Betsey Griffin

Duration: 1hr 42mins
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Interview with: Betsey Griffin
Interviewed by:
May 6, 1982
Archive Number: OH JL21.1a

I: This tape was produced on May 6, 1982 by volunteers of the Junior League of Houston at the Houston Public Library. It is one of a series on the history of voluntarism in Houston. This series is a segment of the oral history collection in the Houston Metropolitan Archives at the library. The interviewers are Dorothy Knox Howe Houghton and Deirdre Denman Glober. The subject of our interview is Mrs. Fred B. Griffin. Mrs. Griffin, you are a native Houstonian with roots going back several generations here. What are your memories of the social and cultural life here when you were a child?

BG: Houston was so much slower when I was a child. One of the things that I remember is that people pretty well knew each other, and your grandmother would know—if she asked you who you went with to a certain place, she didn’t mean what was their name. She meant who was their family. If you told her their name, she would find out one way or the other who it was because Houston was—obviously everybody didn’t know everybody, but families that have been around for a long time are staying in touch. That was very important. Since I have learned that the importance was not just social—as what we get from one’s grandmother—but the early business deals and so forth—the business—the development of Houston. A lot of it was just gentleman’s agreement between people who knew each other and had known each other for generations and planned for their children and grandchildren to know each other.

I: How would you characterize the physical appearance of the city when you were growing up?

BG: Southern—it was hot in the summertime, and I remember before everybody had air conditioning, and I remember that in the summertime, all the oriental rugs went up to the attic and the straw rugs came down. Slip covers were put on all of the furniture because it would make it cooler in the house, but life was slower then. People really took the time out to change everything for the summer and change it for the fall. To go back to your former question, the social life was more dictated by the weather and the seasons. It was slower and more gracious, maybe, in the summertime and a little bit faster paced in the wintertime because we were much more subject to our environment than we are now with air conditioning in Houston.

I: I was also thinking about—and when I say physical appearance, I was thinking about the buildings, and I know you were presently with Rice Design Alliance, and I thought that you might be especially aware of the changes have taken place in that respect.

BG: In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s or almost all the way through the ‘50s’, if you wanted to go to a building downtown, you just got in your car and looked for it and went to it. There was no particular reason to look up the address, because downtown was just 2 or 3 streets wide. The street wide thing is an issue now in planning because we were just lucky that the Allen brothers laid out those wide streets. They’re still very adequate for downtown traffic. The tall buildings were so cute. It was the Neils Esperson building and the Mellie—?

I: Mellie Esperson?

BG: Mellie Esperson building and Bows you can find very easily. The buildings that are now considered historic buildings in downtown were a shambles when I was a child. No nice people lived that far downtown. It was not safe. You could go to Sakowitz and Foley’s and you could walk a little bit further down to the movies, but that was about it. The buildings were not particularly distinguished. I do remember City Hall, which they say is a WPA type of architecture. City Hall—sort of—stood apart, away from the rest of the city, which is interesting.

I: Where were you educated?

BG: I started at Kincaid, and then I went to Lamar Junior High and Lamar school, Sweet Briar College for 4 years and went to Rice get a master’s in American History from there.

I: Did you travel with your family when you were growing up?

BG: (04:17) We went to the east coast a lot—because there was family there—in the car, so we traveled in this country to go head east.

I: You took long trips in the car?

BG: Yeah, 5 or 6 days to get to Virginia, visiting friends along the way and family. I went to camp for 5 summers in Vermont, so some of those trips were connected with getting the children to and from camp.

I: What community activities were your parents involved in?

BG: A lot. My mother was in the Junior League, and she was involved with the Houston and Natural Science, the Heritage Society, Arboretum, and Faith Home. My father was involved with sorted things because he was an engineer, and he would give engineering advice, like the Girl Scouts employed him, the counsel of Girl Scouts, the Arboretum, the Heritage Society, and a lot of just free jobs for whoever needed something surveyed.

I: He served on the board of the Harris County Heritage Society for a number of years, didn’t he?

BG: Uh-hunh (affirmative).

I: Was his particular involvement there engineering, helping them with several engineering problems or—?

BG: (5:57) I suspect that it was. I really don’t know for a fact, but it was—the board structured it. It was founded by my parent’s generation and friends, and so a lot of people started on it just because they were in the business and (unintelligible)

I: You were related to the Pillot family whose family’s home is now in Sam Houston Park. Has your family had a special relationship with the Heritage Society because of that house?

BG: No. The interest in the Heritage Society was really my mother’s basically, and it was more general. It was an interest in preserving old houses, and the first home that they preserved was the Kellum Medical House. It’s like the brick house which supposedly is the first homestead made out of brick in Houston because Mr. Kellum owned the brickyard, which he could see from his front porch because it was down on the bayou. That was going to be torn down by the city because it was a place that bums and other undesirables were hanging out. It was unsafe to be in it. It was unsafe because it attracted unsafe people. I’m not sure who the founding members were—but I imagine you have it elsewhere on your tape—

I: Yes.

BG: —decided that that was ridiculous to have that sort of a landmark torn down, so they petitioned city council to have it preserved. The story that I got was city council said it could be preserved if it would be open to the public a certain number of days a week, and so the ladies would go down in the afternoon and open it up, so that the public could come through. Then their husbands would come down at tea time and bring the martinis, and they would together close up the house and enjoy the front porch and go home. I hope that’s all right for your tape.

BG: Of course.

I: Have you continued to be interested in the Heritage Society?

BG: (7:45) I was involved right when I got back from college. as a provisional for 2 or 3 years, and then I wasn’t involved anymore because of other volunteer things took up my time. I am a member now, and I like to get their information, but I’m not a very active member. The original cookbook that the Heritage Society sold is an interesting resource for families in Houston. They asked Houston women and men to contribute favorite recipes that they remembered from their mothers and grandmothers or great-grandmother’s tables.

If you take the cookbook now and read through it, you can pick out almost a pattern of 5 or 6 large families, and then lots of smaller families and the kinds of meals that people ate in those days. The recipes—you get a feeling for the kinds of ways people entertained, the kinds of recipes that they had and considered very good, both for a family circumstance and for parties. You get a good list of the names of the families that were in Houston in the early days—the twenties and thirties. It’s just an interesting flavor, I think, of the city, really before my time. I think it’s a good history resource for people wanting to do research into Houston families.

I: What values did your family instill in you that caused you to develop such a strong commitment to community service?

BG: I think it was an attitude in the family that, since we were fortunate enough to be fairly well off and to have time that was not committed to earning a living, that that time should be used for returning to the community something of what it had given to you. Certainly, my mother’s example of volunteering for the Junior League and other things set a very strong example. My father, less so because I was less aware probably of what he was doing. It’s an attitude that was reinforced by my education, certainly through Sweet Briar, that if you’re fortunate enough to come to a school like this, you have to take this education that you’ve gotten from college and high school and put it to some good end.

I: When did you become a member of the GDP?

BG: It would’ve been the spring of 1963 when I was asked to be a provisional.

I: Good. Where did you know about the league when the subject of your becoming a member came up?

BG: (10:26) I only remember that it had taken a lot of my mother’s time when I was growing up. I was fairly well aware of the League. Probably I could’ve have specifically told you this is the purpose of the Junior League and this is what it does, but it was an important factor in Houston, and lots of my mother’s friends were members. It was just a thing that you grew up knowing things about with the Junior League was involved with the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Natural Science, not because anybody ever told you. You just—sort of—became aware of that when you’re growing as kids. I was just out of college, less than a year out of college when the invitation came and I had given much thought to it. I was in graduate school at the time, and had not given much thought to volunteer commitments beyond my school at that time.

I: It 1966-67, you served as in-league fundraising chairman—

BG: Uh-hunh (affirmative).

I: —and a member of the board because of that position.

I: What was the purpose of that title, position, which no longer exists now?

BG: When the Junior League decided to move its building from Stewart Street to Post and Park Drive, they had to raise a lot of money. I don’t remember how much. They went to the community for some of it and had good response just in outlying gifts and grants, but not enough to completely build and refurbish the building—well, not refurbish—but to completely rebuild and furnish the building. There was a position created I suppose from the earliest—when they decided to do the building—that was filled each year by someone, and its purpose was to have a project that would raise money for the cookbook from members and members’ friends in small amounts. By the time I got to it, we were looking for parties that would raise funds. The cookbook was coming and it had not come as of that time. The cookbook was supposed to help pay for the building, but the cookbook was so long in getting published that the building, in fact, was paid for before the cookbook came on a string.

I: What can you tell us from your experience on the board and as treasurer about how the Junior League keeps its charitable funds separate from its operating funds?

BG: One of the things that we learned the most clearly as provisionals was that there was a huge difference in generally thinking between money raised in the community for charity and what we call administrative funds raised from the members themselves to be used for administrative membership-type activities, so that there was a clear philosophical difference. If you went to the community through the charity ball or the cookbook or just any other fundraising effort, and you said you were raising this money to go into the hospital or the museum projects, then it absolutely had to go there.

The Junior League took no administrative overhead off of that. That philosophy of funding charities is no longer applicable any place except for perhaps in the Junior League. The way the tax laws have changed and the way the accounting systems have changed, if I go to a foundation looking for funds for other things that I do and say we need $20,000, they immediately assume that a certain percentage of that money will go to our administrative overhead. That is the way business is done now, but that was not the way it was done in the Junior League in 1960, for 3 or 5 years, 6, or through my years as treasurer.

When I was treasurer was the time when the accounting system across the country was being mandatorily changed, so that funds were not accounted for on this sort of fund-by-fund basis within an organization. I really was there to kind of—there was a technical change, but there really wasn’t a philosophical change in the Junior League, at least as far as at that time, which was—if I can remember the dates.

I: For instance, the revenues from tea room are in sort of separate pots in with the—how does it work? The on-going revenues can help pay for the cost of the building but the patrons of the tea room—?

BG: (14:57) —are only for charitable gifts. The patrons are very proud to make the patron’s group. It caused a lot of problems for the Junior League, because the tea room had many cycles, and it was not making enough money to pay its overhead, and certainly not enough to add, to maintenance of the building beyond what was just necessary. The question would come up, and time and again, “Well, couldn’t we use some tea room member dues?” but we never did.

I: What philosophies govern the distribution of charitable gifts, as far as what kinds of things has the League given money to the community for?

BG: The first criteria normally—or certainly when I was a provisional and a young member—was that League funds only went with League volunteers. We were not in the business of raising money in the community and just simply redistributing it to charities that we thought were good. We specifically tried to tie all of our contributions to training for our League volunteers, and the point in the League volunteers being there ultimately was to train these women to be good volunteers in the community in whatever capacity they choose to take on. Then at somewhere along the line early, the Rockwell family started giving us funds that we were to administer for them. I’m pretty sure that was the Junior League’s first gift that was specifically to be taken by the League and redistributed and that the Rockwell family wanted us to do the research, rather than for them to do the research, and I think they still have the Rockwell family.

(16:51) Then—and I don’t remember the dates—the Junior League was able to—because of the success largely of the charity ball—to have more funds in its community basket—so to speak—than we could really logically spend with our projects. I must say that the Junior League probably is the tightest group of giving in the whole world when it comes to allocating funds to its projects. We try very hard not to ever give the impression that the Junior League has dollars to burn because we feel that that money that we have in our communities is sacrosanct, and it needs to be stretched to its ultimate use. When we did have more funds than we needed to fund our volunteer projects each year, we started the Community Assistance Fund. Through this mechanism, groups that knew about the Junior League could come and ask just for donations for certain reasons for their own purposes. We had a community assistance committee that would research those requests and recommend to the board, and then to the membership—that the Community Assistance Funds be given to XYZ organization for XYZ purposes.

There was a lot of controversy about that because reallocating funds was different than what we had done before. I would guess that that experience of going into the community with funds to give and seeing the kinds of requests that come through and the way people use them was extremely valuable to our volunteers. That was one of the first ways that our volunteers became acquainted on a one-to-one basis with how other organizations did and did not operate and use their funds. It was never easy. It is so hard to say no to anybody. The amounts of money being given away don’t sound enormous now—$5,000, $10,000, $12,000, but I would say it was probably one of the—serving on that committee—was probably one of the most valuable experiences that people who are going to be interested in finances or just general volunteerism got in a way.

I: I have 2 questions. First of all, where do the funds for the Community Assistance Fund come from? The charitable trust fund is—all the money from the ball goes into that, doesn’t it?

BG: Right. That’s what I can’t—I cannot remember. I need to sit down and look it up.

I: Well, that’s okay, but in allocating these funds from this—

BG: (19:27) A lot of the community assistance money came from the cookbook, because the cookbook was really Junior League generated stuff. For a long time, the charity ball money had to be spent only for health projects, for a long time. If there was excess charity ball money, if it went to community assistance, it had to be used for health purposes, whereas money raised excess from the tea room—if there ever was—and cookbook money could go to non-health-related projects through the community assistance.

I: Is it no longer the case that the charitable trust fund only funds health projects? You don’t know?

BG: I really don’t know the answer to that.

F: I imagine some funds have changed subtly over the years.

BG: Yeah, they really have.

I: When you were trying to allocate—decide to whom to give donations from the Community Assistance Fund—did you try to keep in mind that you were trying to demonstrate something to the community by giving? For example, on numerous occasions I think we’ve been asked to vote on something where—on a donation—where an organization wanted to start something or employ a new person for a one-year period to do a certain job that they felt needed to be done and would demonstrate to that organization that that was needed and then the next year, hopefully, they would put in their own budget.

BG: Yes, that has been one of the criteria. It wasn’t called seed money, perhaps at the time, but if there was an organization that wanted to expand its role in the Junior League, they would fund it for one year, they could then go to the community and say, “Look, we’re been doing this for a year and it works, and the Junior League gave us money. Will you do it for this year or the next 5 years?” or whatever. Also, it could be used for a match. If we gave $10,000, they could go to the community and say, “This needs $20,000, and we have $10,000 from the Junior League. Will you give us matching funds?” It sounds glib now in 1980, matching funds and seed money are—sort of—the way people operate, but I think that the Community Assistance, at least for Houston, that was an evolving process. It was not smooth always.

I: How does an all-volunteer organization with a budget that is now close to a million dollars, introduce the need for continuity and control in the management of its funding from year to year?

BG: (22:14) Well, the way the Junior League did it is because we had a very strict and almost tedious but worthwhile budgeting process. In the spring of the year, finance, its committee chairman and treasurer, and several other people would sit down and go through the old budget and ask each committee what they need for the new coming-up year and sit down and actually put together a budget for the coming year, with some thought be given to 2 or 3 years down the line, but basically for the coming year. Then that budget was taken to the finance committee for its approval, and sometimes there would be 2 meetings a week in the finance committee to get through the budget, so that everybody in the finance committee knew what the thought process had been in actually putting the budget together. It would be voted on and altered and changed. Then the budget went to the board.

I: The finance committee would include usually a sustaining member—?

BG: There are two.

I: —two long-experienced sustaining members and—?

BG: It used to be structured. You had to have a few sustaining members, and the chairman was normally a sustaining member—hopefully, a past president or past treasurer.

I: Do you mean you’d have the fiscal officers of the League?

BG: Yes, each committee that had a treasurer, the treasurer of that committee—like the treasurer of the charity ball, the treasurer of the cookbook, would sit on the finance committee. Really, the finance committee, to some extent, was the heart of the League, in the sense that anything you were going to do that had to be paid for—once the board had made the decision—it would come to the finance committee, or more often, a committee would request something. Then they would come to the finance committee and say how can we pay for it? The finance committee would say, “Well, yes, it can be paid for.” Then it would go to the board as a complete package. The financing or the planning of it—it was easy to become treasurer of the Junior League because the system was very structured, and you learned the system, and you did not feel insecure. You did not feel that you were committing money without controls because when I was there—and anyway, it was a system that had been in place for a long time, and it worked, and we knew we could pay our bills.

Planning for use of the community funds—funds to go out to the community through projects with the community assistance was quite easy, because you knew what your amount was going to be. The Junior League earns the money year A and spends it in year B, so we were not doing financial projections. We were not saying, “If the tea room does this, well—if the charity ball does this, well—if the cookbook does this, well—this is our budget.” We were saying, “In this year past, the following amount of money has been earned, and we have it to allocate.” It was a job that you went into it with a right amount of confidence that it would continue to run and run well. You went into it knowing that you had a very strong finance committee with good leadership. On that committee, people who were used to looking at these budgets and asking the right questions.

Naturally, everybody is scared when they take on a new job, but at least in the financial part of the League, it was so well-structured. The Junior League gets audited every year, as all non-profits—I think—are supposed to be. From the audit, you always learn something. There are ways to improve what you’re doing. The books are—it was almost always a good, clean audit, so that you could take that financial statement to any person that you wanted to in the community and be proud of it. Junior League policies—legal and financial—were very, very conservative. New tax laws permitted certain organizations to do certain things. You can be sure the Junior League was part of the last to adopt that policy, just because generally our advice from our legal advisors and financial advisors are paid lower, and our paid accounting firm was very, very conservative, because that was the kind of advice we wanted to get.

I: After the finance committee approved the budget, it would go to the board and into the membership?

BG: The membership in the Junior League of Houston—I don’t know that it is still true across the country, but it used to be that your membership had to approve the budget. It’s not something that was done by just the board.

I: The membership used to go through the budget—

BG: —item by item.

I: —item by item at the meeting.

BG: (26:47) They did, and everybody who could possibly not attend meeting didn’t come, because they found it so boring. Really if you’re interested in administration of organizations, the budget, it is one of the hard things you can hold in your hand or in your head, and you can look at it and you can see that these things are happening, because they’re being paid for or not paid for. It makes a good skeleton around which to study an organization, even though it may be boring.

I: How important is that—kind of—quality control in other aspects of the Junior League’s work?

BG: I think everybody aspired to some quality. It’s just that it is easier to be quantitative when you’re dealing with budgets than it is when you’re dealing with the more nebulous sort of philosophical things that other committees had to deal with. It is easy for the Junior League to count dollars, and it’s easy for the Junior League to count hours. What I guess everyone would agree, it’s hard to account for the quality of how those hours are being spent.

I: At the project level—the individual project—what kind of controls help assure that that project will run well and will do what it is supposed to do?

BG: Well, the first thing is the notebook, which is plague of everybody at the Junior League on the spring. If you’re the project chairman, you had received the notebook, and you’re supposed to keep that notebook up to date, and it should have information on that handling of the project. It tells you how the project is run over the past years, and you keep it up to date in your year, and you give it to your successor. If you do keep your notebooks together well, you’re passing on to the next project chairman, not just your verbal memory of how the projects should work, but some written down things that she can use as guidelines to go by—the objectives of the committee and all of that would be in the notebook. Then the chairman is responsible for training the volunteers that she is going to have in that group, training it in the spring or summer or fall.

Then it used to be—and I don’t know if it is true—the chairman would go to the project when the volunteers were working and work with them or observe them and be with them.

The most responsible person for the quality of the project obviously is the Junior League volunteer on the spot. It is her job to go through the Museum of Natural Science, for instance, and if she was a good dose and had done her homework, then the children that went through with her had a good experience. Her chairman would also follow her through once or twice during the year, just for suggestions for improvement. That kind of control—it’s not control, but it’s an attempt to inspire all of us to do our very best on the level. I would say, in particular, with the projects that deal with children. Everybody needs to be reminded every so often that it really is valuable and adults do care, because when it becomes repetitive,—which a lot of these things do in time—you tend to not be as sharp as you were in the beginning. It’s your chairman’s job to keep you moving.

I: At the board level, are your job descriptions the same thing for the members of the board?

BG: Absolutely. I guess you’re referring to manual—the Duties Review—which is one of the more grueling beginnings that every president and vice president went through. There is a huge notebook that the president has and the vice president in the office which is called the Manual of Duties, and it has every project that is current in the Junior League with its objectives and its goals for the year—what it supposed to accomplish. It is broken down slightly, more specific into objectives, and perhaps its time table. It is really the duties of that chairman spelled out as specifically as they can be spelled out. I thought it was very valuable when I was involved with the Junior League on the board level, because when I went in for my Manual of Duties review—say—when I was publicity chairman—that was my time to sit down with the president and go over the Manual of Deeds for the specifics. Then say, “Look, what do you really want to get out of this? What is our emphasis for the year going to be? Help me start thinking ahead for the kinds of things—the responses that we want to get from the year.

Even though people laughed and retired and hated and the Manual of Duties, but it really could be an extremely constructive thing if you were asking substantive questions. Also, from the other point of view, when you’re first vice president, in particular, the Manual of Duties reminds you of all the many things that the lady was doing. It reminded you, because nobody can keep in their head that kind of—I cannot keep in my head all of the different committees and exactly what they were supposed to be doing. By going through it as first vice president and then again as president, it really helped me to understand the projects. If someone came and said there is a problem in a project, at least you had some handle on how it was supposed to work—because I had not worked in every—I think in the past that League presidents—by the time they got to be president—had worked in most of the projects, but the League was sufficiently large at the time that I became president, that I had not worked in every project.

I: In reviewing minutes of the board, one of the striking things that you find is that the board actually received reports on members who were delinquent in their requirements, either from meeting attendance or holding up their part of the project or whatever? Do you think that that level of detail often gets to the board of a volunteer organization? Do you think it’s beneficial for it to do that?

BG: (32:44) I don’t think it often gets to the boards of volunteer organizations, because most volunteer organizations are grateful for the hours that you can give, and if you say you’re going to do a job and you don’t do it, everybody is reluctant to be critical because they just are, and so it just doesn’t get said. Sometimes the board gets passed around very quietly. The purpose of the Junior League is to teach people how to be outstanding volunteers. It’s been a controversy as long as I can remember. When we were grownup women, and we said we’d do it, and, “How can you hold us to this Mickey Mouse business of hours and meeting requirements and so forth?”

I still think that that kind of training is what the Junior League is about. You have to realize that if you belong to an organization and you have 9 meetings a year and you don’t go to but 2 or 3 of them, you’re just not a very qualified member of that organization. You’re not giving it the attention that you should. That is why I can say that in the Junior League, this kind of checking up on people in hours and so forth is really part of what we’re about and important to the organization. It would not be in other groups where you take what you can get and get as much out of it as you can, and don’t complain about what you don’t get.

I: An emphasis that characterized your presidency of the League and has been a strong theme since then is that the organization should be proactive in assessing community need and allocating its resources to meet both community need and membership interest. What is your current thinking on how a volunteer organization can best handle that type of planning?

BG: That is the hardest part. The long-range planning for the league—what we now call long-range planning for the League—in my early years in the League mainly consisted of people just be aware enough of Houston that you—kind of—knew without saying where you were going to go. Yes, if we started a new project, there was a whole lot of research on it, but if you knew something was being founded in Houston or there was a need for something that Junior League—just sort of because it was an organization that knew about the community and could move in and be very effective in it. The last couple of years, probably before my presidency and certainly since then, the city is much too big for any group to just have an overall knowledge of the city, unless they work at it specifically.

I think probably a long range planning committee of the board is the first step that any group should take, because if there is no responsible party on the board, sometimes the board doesn’t listen. As far as having staff people—if you’re sophisticated enough that you need to do extensive research, yes, it would be good to have a staff person, but the staff person is responsible to the board committee, which is responsible for getting the information before the board. I think probably long-range planning is the most difficult concept, both for volunteer and non-volunteer organizations, especially if you’re not measuring your worth in terms of how much money you want to make in a particular year.

A business at least knows that it has to make so much money and have so much in sales and so much, and that’s hard enough to plan, but when you’re a volunteer organization, you’re trying to essentially—if not out-guess—certainly be on the spot as needs are developing in the community. I think it could be a very interesting committee assignment for any organization, and there are all sorts of sophisticated tools that can be used, depending on your resources in both time and money. Ultimately, it comes down to being able to select from all the information that you have. Still, it comes down to experience and what the organization wants to do—how you decide—what you decide to do with the information that these very sophisticated research techniques can bring into them.

I: Could you tell us a little bit about the purpose and function of the project’s study committee, which has been a permanent standing committee since about 1973?

BG: (37:17) The project study committee was designed to review all of the projects of the Junior League to see where they could be improved, whether they should be terminated, and then—more importantly—to look for new projects for Junior League members. They were supposed to be able to bring together the needs of the community and the desires of the Junior League members. That was the idea goal. A lot of times the committee would get bogged down, because they would spend so much time in their role of reviewing what was currently going on in the Junior League and suggesting improvements that they didn’t really get to the meat of the matter, which was to try to project into the future. Maybe I would consider the project study committee, one of the League of Houston’s first steps towards getting itself into a position where it could have a long range plan, at least as far as Houston volunteers went. The project study committee and the advisory planning committee often got off—they were almost—you would feel they were repetitive, because advisory planning was also supposed to be looking at where the League should be going, maybe in a more general sense, rather than specifically tied to projects.

I: Advisory planning usually receives some specific assignments from the board?

BG: The board would say, “These are the problems that we anticipate this year. You can research them and give us some suggestions. If you think about it, that’s part of long-range planning too. It was just more general and philosophical, as opposed to project study, which was to be more sophisticated. I felt strongly that the project study committee should have the strength to say, “Look, this is a wonderful project. We’ve been in it for 15 years, but it is no longer needed in the community. It is not a quality place for programs for whatever reason.” It was very difficult to ever get a project study committee to recommend termination of a project, because everybody was friends, and you didn’t want to hurt the chairman’s feelings.

If you went to an agency—like the hospital—and said, “Do you still want us?” Well, of course, they’re going to say yes. For one thing, they know you have plenty of money to spend. For another thing, they don’t want to hurt your feelings, and they do use you. From their point of view, maybe the Junior League project is really good, because it entertained 5 children 3 times a week, but the project study committee—I wanted mine to be really tough-minded, and we did see them terminating one project. I thought, “Wonderful. This is an example. No other Project Study committee will have to go through such agony to recommend terminating something,” but that didn’t happen.

I: Has the League had some successes in inspiring other volunteer groups to take on projects that it had initiated, but didn’t feel that it really had to continue? One that occurs to me that is—sort of—unusual is volunteers in public schools and the way that that works.

BG: Well, if you go to the agencies and tell them you’re looking for another group to take over place, generally the agency is not too pleased, because they’ve gotten used to the Junior League, and they know that they’ll have no administrative hassle with it and that the stuff will get done. Your agency is your first stumbling block usually when you want to do something like that. Volunteers in the public schools are a good example of something that Junior League started and turned over. That is one of the underlying assumptions of many of the projects.

If you really want to be quite honest about it, the projects that are popular for League members—like the Museum of Fine Arts—we don’t want to turn it away, because our members like it so much. Volunteers in public schools had 5 or 6 years of people who were really committed to it, and they did a splendid job. Then after that, we really had trouble finding the League interest in doing that, not that it wasn’t a good idea. It’s just that people were off on another tangent. To some extent, turning that over was the result of membership desire to turn it over. I’m trying to think of other things that we’ve turned over. Do we have them at the Museum of Natural Science?

I: I think we’ve terminated them. That was in the minutes.

I: I’m not sure. There was discussion at one time of the terminating that project and turning it over to the museum guild. It looked as though that would be facilitated by having former League members or current League members who were actually very active in the museum guild as well. It was turned over at the time that it was expected to be, but it may have been since then.

What about the Voluntary Actions Center. Do you remember what happened to the setup and what the League’s involvement in it was?

BG: Ann Meier Baker, who was president of the Junior League, was very instrumental in getting that Voluntary Action Center started, and I’m sure the Junior League gave money in the beginning and also volunteers. The concept was that the Junior League can take its ability to train people out of the Junior League and teach other groups how to do it—how to set up a volunteer organization, how to keep it going, and how to manage volunteers, so that they can be placed in different specific agencies around town. It’s a marvelous idea, and it’s working. The Voluntary Action Center is now working, and I had an occasion recently to sit with one of their staff people on a committee. She said, “We have a lot of people that call up that say they’ll do general work, but we don’t give them to you for this particular project you’re working on, because we don’t have any quality control over those kinds of people.” Most of the people that call up specifically want to work in hospital or work—and we can always place them specifically where they want to go, but to send someone in to just supervise a committee thing, we weren’t getting people, because they can’t guarantee that they’re going to do well.

I: I’d like to quote from your speech at the 1975-76 board orientation meeting at the beginning of your term as president. You said, “One of the greatest needs is for people with the skill and self confidence to assume administrative roles as a volunteer. Hopefully, our members will gain in the League structure the experience of administration and the experience of getting primary service. Both are badly needed in the community.” You mentioned excellence placement opportunities as the most important way the League accomplishes this goal. Could you give us some examples of what kind of placement the League can provide that is unusual and is really a good quality for that purpose?

BG: Oh, goodness. Yes, I feel like—let me start off slowly—that every committee chairman who sits on a board is learning the administrative skills, because she is given, essentially a group of her peers through the placement system. She has to learn to lead and run peers to reach a goal for the year, so she is learning administration, the really important part of it, which is leadership. The skeleton on which she built leadership—the notebook that we talked about earlier that has the manual duties—tell this chairman in the Junior League—tell her what are the steps that she has to go through. That is important to learn, not only for that year, but so that she can then—when you have another job, say outside the League, you can look at it and say these are the administrative steps that have to be taken.

That is important, but I consider that just a baseline skill in what the chairman—if she’s good—needs to do is be able to take that baseline and kick her volunteers into—whether they’re an outside committee or an inside committee or what—into doing a really excellent job and into really thinking and bringing quality and creativeness to the job. I think that, within the League, if you’re a chairman, you’re learning some of those things I’m talking about.

(45:56) I think that in my day, it was becoming very clear that finding quality placement for Junior League members on a one-to-one basis—just the actual delivery of services—is very, very difficult, because so many of the services that we used to deliver that were very satisfying to our Junior League members are now being done by paid people. I would particularly think of my experience at Texas Children’s Hospital, which when I was there as a provisional, I really enjoyed it. The babies came in. We talked to the mothers and the babies. We went through the examination with the babies. We learned, and we were relating to other women our age, maybe with children and parents with children. I found it very satisfying. I would not have wanted to do it for 20 years in the Junior League, but it was a real one-on-one service offered.

I think that later on, when we got into the probation department, that that was a satisfying placement for our volunteers, because they felt that they—in dealing with those juvenile offenders and their families—that these women were offering real social services to the community, but were really needed. In the hospital, at Texas Children’s, at sometime after I left, we kept getting these reports that everybody hated Texas Children’s. It was so boring. Well, why is it so boring? Well, some part of the answer was that the hospital probably, for insurance reasons, was hiring people to do the kind of patient care-related jobs that we had always done. We were becoming simply clerks sitting behind the desk, and that just is boring, because we weren’t getting that kind of relationship.

Then another side of that coin or another side to that issue is that Junior League members were coming—when I came out of college, with my BA degree that was about all everybody had. I was going in odd duck, being in graduate school. My mother was absolutely not pleased that I was in graduate school, because it conflicted with my being a provisional in the Junior League. Now, most of girls come with an advanced degree or some sort of professional degree, as opposed to just a liberal arts background. Most of them are much older. They’re 25, 26—up to 30, 35, rather than being young.

They come with a whole lot more skills, so some of the one-on-one kinds of placement that we used to be able to find very good for our girls here—it’s no longer valid. I pity the Project Study committee that goes into the community and says, “Look, we have these really talented 35-year-old women who want to help. What can they do in your hospital, in your museum—whatever will save you—.” “We have all kinds of sort of nebulous things that we need, but we can’t give you a structured thing that we need, because we’re paying people to do the structured business.” The Junior League then has to learn to train its women—its volunteers to start out not necessarily on baseline service level, but at a level—the League girls don’t have 2 or 3 years to just do basically routine stuff to get their feet under them. They get launched into some of these organizations where they’re supposed to be involved in planning, and they get into the politics and all of this, which is a lot more difficult.

I would think it takes a lot more—a smart provisional, a smart young League member, and also a very adapt chairman to—it’s just that kind of thing. You could tell me better than I can tell you what people are doing that is structured baseline placement. I don’t see very much. Most of what I read in the newssheet is that there are so many organizations that need leadership skills, and that is what the League needs to be about more than it was, certainly when I was provisional. That was—I think in my presidency, we were becoming terribly aware of that—that the nature of the volunteers just changed radically in this 20-year period. The Junior League—as far as I can tell—is doing a great job of learning—of adapting—to that.

I: Did the increase in the number and percentage of professional members—that is people with fulltime employment—change a good deal in the 1970s?

BG: Oh, absolutely, and I considered it, at the time—and still do—one of the most healthy things that could happen to the Junior League, because, as our members—it’s difficult to deal with administratively and gave us a lot of headaches. The women who get the jobs and get out in the community and work on a professional basis have a different point of view. As it turns out, we can all tell now that the point of view of the professional is really going to be more pervasive in our society, because so many families have—so many women are working for whatever reason. Then it becomes incumbent on the Junior League to change itself to accommodate women who work either part-time or all the time. That’s really difficult to do, because the quality of work that the Junior League is used to getting out of its volunteers takes lots of time—study, training, and on-the-job time with your mind focused on it.

It’s real hard to come home from a long day at the office, do something about dinner or your husband or your children, and then go out and have another 3 or 4-hour stint in the community or on a committee, and really give it fulltime. It’s hard to be on a committee that meets at night, and you know that you’re going to have lots of phone calls related to that during your office times. It’s very difficult. I think it is very difficult for the Junior League to learn how to accommodate professionals, but obviously they’re doing a good job of it. I don’t know that much about what has been happening in the last couple of years, but my young friends that are provisionals are having a ball and very excited about what the Junior League is doing, despite the fact that they tend to be lawyers and bankers and so forth.

I: You’ve had a lot to during the recent years to accommodate some kind of balance in your life between profession and voluntarism, and your family. Do you have any helpful hints?

BG: (52:28) Yes—say no—learn to say no. Well, my own profession, my job now is—I really—kind of—came to it because of my volunteer background. I did not want to retire to the tennis courts, and I felt like I had learned so much as a volunteer that I would like to use that I did want to try the job market, per se. The other side of that coin is I wanted to be doing something that I considered useful in the community, as opposed to just having a job for the sake of having a job. I started looking around for a job that was related—basically, one of my interests is the growth of Houston as a city, as a community, from the small town—as remember it—to a really huge bursting metropolis.

That is how I came up with the Rice Design Alliance job, but it is a part-time job. It works that way. I said, “I still have children to raise. I have to be home in the afternoon. I can’t do this fulltime.” The nature of this job was such that they had never had a fulltime director anyhow. The way it’s structured now, really very much reflects my desire to have a job that is compatible with raising a family and also some volunteer activities on the side. It’s working, but it’s basically working because the board is willing go on with that and give me the support—the secretarial services—I need, so that when I’m there my time is spent, hopefully, on the important things and not just the trivial things.

I: You’ve planned it out and mainly in each area?

BG: Very few professionals in the League are that lucky. If you’re a lawyer or such, you don’t have that time flexibility, so in a way, I’m not a very good example of a volunteer professional. I commend the ladies that figure out how to do it, because I think it’s tough.

I: Why do you think that the local press became less interested in covering League projects in the early 1970s? They seem to consider it more an organization to be covered in the society section.

BG: (54:39) That just was part of the era of the ‘70s, when people were looking down on the ladies who didn’t work and people who didn’t have these major commitments that had to do with the post-Vietnam era. The newspapers conceived of themselves as a forum for heavy needy issues. I think the Junior League of Houston probably did as well as it could under the circumstances to simply fall back and—in a way—let your deeds show what you do and not worry too much about what the newspapers do or do not say about you. We simply took a position of a retreat, rather than being—in our particular league—rather than being aggressive about seeking publicity. I know that wasn’t true across the country, but I don’t—I think that probably, if we wanted to now, we could go—just from reading the newspapers in the past couple of months—could go to some of the newspapers and get stories about projects and volunteers in volunteering and helping people, provided you keep the Junior League part of it low key.

There is a perception—I see this in my job all the time—I teased a lot about being a Junior League member, because when I started, everything was just scandalized that the board from the Junior League, because there is a widespread perception that we were very frivolous and very rich and very spoiled. It’s a shame, but the stories in the newspapers are not going to change that perception. I think the only thing that changes that perception is just working with people and they discover that you’re not a flake after all. I think that probably our publicity chairman would have luck with selected projects getting coverage, provided the emphasis of the coverage was on the project and the service of the community and not too much about who was behind it.

I: As first vice president, and then president, you were responsible for the Houston League’s interaction with the association of Junior Leagues. What was the nature of that relationship between national and local organizations at that time?

BG: Largely adversarial—I’m sorry to say. The association was dealing with a whole set of problems that we didn’t have in Houston. They were dealing with leagues in the Northwest that were becoming smaller in numbers because the size of the community was declining. They were becoming smaller in numbers because people were starting to become professional members in a much greater rate than we were seeing in Houston at that time. They were dealing with a lot of negative press, so to speak, or negative community reaction to people who didn’t work—who did have time to volunteer. The association started taking measures to counteract that that we found not compatible with our perception of the Junior League or even with our community.

A lot of their programs and their dictates that were coming in from AJLI—as it was called at the time—seemed not crazy to us, but just not applicable in Houston. We would be negative on many of the things. We felt most of the core of the question—at least by the time I got to the first vice presidency and presidency—the core of the question was whether the Junior League should remain an invitation only membership. Then in other parts of the country, this was perceived—and you have to understand that we understood at the time that it was perceived of as racist and bigoted to have a closed. We could stand here in Houston and say, “But look—we still invite our members, and we get an incredible amount of work out of them. We get more work out of our members than any other organization in the city, because we say to them, ‘You have been selected and invited, and therefore it is incumbent on you to do a good job.’”

The association was not dealing with that in so many leagues around the country. They had to start gearing up in trying to motivate their members other ways. They wanted to keep the membership large, and therefore, they were opening up. They were allowing groups to become Junior Leagues without having maybe the qualifications that one needs to have. They were very anxious to have an open admission system, where if somebody wanted to become a member of the Junior League, she just said—not just walk in and sign up—but she said she wanted to become a member, and they took her. That was also the antithesis of the way we were operating. We didn’t like it. They were not appreciative of us being so negative, so there was a problem.

The year that I was the voting delegate to the association, we had a problem with the association because they would take our dues and set a budget and administer the budget strictly out of the board, and the member leagues much-reduced reign had no control over how the money was spent. The Junior League of Houston took the position that if a Junior League budget had to be approved by its membership, that it seemed only logical that the association budget should be approved. This was very definitely an attempt to force the association board to consider the wishes of the member leagues, in particularly, the minority leagues. The budget was not so much an issue in itself, as it was a matter of principal. We presented that proposal and it lost, which was a shame, which is sort funny, because in an era—in the 1970’s, when everyone was saying, “Well, women should be more aggressive and they should not sit back and let other people make their decisions for them, in particular,—
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