Nelda Laney’s influence reaches many corners of the Texas Capitol, and it reaches many branches, as hundreds of thousands of Texans hang her iconic Christmas ornaments every year. “I’ve always said, ‘That’s what I want on my tombstone—the Capitol ornament lady,’ ” Laney told the Texas Bar Journal in 2013.
Laney created a program in 1996 selling Capitol Christmas ornaments that have become collectors’ items and the source of immensely successful fundraising that has supported preservation and beautification projects at the Capitol. She designed the first seven editions of the ornaments herself.
For years, she was an ebullient and persuasive presence around the Capitol corridors. Her husband, Pete Laney, was a longtime representative in the Texas House, including five terms as speaker. This put her in the company of power brokers in Austin, and when the state needed funds for Capitol preservation, Nelda Laney had the inspiration to sell ornaments.
Over 21 years, 1.1 million ornaments have been sold and $8 million raised for preservation of the majestic 1888 statehouse. The money has paid for repainting of the Capitol dome, conserving historical paintings and developing free curriculum guides for fourth- and seventh-grade students.
As sales of the 2016 edition of the Capitol Christmas ornaments continue, Laney’s legacy becomes especially poignant. She died August 24 at the age of 73.
Nelda and Pete Laney come from Hale Center in the Panhandle. They are cotton farmers, fiercely loyal to rural Texas and keenly aware of how electric cooperatives revolutionized life some 75 years ago. Their daughters, KaLyn and Jamey, attended the Government-in-Action Youth Tour coordinated by Texas Electric Cooperatives and later served as chap-erones. They also have a son, J. Pete.
Nelda Laney turned to Texas Co-op Power to help get word out about her ornament idea in 1996. It was tough going at first. “I literally sold them out of the trunk of my car,” she said. But after the magazine ran a small item in the November 1996 issue announcing that the first edition of the ornaments was on sale, she couldn’t thank readers enough for the boost in sales.
The 3 million people in Texas who receive their electricity from co-ops might not realize it, but they have lost a good friend in Nelda Laney, says Mike Williams, TEC president and CEO. “She was very passionate about rural interests,” he says, remembering how much she loved Texas and the Capitol. “She was sweet, genuine, homespun, authentic. People are drawn to people like that.”
People also are drawn to her distinctive ornaments, each edition accentuating an exquisite feature of the pink granite Capitol, such as door hinges, the rotunda and the finials that adorn the wrought-iron fence around the 22-acre grounds. Each ornament is finished in 24-karat gold. The 2016 ornaments, which sell for $20, are replicas of the decorated Texas pines that grace the Senate and House chambers every Christmas.
Laney left the Capitol project after 2002, but she continued as an ornament ambassador. She created ornaments to raise funds for Texas Tech University, and a collectible series has helped the Keep Texas Beautiful campaign raise close to $1 million.
Christmas trees soon will sparkle with ornaments of her creation. In two months, the Capitol will be abuzz as the 2017 Legislature holds its biennial session, and the building’s grandeur will reflect her zeal.
“Nelda was a woman of incredible wit and spirit who was completely committed to the Texas Capitol and all who work there,” Speaker Joe Straus posted on the Texas House website in August. “It is largely because of her dedication that today the Capitol is more beautiful and welcoming than ever.”
Tom Widlowski is the Texas Co-op Power associate editor.