Dick Raycraft, longtime Harris County budget chief, dies at 82

Raycraft worked in Harris County government for more than 40 years, and served as the forerunner to the modern county administrator.

Former Harris County budget director Dick Raycraft.
Courtesy of Camille Raycraft
Former Harris County budget director Dick Raycraft.

Former Harris County budget director Dick Raycraft died in Austin on Wednesday at the age of 82 from complications of Alzheimer's disease. Raycraft largely functioned as the county administrator long before that job officially existed, working under Democratic and Republican judges for 43 years.

Raycraft was born in Dallas in 1939, but grew up in Alabama and Louisiana. He served in the Marine Corps for two years, then studied philosophy at Birmingham-Southern College. He married his wife Camille in 1961.

“He had a good heart,” Camille Raycraft said. “He was a humble man, and he did a lot of good.”

Raycraft initially worked as a newspaper reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald during the civil rights movement, where he covered the Birmingham church bombing, Camille Raycraft said. After a stint reporting on Harris County government for the Houston Chronicle, he went to work as a U.S. State Department advisor in Vietnam for two years, attached to a Marine unit.

Returning to Houston in 1968, Raycraft joined the staff of then-Harris County Judge Bill Elliott in 1968. He developed into a coordinator of Harris County Commissioners Court meetings.

At the time, the court had no agenda, and the meetings were long, rambling affairs.

“It was a dreadful way to do things,” Camile Raycraft said. “So he started preparing an agenda when he was in the office with Judge Elliott, and then he began meeting with the administrative assistants to each of the commissioners to brief them on what would be discussed in the court meeting. Well that, of course, led to a very short court meeting.”

Elliott, a Democrat, lost his reelection bid in 1974. But his Republican successor, Jon Lindsay, kept Raycraft on. During the 1970s, Raycraft earned his PhD at the University of Houston, with a thesis focusing on the budget processes of large Texas counties. Soon, on the basis of that expertise, he became the county budget chief.

It was as budget director that Raycraft's responsibilities evolved into those similar to that of the modern day county administrator.

“They just began to give his office everything, because they knew that if they referred it to him, he would do a study of it,” Camille Raycraft said. “He was very careful about saying that he was not a policymaker. He was not elected. But usually, he would (say to) the commissioners, ‘this is a solution. You can do this or can do that.'”

Raycraft served in the post for three decades, retiring in December of 2011 during former County Judge Ed Emmett's tenure.

Former County Judge Robert Eckels paid tribute to Raycraft as both a friend and a mentor.

"He served essentially as a manager for the county with five bosses," Eckels said, speaking of the Harris County Commissioners Court. "It's a difficult job when you have five personalities, all with an equal vote in your job. But he was very good at managing the relationships between himself and the individuals, and between the group, and helping to guide us together to accomplish great things for Harris County."

Eckels described the county's juvenile justice alternative education program as one of Raycraft's most significant accomplishments. That program was put together with both the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department and regional school districts to eliminate many expulsions and instead enroll students in a county alternative education program.

Raycraft also helped oversee the creation of the Harris County Library System, in conjunction with the head of the Houston Library System at the time.

“It was an issue that he was always very protective of within the budget,” Eckels said, “and one that has been very popular with the people that it serves in the community, both inside and outside of the city of Houston.”

In addition to his wife, Camille, Raycraft is survived by two daughters and two granddaughters.