Clel Q. Thorpe

Duration: 1hr: 41mins
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Interview with: Clel Q. Thorpe
Interviewed by: David Courtwright
Date: April 2, 1975
Archive Number: 180.a

Interviewer
0:00:03.7 Interview with Clel Thorpe, April 2nd, 1975. Mr. Thorpe, to begin we’d like to talk a little bit about your background.

Clel Q. Thorpe
Well, I came here January the 16th, 1927, with my mother from Fort Worth, and you might say in a sense that I’ve been a lifelong Houstonian because I’ve never really left after that time from Houston except during my service in the Marine Corps during the war when I was drawn from August of 1945—correction, August of 1942 and returned on October of 1945, just a hair over 3 years. With the exception of that 3-year war period I’ve been pretty closely identified with many things in Houston. Quite frankly, most of them were bound up with public relations, with politics and 21 years in the life insurance business, which by the way, as an agent my time was my own and gave me a chance to continue on with a lot of the things that I wanted to do. At the time I came to Houston, Houston had approximately 252,000 people. Of course, today we have a city in greater Houston of approximately 2,400,000, as you and I are well aware. Now, in this span from 1927 to 1975 I have seen quite a number of things happen here. In our initial talks here last week with your history department one of the things they expressed to me was certainly the more personal things that happened in politics in Houston, some of which I’m familiar with and some of them I’m perfectly willing to discuss. What my personal opinion is about certain of those things I don’t think is important necessarily to what we’re trying to record here this afternoon, although quite frankly, I think some phases of it, unless it’s put in its proper context and in the proper perspective, is not really important history in Houston. It’s a segment of the history, and maybe it does dovetail into what you fellows are researching. If you’ll ask the questions, David, I’ll try to proceed from here any way I can. My background too, by the way, is essentially newspaper and radio as far as historical things are concerned.

Interviewer
Would you care for some coffee?

Clel Q. Thorpe
0:02:36.4 I sure would, black.

Interviewer
To start off with, would you like to tell us about your career as a newsman?

Clel Q. Thorpe
Yes, I think I had some nice things happen to me in the news business. I had one very peculiar thing happen to me that I doubt happened to very many newsmen in the entire country. In 1937, April the 16th, if memory serves me correctly, April the 16th or April the 18th, there was an explosion at the New London schoolhouse in which 292 children and grownups were killed, practically all of them children. The schoolhouse literally blew up in New London, Texas. I was one of the Houston Press staff at the time that happened, and I took the serum that night to Overton, Texas and by plane we go through a fog here on one of Earl McCullen’s planes, and we got the serum in there, and I covered the story that night along with every other reporter that they could raise in Houston and elsewhere in Texas and returned the next morning with a bunch of pictures that were used by United Press all over the world. They were not my pictures, by the way. They belonged to Francis Miller and to Clyde Waddell.

Now, what’s coincidental about that is the fact that my mother, who had newspaper experience on the Chicago Chronicle in the early 1900s, covered the Iroquois fire. That was the first major disaster concerning children in the country. Now, subsequently to that, when I owned a portion of KRCT in Baytown, which is now KIKK in Pasadena, I covered for my station and flew down there in the middle of all the carnage of the Texas City explosion. I got there in 1 hour after the Grandcamp blew up at the dock, and when we flew over the Monsanto plant that morning the bodies were lying out there just like in a battlefield. I had come back from the war, so it was certainly no new sight to me or anything like that, and there were many gruesome things connected with it, but those 2 things that just as luck would have it that I covered both of the major disasters in Texas, the New London explosion and the Texas City explosion. There were approximately, I believe, 500 plus killed at Texas City, and the only reason there weren’t more killed was a freak norther like we’ve had here in the last 3 or 4 days blew into Texas City that morning, and the wind was blowing the force of the explosion away from the city rather than towards the city. Otherwise the death toll would have been considerably higher.


Interviewer
What sort of paper was the Press?

Clel Q. Thorpe
0:05:31.9 The Houston Press in a sense was strictly scripts hired. Now, scripts hired in those days had more of a magazine format or a sensationalist format. They went for the feature rather than the out and out news figuring that the Post and Chronicle both had greater facilities than they had, and in many cases they scooped the Post and Chronicle. I know one afternoon we scooped them on the explosion of the Hindenburg. We just happened to be sitting around, but that’s neither here nor there. Marcellus E. Foster, the famous Mefo, established the Houston Press. He wanted his news written in a very crisp style. He wanted everything said in the first paragraph if you could say it that way. He had a rule on the paper, for example, that you couldn’t write a lead of more than 13 words, and he wanted each paragraph to follow the first paragraph so that if the editor had to chop off the bottom you still would have had the story. Now, unfortunately for the Press, it was constantly in turmoil because the Press hit for the news direct. If it hit JC Penney or Sears or Sakowitz or Battelstein’s, the big advertisers, that was just tough.

Well, after all those years, the Press went out of business and ceased publication about 1961 or ’62 simply not on the grounds that it was not a good newspaper, which it was, not that it didn’t have the circulation, which it had. It went out purely on economic grounds that it couldn’t compete with the advertising of the Post and Chronicle and for the reasons that I just told you. I don’t blame the merchants downtown for their attitude. They don’t like to be shot at. But that’s the way Mr. Foster and Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Carmack, the subsequent editors, saw it, and that’s the way it was played by the Press reporters, and they came up with some stories in their day. I know the stories on Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, on Raymond Hamilton, who escaped from the death house in Huntsdale and came to Houston. He was photographed in a prairie by Fairbanks along with Harry McCormick, who was the police reporter, and the Press dug up lots of things. It was sensational of that type and kind, but some of them got them in trouble with the advertisers.

Interviewer
Did they have a fixed editorial policy?


Clel Q. Thorpe
To a degree. When I say to a degree, maybe that’s not 100 percent correct, David. What they did have, the senior editors on the paper, usually Mr. Foster during his lifetime, who was probably the most famous newspaper man I ever saw, or one of his senior editors such as Mr. Bartlett or Mr. Carmack would literally and actually not only dictate the editorial policy of the paper but write the actual editorials. Reporters per se, with the exception of the amusement editor or the sports editor, were not permitted to editorialize.

Interviewer
0:08:37.9 Were there ever any circulation wars between the Post and the Chronicle and the Press?

Clel Q. Thorpe
Various to this good day. A circulation war is a way of life with newspapers. The Post and Chronicle stayed fairly constant. Most businessmen—and I’m not taking sides in it—would tell you that the Chronicle probably does a better job on their advertising, both classified and display. There are others who would tell you the Post does. I think there’s things to be said for both of them. Having dealt with them money wise and having bought lines and lines and lines of advertising from both papers, I don’t think the Press did a good job. They weren’t geared for that sort of thing. Had they been a newspaper that could have lived without advertising revenue, they’d be right here today. And now back to those wars a minute, yes, there’s a constant war that goes on. It doesn’t always come out publicly, but they’re very conscious every day of their ABC circulation reports. That’s the bible in the newspaper business that tells you what your circulation is, and you have to attest to that under oath, and every newspaper I’ve known anything about, from the Navasota Examiner to the Chronicle, is conscious of circulation. We’ll move heaven and earth and have all kinds of programs to try to increase circulation because when they increase circulation, they quite naturally increase their revenue.

Interviewer
What sort of person read the Press?

Clel Q. Thorpe
The person who enjoyed the sensational side of the news, and yet, on the other hand, I’ve seen the newspaper many, many times in the offices and homes of highly educated people, although I’d say if you had to choose the norm, for the Houston Press it would be the man on the street.
Interviewer
Did they ever conduct a survey?

Clel Q. Thorpe
0:10:33.3 No, I don’t think they did. Not in that sense. Everybody in town knew just about—the Chronicle has always had the appeal to the merchants. The Post, more particularly today under their present editorial policy, I think has more of an appeal to the younger people and the liberal element of the community, and I’m not trying to identify you as such. It’s just the way I see their newspaper, which is a very fine newspaper.

Interviewer
Which radio stations were you associated with?

Clel Q. Thorpe
KTRH and KXYZ.

Interviewer
In what capacity?

Clel Q. Thorpe
Both as announcer and script writer.

Interviewer
And what years?

Clel Q. Thorpe
KXYZ in 1935 and ’36, KTRH in ’37 and ’38.

Interviewer
How many radio stations were there in Houston during that period?

Clel Q. Thorpe
That’s a good question. It was awfully hard to get a radio permit in those days. KPRC, of course, was the granddaddy of all of them, and you had 2 others. You had KTRH, which was Clear Channel, 50,000 watts, and you had KXYZ, which was even back in those days more of the conservative station than it is today. It plays the conservative type music, and KTRH was always probably the newsiest station, and in those days, KPRC had the biggest appeal to the advertisers because they had more network programs. They had a little bit different situation then because the networks to a degree governed the activities of the station because they had the privilege of buying the time first. The local people took what was left over. The network would come in and buy a block at a time to put on Jack Benny, the big shows, the Dinah Shore show, shows of that type and kind, Milton Berle. And as a result, KPRC probably was the biggest money maker because of its connection with NBC.

Interviewer
0:12:44.8 Did an announcer have more freedom in those days than he does now?

Clel Q. Thorpe
I don’t think so. An announcer is always compelled to follow the format of his station, whether it’s KILT in Houston today that makes its appeal to the young people, whether it’s KPRC, which is now using the big band and news format, whether it’s KTRH that’s using the talk show format. Those policies are laid down by the station ownership, and if the announcer doesn’t want to conform, it’s no different than it was then. He’s fired.

Interviewer
Now, during your career, as you say, as a public relations man with newspapers and radio, you had occasion to be familiar with many political activities, prominent Houstonians, as you say, some of which were highly questionable. I thought perhaps you’d like to talk about those incidents that we have the wrong impression of today. Has anyone received a bad reputation that didn’t really deserve it? Would you like to rectify that?

Clel Q. Thorpe
I don’t—I can’t quite follow that question. Does anybody have a bad reputation who doesn’t deserve it?

Interviewer
Well, does anyone have an aura of scandal about them that was framed?


Clel Q. Thorpe
0:14:14.8 Well, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any. Let me think about the question a minute. Now, there’s definitely been scandals in Houston. Let’s face it. Some of them received more publicity than others. Heaven knows the Frank Sharp scandal probably was the Watergate of Houston. It probably got more publicity than all the rest of the scandals put together. However, I think if you identified a scandal in Houston or what was on the verge of being a local Watergate, it would have to be the political events of about 1948, and that’s when Neal Polk was the sheriff here, and he was practically driven out of office because of his activities. It was generally approved that Sheriff Polk was taking money, that he was permitting call girls and prostitutes to operate, that he was permitting pinball machines and slot machines to operate, and therefore Mr. Polk, through the pressure of the federals and other people, came to his end here in Houston. Now, in that same connection, the elements that were behind that particular situation in 1948, ’47 and ’48, immediately after the war, were backing a man named Fay Wooley, who was the constable here for a while. It was generally known and thought that if Wooley were elected that the same 35 booking lines that used to run next to my office over in the Great Southern Building would still be there. The telephone wires, I’m referring to.

Now, that’s when Buster Kern got into the picture, and Buster was put into the race to run against Wooley by some different element who didn’t like the openness of Houston, and Kern defeated him, and as a result, he remained sheriff here until a couple years ago when he was defeated by Jack Heard. I think that Kern’s activities and the people who backed Kern—you say was anybody tainted with a scandal they didn’t deserve? I’d say there were 2 men that avoided a scandal who did deserve it and they were lucky enough—or Wooley was lucky, frankly, because he got beat. He subsequently got a job down here at a bank in Pasadena. Polk was lucky. Quite frankly, he didn’t go to the penitentiary.

Interviewer
Who were the most honest officials?

Clel Q. Thorpe
Honest, well, there’s a good one. Let’s put that one in its proper perspective. In all the people that I’ve had any dealings with in politics in Houston, and this runs the gamut from Roy Hofheinz, Jim Hefflin, (?) William Calvin Montgomery, Carl Smith, Frank Mann, Dick Gottlieb, clear up to and including John Connally. I was an area coordinator for Connally in 1962. The average politician that I have met is basically honest. Now, he’s put in a certain position—I’m not trying to be a Haldeman and give you the type of answers that Mr. Haldeman gave the other night. What I’m trying to do is pinpoint this thing from the standpoint of positions that men in public office are put in. Let’s start at the beginning, David.

0:17:55.0 David is going to run for public office. He’s a perfectly honest young man. Under the law he’s eligible to run. The nucleus of his political support is quite naturally at Rice University. All of a sudden, David shows promise, and people downtown or people in other phases of business get interested in his career, so they start putting up money for his campaign, and all of a sudden David finds himself on the peak. He has enough money to buy television time. He has enough money to buy radio time and newspaper time, to make all the city clubs, to make contributions to the crippled children and the March of Dimes and the various other things that it’s necessary to do, and all of a sudden, David is elected. Now what happens? David is going into office an essentially honest man. Suddenly Mr. Thorpe calls him and says, “David, do you remember that $500 I gave you during the campaign? Man, they’re really putting the pressure on me out here from this pollution board. They want me to spend $5,000 to clean up the sewer behind my business.” Well, the natural inclination—and it’s nothing dishonest—the natural inclination for David at that point is for either he or one of his subordinates to call ahead to the pollution people and in a very general way say to lay off.

Now, is this dishonesty, or is it the facts of life where politics is concerned? If you carried that thing on to its ultimate conclusion, you’d get into the situation that Mr. Connally is facing today in Washington that he went on trial for where the Nixon campaign was carried to the criminal point. They proved this. The people have been convicted. They were carried to the criminal point. But I’ll say this. By rule of thumb, I have only known 3 or 4 out-and-out instances, some of which I would absolutely refuse to talk about, where a man was totally guilty of a criminal act in office that would put him in the penitentiary. One of those, Sam Hoover down here in Pasadena who was mayor of Pasadena, that was not concerned with Mr. Hoover being mayor of Pasadena. What that was concerned with was what they are now calling obstruction of justice in connection with some criminals he was defending up in Dallas, and that’s what he was sent to the penitentiary for. Nothing was in regards to his activities as mayor of Pasadena. You hear these stories, “Oh, Oscar Holcombe was crooked, and Roy Hofheinz was crooked, and this one is crooked, and that one is crooked.” Well, it’s a matter of degree. Here again, a man in politics, let’s face it, he’s put in a position to where he has advanced knowledge of many, many things in the city. Where are the next sewers going? Are they going through vacant land, or are they going to be used to replace present sewers? If they go through vacant land and other utilities follow in there, water, lights, and so forth, what’s going to happen to the appreciation of the land? Quite naturally, it’s going to depreciate. Now, if his friends go in there and make a $5,000 or $10,000 or $50,000 investment for him and they hold themselves up as trustees but he’s the silent partner, where is the line of dishonesty?

Interviewer
0:21:32.8 That’s a good question. How about Hofheinz? Does the fact that he is independently wealthy relieve him of these pressures?

Clel Q. Thorpe
No. Even before Roy had the stroke, Roy was the type of man who would never permit himself to be relieved of pressure. I think as Roy grew older and grew overweight and everything Roy’s very disposition was such that it had to lead to some kind of a physical disaster like that. Roy Hofheinz was and is within the limits of his health today probably as intense a man as Houston has ever seen. As a boy, when he was elected to the legislature when he was 22 years old, and in 1936 when he was 24 years old and I was 26 and we were involved in the campaign against Judge WH Ward, I have never seen a man in politics who worked like Hofheinz.

Interviewer
What makes him run?

Clel Q. Thorpe
That’s a good question. I think it’s the same thing that makes a fellow like Johnny Miller run or makes AJ Foyt run or makes Muhammad Ali run. I think there’s certain people in life who have a drive. I think Nixon had this drive. I think it was misdirected, but I do think the man has the drive. Roosevelt certainly had that type of drive. They couldn’t stand to be defeated. I think he had to take it in essence—with Hofheinz you’d have to pinpoint it down to the fact that Roy can’t stand defeat. Now, and the business problems he’s had since he’s been out of politics, the pressure has been on him with the founding of the Astros and the building of the Astrodome and his various other interests that he had with the late Bob Smith, and I honestly think if I could get the story out of Judge Hofheinz that he would be the first to tell you that the pressures of business were greater on him than the pressures of politics.

Now back to the—let me make one other point clear on the political thing about those pressures. I don’t think David or Thorpe, either one, would care to be mayor of Houston, and I can tell you what. You’ve got 13,000 city employees down there now. By the end of next year you’ll probably have another 1,500. That’s 15,000 employees. Just attempting to please those 15,000 employees is enough to drive a man out of his mind. Now, when you multiply that by all the other complaints and all the people that you have to take care of, and I don’t mean take care of in the bad sense. I’m talking about serving the people, providing them services providing them with—his pet subject is mass transportation. Those are the very sort of things they get into. He doesn’t have enough hours in the day to satisfy all those people. About any American can hope to do or frankly any man who sits in a major office is to make the big decisions and let his subordinates make the minor decisions, and when he does that, that’s where the trouble comes from. Nobody is going to do it like you do it.

Interviewer
0:24:57.9 How about Fred Hofheinz? Does he share his father’s drive?

Clel Q. Thorpe
I think he’s an entirely different type. He shares his father’s drive. He doesn’t share his father’s volatility. Fred is not the volatile man that Roy was. Fred is highly intelligent. He’s more subtle than Roy, and quite frankly, I think if he ever decided to go down the long road that he would be more dangerous than Roy as far as the public is concerned because I think he’s more subtle.

Interviewer
Does the fact that the office of—well, the city government in general, the fact that it’s become so complicated, does it mean that we’ll never have anymore Holcombes or Welchs? Men who would run the office out of their hat? Old style politicians.

Clel Q. Thorpe
I think to a degree you’ve had that ever since the end of the war when we went to the strong mayoral form of government. Under your present form of government in Houston it’s different from most forms of government I know anything about in that the mayor is the executive officer, and the council really is only a legislative body. Now, when they got tired of the commissioner form of government and also the little appendage that was hung on it, which was the city manager, and they went to this strong mayoral form of government in 1947, this form of government has survived 5 diverse personalities: Oscar Holcombe, Lewis Cutrer, Roy Hofheinz, Louie Welch, and now Fred Hofheinz. Now, yet is there a strong man coming along like a Holcombe? I think each one of these 5 men had to be strong to survive whether it was for 1 term—and actually, there wasn’t a single one of those men with the exception of Fred, and of course, he’s not up yet for his second term, who didn’t get a second term. Therefore, he had to have some strength—regardless of how I may think of him personally—he had to have some strength to survive for even 1 term.

Interviewer
Your description, though, of Fred as a subtle person made me think that perhaps what we need now is an administrator more than a lambastic or explosive politician.

Clel Q. Thorpe
0:27:24.5 It quite probably would be the time for it, and I think to a degree that Mr. Hofheinz fits that picture. I don’t think, for example, that Fred has the hot temper that his father had and showed in public many, many times in many, many legal situations and court situations. Roy could blow his fuse in just about 1 minute. He had a very short fuse. Fred, I’ve seen Fred under pressure down here in City Hall and in televised interviews and what-not when he was put under pressure, and he stayed pretty cool and calm.

Interviewer
Did Roy ever blow his top with the Houston Press?

Clel Q. Thorpe
With the Houston Press or the Houston media?

Interviewer
The Press, the paper.

Clel Q. Thorpe
The Houston Press, period. I don’t think he did with the Houston Press. That’s hard to remember. I would say yes because Hofheinz was at loggerheads with everybody at one time or another. Now, he purposely politically got at loggerheads with the Jones’ interests. The Jones’ interests were and to some extent still are with the Houston Endowment the biggest financial empire in Houston, and yet Roy took them on singlehandedly and fought the Rice Hotel and fought the Jones’ interests, the Banker’s Mortgage Company, the National Bank of Commerce, all the Jones’ interests and strangely enough did it on KTRH, which was the Jones’ radio station. Yes, he did. He fought everybody, anybody that would come along.
Interviewer
0:29:03.0 Did public officials in general regard the Press, the Houston Press, with suspicion because of its sort of spectacular orientation?

Clel Q. Thorpe
Not with suspicion as much as they did fear. Let me give you a case in point. We were always scared to death, any of us who were active in politics in the heyday of the Houston Press, as we used to kid about it that you’d wind up on page 1 because usually if you were unlucky enough to get yourself on page 1, you stayed there for several days and certainly not in a favorable light. I’ll give you a case in point. When Neal Pickett, CA Pickett, was elected in 1942—no, it had to be ’40, 1940, he brought in a police chief from Kansas named Ray Ashworth, and Ashworth subsequently served over here in San Antonio, and another man whose name I don’t want to recall because he still holds a high public office in Houston, and I was assigned to go over there and see the sort of administration Ashworth had run.

Well, we dug through the old newspaper files. We talked to the radio reporters. This was in the pre-TV days. We didn’t talk to the TV because there was no TV. But we talked to everybody that we could lay our hands on, and just as luck would have it, you could never believe this, we were in the Blue Bonnet Hotel for about 3 days, and we’re walking out the door one morning, and who is it but Margaret Davis, who was a reporter for the Houston Press. Margaret says to R and me, she says, “What are you guys doing over here?” Well, she’s pretty shrewd. She put two and two together right away, and the next question she asks, she says, “You all are here looking into Ray Ashworth?” And naturally, we denied it. Well, then she got out on her own, and she went to the sheriff’s office and found out we had visited with the sheriff over there and found out 2 or 3 other places we’d been. She immediately drew the assumption that our boss had sent us over there to investigate Ashworth, and then by the time we got back to Houston, here we are on page 1 of the Houston Press, and that’s where we stayed for several days. I would say that the average man who was active in politics had a little bit of a deep-seated fear about the Press more than he had a suspicion of the Press. The Press wasn’t the type of paper to be suspicious of because they were on the edge of libel so many times that had they not been correct, they would have bankrupted the paper long before it ever went out of business.

Interviewer
0:31:54.9 How did you go about your digging for these exposés? Obviously you didn’t go to the man and ask him directly.
Clel Q. Thorpe
Naturally not. David, there’s nothing in the world that’s better than talking to a man head to head if you’re experienced at it. I flatter myself that I can sit down and talk to a man in an interview head to head for 30 minutes, and I can tell you pretty well whether he’s lying to me or whether he’s not lying to me, whether he’s enthusiastic, whether he’s not enthusiastic, and how much information he has and how much he’s making up. Therefore, if I were investigating you, I can’t think of a better place then to start right here in this library. I’ll find out what kind of a guy you are before sundown. What do your peers think of you? That’s the quickest way to find out. Also, in that type of research, if you’re researching a politician, we’ll say, and you question 20 people, out of that 20 people, 2 are going to really hate that guy’s guts, and when they do, you’re going to start to develop other facts that you want to be sure that you’re able to fortify in some other manner and corroborate because if you don’t, you’re going to be taking nothing but hearsay.

Interviewer
Did you ever use documents to corroborate your intuitions about someone?

Clel Q. Thorpe
0:33:22.5 Yes, sir. The key thing on which Judge Hofheinz defeated Judge Ward—now, he was Roy Hofheinz then before he was Judge—was the fact that he sent me down to the courthouse one day to dig up an estate. Judge Ward had a law partner named JB Chemine, C-H-E-M-I-N-E, up in the Esperson Building. And Roy had a feeling that there was hanky-panky between Judge Ward and Chemine and it was concerned with—if I recall, it was the Brooks’ estate. Now, all of these entries that an administrator has to make on this estate has to be entered down there in the courthouse books. I don’t recall which one it was by name now without digging into some old files, but I found an estate in there, and JB Chemine’s name started appearing too many times. Well, we didn’t have Xerox in those days, so I had to copy all this out in longhand, and I took it up to Roy up to our campaign office, which was up in the business building, and I showed it to him, and I said, “Roy, it looks to me like there sure are a lot of entries here for JB Chemine.” Good God, he almost went through the ceiling with enthusiasm, and right away he called a friend of his at the Post and told him to get over there right away and photograph the directory on the Esperson Building. Side by side were JB Chemine and WH Ward. He took the documents and started to pin them to this directory and made up a series of newspaper ads, and as we got more money, the newspaper ads got bigger, and we hung Mr. Ward with that estate, and we wouldn’t say illegal payments out of the estate. Well, at best, let’s say he saw to it that a friend of his received the administration fees. That’s what it amounted to. Yes, that’s the way you research anything. It’s digging is all it is, what you’re doing here this afternoon.

Interviewer
Were you ever locked out of files? When clerks saw you coming, did they ever refuse you access to the files?

Clel Q. Thorpe
0:35:33.6 I never got involved in a situation—I presume what you’re referring to right now is this situation over these intelligence files at the police department. I never was thrown into a situation of that kind. Quite frankly, unless you’ve got a court order, I don’t know how you’d get into those files.

Interviewer
I wasn’t referring to that exactly. Others we have interviewed have claimed that files disappeared or were deliberately destroyed.

Clel Q. Thorpe
Oh, files disappear deliberately or are destroyed, and that’s not only concerned with politics. In politics, I don’t think there’s anything that I’ve ever seen in files that quite frankly was that important. Now, it’s true we thought even back in the 1940s that the City Hall phones were bugged. I don’t know whether they’re bugged today or not. There’s some conversations that I make down at City Hall I don’t think I’d want to make over the City Hall telephone. Not that it’s derogatory of anybody, but it’s just none of their business. Certain files disappear. That’s a good question. Certain files disappear. How do they disappear? I think usually you’ll find a case like that, yes. I can name you 2 cases in recent years where there’s been a question about files. One was in the Sharpstown case, and you’ll have to remember that the bank examiners were on the Sharpstown bank long before the Sharpstown scandal broke, the reason being that I believe it was that fellow Novotny who was subsequently convicted. They were on him far more than they were Frank Sharp. In the case of the Homestead bank where there was an obvious misapplication of funds here last year and cost Bill Elliot the county judge’s office and they misapplied $100,000 worth of funds out of the retarded children’s fund or whatever it was, put it in the bank out there on the north side, while they didn’t prove a criminal act, they certainly proved enough violation of ethics to where it beat Mr. Elliot for office. Now, that’s a question of where the grand jury was never able to dig up the full files of that bank. What happened to them? That’s subject to conjecture any way you care to look at it. I have my own ideas of what happened.

Interviewer
0:38:14.9 How about the police department? Not currently, but in the past. Have they always been tender about their records?

Clel Q. Thorpe
All police departments are tender about their records. Until intelligence became as sophisticated as it has become since World War II, police departments don’t operate as they used to operate. In the first place, the guy who is arrested comes into the police station today, and you can’t even question him, as Mr. Webber and I questioned people 30 years ago in our office down there over the police station. He’s got certain rights. You have to read him his rights. You have to treat him like a candy puff because he can go into a federal court and practically get your job. Police departments have a different method of files. I remember in those days officers, while they were a professional police department, let’s put it this way: you didn’t get the same type of men in the police and fire department 40 years ago as you’re getting today. For example, you didn’t get the educated man. You certainly didn’t get the college man. If a guy had a high school diploma, boy, big deal. I know at the time I became an arson investigator for the fire department in 1939 there were a heck of a lot more fellows in there with strong backs and no education than there were with an education and no strength, and they were good firemen.

Now, today, owing to FBI training and everything else, police departments, and for that matter, the arson department or fire department, are considerably more sophisticated than they were even 15 years ago. We get down to this matter of files. Any time you keep files on subjects that are derogatory—look at the Abso (?) case last week in Congress. You’re asking for trouble. Now, quite frankly, let’s get down to files. If I’d have been Mr. Nixon’s advisor, the first minute that Watergate thing broke I’d have said, “Mr. President, the sooner we put those things out in the garbage and burn them, the better off we’re going to be.” I wouldn’t have kept those files around 5 minutes. Let’s bring it to the Houston level. If I were a senior officer in the police department and something came up like that’s been coming up here in the last 6 months, I’d get rid of those files. I wouldn’t have them go to a federal court. In the first place, I don’t even like to see those files exist, but if they do exist, I think they ought to get rid of them unless they have some direct bearing on a felony, and there again, you’d never know really whether it’s a felony until it’s proved in court. Take the Paulus case here 2 weeks ago. This thing has got all kinds of ramifications. Would you keep files on Ash Robinson? Would you keep files on her daughter that testified under oath that she was made a prostitute at the age of 4, which is a little bit ridiculous? Would you keep files on that Settigus (?) woman who practically put herself in the position of being a material witness before she got on the stand, and what are you going to do, keep files? They’re very dangerous. You could get sued.

Interviewer
I suppose as an arson investigator you kept sensitive files.

Clel Q. Thorpe
0:41:56.8 Absolutely.

Interviewer
Could you talk a little bit about your job as an arson investigator?

Clel Q. Thorpe
The job we had in those days, I brought the first photography into the fire department in 1939. They never even knew what that was, and they gave me a little space about as big as where your tape recorder is sitting. I bought my own equipment. The city didn’t even have any equipment. The fact is, in those days we only had 2 arson investigators and 2 fire marshals and then an assistant in each group. There were 4 of them plus about 6 or 8 people in what was called then the Safety Division, which is now the Fire Prevention Bureau and probably has 100-150 men. Actually, our investigations, number 1, were nowhere near as sophisticated as those are today. Number 2, quite frankly, we were political appointees. We weren’t expected to have a fire department background. When we went into the job—now, I’ll say this. S Webber and I took enough pride in the thing to where when we left it 3 years later to go into the service we left it better than when we found it, and we never got into any kind of difficulty with the newspapers or anybody else during the years we were there, and I recall one incident we won the Kosp (?) Furniture Company case in federal court. We kept Mr. Kosp from collecting any insurance in a fire that was obviously set, and that’s the first case that was ever won in federal court over that.

Interviewer
Was arson a serious problem in Houston at this time?


Clel Q. Thorpe
Yes, because it was on the tail end of the Depression. However, the arson department didn’t have the methods they have today. They’ve got sniffers today. They can go into a burning house and put that sniffer on there and tell you whether it was started by gasoline, by lighter fluid or hickory chips from a barbecue pit or whatever it was. We didn’t have all that in those days. It was purely a matter of search, deduction, talking to the people who were involved in the fire, and we got a few convictions, and we put a few people in jail. Today they would put a percentage probably 300 or 400 percent greater than we were able to do because their methods are so much better today. But we did lay the ground.

Interviewer
0:44:21.9 When you put people in jail, as you say, you testified as an expert witness?

Clel Q. Thorpe
Absolutely. That’s quite an experience the first time you’re bombarded by a defense attorney and you think you know what you’re talking about, and he’ll very quickly prove to the court you don’t.

Interviewer
Is that how you got into insurance?

Clel Q. Thorpe
No. I got into insurance quite by accident. I had a thriving publicity business here at the beginning of the war, and I went into the Marine Corps and was gone 3 years and was in charge of a lab at Quantico when the war ended, and I made up some things in the lab and sent them home to all my old clients and said, “I’m going back in the public relations business.” They had a job waiting for me when I got off the train, still in uniform, to run the Elks March of Dimes—Mile of Dimes, which I did, and while I was down there, there was a Mr. Pat Horn that came up there with Bob Grovey (?), who was the executive secretary of the Elks, and he said he wanted to give me an aptitude test. I said, “For what?” He says, “For life insurance.” To satisfy Bob, I took the aptitude test, and I had no more idea of going into that than the man in the moon. Anyway, to make a long story short, during the Christmas holiday in 1945 they pursued it further, and they made me an offer to go to work for Great Southern on January 1st, 1946, and I took it, more to get them off my back than anything. 21 1/2 years later and $23 million worth of life insurance later I retired from Great Southern.
Interviewer
Exactly what were your duties?

Clel Q. Thorpe
I was an agent, a life insurance salesman, to put it plainly. But it had its advantages, David, for this reason. As a life insurance agent, my time was my own, and therefore, I participated in the March of Dimes. There was a group of 5 people, Dick Gottlieb, Mary Greenwood, the late Jackie Steeler, who was head of the Girl Scouts, a fellow named Ben Taggersly, who was a professional social worker, and myself, who headed up the various March of Dimes campaigns from 1950 to ’55 during which time the Salk vaccine was developed and the gamma globulin, and we made more than $3 million here in Houston, and if I never do another decent thing in my life, that’s one I’m proud of.

Interviewer
0:46:54.5 Was Houston a good town for that sort of thing, any sort of appeal or campaign?

Clel Q. Thorpe
Houston in the past has been a sucker town for a lot of appeals, but Houston is getting more searching, more sophisticated. You can’t come along with any kind of a campaign anymore unless the thing is bonified because, number 1, you’ll run afoul of the Better Business Bureau, but number 2, you’ll run afoul of a lot of discerning housewives who are called on almost every day to make contributions. Now, on the other hand, a well-run public relations campaign that goes on year round is still very successful in Harris County because Harris County people on the whole have better jobs, they earn more income, and therefore they’re more generous than some people. (tape pauses)

Interviewer
Mr. Thorpe, you were saying that Houston is a unique city. Would you care to elaborate on that?

Clel Q. Thorpe
Yes, David. Houston differs from practically any city I can think of in the country, and I’ve been all over the United States, except Los Angeles, in that Houston is a horizontal city and not a vertical city. By that I mean if you go to New York, for example, or you go to Philadelphia or some of the crowded cities in the East, they go up because they don’t have sufficient land. Now, on the other hand, Houston has boundless land. In fact, it’s almost at the point of no return now because people are living, quite frankly, too far out in some places. But you’ve had an expansion horizontally in Houston that’s affected the mode of life here. It’s affected the mode of shopping, and even though we have skyscrapers downtown, in my judgment, while that still is the largest tax base in Houston, in a sense it’s not the most important part of the city. I can give you a reason why. Take your people in the southwest here, for example. With the exception of my business downtown, I don’t even go downtown. I shop at Meyerland, and I shop at Sharpstown. The same thing is true of the people in the east end. They don’t come downtown to Foley’s and Sakowitz anymore. They shop out here at Gulfgate and Almeda Mall and K-Mart in Pasadena and the things that are close and convenient to them.

0:49:19.7 Also, the builders in Houston have followed the practice—and this goes way, way back—of allocating what they call a certain amount of their land for what they call commercial. Therefore, as each apartment project or residential project went up, there would always be room left in that thing for a shopping center, which became part of that little community. As a result, that community is kind of self-centered or self-contained. You take Sharpstown out here. You could build a fence around Sharpstown, and those people could live, go to school, go to church, shop there, and never go outside the fence. Now, that brings us up to this point about mass transportation. Houston has a mass transportation system, and it’s due to the fact that Houston is a horizontal city rather than a vertical city. Here’s what it is. It’s your freeways. It’s true. Nobody denies this. The intersection of this spaghetti out here by Newcastle and the Southwest Freeway in the morning, 610 and the Southwest Freeway, is overcrowded, and Interstate 10 and 610 is overcrowded and so on and so forth. But all that clears out by 8:15, and everything moves again.

Now, in examining mass transportation, let’s see what’s happened, and we have to fit these things into realistic things because there’s so many stories that are told as true, and the people actually believe them, that where mass transportation is concerned their favorite expression is, “I’m going to help the poor.” Let’s see how they help. In the first place, even though Houston is blessed with a number of wide streets downtown, there’s only so many cubic feet of space in those streets, especially at 8 o’clock in the morning and 4:30 to 5:00 in the afternoon. With the oversize buses that we have in Houston—and I’m not condemning Houston because other cities have the same bus situation—you have a situation where instead of mass transporting people you’re actually impeding people for the simple reason that nobody can move. Now, what class of people—and I don’t want this taken wrong on the tape. I’m not racist. This is not intended to be this at all—but I’m going to examine the problem just as I see it every day downtown. In the problem of mass transportation, who rides the buses?
Interviewer
The blacks.

Clel Q. Thorpe
0:52:04.1 All right, you say the blacks. I’ll say the low-income people. Let’s put it that way. Therefore, the situation you create when you have all those buses congregated downtown and the fact that Houston is a horizontal city, the downtown merchants depend largely on the lower income class of people for their business, and they don’t get the class business that Sakowitz on Westheimer or Saks 5th Avenue there on Post Oak or Foley’s at Sharpstown or out here at Almeda Mall are getting. They don’t get that, and they can argue all day long that they don’t get that. The second factor about mass transportation in Houston—and I’ve heard this argued ever since I’ve lived in Houston. I’ve heard so many subways proposed in Houston I’ve lost count. What defeats the subway in Houston? Actually, if it were not for one thing, I think subways would work in Houston and work really good, and here’s what the one thing is. Houston has what we call gumbo. You don’t have a rock base in Houston, and just like the 2 tunnels were built across the Houston Ship Channel there, the Washburn tunnel and the one down at Baytown, what they had to do was sink those tubes into the silt and come around with concrete, and in effect what you’ve got is a concrete tube. Therefore, if you build a subway system in Houston, even one cross out at Washington Avenue and at Harrisburg and out North Main and out South Main, one simple cross, you would get into a cost factor that would be probably 10 times what it is in New York where once they dig through that rock that’s the end of it. You can forget it, or Mexico City, where they recently expanded their subway system.

Now the secondary thing, mass transportation. There’s a new proposal out now that we put the buses on the freeways in special lanes. I personally think that’s impractical. In the first place, the freeways are already crowded. The Gulf Freeway, frankly, is obsolete. The Southwest Freeway is becoming obsolete. Heaven knows 610 between Interstate 10 and Post Oak is almost obsolescent, and it’s running over 170,000 cars a day. Then you come to another proposal, and this one makes fairly decent sense if the people would live with the aesthetics of it, and that is double decking the freeways. There’s 2 reasons for that. Number 1, the top lane would be for buses only or for automobiles only, and the other one would be for mass transportation. The aesthetics of it, to anybody who has ever been in New York or Chicago, the aesthetics is horrible. You wouldn’t want to live with it.

0:54:56.1 Secondly, any time a political subdivision wants to do anything, they hate to do it on present property. For some reason or another, it seems to be a way of life that they want to buy new right of way rather than using existing right of way. You come to still another problem in that same connection. Why don’t we use the natural 17 railroads we have in Houston? Well, number 1 is the railroads won’t cooperate. Number 2, and this is not generally known by the public, David, and I think this is a fact you ought to confirm from a lawyer, because I’m not a lawyer, but as I understand, the railroad land grants that were made in Texas at the time they granted them sections of land in order to build railroads into new areas of Texas, there were certain legal restrictions put on that land. And if I’m not mistaken—and this is where I want you to check with a lawyer—they can’t run out here to the cities and say, “We’re giving you this right of way” without violating some of the covenants in the original grants that they got from the state when they built the railroads 100 years ago. Another factor that’s not generally understood by Houstonians is the use of these freeways. They say, “Why doesn’t the city of Houston do this? Why doesn’t the city of Houston do that?” They can’t. They don’t own the freeways. The state owns them. That’s why you see so many vacant areas under those freeways downtown, and I often thought it would be a marvelous place for shops and extra parking and things of that type and kind. Let’s assume we did use those for parking. Your commuters come in, and instead of coming in and cluttering up the downtown, they only come to the freeway, the loop around town, and there’s adequate parking, we’ll say, to put some cars under there. Now let’s get these great, big, huge buses off the street, and let’s be practical. Instead of moving people in these great, big, 50-passenger vans that are always 75 percent empty, let’s move them in mini buses. They’re faster. They don’t have the fuel or pollution problems that the big buses have. They work better from that point of view.

Now let’s get into these low-income neighborhoods we were talking about. With the weight of those big buses, it precludes the use of those buses to the detriment of the very people they would like to help. Here’s what I mean by that. If I were running the bus system in Houston and had the say-so, I would have mini buses running into areas of Houston where we could get these people rain or shine. Let’s be honest. There’s streets where their facilities aren’t as good as they are in the Southwest. Therefore, to keep those people from having to walk 3 blocks through the mud down to pick up one of those big buses, I would want light mini buses, probably 11 to 17 passengers, like these Dodges and Fords you see around town, to pick up these people in their neighborhoods. The weight of those buses would not tear up those secondary streets. Then if necessary, move those people into mass buses on your better paved streets where the weight of those buses won’t tear them up every time it rains. Plus, there’s the fact that you overcome one of the basic objections from these low-income people, and you all you have to do is stand downtown at Main and Cavell and look at their shoes on a rainy day and where they’ve walked 3 or 4 blocks through the mud to catch a bus to get to town. I’d be the first to admit that right across the street from Rice University here at the Texas Medical Center where there is a large, large, large percentage of low-income people working over there, those people need bus travel in some form, and they need it badly, and they need efficient travel. They’re entitled to it, and they ought to have it, but they’re not getting it right now, and they’re not going to get it with the present package, in my judgment.

Interviewer
0:59:14.3 Who does the present functions? Who decided to use the big buses?

Clel Q. Thorpe
Well, Bernard Calkins came in here with an idea about 15 years ago when he formed the rapid transit lines, and he took over what was the defunct bus system, which was an outgrowth of the old Houston Electric Company when they had streetcars, and subsequently they went into buses. Calkins came in here because he’d been successful in some of the smaller towns, particularly in Wichita, Kansas, with mass transportation, and everybody thought that Mr. Calkins could do a good job in Houston. Well, he ran into the same problem I think that everybody else runs into that attempts to do anything about mass transportation in Houston, and basically that is that it’s not accepted. You and I both agree, I think. Houston made a horizontal city. It’s married to the automobile, for better or worse. The first thing a low-income person does, whether he be black, white, or brown when he gets a few bucks in his pocket, he buys a car. If you doubt me, I’ll take you right down here on Lyons Avenue or Navigation Boulevard or any of those places out there where the so-called lower income people live, and you see the number of private cars. Maybe they’re not the best cars in the world. They’d still rather own a junker than ride a bus.

Interviewer
No doubt about it. But what happens in 10 years when they can afford neither the car nor the gas to go in it?

Clel Q. Thorpe
This is a good question. If we follow the pattern of employment and wages—of course, here again, this is not going to apply all over this country, and you’ve got a good point. What happens when the price of the car and the gasoline gets beyond their control? The pattern of employment and wages in this country—and not unique to Houston—has been such that the blue collar worker more so than yourself or me has been able to keep up with the times more than the white collar man has. Proportionately, a longshoreman, he used to make 75 cents or a dollar now out on the docks. He earns a goodly sum of money now and what’s tremendous overtime, and a black man, for example, who years ago used to carry 500-pound bales of cotton around Long Reach when I was out there, he now earns a base salary of about $16,000 a year based on his normal 8-hour working day and so forth. The same thing is true of those refinery workers. Proportionately, they make more ready cash today than the white collar worker does. It’s true in many of the cases the white collar worker goes into a bank, and in lieu of salary, they offer him all kinds of fringe benefits, which is a consummate argument. I would like to see Houston have a mass transportation system based on one of 2 or 3 things, either bringing the people into the edge of the downtown area and putting them in some form of transportation that’s suitable to that area, that’s number 1. Number 2, to figure out some scheme to utilize the freeway right of ways, possibly the service roads. There are many ways it could be done. After all, you can move as fast down the service roads as you can move on the freeway, and I’ll take you out here on the Eastex Freeway and prove it to you. That’s a possibility.

1:02:58.8 The third possibility is to find out what the legal ramifications are of these railroads, which are getting in worse and worse shape every day, and really all they own anymore is the right of way. It’s the only thing of any value, and especially to the Houston Intercontinental Airport, just to use that for one example. The logical way to approach that airport is through the present Missouri-Pacific right of way. Now, whether that could be gotten, I don’t know. I do know this. If you had a mass transportation system to the Intercontinental Airport, some 18 miles from downtown Houston, you’d have your people out there in about 16 minutes.

Interviewer
Earlier you mentioned that the railroads would not cooperate. Do you care to elaborate on that a little?

Clel Q. Thorpe
I thought I did. Maybe I didn’t make myself 100 percent clear. I think—

Interviewer
You mentioned right of way problems, but are there economic motives as well?

Clel Q. Thorpe
1:03:54.0 I think there are economic motives still involved, even though their tracks have gotten to the point where they’re only capable now in and around Houston to carry slow freight, and I think all you have to do, if you doubt my word, is to see the number of accidents, major and minor, that they’ve had at McGowen and Englewood and out here on the old Katy road.

Interviewer
Why?

Clel Q. Thorpe
There’s quite a few accidents, and they don’t have the funds apparently anymore to run a 50-mile-an-hour freight train. They’re running 35 miles an hour, and certainly they don’t have the facilities to run a 75-mile-an-hour passenger train as used to run between Houston and Dallas and make the trip in about 3 hours and 50 minutes.

Interviewer
You also mentioned some of these exotic subway schemes. Did any of those get beyond the talking stage?

Clel Q. Thorpe
No. That was all conversation, David, because it all ran into exactly the same thing, and that is numbers or economics. You can’t make a fist if you don’t have any fingers, and if you take construction costs and trying to dig underground in Houston, as any builder will tell you who has ever built as much as a 3-story building, you have a whole different set of problems than you have in any city where you have a firm foundation 6 or 8 or 10 or 12 feet down. You don’t have that in Houston. The last time I heard, the Gulf Freeway had shifted 3 inches on account of the gumbo.

Interviewer
In the long run, do you think that might kill Houston, that and the problem of subsidence?

Clel Q. Thorpe
No, because you mentioned something a while ago about the price of gasoline and this, that and the other. I’m not of the opinion that the United States is on its deathbed as a result of what some Northeastern politicians are talking about at the moment. Yes, it might prove to be true that we’re going to have to have some kind of an allocation of gasoline and heating fuel and this sort of thing over the next 10-15-20 years. However, I’m not one who believes that our reserves are totally gone. In other words, I don’t believe it’s cause for a panic situation today or even in 1985. Now like all Texans the other day—and I think this subsequently will apply to mass transportation because the minute you raise the cost of fuel you affect the low-income person who has to ride the bus because they’re going up on the bus fare, and he’s the one who suffers first and most, in my opinion. I think if oil is left alone and doesn’t get into too many federal restrictions you’re going to have the same old law of supply and demand. I think you’ve got to approach the motorists from the standpoint of owning a smaller car. I think you’re seeing that right now with the rebates. People are buying more Dodge Darts and AMC Pacers and Chevrolet Vegas and the other big cars. I not only think that’s a trend, I hope it’s a favorable trend because I don’t think there’s any particular reason for these big boxes except to satisfy your own vanity.

Let me ask you this. You’re a young man. Your life expectancy is greater than mine. You’re the one that’s going to have to live with it. If you had the authority today, what would be the first approach you would make to the problem of transportation, period?

Interviewer
I suppose I’d go to the federal government for more money. That would be my first impulse.

Clel Q. Thorpe
That’s the easy way out. Now let’s go from there.

Interviewer
Well, I think your idea of mini buses is not half bad. I’d look into the possibility of an elevated train of some sort, even if it was politically risky to interfere with someone’s property rights.

Clel Q. Thorpe
1:08:11.3 I don’t know. I don’t say that 100 percent. I say that I think it’s in their covenant, and as a recorder even, as a researcher, I would get a competent attorney up here to give me a ruling on it and see if it’s not part of their covenant, and one of the reasons they’d back off about this right of way, even though that right of way is no longer profitable to them money wise to the railroads.


Interviewer
I suppose the most important thing—I suppose you’d agree with this—would be to plan rationally to make sure that Houston doesn’t get too big, because if it gets too big, by definition, you can’t handle your transportation problem.

Clel Q. Thorpe
To tell you the truth, we’re having a hard time handling them right now. I don’t know that what you say when you say to keep Houston from being too big—how would you prevent Houston from becoming big?

Interviewer
Well, the city government does have control over annexation.

Clel Q. Thorpe
1:09:14.5 What purpose would that serve? Another city would merely come along and annex up to your city limits, which has been done already. That’s nothing new. Every time Houston annexes land small communities around Houston who—there’s a little corridor left. They immediately grab that little corridor to be sure Houston won’t grab anything more, even though that corridor may be 5 or 6 miles from their little city hall down there.

Interviewer
Of course, city annexation policies aren’t always rational in terms of the best interest of the city.

Clel Q. Thorpe
No, they’re sure not. I’ll guarantee you they’re not, and incidentally, you bring up a good point. It’s been a political argument in Houston for years. Let’s discuss that one for a minute because this may be valuable to your research. Annexation has proceeded not only in Houston but elsewhere without rhyme or reason, and here is the immediate problem you get into. I suppose in the years that I’ve lived in Houston I’ve seen 25 Houston annexation problems large and small. The first and foremost problem that you get into in a city like Houston—and I have to use the figures of years ago because I don’t have them up to date at the moment—it used to be out of each tax dollar that Houston spent about 49 cents out of that tax dollar for fixed charges and services, and therefore, it only left approximately half of it for bonded debt. Now you’ve got a peculiar situation here. Houston is growing so fast that you can’t provide David a service when he first moves to Houston and collect taxes from him in less than 13 months. He’s here 13 months before you can collect any tax money from him. Meanwhile, you have to provide him with fire, police, public health, the various other services that a city provides. Now, let’s see what happens, and I’ve seen this among my firemen friends a million times.

1:11:29.7 They put what’s called a red flag subdivision on the edge of town. A red flag is where I say, “David, buy 3 of these lots and build your own home.” It’s outside the city limits. It has a septic tank. It has a water well and so forth. In other words, the utilities are very primitive. They’re David-made, in other words. David rocks along a few years, and all of a sudden, whoever is mayor that particular year, he decides he’s going to annex. And this has actually happened. This is not hearsay. This has happened. He decides on New Year’s Eve that he’s going to annex 100 square miles and does, and in comes David. David is then subjected to the current tax rate of $1.63. He’s subjected to the valuation of approximately 53 percent of what the city appraiser says his property is, not what he says it is, unless he protests. And suddenly, David finds himself out there where he’s been paying practically no taxes to the county, and yet he has no police service. He has no fire service. The nearest fire plug is 5 miles from his house. The nearest police cruising car is 3 miles from his house. He wouldn’t know a public health officer if he saw one coming down Main Street. He’s never seen one in his life. He’s not interested in that sort of thing, but he’s now entitled to that because he’s now a citizen of Houston. Now, there have been a couple of occasions when Houston has released certain areas from annexation, and rightfully so, I think, because it was hopeless to try to provide certain services to those areas, and I don’t blame even these people out here in Acres Homes. They’ve been on the front pages and television, and quite frankly, they don’t take care of their property. If the city annexed Acres Homes, which they did, they’re entitled to the same facilities that you are, or services that you are. They’re not entitled to the same facilities for money reasons. They’re entitled to them, but they won’t get them for a while. In other words, they won’t get new water lines and new sewers and so forth simply because we don’t have the money. Yes, annexation has been a haphazard thing, and yet I don’t want to see Houston strangled because I personally am opposed to this multiple housing. I don’t think it ever works properly, and it kills all the personality and the way Houstonians want to live, and they have a right to live the way they want to live. If the New Yorkers want to live upstairs, fine, let them live upstairs 25 floors. I don’t.

Interviewer
Yet Houston has strangled other cities in the past.


Clel Q. Thorpe
True.

Interviewer
I’m thinking of Bellaire and West University Place in the 1940s. Do you know anything about that?

Clel Q. Thorpe
1:14:38.5 Oh, yes. I think it’s more true of Bellaire than it was West University Place. There was a developer here named Preston Plum in Houston who developed a portion of South Hampton here right by the side of the university, and he started in West University Place just about the time the Depression started, and he couldn’t get it off the ground. Well, subsequently, a huge tract of land out there, probably 300 or 400 or 500 acres, Mr. Plum developed that little West University subdivision, and it turned out to be a money maker. It was a winner from the word go, and he built nice little houses here, $5,500-$6,000-$7,000 houses that are now selling for $45,000, and because of its proximity to Rice and because of that Village Shopping Center, which was unique in its day, and because of the fact that he had 2 nice paved streets out there, had Buffalo Speedway, which at least was a nice right of way, but it wasn’t totally paved, and Kirby Drive, which was another nice right of way, the thing prospered.

Now, you say we strangled West University. Let’s put that one in its proper context. Of all the people I know in and around the city of Houston, the ones who wanted to maintain their identity the most are the citizens of West University Place. From the very beginning, they formed a city council with a mayor and a full municipality setup and operated it pretty efficiently. They had their own fire department, police department and everything else, and they themselves have resented anything that Houston has ever wanted to do in or around West University. Now, they were a little entity then, and they wanted to remain a little entity. Bellaire is a cat of a different breed. When I came to Houston, the streetcar line ended up here where the Warwick is now. There was no street. You took the Bellaire shuttle, and Fannin wasn’t even a street then. That was the old Bellaire streetcar right of way, and this streetcar came out here to where the Shamrock is now, and it ran up to the old Bellaire Boulevard on a grade about 2 1/2 feet off the ground out to Abe Zindler’s house out there in Bellaire. He was the mayor out there then. They had a little old community that was more or less haphazard. It wasn’t highly organized like West University. Bellaire, through the citizen’s efforts themselves, because Bellaire had some zoning laws that strangled any commercial enterprise out there, this is how they got absorbed. The citizens of Bellaire wanted to give the whole thing to the city of Houston.

Interviewer
1:17:36.1 Right, and Bellaire tried to absorb West University Place at one point, didn’t they?

Clel Q. Thorpe
I don’t recall if they did. If they did, they were wasting their time legally and otherwise because of all the entities I know, as I said, around Houston, the strongest was and is West University Place.

Interviewer
You mentioned zoning laws. What is the impact of Houston’s lack of zoning laws?

Clel Q. Thorpe
The impact of it has worked in Houston’s favor. I’ve seen zoning come up for an election 3 different times during my stay here, and I’ve opposed it every time. It’s true that in years past our deed restrictions weren’t 100 percent perfect. For example, I can name you one subdivision. You had to be a white Christian to own property in River Oaks. That was what brought on McGregor Place, because that was known as Jewish River Oaks right here across Almeda Boulevard because the deed restrictions were such that they were used more to keep people out of neighborhoods than they were for any other purpose. On the other hand, there’s been a recent change in the law in the last 5 or 6 years that caused the deed restrictions to be under the supervision of the city attorney’s department, which has in effect created correct enforcement, or reasonably correct enforcement of the deed restriction laws. How does that oppose zoning? Zoning essentially starts out with a farm or unimproved land and goes through the various R1, R2, R3, R4 categories, which are residential, or C1, C2, C3, C4, which are your commercial categories, or your industrial, I1, I2. Those 1, 2, 3, 4 simply mean as a rule of size or cost. Now, my objection to zoning is the very thing that’s happening in Dallas. I’ll name you one instance, and then I’ll tell you about a ridiculous instance here in a minute.

When I was a little boy in Dallas in the second grade of school, they had the same business district they have today. No more, no less. A large property that could have gone commercial and which has since become obsolete, and quite frankly, it’s become a white ghetto downtown is out there on Oak Lawn Avenue just off of Forest right there off of the downtown limits of Dallas. It’s zoned. Nobody has ever changed the zone. Zones can be changed, but not without a lot of trouble, and not without a lot of outlet into out and out graft. For example, if I was the zoning commissioner of Houston for 1 year, I could retire, and you could have the job, David, and I would never want to see it again. I personally don’t like it for that reason. I don’t like it because it’s highly restrictive. It tells a man what he can and can’t do with his land, and I’m opposed to that whether it’s on the basis they’re trying to put on these farmers right now through these environmental people or however they try to do it. I think it’s wrong.

1:20:51.8 Now, when you come down to fire codes and various other things like that, which are subjunctive to zoning or subjunctive to deed restrictions, I say yes. We should have a strong fire code, or we should have strong health codes, or for that matter, in the case of these gas emissions, pollution codes, air codes. Now, to give you a ridiculous example of something—and this is totally ridiculous. Remember I said that zoning, as a rule, starts with unimproved land? It starts clear down at the bottom, and it works its way up to the top. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the biggest thing on industry in Indiana. When Tony Helman bought that speedway right after the war and it was bankrupt, and he since has put about $30 million of improvements in it, and only 2 years ago, since 1946, has he been able to build a grandstand on the north end of the speedway after they built stands all the way around it, and guess why? That was zoned for farm land. It was only 2 years ago that Mr. Helman was able to get the zoning laws changed.

Interviewer
And you say there have been 3 elections, right?

Clel Q. Thorpe
As I recall, 3, yes. There was one in the middle of the 30s that was fierce. It was bitter. And then there was—I think it came up again about 2 years or 4 years after that, and the last time I can recall it coming up was in the middle 40s.

Interviewer
I’d like to know what the lineups were in those elections. Who tended to favor zoning, and who tended to oppose it?

Clel Q. Thorpe
Oscar Holcombe was involved in most of them, the mayor, and he was totally opposed to zoning.

Interviewer
Why?

Clel Q. Thorpe
1:22:29.9 Because he felt like it would restrict the growth of the city, that you’d get into this problem, as I told you, the C1, C2, C3, and once you get property that’s designated for a given thing, it’s awfully hard, even if everything is 100 percent honest, it’s awfully hard to get that changed. Now, I had a mortgage loan in Lubbock here a few years ago, and the property was sitting out on a highway south of Lubbock and was about 3 miles out from the business district, and in a city the size of Lubbock 3 miles out—I recall very clear. There was a cotton field between this place of business and where the nearest residences were, a good mile, but we were trying and Great Southern was trying to make this fellow a loan. By the way, he was an old Rice tennis player, Quinn Conley. He played tennis here for years. Anyway, we were trying to make this loan for Quinn on a bowling alley, and it wasn’t interfering with anybody up there and Great Southern made him a commitment subject to, of course, Lubbock zoning laws. Quinn to this day, to my knowledge at least, I worked on the case for over a year, made 2 trips by air up there and talked to various officials, and we never did get this thing changed, and it was plum ridiculous.

Now to turn it around the other way. Let’s get this thing into a full depreciation situation. This is what I’d like to talk about. Let’s assume that your zoning would be such on Washington Avenue and Harrisburg Boulevard that as those buildings decayed over their 40-year life cycle, which is what the real estate business firmly expects the life cycle of a residence to be before the neighborhood depreciates to the point to where it’s not fit for anything anymore, let’s suppose that we had that zoning situation, a full, complete zoning law, as applied to Washington Avenue and Harrisburg Boulevard. Now what do you do? Tell me what you do. You talk about the inner city, and you talk about the slums, and you talk about this. Examine every city in the United States that has zoning and where that neighborhood has gone through its physical obsolescence and has reached the tail end of its 40-year cycle, which is a nice round number. It could be 50 years. It could be 30 years. When it’s gone through that 40-year cycle and they’re faced with zoning, and suddenly, as they have in Detroit and Chicago—and I could take you there this afternoon and show you 50 areas of old houses that are trapped by zoning. They can’t go commercial. They can’t do this on account of the fire laws. If they tear it down, all they can do is build another residence. It wouldn’t be economically feasible in these times.


Interviewer
1:25:37.7 You seem to be able to view these political questions pretty objectively. What were the arguments used by the other side? How did they—

Clel Q. Thorpe
The other side was the usual argument of orderly progress. In other words, what they wanted, for example, I recall one of the arguments very clearly. Mr. Sartwell, who helped found the Fat Stock Show, a very fine gentleman, he owned the Port City Stockyards. Well, the Port City Stockyards, with the advent of the Gulf Freeway, was right next door to the University of Houston. It was pretty obvious even back in those days that the University of Houston was going to grow clear out of its shoes, so the zoners, for example, say, “Okay, what do you do with Sartwell’s property?” The university, number 1, has the right of imminent domain, and they should have the right to get rid of that old stockyard out there. Orderly progress. That’s what they wanted and they also wanted a protection for the commercial—not commercial—the residential areas of Houston. Well, the better residential areas of Houston are very strongly protected, Tanglewood, River Oaks, and frankly, where I live in Melrose here on Buffalo Speedway. We’ve got strong deed restrictions and a good civic club to back it up. You can’t park your boat out there in front of your house.

Interviewer
There’s a kind of de facto zoning.

Clel Q. Thorpe
I would say very strongly a de facto zoning, yes, sir.

Interviewer
Is formal zoning dead as a political issue?

Clel Q. Thorpe
I would say yes for the time being, especially in the present economic situation because I think the concern today would be more to get building going again and especially—although here’s something else I hate to see happen in Houston, although with occupancy the way it is right now, as soon as we get some apartments started in this town, the better off we’re going to be. Our building permits downtown in the high tax area are down this year. Building starts are down this year, for obvious reasons. The materials are hard to get. Until we get that problem solved, I’d say to back off of zoning and let the deed restrictions take care of it. If they want to fight it out again as soon as we can get this economic situation—but to use a vulgar expression here Mr. Horn used to say that they were trying to piss in the ocean and let it overflow the banks. I’ve never heard a better expression. I heard this said the other day by Alvin Van Black on KTRH. The Eisenhower program of freeways came into being in 1955 and were supposed to be completed in 10 years. Here it is 20 years, and it’s only about 60 percent complete, and yet people want to talk about mass transportation. Let’s do one before we start to do the other. We haven’t even done the first one successfully yet.

Now, one other subject that’s touchy in Houston, and that’s this whole matter of environment and pollution. In my judgment, and I don’t say it has to be like East St. Louis or like Hoboken or some of the other cities that I’ve seen throughout the world where they’re dirty, filthy, rat-ridden cities because they use industrial growth as the excuse, in a matter of 3 or 4 years here the Houston Ship Channel has shown tremendous progress in cleaning itself up, both air wise and water wise. To some degree, I think the price you always pay for industrial progress in any city is a little bit of pollution or filth. I think it comes with it. Obviously, the Arco refinery is not going to be like the living room of your house. No way. You’re going to have a certain amount of that. Now, keeping it within reasonable limits to where it doesn’t annoy people anymore than it absolutely has to, I’m all for it. Now, on the other hand, when you get some woman like we had up in Austin here, this representative of the EPA, she’s a fool. She hasn’t even grown up. When she talked about reducing 2 things in Houston, automobile traffic by 75 percent, and she talked about reducing our industrial growth, she wouldn’t be eating on the taxpayer’s money if it wasn’t for industries like Houston that’s paying her salary, and she isn’t even mature enough to know it.

Interviewer
Have you detected any meddling by federal environment bureaucrats?

Clel Q. Thorpe
1:30:28.9 Absolutely. You had a case here only last year on the First Baptist Church. They sold a property downtown, and they bought a big piece of property out here on the loop, and they had plans for this church, a big auditorium, and I think they had parking spaces there for some fantastic number of people, and they ran afoul of the EPA and couldn’t get a parking lot permit. I think this is when Casey stepped in, Congressman Casey, about this whole impact and such rulings as that. Yes, I see more and more. You as a young man told me a moment ago that the first thing you’d do in mass transportation is seek federal help. That’s fine and dandy except for one thing. The more you seek federal help in any project, and the farther you take it away from home, the more you’re asking for federal control, either at the national level or at the bureaucrat level here among local people employed by the federal government. I don’t think it’s wise.

Interviewer
You think the concept of revenue sharing without strings is bogus.

Clel Q. Thorpe
No. If that were totally true, I wouldn’t think it was bogus. Revenue sharing was intended to give some kind of control back to the cities and the other political subdivisions that were eligible for revenue sharing. Now, if they’re going to give it to me in my left pocket and take it out of my right pocket, I say no because nothing has been accomplished. If they want to use it as a tax refunding device to make up for deficiencies in local taxes because the federal taxes are so high, I say that’s correct.

Interviewer
Are there any other areas that you particularly would like to discuss?

Clel Q. Thorpe
I’m not that learned. We’ve covered too many already.

Interviewer
Well, then let’s finish off by discussing the future of Houston.

Clel Q. Thorpe
1:32:42.3 Houston, of all the cities in the country, is going to be more affected by federal control or the lack of federal control than any one city I can think of for this reason. I don’t know how much you’ve been around the Houston Ship Channel. I have a marine transportation business down there, and I’m down there every day. Houston is dependent to a great degree on what happens on the ship channel, for better or worse. If the oil industry is nationalized in the next 10 years or 15 years, it’s going to have a direct bearing on the prosperity and growth of Houston. Number 2, conversely, I don’t think the present economic situation is going to have any effect on Houston because I think Houston’s economy is not directly tied to many other things in the United States. For example, we’re not a one-industry town like Akron that depends on the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company or Firestone. We’re not a one-automobile town like Detroit or over here in North and South Carolina, textiles. We’re not geared to that sort of thing. We can survive the loss of business in one or more industries and still survive. In fact, we’re doing it right now because the real estate business is horrible. As far as real estate is concerned, it’s kaput. On the other hand, in my judgment, from what I can see on the ship channel, I don’t think it’s been particularly effective.

1:34:20.3 Now, what is the future of Houston? I think Houston—I think you brought up a very valid point a while ago about the cost of gasoline in Houston in the future. I think one of these days Houston is going to have to take a second and hard look possibly at moving more than one person in an automobile, but I don’t think it can come about in a matter of 24 hours. I think that if I had the authority today I’d be looking into that problem of mass transportation very carefully, not totally because of a way to provide transportation primarily for low-income people and others but because it might be affected by 1985 by whatever the fuel situation is throughout the world. As long as Houston is as diversified as it is today and it gets its income from so many sources, insurance, real estate, agriculture, distribution—one of the points we haven’t covered that’s a great industry in Houston is what is referred to as services where a company does not sell a product. It sells a service. All you have to do is drive up and down Interstate 10 or Navigation Boulevard or Federal Road, and you’ll see hundreds of service companies, all of which, by the way, at the moment are advertising for help. Houston is highly diversified.

Therefore, I would say this. By the time Houston is a city of 3-4 million people, which is not too far in the future, unless it is trapped in additional federal laws, more particularly directed at the oil and natural gas industries, unless it’s trapped in that I think its progress will be the same as it’s been for the last 50 years. In fact, it might even be accelerated. It’s got some critical problems to solve. I think mass transportation is one of them. I think we solved one across the street here to a degree probably better than most cities have ever thought to solve, and that’s the Texas Medical Center. I think education wise we’re in pretty good shape with our universities and schools, and those will be expanded. I see nothing frightening to our way of life except something that’s modern that I don’t happen to agree with politically, and that is with these single districts. I’m not a lover of single districts because I think they’re a log rolling proposition, and they go too much back to the automatic form of government, which we got rid of once. But, that will have to some degree an effect on Houston. However, that might have a favorable effect economically, although it will be indirectly, on the so-called minorities of Houston or the ones that like to identify themselves as minorities: the blacks, the Mexican-Americans who live in the east end of Houston. Those would be affected economically, I think, if they had their own commissioner and they elected him or defeated him because they would hold him accountable, and if he didn’t get more money for sewers and for streets and for cutting yards and vacant lots and stuff like that he’d be gone. To some degree, they would be benefited.

1:37:57.0 Now, I think you have some things that people your age are going to learn to live with. I think you’re even going to see something in Houston, maybe not in my lifetime, but I think you’re going to see it, and I don’t like it particularly because I don’t think they’re comfortable. They’re using the Houston public schools and the schools elsewhere in this country as a tool to change the housing patterns of that city because that’s the only way you’ll ever overcome the neighborhood concept of schools as it presently exists. I hate to see the schools used as a toy or a tool to force one race to live someplace, whether they want to or don’t want to. My judgment is this. I think people live where they’re comfortable, and they act where they’re comfortable. There’s no question about the difference in the ethnic background of Anglo Saxons, of Negros, of Mexicans, or for that matter, some of the other tiny ethnic groups in Houston. All of those are going to have a direct bearing on the city. If people your age can learn to live with that situation, by the time you’re my age you won’t think anything about it. I think a lot of people my age, you tear their shirts over certain things, they’re not going to be here to have to live with it, and the generation that’s coming along is the one that’s going to have to cope with it.

If they cope with it on that basis, on a successful basis, I think it will have a good impact on Houston over a long period of years, but I think it will take a little getting used to. To sum it up, I see nothing, with the possible exception of federal control of oil and the oil industry, that could affect the economic growth of Houston.

Interviewer
If you had to describe Houston in 3 words, what would they be?

Clel Q. Thorpe
Well, I’m searching for the one word, because Houston differs from most big cities in one great respect. They always say that we’ve got kind of a country boy atmosphere here or that we don’t clean our fingernails like Dallas people do or put on the Brooks Brothers suits. Houston people are fast, fast in the sense they operate fast. Not fast morally. 3 words. I’d say big, fast, and eager.


Interviewer
Big, fast and eager. 3 positive words. Well, I guess with that brain teaser we’ll conclude the interview.

Clel Q. Thorpe
David, I certainly thank you.

Interviewer
On behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives, I’d like to thank you. (audio pauses) The second session of interview with Mr. Thorpe is recorded on side 2.

1:41:27.0 (audio ends)