Rene Wallace remembers the prayer she recited one night as a patient at Harlingen State Tuberculosis Hospital in 1964.
“Lord, I know I am sick, and if this is the way you want me, I will try to make those around me happy. But if it is your will, please heal me. I need to be with my children,” she said.
The Edinburg resident was 32 years old at the time, and it was Christmas morning when her husband Jack Wallace, founder of Jack Wallace Farms, told her that he had to take her to the hospital. She was still in her pajamas, wrapping gifts in bed for their five children.
“The doctor called my husband and told him I had tuberculosis,” she recalled. “They said I could go to the hospital at my own free will, or a sheriff would come and take me.”
Tuberculosis, also called TB, is an airborne disease that attacks the lungs and is highly contagious. In 1964, the year Wallace contracted TB, there were more than 50,000 people suffering from it in the U.S., according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
Rene stayed in quarantine at the Harlingen hospital for three months and said she only got to visit with family once — and then only through a window.
“I just could not quit crying,” she said. “I just wanted to see my children and be with my husband. I missed my life at home.”
Rene, now 87, knows that across the world today, millions of people are experiencing the same frustration and loneliness she felt in that hospital room more than five decades ago. It has almost been four weeks since a shelter-at-home order was enacted in Hidalgo County, and her advice to those who feel fearful during this time is simple: hang onto hope.
“There was never a day I lost hope that I would be healed,” she said. “I was sad, I could not stop crying, but I never felt hopeless. God can correct anything, in a twinkling of an eye. I was very isolated and sad, but I knew that this wasn’t permanent.”
Her husband visited her every other day, and Rene said that he was a pillar of strength for her during that time. Jack, an Edinburg High School graduate, a well-known Valley farmer, and member of the RGV Sports Hall of Fame, died seven years ago.
So, Rene knows what it means to be courageous. Also an EHS graduate, she received her two-year associate’s degree from Edinburg College, which had been a junior college since 1927. However, she believed that students of the Rio Grande Valley deserved the opportunity to get a complete higher education. In 1951, Rene helped represent the city of Edinburg at the state capitol to convince legislators to turn the college into the four-year university it is now. In 2013, she was honored as one of The University of Texas-Pan American’s Pillars of Success for those efforts.
A successful businesswoman for more than 40 years before retiring, she took the lead on many housing development projects across the region, and was named the Texas Business Woman of the Year in 2006 by the National Republican Congressional Business Advisory Council. She was also the first woman to serve as vice president for the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce.
Facing tuberculosis and being separated from her family marked the most challenging time of her life, but Rene attributes her recovery to faith, saying that the check-up after she prayed, doctors cleared her to go home. Jack came and got her on the Monday after Easter that year, and on the way, they stopped by her children’s school to pick them up.
Jack Wallace Jr., second youngest child of five, remembers sprinting to his mother that day.
“I was 7, and I just missed my mother a lot, we all did,” said Wallace Jr., who is also an EHS graduate. “We got out of school early when she came back, and I just sprinted to her car to see her.”
The kids made a sign that hung in front of their house that read: “Welcome Home Mom.”
“It was a difficult time being away from my mother, but we were always hopeful — we knew that God had her in his hand,” said Jack Jr., who is now 62 and runs the family farm.
Rene has 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren but hasn’t slowed down. She stays busy by tending to her properties and investments. Her elegantly furnished home in Edinburg is the 119th house she has either built or designed.
She is also still striving to sharpen her mind by playing various puzzles and games. In fact, in her late 60s, she defeated Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in a game of Bridge, a trick-trading card game. She still travels nationwide to compete in card tournaments, but for the time being, has been playing online.
As a beloved and respected figure in Edinburg, Rene encourages the community to seek peace and stay composed.
“It will be over, we are going to pass through this,” she said. “We have to conduct ourselves with a positive attitude knowing that it’s going to end, and we must do everything we can to keep from getting it.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove information from an earlier version that, in error, compared elements of tuberculosis with COVID-19.