The tradition began in medieval times, when cities were built within fortress walls that were guarded during the day and locked tight at night. If cities wanted to honor non-citizens, they’d grant them “freedom of the city,” which allowed the trusted outsiders to come and go as they pleased.
Now, when cities wish to honor special residents or visitors, the mayor will call the local newspaper for a photo op, and award a “key to the city.”
Last week, West University Place, recently named “the Best City in America,” gave a key to the city to former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. Mayor Susan Sample presented the key in a ceremony at city hall. Emmett, a Bellaire High and Rice University grad, has lived in West U the past 16 years.
“During all my years in public life, this is my first key to a city,” says Emmett. “Since I live in West University Place, being awarded the key to the city by my neighbors is special. Now I have to figure out which locks it opens."
West U is the only city where that’s not so silly a question. West U has begun setting up 24-hour video cameras at every entry and exit, creating the first “virtual gated city” in the U.S. Sorry, judge, your key will not open that gate. You can’t slip past the long arm of the camera.
Emmett served four terms in the Texas House of Representatives from 1979 to 1987, and was appointed county judge in 2007. He won two elections to retain that position before being ousted from office last year. He was the recipient of the Presidential Call to Service award in 2008. He was nothing short of heroic during Houston’s floods.
A key figure
Sample said her decision to honor Emmett was a no-brainer.
“The U.S. Congress voted 434 to 1 to give Mother Teresa the Congressional Gold Medal,” she says. “The idea to give Ed Emmett the key to the city wasn’t run by the other council members, but I don’t think council would have had even one dissenting vote.”
Emmett currently teaches a course called “Inside the Texas Legislature” at Rice University. He is a senior fellow at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and does consulting work through his Emmett Company. Private life is very, very rewarding for Emmett.
The honorary key to West U, in fact, looks like a key. “It’s small, and it’s just a symbol indicating that the individual is ‘key’ to the city’s success,” Sample says.
The key may be small, but it’s a big deal. Five years ago, my son, Andrew, was given the key to West U, too. He was a member of the West U team that won the Seniors Little League World Series in Bangor, Maine. Then-Mayor and big Little League supporter Bob Fry presented keys to all the players and team manager Clint Sauls.
“My first reaction was, the key is way too big to fit on my key chain," says Sauls. "exactly what does this key open? In all seriousness, I was very flattered to be given this honor and to share it with our team,” Sauls says. “Not too many people can say they have a key to a city.”
I can, two of 'em — Port Arthur and Buna, Texas.
Years ago, when I was typing for the Houston Post, I arranged to take readers on a sightseeing trip to Buna. I had 15 busses lined up outside the newspaper, each with a local superstar aboard as tour guide. The bus hosts included then-Channel 11 anchor Janet Shamlian, then-93Q sports anchor Cleat Dumpster, and still-Channel 13 anchor Tom Koch.
We had designated busses for singles, non-conformists, under 21s, and “people with a mind of their own.” We brought about 700 readers to Buna, an unincorporated town in Jasper County in East Texas. Buna’s No. 1 tourist attraction is the Polka Dot House on Main Street. The Redbud Festival will be held April 19-20. During our visit, an official from the Chamber of Commerce gave me the key to the city. It was a big blue wooden key … covered with polka dots.
The next year, we packed more busses and drove to Port Arthur, home to the Big Bopper, Jimmy Johnson, Lee Hazlewood, Janis Joplin, and the largest oil refinery in the U.S. I remember eating a fantastic shrimp po’boy at a waterside seafood joint, and the mayor giving me the key to the city. This key was small, about the size of the tie clip.
The class act
Note: as a hard-hitting political pundit, of course I asked former county judge Emmett for his opinion on how current Judge Lina Hidaldo is handling the “Deer Park Plume of Doom” crisis.
He respectfully declined to comment. So this is just me — not to be critical of Hidalgo, let's give her a chance — but I’d breathe easier if experienced Emmett were running the show at the Office of Emergency Management.