A RETURN APPEARANCEPark-clearing benefactor is Texas beer baron

Published 12:35 am Sunday, September 23, 2012

Some of Houston businessman John Nau’s happiest and proudest moments happened at Vicksburg National Military Park.

During Nau’s most recent visit, sandwiched between meetings and phone calls about which airport could allow his jet to land in rain, he stood atop a hill and admired the park the way few have since the mid-1930s.

Earlier this month, the park announced the completion of a monthslong project to clear-cut approximately 90 acres of the park in an effort to return the battlefield to its state of a century and a half ago.

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“For someone who hasn’t been out here in the last six months, there’s a whole new battlefield out here,” Nau said.

The project cost $314,000, and Nau, who is CEO of the nation’s largest Anheuser-Busch distributor, personally paid for all but $14,000 of the clear-cutting.

“This is spectacular here. This is just amazing to see the clearing,” Nau said.

The trees were planted during the Great Depression by a New Deal agency, said Bess Averett, executive director of the Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park.

“A lot of people think the trees have always been there, but they haven’t,” she said.

Nau’s fascination with the military park began as a child when he and his family visited the park for the first time. He’s come back countless times.

“My wife would tell you she spent part of her honeymoon here,” Nau said.

How a Texas beer baron became one of the biggest benefactors of Vicksburg National Military Park is curious, but outside the corporate world, Nau’s resume reads like a highlight list of historical accomplishments.

He’s held high-ranking positions on the boards of the University of Virgina, Texas Historical Commission, Civil War Preservation Trust and the National Parks Board. Under President George W. Bush, Nau served as chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Despite his national roles, Nau always has kept Vicksburg in his crosshairs. Now, being able to ensure that park visitors get an accurate representation of the battlefield makes him and his family proud, Nau said.

Freshly cut areas reveal just how close enemy lines were and the struggle soldiers had in overcoming terrain while dodging enemy fire from multiple angles.

“Whether it’s a sixth-grader or a 60-year-old, they can now have a better appreciation for what those soldiers experienced,” Nau said.

Nau previously donated funds to clear and restore about 90 acres of the battlefield near the Texas monument and Railroad Redoubt in 2005 and 2006. He also was instrumental in restoration of the Texas monument in 2001.

“This is the biggest monument to Texas troops anywhere outside of Texas,” Nau said.

Nau also helped found Friends of Vicksburg National Military Park in 2008 and announced in April that he would personally pay the salary of Executive Director Bess Averett — $25,000 per year — for two years while the group grew.

“Any active friends group is critical to the support of the park service,” Nau said.

Averett said having someone with Nau’s background willing to assist the park is “pretty remarkable.”

Nau said he views his investment in the park as an investment in the community.

“At the end of the day, this park is an economic engine for Vicksburg and Warren County,” Nau said.

The military park was established by Congress in 1899 as a memorial to the 1863 campaign and siege of Vicksburg. Nearly 1,400 monuments, markers, tablets and plaques commemorate the military action and those who fought here.