The Houston Oral History Project is a repository for the stories, accounts, and memories of those who have chosen to share their experiences. The viewpoints expressed in the Houston Oral History Project do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the City of Houston, the Houston Public Library or any of its officers, agents, employees, or volunteers. The City of Houston and the Houston Public Library make no warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the interviews and expressly disclaim any liability therefore.
The Houston Oral History Project provides unedited versions of all interviews. Some parents may find material objectionable for minors. Parents are encouraged to interact with their children as they use the Houston Oral History Project Web site to complete research and homework activities.
The Houston Public Library retains the literary and publishing rights of its oral histories. No part of the interviews or transcripts may be published without the written permission of the Houston Oral History Project.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to:
The Houston Oral History Project.
Houston Public Library
Houston, Texas 77002
The Houston Oral History Project reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to decline to post any account received herein and specifically disclaims any liability for the failure to post an account or for errors or omissions that may occur in posting accounts to the Virtual Archive.
For more information email the Houston Oral History Project at email@example.com.
Interviewed by: Ron Stone
Date: September 12, 2007
FM: This is September 12, 2007. We are interviewing Alfred Glassell as a part of the oral history project. Sir, thank you for allowing us to do this. Let me take you back to, well, let us start at the beginning. You were born in 1913? Is that right?
AG: Well, I was born on a cotton plantation in North Louisiana and I was born by the plantation midwife because there weren't any doctors or anything like that around.
FM: Your folks owned the big plantation, did they?
AG: Oh, yes.
FM: What did you raise besides cotton?
FM: Just cotton?
AG: Cotton. Cotton was king, yes. Nothing but cotton.
FM: And as a boy growing up, did you want to be a farmer or what?
AG: When I was a boy, let me see what I wanted to do .... when I was a boy growing up. I had some ideas but, you know, a boy is a boy. He is just there. You push him around and after he gets to be 21, why then he can make up his mind what I want to make of myself. But up until then, you cannot really decide what you want. I always thought being a fireman was pretty good because you made a lot of noise and rode a big red truck with sirens on it, and that sort of thing. But I was not especially nuts about it. That was my thinking.
FM: You went away to LSU? What did you study at LSU?
AG: I went to LSU for
4 years. Graduated in 1934. I have an LSU Hall of
Fame pin on right now. I was in the ROTC Cadet Corps
there. I liked it, I stayed in the barracks with everybody
else. We would go to bed at night playing taps and wake up in
the morning to gotta ... get up in the morning. As I said, I
was in the Corps Cadets. Troy H. Middleton was my
commanding officer of the Cadet Corps. He would ask me to do things
for him from time to time, which I did, and we developed a great
friendship. Then, the war came, and being a Second Lieutenant in
the Reserve, I was ordered up immediately. However, we were an
infantry unit there at the University and they put me in the Corps of
Engineers, of which I knew nothing about. So, we were
learning in the Corps of Engineers. We were learning how to
land on hostile shores. And we had all these, what they called
landing craft personnel, and we would go up to the shore and run off
and started fighting. There were some good things and some bad
things about that. We had no artillery in the Army. When you
are making a vision or going forward, you have an artillery group that puts
a lot of bombardment out in front of where you are going and
then you move
FM: Yes sir
AG: So, we did not have much air support. So, it was . . . I mean, the Krauts had us. I mean, they could bomb us, they could shoot us, and they did. I saw the whites of a Kraut's eye one day. He was shooting at me and I jumped under in a ditch and crawled in a culvert. He was not too happy with getting me the first time so he circled a round and came back and was looking down there while he was shooting up here, looking down to see if he got me. Well, let me tell you something, we were about as close as me and you - the whites of his eye, the whites of my eye. So, he ran out of gas and had to leave, so I was lucky there.
FM: You went through some of the worst . . . you talk about landings . . . you went through some of the worst landings of the war. You were with the 45th Division, and so that meant Africa, it meant Sicily, it meant Italy. There wasn't anything easy anywhere along the way.
AG: There was not. We really had a tough time. When we were in training to go up there, we were sent to a place in northern New York called Watertown. It is the coldest town in the United States. We were sent there to prepare us for this fighting in Italy. So, boy, I've got pictures somewhere of ice all over everything. It was interesting. And we got ordered to go to Sicily. So, we had a lot of preparation to get these landing craft personnel ready to take us in. We would come over the side of the ship on a net; we would get our way down. I was fine with that. I had no problem at all but some of our fellows loaded their pants up with extra shells before they came over the net to get to the anticraft personnel, and they fell. I mean, they went right into the bottom of the ocean.
FM: You survived the second world war. It is a miracle that you did because of the places you went. And came back to make a life for yourself in this country. Why did you come to Houston?
AG: Why did I come to the United States?
FM: Why did you come to Houston?
AG: Oh, to Houston? Well, I came to Houston because I was a contractor doing a lot of work here, on a drilling contract, drilling wells in Louisiana. I would have to come about every week or 10 days, so I finally said this is for the birds. I'll move to Houston. And I want to tell you -- when I moved to Houston, I was really amazed. It rained 30 straight days. And there was water everywhere. Everywhere. You could not go anywhere there was so much water. Now, there was this thing called the Southern Dinner Club out on Gray Street and there was a chanteuse there called Life Begins at 40. That is what she sang in the dinner club. Of course, we had to have sacks in those days because there was no place you could carry your liquor.
FM: Oh, you could not buy liquor.
AG: In a sack. Well it worked out very fine, and we eventually got happy.
FM: So, it quit raining and you had somebody to sing to and you had a sack of liquor - don't need anything else, do you?
AG: No. I lived in the Lamar Hotel which was . . . everything took place in the Lamar Hotel. It had 6 or more restaurants. Uncle Jesse Jones lived on the top floor and he had somebody else live in the other half. But it was just, you know, the people there were very friendly. I would come home some time, I would be tired, and I would get a whiff of some friends of mine that were cooking and it smelled pretty good, so I would call them up and say, "What are you doing?" And they would say, "Well, we are getting ready to have dinner. Do you want to come down and eat with us?" I said, "Sure!" So, I hopped right there. It was really a friendly group and we got to know each other over a period of time.
FM: A lot of deals were made down in those coffee shops, weren't they?
AG: You bet. A lot of deals were made in that Lamar Hotel. Brown & Root had an apartment there I think it was on the 7th floor, and I lived on the 9th floor. We did not have any air conditioning so we had air fans. You would crack the windows. And this air fan from the hotel would draw the air. And so, you would get in the route of that air. And then, we had fans that went around on the top. What I would do is I would sleep on one side of the bed until I got it wet with sweat and I rolled over to the other side and let the air fan clean off, dry up the side I just slept on. So, I would roll back and forth all night. It was hard at first learning how to sleep that way but it worked out fine later on.
FM: When did you decide, O.K., I am not going to be a contractor for somebody else anymore, I want to start my own business?
AG: Well, when did I decide that? I was living in Lake Charles, Louisiana. So, I had that drive between Lake Charles and Houston all the time. It was not a very good drive in those days. It was very . . . there were a lot of speed traps, especially one bad one over around Orange. There were a lot of buggies on the road. So, you'd just get in line and there you were. So, I decided, enough of that. I just moved to Houston. And it rained 30 straight days. And I thought, oh my God, what have you done to yourself?
FM: Did you immediately start Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Company? Was that your first business?
AG: Well, Transcontinental . . . there was a group of us from Houston . . . well, I had some gas up in East Texas, for one thing, and I could not sell it anywhere, so I got together with this lobbyist from Austin and they knew about some more gas, so the idea was to put the gas and the pipeline in Brownsville, Texas. In New York, they wanted the gas very bad. ConEd wanted the gas very bad. We had it down here. Well, there wasn't any way to get it there. So, this lobbyist decided and the group of us decided well, we will just build a pipeline. But, of course, first you have to get contracts on both ends. Then, you can go to the bank and borrow the money to do it and that is what we did.
FM: How long did it take you before you found financing? Was it difficult to get financing back then?
AG: It was easy. The financial arrangements was very easy because New York wanted the gas so bad. And when you've got a deal contracted out on both ends, it is not hard to arrange financing. There was a lot of money around. Bankers and insurance companies mostly are looking for deals.
FM: During the Second World War, I guess Brown & Root had built a big pipeline from here going up to east to take care of the Army needs. Well, the Army needs are gone now. Is that the pipeline you used to move this in, or did you build your own pipeline?
AG: It was kind of funny. A man in New York, a very humorous guy called Fiorello de La Guardia. Yes so, we finally got that gas and the pipeline built. The toughest part was the river crossings. We had a very hard time on river crossings. But anyway, we finally made it after a horrible experience with a tanker, a big tanker called the Gulf Moon. We got there, got to New York. I wore a Homburg hat and gave the rest of the board at a hat. So, we went up to 154th Street receiving station in New York and turned the valves on. That La Guardia was the funniest damned guy you would ever talk to. He just cracked jokes all the time, just cracked jokes. So, it was one great laughing experience.
FM: He used to read the funny papers to the kids during the . . . I am told he had a radio program every Sunday morning and he would read the funny papers to the children and he would rather do that than be the mayor, they said at one time.
AG: Oh, he was a riot.
FM: So, you turned on the gas and you are in business?
AG: I turned on the gas. They were very happy. After that, we all broke up.
FM: I will bet you were pretty happy by then.
AG: Oh, of course I was. I was selling this gas down here for nothing, a cent, cent and a half, and that long-term contract, got quite a bit more. It was very, very important.
FM: How old were you at that time, sir?
AG: Well, I was born in 1913.
FM: So, this is the 1940s we are talking about now, some time in the 40s, right?
AG: Gosh, I don't know.
FM: But you are still a very young man.
AG: You know, people ask me all the time that question yet ask a lot, "How old are you?" I said, "Look, when I got to be 90, I quit counting."
FM: But when you started the pipeline, you were still in your early 40s?
AG: 40s. Some of our financing we arranged from a company called J.H. Whitney and Company. So, we had to go to New York for a meeting every month with J.H. Whitney. And they wanted to know what was happening to their money. We eventually made it all right. Things just turned out very, very good.
FM: So, if that is the peak of your business life, what did you do after that? What did you do after you built the pipeline? It is going, everything is working, now what did you do? Did you have other businesses or what?
AG: Well, I was in the oil and gas business, really, myself. I had some oil, actually, a lot of oil for me, but I could not sell it in the United States. All the oil was just . . . it was good, sweet, Gulf Coast, 38 gravity crude which is the finest thing a refinery can get. So, I sent a barrel of it over to Exxon in Baton Rouge to have a report on it and they sent back the report, they said, "This is the lousiest, sloppiest, most awful oil we have ever looked at. We are not interested in buying it at any price." So, I had built a pipeline myself to a bayou there and made a deal with a fellow named W.T. Burton from Sulphur, Louisiana, to store the oil while we were accumulating enough to get a tanker load. At that point, we sold it to a refinery in Belgium for 80 cents or something like that.
FM: So, you were in the production end of drilling for oil as well?
AG: I was in the production as well.
FM: Now, you've got to tell me the truth here: did you hit any dry holes along the way or were you successful at every well you drilled?
AG: Well, we were very careful before we drilled a well. We just did not drill very many dry holes. Of course, they were very expensive. We did not have the money to pay for it. So, we did all right but we weren't getting to be any Exxon or anything like that real soon.
FM: You described what Houston is like when you came here. Let me take you back in your memories and you tell me what Houston was like in the forties and the fiffties, as you remember. What was the town like at that time?
AG: The town was very interesting, and I moved here because I did not want to drive all the time. I moved into something that was the jewel of all times called the Lamar Hotel. Muller Watson was the manager. In those days, you did not make reservations anywhere, you just walked in, got a place to sit down, or walked in and checked in at the counter. You could have any kind of suite you wanted or bed, 1 room, or whatever you wanted, you could have it. Finally, I got tired of living in the Lamar Hotel. I lived there 17 years. I moved out. I had a friend named John Staub who built a house for my father in Louisiana and I asked him, I said, "John, find me a house. I want to move out of this hotel." "Well," he said, "O.K." He was an architect himself. Staub, Rather, and Howze. We started looking and he did not come up with anything. He did not find anything. So, finally, he said, "I found a house, but the lady won't move out of it. She told me, she said, 'the only way you will get me out of this place is feet first.'" Well, something happened within her lifetime . . . the house belonged to a fellow named Harmon Whittington. He was head of the Anderson Clayton Cotton Company. So, the neighbor next door got drunk one day. She was really a nut on azaleas. She had something like 1,500 azalea plants in her garden. So, the neighbor next door, I forget what his name was, he was a tough hombre from Cleveland or some place like that, one of his trees, the limbs off one of his trees was growing over one of her azaleas, so she cut it off. And oh, he came over and he said to her, he said, "Listen you God damn little big tit'd bitch, I will put you on my lap and spank you like you've never been beat before if you ever touch a limb on my tree." Well, I mean, Mrs.Whittington, a lovely little lady had never heard any language like that. There had never been anything like that. So, she just gasped and gasped and said, "I can't live here anymore." They had a bunch of land out on Memorial Drive. She was crazy about dogs. She had fourteen or fifteen dogs. She and all of her dogs moved out there. And so, Staub said, "This is the house." He made some plans and I approved of them.
I was fishing very much in those days and I went to the Indian Ocean for a year and a half. When I came back, Staub, he painted . . . the house was a red brick house. He painted it. He said, "I don't think everybody in the area likes this house." All of a sudden, something just disappeared in the scenery behind the oak trees and now it is fairly noticeable." I said, "Well, John, what the hell? We can't help that." A guy named George Strake lived next to me and we got to be very good friends, George Strake and myself. He was a big enthusiastic supporter of the Catholic Church. And they were constantly sending monsignors in to see George. George had a lovely wife and we just got along fine. And, on the other side, I had this . . . I am trying to think of what happened to that lot on the next side of me. Anyway, it changed a lot of hands there very rapidly.
FM: You haven't told me where this house was. What was the address of this house?
AG: 3030 Inwood Drive. My house. It opens up on something called the country club. I played tennis in those days. It was very convenient.
FM: When you moved in there, was River Oaks full at that time or were they still building it?
AG: I think they had pretty well drilled up around the country club, I mean, the developement they called it Homewood - a little place on Lazy Lane there next door. I think they pretty well drilled up. Mr. Hogg who promoted River Oaks had a fellow named Hugh Potter that was always trying to sell you a house or sell you some land for you to build on and so forth. It was very interesting.
FM: Let me ask you about some of the characters that were in Houston, and I don't mean characters in a bad way but some of the oil people that I have read a lot about. Did you ever meet Hugh Roy Cullen, for example? Did you ever deal with him?
AG: No. I never had any dealings with Mr. Cullen. I knew him. I was just a little squirt. Mr. Cullen, of course, was a grown man. He liked to have been the elbow . . . one day, he had a country place and we were all invited out there and all went. I wound up with a glass top table about the size of this, as a matter of fact, sitting there and a drinking pal named Glenn McCarthy came in. Glenn decided he was going to make a speech, so he got up on this glass table - I am sitting right there - bang! Of course, the glass broke and I thought oh God, I lost a leg or something. But nothing happened. I did not even get a scratch out of it. Glenn went on, and Mr. Cullen . . . they got together and did a little drinking. I left because I do not drink. I just enjoyed being around people that are not drunk.
FM: Did you have any dealings with the Brown brothers, George and Herman Brown?
AG: I met George and Herman Brown when I first came to Houston because somehow or another, they were friends of Dad's in the background. He told them to take care of me and they said, "We will." So, I was going to Europe, and on the same boat was Herman Brown. And so, you know, we got to be friendly and we talked around. One day, I was talking with him, I said, "Mr. Brown, how many people do you have working for you?" He said, "Today, I am doing a lot of work all over. I have 70,000 people working for me." So, I mean, that got my attention. But things worked out fine everywhere.
FM: You mentioned you were out for a year in the Indian Ocean or somewhere. You loved to fish, didn't you?
AG: I did, and I loved to fish and go places nobody had ever been before. These oceans, most of them, have currents coming through like the Gulf Stream, and the Indian Ocean has a very strange setup. The winds blow one way for 6 months' time. And then, the next 6 months, they blow the other way. So, if you wanted to travel in the Indian Ocean, you just had to figure on being wherever you were going in 6 months and it would be 6 months before you could get back home.
FM: Well, let me ask you then in your mind to go back to the coast of Peru in the 1950s and you are on a rod and reel looking for marlin and you found one, didn't you?
AG: Oh, yes. I found a lot. I started really fishing on that coast of South America at a place called Chile and I started there and moved up the coast to another place called Antofagasta. And another place called Iquique. And just kept fishing my way all the way around, catching lots of fish in every place, and packs of fish. I fished my way on up to the Perlis Islands which is right out of Panama.
FM: But one day off Peru, you hooked a marlin that weighed, fifteen hundred pounds?
AG: Fifteen hundred sixty pounds. We caught this fish and the IGFA, International Game and Fishing Association which is in charge of fishing had a representative living there with an oil company. He came down and measured the fish and checked him all over to see that he was legal from their point of view, and he was. Then, after I got that, his O.K., I gave him his battalion of Peruvian infantry up the Coast. They were always fighting with the Ecuadorians over some land. And so, I gave it to them to eat. Very good to eat. Not all marlin are very good to eat. Some of them are just horrible, but black marlin in that area - delicious.
FM: You love to fish but your other love was art, right? When did you fall in love with art? When did you become a collector?
AG: Well, let's see - I guess I have been a collector all my life. I just enjoy collecting something . . . see I am a Scot and they are pretty good collectors themselves. Whatever you are collecting, I think you ought to try to get the best so that your collection will be the best of then -- whatever artifact you are working on at that time. I have been very, very lucky. I have agents all over the world and they know my taste and some of them say, "Here, find him something." If they think I am interested in it, they call me about it.
FM: Is it as thrilling to find that piece of art today as it was . . .
AG: Well, you just can't find it anymore. It has all been collected by collectors who won't turn it loose.
FM: The Houston Museum is well known now. The Fine Arts Museum is well known. It was not always. It had trouble in the beginning, did it not?
AG: Well, we started off - I have forgotten the date, but we were number 32nd in the nation. And when I left, I asked to be retired chairman. I was Chairman of the Board all that time. And when I left, we were number 4.
FM: That is quite a jump.
AG: It is quite a jump.
FM: How did you do that?
AG: Honoring 22 luncheons.
FM: Asking for money is one thing but that is not all there is about art. You have to ask for money for the right thing, don't you?
AG: Absolutely. You find people that have the art usually know what they've got and they are interested in having it taken care of because it is pretty fragile stuff. And so, Dr. Peter Margio and myself, we made people realize that we have got this marvelous storage place and what we do not hang on our walls, we can store and any time you want to, you can come see it. So, we have got, I guess, one of our biggest collections we ever got was the Blaffer collection. We are very proud of that and still are.
FM: Why was there a need for a school of art? Your name is now on that school of art. What is that all about?
AG: Well, actually, art was kind of in a developing phase at that time. I wanted to teach people to appreciate and learn about art so when they left going to school at Glassell, they would be able to get a job anywhere. And they would also have opportunity to do their own art work. All this just melded together there and made a nice deal. Our ambition, of course, was no great artist would be alive that had not spent some time in Glassell, and it is getting that way.
FM: Houston has had many faces. First of all, it was a rough and tumble oil town. It is now turning into a cultural city, and you are one of the people who helped make that change from one to the other. Was it difficult to turn Houston in that direction?
AG: Well, I believe there are a lot of divergent people in Houston in composition and I wanted to have a place for all people. I really think that is important. "A place for all people", regardless - whether they are a China man or whether they are black or whether they are white or whether they are university professors or whoever the heck. And that museum, I wanted them to use that as one of their slogans and they have been. They have got classes going through the Museum now. People want to go - we cannot handle them all so they have to put them in groups and assign them a time or they get in one of these things, places where you have to line up to get there. It is just going gang busters.
FM: But people forget that it always was not that way. In the beginning, it was not that way at all, was it?
AG: No. In the beginning, it was kind of a place where snooty people, I guess you might say . . . but that did not work but about 10 minutes when I became chairman!
FM: Which brings up an interesting point: your patrons are the, "snooty people," and now you are saying, "Hey, we've got to let everybody in here." Was it hard for you to do that or not? Was it hard for you to change that core group of people?
AG: I don't want to say that it was hard but I am sure a lot of people got awful mad at me because . . . the reason we have a great museum is because it is a place for all people. I have been to several museums around the country and, you know, you almost have got to be a member of the Klan to get in to see it.
FM: Well, maybe not the Klan . . .
AG: That's not my way.
FM: Let me go into another area that Houston is famous for and that is the Medical Center. You had something to do with Texas Children's Hospital, did you not?
AG: Texas Heart Institute.
FM: Heart Institute, I am sorry. O.K.
AG: Texas Heart Institute is just, I don't know - there is nothing like it I do not believe in the world. [end of side 1]
. . . and then, the Medical Center began to develop. Dr. DeBakey became very famous. Dr.Cooley became very famous. Now recently, Ralph Feigen who was the manager of the Texas Children's Hospital has become sort of the czar, really. He had the capability of borrowing money, getting funds from different insurance companies in New York to build what they call this Feigen Center which is part of Texas Heart Institute. It has been very exciting, very exciting doing that, and I am very happy to be a part of it - developing all these famous doctors. I read in the paper I think this morning where somebody gave him a whole wad of money.
AG: Robert McNair. Well, Robert McNair is a wonderful man himself. He is just interested in doing good things for good people.
FM: It occurs to me, sir, that Houston has always been blessed by having people like that though, has it not?
AG: It has.
FM: Not the least of which is this fellow who came over here when it rained so much and decided to stay. You have given a lot back to this city. Why?
AG: Well, I like to help people that have helped me. Houston has been good to me, and I am going to be good to Houston. I am going to leave them things that they enjoy now but do not own and they will be part of Houston.
FM: Are you glad you moved over here from Lake Charles?
AG: Oh, boy! Lake Charles was the nicest, most wonderful little place to live in you ever saw but then, some chemical company came in there and built a plant. Brother! I mean, it destroyed everything. There is nothing there anymore. It is the most awful place to have to go to.
FM: People ask me this all the time so I ask you: Is there something you can define as the spirit of Houston? Is there a spirit that we have here in Houston or not? And I am not sure there is but I am just curious.
AG: Houston is something that . . . they do not have any small group of people that control this or that or the other thing. It is up to you as a Houstonian to do whatever you are doing, your thing, and prove to the people that it is good, legitimate action, and they will accept you with open arms. But they are not, as I said, clannish. They are not clannish at all. On the contrary . . . I am not poking at anybody because I have some wonderful friends in Dallas, the Dallas Museum people - we are very close . . . chairman to chairman, they know our doors are always open if they want to come down here and see us or talk to us or work on anything with us - we will. We will work with them. I think what makes Houston this great is that somebody just showing up out of the blue and taking that position.
FM: Well, I am glad you showed up out of the blue and took that position. You changed our city and thank you, sir, for doing that. Thank you for allowing us to have this time with you.
AG: Thank you. I am glad to do it and I wish you a lot of good luck in your interviewing, I saw the mayor the other night. I am very strong on our mayor. Very strong. I just think we are so lucky, so lucky to have him. We had so many areas that needed to be cleaned. I think I said this before . . . that needed to be cleaned up, and Bill White has gone in there . . . we had a couple of mayors before that really messed things up. He just went in and cleaned it up. We are lucky.