Early life, education, and military service
Tower was born in Houston, Texas, the son of Joe Z. Tower (1898–1970) and Beryl Tower (1898–1990). Joe was a Methodist, later United Methodist, minister, and John traveled wherever his father was named by the denominational conference to pastor a church. He attended public schools in East Texas and graduated in Beaumont, the seat of Jefferson County, in southeast Texas in the spring of 1942.
Tower was active in politics as a child; at the age of thirteen, he passed out handbills for the campaign of liberal Democrat and future U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough while Yarborough was running unsuccessfully for state attorney general. Yarborough and Tower would later be paired as Texas's Senate delegation, though of opposing political perspectives. He entered Southwestern University in Georgetown (Williamson County near Austin) that same year and met future U.S. President and political opponent Lyndon Johnson on a campus visit while Johnson was the local congressman.
Tower left college in the summer of 1943 to serve in the Pacific Theater during World War II on an LCS(L) amphibious gunboat. He returned to Texas after the war in 1946, discharged as a seaman first class, and completed his undergraduate courses at Southwestern University, graduating in 1948 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. While at Southwestern, Tower was a member of the Iota chapter of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity, and would later serve the organization in significant alumnus volunteer roles. Tower worked as a radio announcer for a Country music station in Taylor, northeast of Austin, during college and for some time afterward. Tower remained in the Naval Reserve and achieved the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer, having retired from the military in 1989.
In 1949, he moved to Dallas to take graduate courses at Southern Methodist University and to work part-time as an insurance agent. He left SMU in 1951 and entered academia as an assistant professor at Midwestern University (now Midwestern State University) in Wichita Falls. In 1952 and 1953, he pursued graduate coursework at the London School of Economics and conducted field research on the organization of the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom. His research was presented in his thesis, The Conservative Worker in Britain. He received his Master of Arts degree from SMU in 1953. While a professor at Midwestern University, Tower met Joza Lou Bullington, whom he married in 1952. A native of San Diego, California, Lou was reared in Wichita Falls and was the organist at the Towers' church. She was five years his senior. One of her older cousins,
Orville Bullington, a Wichita Falls lawyer, was the unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1932 against former Governor Miriam Ferguson and a leader of the Robert A. Taft forces in Texas in 1952. Orville Bullington was also an uncle by marriage of the Midland Republican figure Frank Kell Cahoon, a Wichita Falls native who was the only Republican in the Texas House of Representatives in the 1965 legislative session. At that time, Cahoon and Tower were the only Republican legislators in the whole state of Texas.