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By Morgan Cullen

National Legislative Services and Security Association members are mourning the death of former Texas Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, Tommy Townsend who passed away on Monday, Nov. 18. Tommy was widely known and respected throughout the halls of the Texas capitol for a distinguished career that spanned more than four decades.

Tommy-Townsend_blog
Tommy Townsend

While many knew Tommy as an association executive—first at the Texas Association of Realtors and then as the executive director for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association—NLSSA members will always remember him first as a sergeant-at-arms and a founding member of their association.

NLSSA was founded during a turbulent period in American history when issues such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War were widely deliberated at dinner tables and street corners across the country. The United States had entered into a new era of social consciousness, and peaceful protests could sometimes erupt with violent consequences both for demonstrators and the general public.

For sergeants-at-arms like Townsend, who were responsible for the well-being of their members, capitol buildings and the general public, it meant they had to adapt quickly to a rapidly changing environment. With this realization, Townsend began to communicate regularly with his counterparts in other states to develop a set of best practices and security plans that could be used not only in the Texas Senate but in every capitol building across the country. 

With this goal in mind, Townsend, Tony Beard Sr. (Calif.), Richard Barrios (La.), Oce Smith (W.V.), Harry Coker (S.C.) and others created a national association for legislative staff responsible for the management of chamber services and security. Once the organization was established, Townsend immediately took on a leadership role and delighted in developing what would become lifelong friendships with his fellow NLSSA members. 

After the first organizational meeting was held in Sacramento, Calif., in 1973, Townsend hosted NLSSA’s first national conference in Austin, Texas. At that conference, he was elected as the organization’s first vice president, a position he held from 1974 until 1976. With his unassuming leadership style and charming personality, Townsend was then elected NLSSA’s second president and served in that capacity the following year.

His leadership both in NLSSA and the Texas Senate contributed to a number of accomplishments that changed how security is implemented in capitol buildings throughout the country. Rusty Kelley worked for Townsend for a number of years before becoming a chief sergeant himself in the Texas House of Representatives. “Before Tommy became sergeant, Texas had never put a security plan in place. It was Tommy Townsend who instituted the first comprehensive security plan for the Texas Legislature. Before that there were no specific guidelines on how to respond to potential crises.” With the help of NLSSA, these guidelines would also become a model that other states would later implement in their own state capitols around the country. 

Tommy was also beyond his time in the types of services he offered to his Senate members. Every morning, Tommy and his staff consolidated all of the Texas news stories that were deemed important by Senate members and provided them with printed press clippings. Today, with the advent of the Internet and a 24-hour news cycle, this type of service may not seem important, but in the early 1970s it had never been done before. It was Townsend's foresight that began a service that continues to this day. 

While Townsend's professional contributions as a sergeant are well documented, it was his kind and genuine demeanor that people remember most. California Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Tony Beard, an NLSSA member , was sorry to hear about the loss of his friend. “Tommy was a true professional and gentleman and one of my dad’s best friends. After my dad passed away, he was someone I would reach out to often both as a friend and a mentor. Whether it was a problem at work or a personal issue, I could always count on Tommy’s wisdom and friendship to help point me in the right direction.”

Although Townsend left the Texas Senate in 1977 for new opportunities, he left an enduring legacy of service that still continues today. Through his leadership in helping establish the National Legislative Services and Security Association, Tommy created an organization that has helped hundreds of legislative staff do their jobs better and improved the security and management of our democratic institutions. 

His loss will be deeply felt, and a grateful organization will be forever in his debt.

Morgan Cullen is the NCSL liaison to the National Legislative Services and Security Association.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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