats, shows first-run films on its sole screen, and the new sandwich shop does a brisk business.  But the sprawling suburban communities, which provide homes for the hundreds of Houston commuters trying to flee the noise and the congestion of Texas’ largest city, provide the major source of tax revenue.  The downtown buildings may be crumbling, but the high school is brand new, and the football games are well attended.

Lily Dawson was waiting for me when I arrived at the small restaurant.  She had hardly aged at all in the years since we shared an office.  She was a lot thinner and confessed that losing weight was something she had to do in order to keep her energy level up.  I quickly understood why she needed all that energy: Although she no longer has a corporate job in Houston, she maintains a full schedule as president of Dawson Family, Inc., administrator of the County Development Board, and head of the Council of County Governments.  She also sings in the county choir, is president of a local service group, and spends many hours on church activities.  The two county jobs and the volunteer work would be enough for most people, but it is her job as Dawson president that consumes the majority of her time.  Dawson Family, Inc., is not just a family—it is a virtual empire.

Lily started the interview herself.  She was proud of the family’s latest initiatives—acquiring large tracts of land.  The family tries to plan far into the future—50 or 100 years—and, as the population explodes in Texas, the family wants to ensure that it has plenty of land for any anticipated endeavors and for capital appreciation.  The land-acquisition program is only part of the family’s vast holdings.  They own homes, buildings, summer camps, and businesses.  Donations to the family treasury and frequent bequests over the decades have given the family a sizable treasury.

“Everybody in the family works,” said Lily, “but nobody has to, financially.  There is enough money in the treasury to support everyone in the family for the rest of their lives.  But that’s not the way we function—we’re a working family.”

The bedrock values the family espouses would endear them to the hearts of all conservatives—work hard, play hard, concentrate on basics, take care of the kids and old folks.  It seems to work; although the family reserves the right to expel any nonconforming member from the family, Lily says they have never had to reject one of their own.  “We can be pretty persuasive, and the older family members especially know how to show the younger members the error of their ways.”  Only one member has tried to reject the family.  “A few years ago, one ‘wild child’ wanted out of the family.  She demanded her portion of the money and threatened to sue us.  So we bought her out.  Four years later, the money was gone, and she missed the family support system, so her daddy had to buy her back into the family.”  The stability provided by this family structure has an extra benefit: Children are careful in choosing their mates, since the spouses automatically become members of the family.  In the 100-plus years of family records, there has been only one divorce.

The support system the family provides would be the envy of many small countries.  The family’s children all receive scholarships that provide full college tuition and expenses.  Each scholarship recipient is expected to maintain passing grades and, upon graduation, to repay the scholarship, although there is no time limit or interest on the loan.  In addition, the graduate is expected to provide services at cost to the family for the rest of his life in his chosen profession.  A similar arrangement applies to skilled trades.  At the age of 12 or 13, children are expected to announce their career interests.  An apprenticeship program is arranged with family members, based on the child’s interest.  If the child’s talents are not supported by a family enterprise, a third-party arrangement is worked out whereby the child is apprenticed to a family-friendly business, with the family paying the child’s salary.  “Education,” says Lily, “is the family’s number-one priority.”

With this elaborate barter system, the family has built up an impressive bank of people skills.  If a member needs medical attention, a family doctor will provide it—at cost.  If a pet is sick, a family veterinarian provides care.  If a house is needed, family electricians, plumbers, carpenters, architects, flooring installers, and loan officers descend on the building site to build the needed home for the cost of materials.

The family’s number-two priority is taking care of older members.  “Nobody in the family ever goes into a nursing home.  If the older member has [his] own home, then someone hired by the family takes care of [him] in that home.  Usually, these caregivers are family members themselves, but not always.  If the member doesn’t have a home, then we find some place with the family for [him] to be taken care of,” says Lily.

Providing all this largesse requires a solid organizational structure.  Lily is the president of the main branch of the family.  The family has seven branches, roughly equivalent to corporate branch offices and designed to support the family in their particular regions.  Although the family is Texas-based, the branches are spread from Maine to California.  The branch presidents, plus Lily, form the board of directors.  Generally speaking, the presidency of the main line and each branch is passed to the oldest child—male or female—of the past president.  Lily and the branch presidents take their mentoring responsibilities seriously.  Lily has been training her eldest son for some years to take over for her eventually.  As part of the family’s extensive training program, Lily recently completed an instructional tape about the duties of the various key positions for each of the seven branches.  The structure does not begin and end with the key officers of the corporation, however.  Every member has a job in the family, in addition to the support services he provides.

There are two family meetings per year, which Lily calls “strategic family planning sessions.”  Most of the major decisions and key planning sessions are held at these democratic meetings.  “One of our major concerns right now is the declining family birthrate,” said Lily.  “We are down to 423 members.  We don’t know what to do about it, but we’re working on the problem.”  Another tough decision involves determining who gets bonuses.  Cash rewards to family members who are needy or who have provided exceptional services to the family are distributed annually.  “I hate making that decision the most,” says Lily, “because we can’t give everybody a bonus.”

The semiannual meetings are not all business.  “This family has fun together,” says Lily.  The fun does not start or end with the meetings.  Family members maintain a very busy year-round schedule of sporting events, cultural excursions, trips to water parks, and other social activities.  They are major supporters of local school activities.  This last fact surprised me a bit—I would have expected a family of such conservative inclination to have its own schools.  “Although homeschooling is heavily used in the family, most youngsters go to public school,” says Lily.  “We are well aware of the shortcomings of public schools these days.  That’s why the children’s education is heavily supplemented with testing, additional material, and instruction in the home.  The family is very patriotic and is proud of its Southern roots.  We have lots of Confederate ancestors, and we’re proud of them.  We don’t much tolerate political correctness.  We provide tutors and mentors where needed to make sure the kids really learn what is important.”

I was also a bit surprised to learn that family members are not all of the same religion.  “We’re a very religious family, but we don’t insist that everyone belong to the same church.  But no matter what church they belong to, they are expected to be active in it and support it.”

As befits a corporate enterprise, the family is concerned about security.  No more than two of the branch presidents are allowed to travel together at any one time.  The most elaborate security system is the home base itself.  Nominally Lily’s home and ranch, the family built a complete underground shelter into the home.  Given a few days advance warning in the event of some natural or man-made disaster, the entire family could be housed in this shelter.  Their passion for anonymity, given their resources, is understandable.  Even the college tuition provided to each child is paid through a legal foundation, which is untraceable to the family.  This same foundation dispenses most of the funds that are spent outside of the family and provides low-cost loans to family members to start or expand businesses.  “There is no waste in this family,” says Lily.  “We only support solid, basic businesses and enterprises.  We try to make sure that every enterprise can also provide some core service to the family.  We don’t finance jet-ski manufacturers.”

The family leaves little to chance.  It tries to influence everything that could have an impact on the family.  This accounts for Lily’s two jobs in county government and the host of other government jobs held by family members, including many members in state legislatures.  “We do everything strictly legally and aboveboard, but that may not be enough to keep a family out of trouble these days.  We try to make sure we have advance warning of any proposed legislation that could impact us, especially anything that could affect legal trusts, real estate, or foundations.”

As Lily told me about her family’s background in her paradoxical rapid-fire Texas drawl, I could not help but feel that this was a family that had come across a magic formula—one that many families would love to emulate but few will have the ability to do so.  They have successfully stemmed the tide that threatens most families, and they have done it with good humor, hard work, and a resolute determination that their family will persevere, by God!

I had one last question: How did the family start?  “I don’t know,” said Lily.  “The original family line was Scottish, but, as far back as I can trace, it has always been a Texas family.”

There seems to be one final benefit to being a member of this family: longevity.  As we reached the end of our allotted interview time, Lily began to rush me.  She had eaten and paid her bill before I had arrived, so she headed for the door of the restaurant at a fast pace.  This vigorous, personable lady of indeterminate age—she admits to being at least 12 years past full retirement age—was late for her next meeting.  “And I have to stop and pick up Daddy’s chicken feed on the way.”