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Former Texas governor John Connally dies at 76

John B. Connally, the embodiment of the larger-than-life Texas politician who came to national prominence 30 years ago when he was wounded during the assassination of President Kennedy, died Tuesday. He was 76.

He was admitted to Houston's Methodist Hospital May 17, complaining of a breathing obstruction. His condition was complicated by infection and pneumonia and he had been in critical condition for most of his hospital stay.

Connally, whose wavy white hairand imposing presence were a fixture on the Texas and national political scenes, served three terms as governor. Over the course of a public career that spanned four decades, he also was secretary of the Navy, secretary of the Treasury and a failed candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

In the twilight of his career, Connally was staggered by personal financial problems, which led to bankruptcy and the humiliation of having to auction off most of the belongings that he and his wife, Nellie, had accumulated over a lifetime. But he did so with a dignity that brought plaudits even from those who had been his political adversaries.

When he filed for bankruptcy, noted Texas historian T. R. Fehrenbach likened it to "a lion being brought down."

President Clinton said Tuesday that Connally's life "was one of service to his country and of dedication to the principles in which he so passionately believed."

"He will be remembered fondly by his state and his country for the work that he did and the person that he was," Clinton said.

In Austin, Gov. Ann Richards said: "I lost a real good friend. I'll miss his phone calls. I'll miss his extraordinary good humor. I'll miss his optimism and his encouragement."

Along with his successes, there also were some low points, errors in timing and at least the scent of malfeasance during Connally's long public career. They included his financial losses; his switch to the Republican Party just as the Watergate investigation was beginning; his indictment, and acquittal, on charges that he took a $10,000 bribe from milk producers; and his expenditure of $12-million in a futile run for the presidency in 1980 that garnered him only one convention delegate.

Despite that, and in part because he was shot while riding next to Kennedy in 1963, Connally retained his almost mythic stature in Texas long after he had bowed out of the public arena. The nickname of "Big John" stayed with him through a lifetime.

Connally was born in the tiny South Texas town of Floresville in the peanut-growing region of the state. His family was of Irish stock, having emigrated to the United States in the 19th century to escape the potato famine.

The third of seven children, Connally was named after his father, John Sr. At the University of Texas, Connally distinguished himself as a thespian and orator and was elected president of the student assembly. In 1937 he went to work as a volunteer for a young man making his first bid for the U.S. House of Representatives _ Lyndon Baines Johnson. In 1939, a 22-year-old Connally went to Washington as Johnson's secretary.

Connally enlisted in the Navy in World War II and rose to the rank of lieutenant commander. Back in his native Texas after the war, he managed Johnson's 87-vote victory over Gov. Coke Stevenson, and for years afterward the stories lingered on about ballot box stuffing in South Texas and Connally's possible involvement. Connally always denied any wrongdoing. He practiced law in Texas, and in 1960 worked in Johnson's losing campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

When Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he appointed Connally secretary of the Navy. After a year, he resigned to return home to Texas to run for governor, narrowly defeating liberal Democrat Don Yarborough in a primary run-off.

Appearing with Kennedy in a parade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, he was struck by a bullet that left scars on his back, chest, wrist and thigh.

Connally became something of a national celebrity in the aftermath of the assassination. He was overwhelmingly re-elected governor in 1964.

In 1971, Connally _ still a Democrat _ was appointed by President Nixon to be secretary of the Treasury, a post he held for a year-and-a-half. And in 1973 he shocked the Democratic community by switching to the Republican Party.

After his acquittal in the milk-pricing scandal and his embarrassing showing in the 1980 presidential primary, Connally settled into private life, this time bent on turning his millions into many millions.

At one point, Connally had dozens of projects going at once, most of them in real estate and energy. When the oil market collapsed, Connally was ruined. He was forced to sell virtually everything except his homestead in Floresville. He told the bankruptcy court that he had amassed debts of $93-million against assets of only $13-million.

In 1990, on the eve of the Persian Gulf war, Connally and Texas millionaire Oscar Wyatt traveled to Iraq and negotiated the release of 21 hostages held by Saddam Hussein.

Connally is survived by his wife, Nellie; two sons; and a daughter.