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Interview with: Eleanor Tinsley
Interviewed by: Jane Ely
Date: October 16, 2007
JE: It is Tuesday, October 16, 2007. Eleanor Tinsley, a former member of the school board, a former council woman and a woman involved in everything it seems in Houston is being interviewed by Jane Ely. Mrs. Tinsley, you grew up in Waco?
ET: No, I grew up in Dallas.
JE: You grew up in Dallas?
ET: Yes. I was born in Dallas and grew up there. Went to college at Baylor in Waco and I spent 3 years there, graduated in 1946.
JE: I associate you with Waco so much. You graduated and then what happened? Was that when you married?
ET: I married a couple of years later. My husband, James Tinsley, had been a student at Baylor also. We went on to North Carolina. He got his master's there and his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. So, I was with him for both of those stints.
JE: And when did you come to Houston?
ET: In 1953.
ET: His job was here. The University of Houston offered him a position in the history department.
JE: What did you think, as someone from Dallas who spent time in Waco when you found out that you were coming to Houston? What was your reaction to that?
ET: I really didn't know much about Houston. I knew it was a big city and bigger, really, than Dallas, but I had had friends from Houston at Baylor and so I had visited here on several occasions. So, I had just pleasant thoughts about it. I found it very different from Dallas. Dallas, it made a lot of difference who your parents were, what they had done. In Houston, I found it was more about what you had done. Your parentage did not make much difference here. And so, it was a city that was on the move, was exciting to be here, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it, more than 50 years.
JE: Did you have children when you moved here?
ET: In 1953, our oldest, Kathleen, had been born in 1949, and our son, Tom, was born in 1953. And then, our other daughter was born in 1956 here.
JE: What did you do when you first moved to Houston?
ET: Well, as a faculty wife, I attended classes some at the University of Houston. We lived on Blodgett which was just blocks from the University of Houston. My husband walked back and forth. I got to audit some courses which I have done off and on all these years.
JE: What about your children? What were they doing when you first moved here?
ET: Well, they were young. I can't remember anything special.
JE: I guess what I am asking is did they play in the front yard?
ET: [Laughter] I will have to think.
JE: Well, were you afraid to let them go down the street to play with friends and that sort of thing?
ET: No fear at all about that. I think any fears like that have come in more recent years. Then, Houston probably was a city of 400,000. So, it is big but much smaller than it is today.
JE: And it was more relaxed perhaps?
ET: Yes. I just don't think you had fears at that time about where children would go or what they would do, or what would happen to them.
JE: When you ran for the school board, you were already active in certain community affairs and in politics, as I recall, in the sense that you were known to people in politics. Is that correct?
ET: I had taught Sunday school class at Wilhemetta's Baptist Church, which was a couple of blocks from our house. I knew a lot of students. It was a college class. And so, I had them over millions of times and we had pot luck suppers. And so, I was really involved in the church. I also was involved in the parents’ league of Houston. That was trying to slow down young people - the too much, too soon attitude. We published a couple of books, "Youth and Drugs," another issue of it.
JE: So, what prompted you to run for the school board?
ET: People came to me and asked me to run. I had been involved enough in the community and they wanted a woman to run. There were 4 of us running: one physicist, one medical doctor and a black preacher. So, I was the fourth in the women.
JE: As I recall, you campaigned together and knew who were your running mates.
ET: Dr. George Oser, Dr. Leonard Robbins and the Reverend Leon Everett.
JE: And you were running against incumbents, weren't you?
ET: Yes, and it was amazing. George and I won the first round and then Leon and Leonard won in a runoff. And so, 4 of us were elected and it was amazing because it changed the school board. Of 7 people, we had a working majority.
JE: It changed it rather remarkably as I recall. Why did you all want to run and what did you want to change about the school district?
ET: We considered ourselves a progressive group wanting integration and the courts were saying integrate now, litigate later, and the previous boards had put off integration for 15 years. And so, who ever had been there, would have to have integration. We were for it and worked with James Kronzer who was a brilliant attorney at that time. And so, I think we successfully integrated the schools without the so-called cross-town bussing that other cities had at that time.
JE: You did this through the Magnet program, is that correct?
ET: Yes, the Magnet or Alternative schools. Students could choose where their interest was. So, an engineering school. And one that was interesting was a school for young mothers. These were young women who were pregnant and were, I guess, the normal thing would be for them to drop out of school but we provided school for them and they could not only go to school, there was a place for their babies, their little children, to be tended to. And that was a tremendous help in allowing them to complete at least their high school education.
JE: Had you thought all these things out before you went in?
ET: Oh, I am sure not! Free public kindergarten was one of the important things that we did. The previous board had cut it out and so we put in public kindergarten again. I was instrumental in the beginning of the Houston Community College. That was my committee. It was needed. Dallas, Austin, and other cities had a community college but we didn't. And so, it has been so successful. And I don't even know how many students they have now. At one time, I know it was 60,000 but it could be more than that.
JE: Well, it started out as a part of the school board, right? I mean, it was your responsibility.
JE: The classes were in Houston public schools.
ET: Yes, and used those schools at night. Then gradually, very gradually, had buildings for them.
JE: As I recall, you all also brought in a new superintendent.
ET: We did. Dr. George Garver, was highly trained, a brilliant man, but conservatives were very opposed to him. We had lost our majority when Leon Everett, the black preacher, went to the other side and he was fired and I guess went back to Michigan at that time in other places. But he was so good. I guess I will always give him the credit for our doing the necessary work to start the community college. It has mushroomed.
JE: When you were on the school board, was there hostility towards you by many in the community with your progressive plans and your determination to desegregate?
ET: Oh, there was just so much hostility. Really, I would call it more like hate. I had certainly lost friends that had been lifetime friends. Some from Baylor. People did not want integration. My yard was covered with campaign literature.
JE: When you went on the school board and you started implementing what certainly were considered I think very progressive things at the time, and the desegregation in the school district, were you aware of hostility and resistance to it, and what reaction did you have with trying to live in Houston as well as do the things you were doing?
ET: There was really hate in the community from the Anglo community. Of course, blacks were for the integration. Hispanics were not an ethnic minority at that time. They were considered Anglo. And so, you had black and white. There was a lot of hostility. My yard was covered with my campaign posters. We got hate calls. I had a maid at that time. I could hear her answering the phone and saying, "Ms. Tinsley is a real nice lady." You would never know it though by the calls we got. So, it was a very difficult time. Those 4 years were really the hardest of my life and we were defeated in 1973 by a conservative board.
JE: Did you feel that what you had done, do you feel that it has lasted to a certain extent?
ET: Yes, the community college, the Alternative or Magnet schools that we started then, the public kindergarten - all those things have lasted and have become a way of life now.
JE: Do you encounter many people now who recall those times?
ET: No, not really. The Jewish community was very supportive during those years and also when I ran for City Council. They more than most communities cared about education and were very supportive in money and in being campaign managers, working on the campaigns. Vic Samuels, Kenny Friedman, so many others, helped tremendously.
JE: When you lost the election, your reelection for the school board, what was Houston like then in terms of what did you do and how did you feel about all of this?
ET: It was a tremendous loss to me personally. We had worked so hard, we had started all those things I mentioned, and to lose, it was just a blow and it took me a good while to get over it. But I got involved in the community, got on some boards, and then that was 1973, so then ran for City Council in 1979.
JE: How did that come about?
ET: Once again, people came to me and asked me to run. It was that same Jewish nucleus who were for my running and gave the money that was necessary.
JE: Kenny Friedman was your campaign manager, wasn't he?
ET: Vic Samuels was at the beginning in 1969 and then Kenny Friedman did 7 or 8 campaigns for City Council.
JE: When you ran for City Council, was the motivation to defeat the rather controversial incumbent that you did defeat? I mean, to an outsider, it probably looked like Frank Mann talked about Mickey Mouse on the statue and then you ran and beat him. Was it to defeat Frank Mann or why did you run?
ET: Well, no one thought I could defeat him. Even my leadership team wanted me to run for a district seat and thought I could more easily win a district then at large. But I always felt like my talents would be better used at large because I cared about the whole city, not just a part of it. So, I thought I would serve better that way. Frank Mann really did not take the election very seriously. He could not imagine a woman running against him and winning. So, it was an amazing thing. The elections after that were not very difficult, but that one was very difficult. That was 1979.
JE: You were something of a jolt to the City Council at that time, as I recall. How representative do you think it was that you had trouble getting an office?
ET: That is very true. The men on Council did not want me there. I had defeated their crony, Frank Mann, and they did everything possible to make me uncomfortable. One of the things was to keep me from having an office on the same floor as they had, the 8th floor of City Council. So, they put me on the 9th floor and I did not accept that very well because I was an at large Council member and I thought I should be with the other at large members. But 3 or 4 years later, they invited me to be on that floor. And over the door leading into Council, it said "Councilmen" and I said, "No, I won't do it until you take the 'men' off." Oh, it was a big deal to them but they finally took the "men" off. And so, it says, a little off center, but it just says "Council."
JE: Was this added to representative in the community at the time?
ET: I don't think I felt it in the community. It was more in this particular elected office. I think people supported me in the community just fine.
JE: What were your goals when you joined the City Council? What was it about Houston you wanted to fix?
ET: I don't think I can think of specific goals. I am sure there were several. I am sure continuing what I had worked on, on the school board.
JE: What are you speaking of then when you say "continuing what you were doing?"
ET: Well, I always felt that the community college was a great step forward. It had been very difficult to start at the time. We had to talk the coordinating board in Austin into allowing Houston to have a community college, even though Austin, Dallas and others had one, but George Osler, George Garber and I went to Austin. I made calls back to Houston to get individuals in Houston to call the members of the coordinating board. So, it literally changed in a few hours whether or not Houston was going to have a community college. And we got it as a result of that meeting.
JE: Who did you have call?
ET: People like Harry Patterson and other attorneys who then knew the people on the coordinating board and called them.
JE: Did any politicians help you?
ET: I cannot remember. It has just been a long time ago.
JE: O.K., so you considered yourself a progressive on City Council as well as a . . .
JE: Now, you ran as a slate for the school board and then you ran alone in essence for the City Council seat. Was that different?
ET: It was different. Of course, that has plusses and minuses. I guess it has more plusses. It is difficult to get along with a slate and there are always problems, but running as an individual, even though it was an uphill race, was very satisfactory, of course, to win.
JE: I seem to remember that the gay community was very active in that.
ET: They were. In elections before that one, gays had certainly participated but they were never allowed to be sort of in the front room or be where they were shown at all. Other politicians that had them be in the background somewhere. But my attitude was that they should be wherever their talents put them, just like anybody else. And so, using the gay community was a step forward for them and for me.
JE: What about the black community at that time? They had the Council of Organizations, I believe it was called. Zollie Scales (sp?) and a lot of people. It was traditional, as I recall, for politicians to contribute to that organization and then get its endorsement.
ET: I did that and I think all people who got their endorsement did contribute. I have forgotten how much money was involved but you went before them and they asked really very tough questions. And then, they agreed to support you. To have the black vote was very important. And so, I got it really every election.
JE: Who was mayor when you were first running?
ET: Jim McConn. He was delightful to work with. Here we were, I had defeated this incumbent but he was very gracious. He appointed me to head committees. The 2 years he was there when I was could not have been better. And then, Kathy Whitmire was the next mayor and she was there for 10 years. I guess Lanier was the next one. So, I was there 4 years when he was mayor, out of his 6 years.
JE: Of the 3, who did you like best?
ET: Kathy Whitmire. She and I worked so closely. She did appoint me to lots of committees. I was sort of on her error team (sp?). We just worked very well together. Lanier had been a friend in previous years, but I was for rail and at that time, he was very opposed to rail. We could have had it. The federal money was available. But he was a highway man and wanted more highways and that is what we got.
JE: The common acceptance in this community is that it is such a strong mayoral kind of government that Council members really cannot make much of a difference, yet you probably are known as someone who brought about some new ordinances and new ideas and new thoughts that had not been thought of before and that you got them passed yourself. Did you just pick issues that were of importance to you? How did you go about this and how did you get them done?
ET: Normally, people or individuals come to you and say, "This really is important," and they give the background of why it is important. The smoking issue would be one. The Cancer Society, the Lung Association were very much for our having an ordinance in Houston. Dr. Lemaistre from M.D. Anderson testified before Council 3 different times and said how important this was for us to become a smoke-free city. So, that was a very difficult ordinance. Anthony Hall was opposed to me at the beginning of that ordinance. And so, the issue was so closed on Council that he and I had an agreement that we would not bring it up until all 15 people were there. And so, it was a couple of months that every week, it was on the agenda but we did not bring it up. I think that shows colleagues working with each other and though he was one side, I was on the other, we respected the difference, then finally did come up and passed by a narrow majority.
JE: You were on the Council when it changed, right, when it expanded?
ET: Yes, I went on Council when it expanded. We had 5 at large and 9 district.
JE: You were elected that year then?
ET: Yes. That was 1979.
JE: Had you been involved in changing then?
ET: No, it occurred at that time but I don't think I was personally involved.
JE: You were neither for nor against it? I mean, it was kind of representative, don't you think, of Houston in the sense that minorities felt like this was going to benefit them a great deal and obviously I think has, to a certain extent?
ET: At that time, Ben Reyes was elected, a Hispanic. There were, of course, white men on Council but we added 2 women at that time. Women had never been on Council before. So, it was a real change.
JE: Was it you and Kristin _______?
JE: It was Mann and Mancuso.
ET: Jim McConn, of course, was mayor.
JE: Was Homer Ford still . . .
ET: Yes. Homer Ford.
JE: I guess what I am asking is do you think the change in making the Council more progressive reflected what was happening in the city of Houston?
ET: I would imagine so. To go from a smaller council to a larger one, it would be more representative; certainly reflected the blacks, whites and Hispanics.
JE: Had you supported any candidates before you got involved in it yourself?
ET: I don't remember supporting any so I had not been directly involved.
JE: You and Kristin were the first women, at least in decades, right?
ET: I think for City Council, we were the first women. There had been women on the school board but I don't think there were on City Council.
JE: Were you aware of the fact that you were women and doing this . . .
ET: Oh, yes! It was very difficult.
JE: You certainly took on some tough things in terms of changing. Smoking, being one of the very obvious ones. They are still fighting over your billboard ordinance.
ET: And that was another one. Lance Slater had begun that one but then I continued it. He began it in 1980 and then I continued it for many, many years. And we certainly have fewer billboards now. We just had way too many. I have forgotten the exact figures, maybe 10,000 billboards. Maybe now, we have 4,000. But we still have, I think way too many.
JE: Do you still talk about it and try to lobby on it?
ET: No, I don't.
JE: When you left, you had no choice because of the new rule, term limitations. What was your reaction to term limitations then and now?
ET: Well, I am opposed to them. I don't think it really affected me. I was ready to retire. I had been there 16 years and the new regulations would allow anyone to be there 6 years. And so, personally, I never did think it really affected me because I would have retired anyway. But I think it limits an individual's right to participate in a government, when you say they can only be there a certain number of years. I think it is a healthier thing for the people to decide every 2 years who they want to be their elected officials.
JE: Do you think that the passage of that reflected any change in the community as a whole? I mean, obviously it did I guess because it passed but usually things that pass in the city of Houston elections, a limited number of people vote in them, let's say. What was happening in the city while all this was going on?
ET: I don't think I can remember specifically.
JE: What was the thing that you did on the school board that you felt was the most important?
ET: Establishing the community college. I thought that was just a difficult thing at that time to do and it had lots of long-range ramifications. When you have students who either cannot afford or need to go to a school near their home, the community college is a perfect place for them to continue that education for 2 years.
JE: Was there any resistance in the city itself to developing it?
ET: I mentioned the difficulty with the coordinating board but I don't remember any resistance of the citizens. Other cities had community colleges and it was sort of time for us to have one.
JE: What did the University of Houston think about it?
ET: My husband was professor there for 42 years in the history department but I don't remember their taking any specific action for or against the community college.
JE: Was he for or against it?
ET: Oh, he was with me on everything.
JE: He was always with you, that is for sure. What was the one thing that you liked that you felt the absolute best about passage on the City Council?
ET: Probably the smoking ordinance, I thought affected more people than anything else. You know, people felt like, at the time we passed it, that it was their God given right to smoke and you were taking away what, to them, was their legal right. So, it was very difficult to pass. People felt very strongly about it and loved or hated me as a result.
JE: I don't recall any emotions about it. Was the resistance and the hostility about that, how does that compare to your school board situation?
ET: I don't think it was as bad. I really think the hate in the community during those school board years was the roughest thing I have ever been through. Individuals certainly were for or against the smoking but obviously, there were more who saw . . . it was, I think 1963 that we first got the knowledge that second-hand smoking was bad for your health. People did not even know it before then. Most people, it seemed like, did smoke. But then, when we got that knowledge, we were able to curtail it with Dr. Lemaistre, the Lung Association, the Heart Association, and the Cancer Society all supporting us on it. Another something that I worked on was the Heimlich maneuver. Dr. Heimlich came before Council and demonstrated on me the maneuver that could save somebody's life, particularly in a function where they were eating and started choking. And so, I got passed what was called the Heimlich maneuver. And it is still in existence today in restaurants. You see the big sign.
JE: You were responsible for putting those up?
ET: Yes. Well, not putting them up but getting the ordinance passed.
JE: Causing them to be put up, let's put it that way. What are the changes that you think that you saw in the emergence of the minority community and its . . . let's just say, the black community, and its strength in elections and having an impact in the city of Houston? When you came here in 1953, I don't think that you were aware of that being a force or anyone was aware of them being a force in the city in terms of well, just being a force in the city in any way.
ET: Say that again.
JE: Being a force in the city in any way probably in 1953. I mean, I wasn't here but that was a time long before . . .
ET: The black community did very well for itself in getting behind candidates and then supporting them. It was not with money. It was actually with votes. They would be for or against candidates and would put forth the votes necessary for those candidates to win. So, I think it was an important part of the community that developed over the years. Hispanics being a separate minority came in later.
JE: When you first ran for the school board, were you all elected city-wide or by districts?
ET: At that time, it was city-wide. I think it changed later but it was city-wide. So, all of my elections - the one for the school board and the 8 for City Council were at large.
JE: And the black community was a significant factor in your election?
ET: Yes, over and over.
JE: Do you think that they made any other progress?
ET: I am really not close enough now to know. I think then, there were a lot of lawyers in the black community and teachers who were sort of the rock of that community and were the leaders of it. And when they got behind candidates, it really made a difference.
JE: You had said that when you lived here in 1953, you thought you were moving to a big city but that you were very comfortable about coming to Houston. What do you think you would feel like if you were faced with that same thing today?
ET: I guess I think of Houston today and then as a friendly city, as one welcoming outsiders, one where you could make your own way and I think the word "welcoming" would probably be the best word and I think we still do that. And that has been over 50 years ago when I first came here.
JE: Do you think that you would still be comfortable bringing a family with small children . . .
ET: I think so. We have a lot of places and, of course, now, women work certainly more than they did that many years ago. And so, you need places for them to safely leave their children. And we have developed that over the years. And so, I think it is still a good place to come.
JE: You did work for parks, didn't you? Were you big on parks?
ET: Yes. It was one of my interests on City Council. I started what is called Spark School Parks. The idea is to use the school grounds that we, the public, already own those school grounds. We don't have to buy the land and that is what is expensive. And so, we developed the Spark Program and now, we are in 190 schools. The principals, at the beginning, didn't want us coming in to their school and they felt strongly that they should run the school and you shouldn't be there. But that course has changed over the years and now, they come to us and want a Spark Park at their school. And you have outdoor classrooms where students can have meetings. You have jogging tracks that are great for the family because people in the neighborhood can come and jog after school and on the weekends. And that was always the idea of Spark - to use the school grounds after school and on the weekends.
JE: So, it has been a successful program?
ET: It has been probably my most successful one. To think of being in 190 schools, in 8 school districts - it really has grown.
JE: How did you get the idea for it?
ET: When I was growing up, my father thought we should be using churches during the week and we should be using our land for the public. And so, I guess I grew up with the concept of using public land and parks were part of that. He thought we should use schools after school and on the weekend and that is what we are doing.
JE: What does it feel like when someone says, "I am going to go do something at Eleanor Tinsley Park?"
ET: It is a great feeling. You know, the 4th of July, they celebrate there and I get to attend some of those. It is exciting. To have a school and a park named for me, it is a tremendous honor. And when I go to the elementary school, students will meet me and they can't believe that the person is a real live person. They, I guess, think of them as deceased long ago. But that has been a very great honor. They normally don't name many schools for living individuals because they are afraid of what the person might do after it is named for them. And so, I am certainly honored to have the school and the park.
JE: Well, I think it is a high complement to be considered safe, I would think. But the park thing is the one . . . I think about that every time the 4th of July and all these festivals they have at Eleanor Tinsley Park. Do you go to any of these?
ET: I go to, I would say, about half of the years, I am invited and do go. Other times, I am doing other things. For instance, Vic Samuels and Bobby have a 4th of July party and I will go to that many years.
JE: But going to the Eleanor Tinsley Park is something that you do?
ET: Yes, and I enjoy it.
JE: Houston has such a strong mayoral form of government and Houston is kind of the odd city out in terms of the state as a whole, I think. How did you feel as a member of the Council in terms of working with the state and what you had to do and deal with the state to get stuff that you wanted passed, and then after that, commissioner's court? [end of tape 1, side 1]
ET: Well, I think a lot of people for whatever reason don't want to go to others to ask for their support and I found it just tremendously necessary to go to the members of the coordinating board, to get to know the people in the Legislature, and be able to call them. Starting 911 would be another example of working, in this case, with the county. Tom Bass from the county and I from the city got 911 in all of our area. That needed to be done and affects lots of people. But you have to work with others and have a good relationship with them.
I worked with Barbara Bush on what was called the Read Commission and, at the beginning, she and I started it. And literacy, you know, is obviously so important for all of us. She was delightful to work with. Obviously, I don't see her all the time now but she has remained an important person in the community.
JE: The Read Commission, what was that originally designed . . . was that designed to teach adults to read?
ET: Yes, more to make reading available to adults who, for whatever reason, had not had the opportunity and those of us who had high school, college educations, couldn't image that people couldn't read. But there was a vast number of people out there who literally covered up their lack of reading skills. And so, we, I think, went a long way to opening eyes and teaching people the fundamentals of reading, which seems so obvious but it needed to be done.
JE: Were you still on Council when the Hispanic community became something of a force, or at least a separate identity, I guess?
ET: I think it has come on in this last 10 years. I mentioned earlier that they were considered Anglo when I was elected to City Council and it is only in recent years that they have become a separate ethnic minority.
JE: What about the city of Houston in terms of the cultures that are here now? Was Houston primarily a white and a black city in your early years and how would you describe it now?
ET: It was that in the early years because we mentioned that the Hispanics were considered Anglo. And now, we are nearly a majority Hispanic but we also have maybe 5% Asian. We have a Jewish-Anglo minority who is very active in the community and cares about education, works literally in the community to get things done. So, you have different groups working most of the time together for Houston's benefit.
JE: When you ran for Council, would you say that Houston was still dominated by, say, a handful of men with maybe an occasional woman; you know, like the old Lamar Hotel suite number . . .
ET: Yes, the so-called "good old boys" certainly ran the city. That is why it was so difficult for Kristin and me to be elected. She really called herself a councilman for the first 2 years she was on Council. I was always stressing council woman or council members, what I really wanted all of us to be, but it took a long time. But now, they are all called council members.
JE: What about leaders in the community at the time you were elected? Who were they?
ET: In 1979?
ET: Mayor Hofheinz would be one. He was very good to work with. Leonel Castillo, we mentioned. He was certainly a leader. And the Jewish community.
JE: What about Ben Love and men like that?
JE: Did they oppose you or were they for you?
ET: I don't think openly. I guess I was not aware of their either opposition or being for me and so, I don't know what their personal stance was.
JE: Because of my past, I personally remember Bill Hobby endorsed you when you first ran for city.
ET: Yes. He and Diana had a party at their home. On all my years on Council, he was very supportive and helped any way he could. He would say, "Here is my name if it will help. Don't use it if it will hurt."
JE: Well, it was kind of remarkable at the time that a politician endorsed a campaign. How had you known him and what had you done with him?
ET: I think I had known him in the community. I know we had a trip to the strategic air command and he and I were on that trip together. You know, you get to know people better when you are in a small group and we were at that time. I had 2 trips there which was in Omaha . . . fascinating. They had the red _____ and everything that you read about in the papers.
JE: The silver suitcase. You said that you got along better with Kathy or you thought that Kathy Whitmire was the mayor that you thought the best. Was that because of the longevity or did 2 women work better together than the man and woman or the personalities? Why do you say that?
ET: I think all of those reasons. She was brilliant, as Mayor Lanier was. Kathy and I worked very well together. She appointed me to head many committees and so it was a pleasure to be on sort of the inside of her administration. I was there for 16 years. That would have been 2 years with McConn, 10 with her, 4 with Lanier. Of course, I was there longer with her but she really gave me a place at the table.
JE: What do you think about Houston's form of government with such a strong mayor? I mean, that is unusual. Dallas has a city manager . . .
ET: San Antonio. What does San Antonio have now?
JE: I think they still have a city manager.
ET: I think so, too.
JE: Yes, I think so. But also, by adding such a strong mayor, it can be difficult as a council member to make any headway and get anything done. Did you ever pass anything that a mayor was opposed to?
ET: I would always go to the mayor first with either an idea . . . and the mayor would always ask, "Where are the votes?" When I was on the school board, you needed 7 votes. When I was on City Council, you needed 15. And so, I needed to go with 8 votes. They were very adamant about that, that to be put on the agenda as a council member, you had to have done your homework and have the votes to get something passed.
JE: Did you ever have the votes to get something passed and have a mayor say no?
ET: I don't think so. I can't remember that ever happening. You know, more or less they were with me or opposed to me but if you had the votes, they would put it on the agenda and normally vote for it, but just wouldn't say much about it.
JE: So, you were comfortable with the form of government we have?
ET: Yes. The strong mayor form of government allowed me in the various instances to serve and to get laws passed and that is always why I thought I was there - to get something passed and move on. Those smoking ordinances began in 1983 and every 2 years, I would get another one passed. Houston International Initiative started in 1986 and that has had a tremendous effect on Houston, for our businesses to go Mexico, Central South America, and take our leadership and do business there because before then, their people had come to us but we were not going out. So, I think both of those things made a lot of difference.
JE: Did you work with the Port of Houston at all?
ET: Yes, and they were very good to work with. Jim Edmonds now is certainly doing a good job there.
JE: It is kind of a popular notion that most people in Houston, much less the rest of the world, don't even know that it is a port.
ET: And here, we are probably second in the nation in activity at the port. But, you are right. We are inside of Houston, we don't really see the port at all. Another big thing that we should mention is the immigrants coming here. We have thousands of people moving here to this day and we have become a mecca for people settling here in Houston because of the reasons of our being friendly, our being able to assimilate others, and I think our city is the beneficiary.
JE: What about the illegal immigration question that, at the time of this interview, is kind of a hot issue, it is a hot button issue? What impact do you think that this has had on Houston, its economy, its government, the way it works? There is no question there are a lot of undocumented workers, I believe.
ET: I don't think it really affects most of us. They most often have the jobs that the rest of the community doesn't care about having. And so, they serve the community. And they are sending money back to Mexico, Central South America. I guess, more than less, I think they have been a benefit to our economy.
JE: Speaking of that, did the City of Houston government, how did the tunnel system get started? Were you involved in that at all?
ET: I was not involved in it. It has certainly been great for the city. I think of people like Bob Yuri from Central Houston as working on that. Obviously, you had to have mayors involved. But to be able to go in our climate, which, you know, 8 months of the year, we are fine, but that other 4 months, we are really a beastly hot city outside. Of course, inside, we are probably the most air-conditioned city in the world. But to have the tunnel system downtown has allowed people to go from one end of town to the other, even in the hottest weather.
JE: Could Houston have become the city that it is without air-conditioning?
ET: I don't think so. I think for our climate, air-conditioning, we certainly take for granted but it affects all of our lives for the better. Our cars, public transportation, our homes are all air-conditioned and we take it for granted.
JE: Of course, in that sense, that makes us a very energy-dependent city but we also have been a city associated with the energy business. When we had the so-called the oil bust and the boom was gone in the 1980s and people were lining up at gas stations and stuff like that, what was it like? As a member of the Council, were you aware of it, was it something you were trying to deal with?
ET: I don't think it affected me personally in any way that I can remember. That has been over 20 years ago. I can't remember being involved in it, to help it get over hopefully. So, I don't know.
JE: So, you think perhaps that that is more of . . . that the memory of it has grown larger than what it was at the time?
ET: No, I think it affected a lot of, not necessarily the political leadership, but the leadership of the city and individuals. And on the air-conditioning, I think all but really the poorest people in Houston have air-conditioning now. So, we really are an air-conditioned city.
JE: Did the city do anything to provide cool places for people to go? You know, you read so much about heating oil and stuff which indicates where the national press lives.
ET: Well, I think the tunnel system that we mentioned. People downtown certainly can utilize it to get from one place to another in the hottest weather.
JE: Which is just awful. When you moved here, did you live in an air-conditioned house?
ET: We lived in an apartment at the beginning and I don't think it was air-conditioned.
JE: As a member of the City Council, let's go on to something else, what do you think about having two separate forms of government, with the Commissioner's Court and the City Council? I mean, Houston now takes in virtually all the county. Should we have those?
ET: I don't think it matters whether we should or not. I don't think public officials are going to give up, certainly on the county or the city side, to merge. There have been, over the years, lots of discussions about how it would be better to merge the two systems but I don't think it is going to happen at all.
JE: Do you think it should?
ET: I think it ideally would be better but I think politically, it is not going to occur.
JE: Did you ever have occasion to work with anybody on the Commissioner's court?
ET: Tom Bass, particularly. We worked on the 911. He for the county, I for the city, got it passed. It was great to work with him. And so, he was, I think, the main one as a county commissioner.
JE: Can you recall anything that you were involved in or cared about that was thwarted because of the county?
ET: I can't remember. There could have been some things but I don't remember any.
JE: When you went on to City Council and when you went on the school board, when you were elected, as far as you were concerned, you could have been elected forever, in pertuity. What effect do you think that it would have had on you had you known your time was limited in either of those jobs?
ET: I think when you have a number of years ahead of you, you think if you can be reelected because ours are just 2 year terms, so you really have to go back to the public every 2 years. But when you think you can be elected, you take on these sort of large projects like the smoking ordinance, like the billboard legislation, and really work on them and continue to work on them for a number of years which makes a real difference. I also worked on truck legislation and having safer trucks. That made a big difference in the trucks that were coming at that time from Mexico and Central South America. We began testing those trucks and if they were not safe, we would send them back. We have made a difference.
JE: There were trucks coming from Mexico?
ET: Yes. To the Rio Grande. I have pictures of my grandson in a truck. He was 25 yesterday.
JE: You said that you lost a member of your slate when you were on the school board.
JE: He bailed out for the other side?
JE: Why and how?
ET: He was the black church leader, minister, and for whatever reason, he changed his loyalty from our Citizens for Good Schools to the conservative slate. It was a slate that really was just very conservative. So, it was a surprise for him to do that and very difficult. I am sure all of us as public officials are difficult to work with at times but he was very difficult.
JE: You were president of the school board.
ET: In 1972.
JE: Do you sense that there is a big difference now in peoples' awareness of the Houston school board?
ET: I think then, it was front page news. I am not sure it is today. You've got people like Harvin Moore who is doing an excellent job on the school board and others are still fighting the same battles but I don't think it is making the front page news. It probably was the integration issue that made big news every day.
JE: You say "fighting the same battles." What are some of those battles?
ET: Well, I can remember our son having to go to a different school in his senior year. He had been president of the National Key Club, Key Club International, and yet, he had to change schools. And a lot of other students had to, at that time. Our preacher, Ralph Langley, had a daughter who also changed schools in her senior year. So, you had individuals who supported the law and you had a lot of them who did not support it at that time. And so, I don't know that that is an issue today but I think people do move around and try to get in certain schools. Bellaire has always been popular. And so, maybe that has not changed so much.
JE: The school board today, do you know the members of the school board today? Who is president of the school board?
ET: Well, Harvin Moore is president. But I am not sure that I can name the others. I do occasionally go before them for some Spark help and they have been very supportive.
JE: Houston kind of seems to go up and down and probably it has generated as much by politicians as it is by reality, but crime is often an issue in this city and it is kind of cycling back and becoming one now. How do you track that from your time on the Council?
ET: I think what I did to try to help it at that time was establish mounted patrol and that was something that I worked on. I think that has helped all over this city - wherever you see the horses and the officers, you have less crime. I think they have done a very good job.
JE: Well, they don't go beyond downtown, do they?
ET: It seems like I see them in other centers some. They have to be taken obviously to those centers but I do see them some. But mostly it is downtown.
JE: Do you think downtown has become a more vibrant or a place where people are likely to go than it was, say, when you were on the Council?
ET: I don't know that downtown has. I think places like the Galleria, Greenspoint Mall, where we are here, the various places like Greenway Plaza have become a mecca, a place where people come whether to shop. And the Hospital District we have not talked about. But people come to our hospitals from all over the world and get good care. It would be one of the 2 or 3 most important assets of our city. And yet, it is sort of by itself in a different part of town but people get there.
JE: If you were going someplace to kind of sell someone on the concept of Houston, you know, you want them to come, say, a company - what would you tell them?
ET: I think the Medical Center would be something they are interested in, and I think they are also interested, many times for the wives, in the Galleria and coming . . . many of them use the hotels at the Galleria and the shopping is an asset. And so, I think that sort of thing is important. I don't think that downtown in itself is as important to those coming in to Houston as, for instance, the Galleria would be.
JE: If you were trying to get a company to come here, would you say we have good schools, would you say that it is a safe city?
ET: I think when I have looked at our public schools and the grades that students are making, the preparation they are getting, if you look at one next to a private school or in the same area, they compare very favorably, our public schools do. I have always been so much for public education, and I want people to try it. If it doesn't work, then obviously we have private schools. But for 90% of students, they attend public schools, so we have got to make them good. So, I think to bring people here and for them to realize that the public schools are worth their children attending is an important concept. Of course, they also come from places like the Galleria. They do not go to the Port of Houston as much. And so, it is sort of our treasure that is not seen as often.
JE: Going back to the notion of when you were elected to the school board and the Council, you had the belief that you could stay there for such a long time. How would you change your style if you only had 6 years?
ET: I think you would not work on long-term projects as much. You would probably pick shorter term issues. Some of the issues I worked on really took a long time. Both the billboard and the smoking would be good examples of that.
JE: People talk often about Houston being, or at least Harris County, being conservative. It votes Republican. Bob Lanier is probably a good example of somebody that people thought they were electing a conservative businessman and didn't get it. You have always been, I think, a Liberal.
ET: I think so. We like the term progressive, a Liberal or progressive.
JE: How did you manage to do that, be elected and stay elected as you did?
ET: I think working hard. I think going out all over the community made a real difference. My husband at night would drive me literally to the ends of the community and I would go 3 places probably 5, 6 nights a week. So, I really was out there meeting people, going to civic clubs, and I think that was important. But it allowed me to see all the different parts of Houston and to try to represent them.
JE: Do you think that many people of Houston really know what you . . . there is no question, Mrs. Tinsley, you have been to every part of Houston because I have seen you there and you are well-known for your willingness to go and attend almost anything. Was that a conscious thing or was it just something that you did naturally?
ET: I think I did it naturally. I really thought it was important to be all over the city. If I was going to be an at-large council member, I needed to be out there in the community. So, I made a very conscious effort to do it and fortunately had a husband who would take me all over the community. So, that made it certainly easy for me to do that.
JE: Of your friends and the people that you know and, if you will, hang out with, how far a field do you think they have gone? It seems to me like there are an awful lot of people in this city that don't have any idea what the city is, if that makes sense.
ET: Well, I think they are touched by the Medical Center and people do move here for that. And whenever they have any sort of illness, they are glad to be so near our Medical Center. I don't think they are as conscious of the Port of Houston which is certainly very important for the city but I think places like the Galleria are a mecca and the Medical Center, and other places like the Galleria.
JE: How many people do you think have been to the Farmer's Market here?
ET: I have been. I don't think many proportionately go there. The Urban Harvest people, people like Wendy Kelsey would go often and plant vegetables. But I don't think it is many people proportionate to our size.
JE: Do you think that is reflective of metropolitan areas as a whole?
ET: Yes, I think we live in apartments - not as many single family homes today as we had 50 years ago. And so, you don't have a place to grow a garden.
JE: What about that in terms of the change of Houston 50 years ago and in that era, people were moving to the suburbs? Where did you live after your first year?
ET: At first, we lived near the University of Houston. We have been in our condo in Greenway Plaza since 1979. And so, 25 years here, 25 before that in Willow Meadows. Had a normal 3-bedroom house and enjoyed living near a school, a church for the children when they were growing up.
JE: But the number of condos, did they even have condos when you came . . .
ET: I don't think so that many years ago but now, it is such an easy way to live. It has lots of plusses and minuses. Our 2 daughters live in normal homes here in Houston, so I certainly go to their homes very often. All of our family and our grandchildren live in homes, so I guess I am the only one who lives in a condo.
JE: But certainly, the difference in moving from the idea of in the 1950s and early 1960s, at any rate, there were garden apartment projects all over Houston and that was considered very modern. And now, if there are some, I am not aware of it.
ET: I am not either, so I don't know. But we do have a lot of condos all around the city.
JE: And the notion of living in a high-rise building has certainly come about since you came and yet, it seems completely natural to you now. Were you aware of it? I mean, if you moved into this in 1979, that made you in the forefront of condo . . . what was your choice in 1979?
ET: Probably not many condos were built at that time.
JE: That is what I mean. When you all decided that you were going to do this, where did you go to look?
ET: I think on Almeda, there was something. There were a few around the city. But this had a lot of advantages in being near 15 minutes from downtown, Galleria, other places. And so, it has always been very well run, which I think is great.
JE: The Galleria, do you think it is a mecca more for people who come from outside the city or people who live in the city?
ET: I think we take it for granted. We go there. I certainly go to Dillards and Niemans, Sax Fifth Avenue on a very regular basis, but I think people coming here, that is a destination for them. They appreciate our having such good stores and fashion capitals.
JE: Going back to downtown Houston, at one time, maybe even part of the time you were on the City Council, there was a lot of activity in what was called the Market Square area and admittedly, mostly bars but some restaurants. And it was a popular place. That actually attracted people to downtown. And then, it went away I think primarily because landlords thought it was a good deal in raising the rent as soon as they could and then lost the business and then the area went back down. As a member of Council, were you aware of that or as just a resident of Houston, were you aware of it, but as a member of Council, were you ever concerned at all with developing downtown?
ET: Yes, and I think Tree Pairs would be an example of one company that has wonderful food and has lasted all these years in the middle of downtown in that Market Square area. And there are probably a couple of other similar businesses. I think as a member of Council, I wanted downtown Houston to succeed. I certainly participated. We had a preservation ordinance that I got passed to try to preserve some of those old buildings, which was important. It had not all happened but it should have.
JE: In trying to preserve specific buildings, what about historical districts? Was that after your time when that concept came out?
ET: I think Houstonians have never been as interested in history or historical buildings as probably people in Boston or some of the older eastern cities. Ours has been going to the burbs, the suburbs, and making our living where we could, but not caring as much or working as hard for downtown as a whole. But I think central Houston, Bob Yuri, others, have done a lot to make it succeed.
JE: Can you name the buildings downtown?
ET: No, I don't think I can.
JE: And recognize them and know that is the such and such building?
ET: I could have when I was on Council but I don't think I can now.
JE: Do you think you are reflective of most people of Houston?
JE: Obviously, you had extremely close ties to the University of Houston. We have the University of Houston, we have Rice and we have St. Thomas, and I think we have 7 colleges in all here or something. What impact do you think that the schools, the universities, colleges and universities, have on Houston and Houston has on them?
ET: I think they bring people to the city; certainly at Rice, most of the population . . . I think it is less than 2,000, so it is not a large population, but I think most of their students come from away. There would be some, of course, from Houston and U of H would be largely Houstonians who go there from either right in Houston or right around Houston. And their population might be as much as 60,000 now. It is a very large school with various campuses around Houston. TSU has a much smaller group but it has catered to the black community and it has had some stars like Mickey Leland and Barbara Jordan who have attended it over the years. Garnett Coleman more recently.
JE: Do you think that it should stay a predominantly black . . . a college dedicated to educating blacks 2 blocks as it is from the University of Houston?
ET: Well, I think for the black community, it is important for it to be there and to be really a nearly all black school. And so, I don't think it really matters what I think. In a practical way, it would probably be good for it and U of H to merge but I don't think in a realistic way, it will ever happen.
JE: On the City Council in the years that you were there, who did you like best and who did you work best with?
ET: Oh, probably Rodney Ellis.
ET: He was delightful to work with. He sat just a couple down from me and we would visit during Council meetings when things would get dull and long reports were being given. And, of course, he went on to the State Senate and is still there. But he was wonderful to work with. We became good friends.
JE: Through all the people you were with on the Council, you liked Rodney?
ET: I think he would be my first choice.
JE: Who on the Council did you like the least? [end of tape 1, side 2]
ET: I really can't remember who would be the least . . . Frank Mancuso and I became good friends. I went to his funeral not too long ago. I think one of the important things I have done in my political career is work with others and when I was wanting to get something passed, going to their office and giving them all the detail that they might want, and coming back with whatever questions they might have had with the answers. And so, I learned to work with Council members. So, I cannot think of a least favorite.
JE: What about police chiefs?
ET: I guess Lee Webb would be my favorite because I got to know him well and helped get him appointed at that time, and I think went to New York when he was police chief there.
JE: As president of the school board, is that really a different position than being on the school board?
ET: At that time, I think it was. I don't know whether it is today. This would have been 1969 to 1973. I was president . . . and each of us on our so-called "slate" were president for 1 year. So, it was a difficult time but we accomplished so much. So, I think it was so worthwhile having had that experience before I was on City Council.
JE: Were you on the school board when there was an effort made to create the Westheimer School District?
ET: Yes. Of course, I was very opposed to that. It was trying to put a separate Anglo school district and get public funds for it. I thought integration was important and we should be working with all the citizens. But it was a very conservative movement.
JE: It was the one large movement that I recall. Did you have to work hard to head it off?
ET: I can't remember much of what we did. I can just remember it was an ultraconservative group.
JE: You would have been on the school board then when there was Houston's racial incidents, I guess is the best way . . . TSU and then on Dowling Street when there was a lot of trouble over there.
ET: I am not sure. I cannot remember specifically.
JE: Can you remember any crisis that happened that, as a member of the school district, you thought that you had to cope with - whether it is national or international, local?
ET: Well, we were commended for our integration efforts and that was certainly a local national effort. And we were sent to Washington to receive a National School Board Award. I still have mine. But that was exciting. We worked so hard and there was such animosity in the community. We were recognized nationally for what we had done. I guess starting the community college while I was on the board I think was very important.
JE: The first president of the community college was black, wasn't he? His son later was on the Council.
ET: what was his name?
JE: I am going to come up with it in a minute.
ET: I am sort of blanking on those early names. There was one black who was so good who was president.
JE: No, president of the college, community college.
ET: I can't think. Those names just are not . . .
JE: I am sorry, it slipped from me.
ET: Herman, something?
JE: In looking back over the whole thing, what do you think of your life in Houston and where you are sitting right now in the midst of a place that is larger than probably the downtowns of most communities in this country? Besides the reality that your husband's work was here and you all were here to live because of that, what have you seen change in Houston and do you still like it?
ET: Oh, I love it. I think people moving to suburbs, I guess to have what they would consider a better life is a movement that has occurred in Houston and other large cities. I don't think it is necessarily good but it is occurring all over the country.
JE: The fact that Houston had the big annexation powers, do you think that that has made a difference in keeping the inner city somewhat alive?
ET: Yes, I think not many cities have had those annexation powers that we have and that is also a sort of threat to other areas. But we have annexed over the years and become the sort of giant. How many square miles do we have? I can't think of how many . . .
JE: 750 or something. Houston goes into 3 counties.
ET: It is a large area that is Houston. So, we have been able to annex over and over and over again.
JE: Do you think that that has helped keep Houston a well-integrated city?
ET: Yes, it has, I think, made us a more vibrant city to have the power of integration, the power of annexation has, I think, been one of our strong points.
JE: Would you do it all again?
ET: Oh, I would. I feel very fortunate to have lived through these years in Houston, over 50 years that I have lived and worked in this city. I am grateful for good health and having family here and so many friends, being able to participate over and over and over again in the community. Now, for Bill White to ask me to serve on committees, I appreciate his doing that and then all the mayors before that. So, I have really had a very active life with the cooperation of others.
JE: Your 3 children live here?
ET: Two children. Two daughters live here. Our son is in Washington, D.C.
JE: So, 2 out of 3 stayed?
JE: Liked it well enough to keep it going? What about grandchildren?
ET: We have 7 grandchildren and 1 great-grandchild, and 4 of them live in Houston.
JE: Well, you did something right.
ET: Yes, and I love getting to be with them. I am lucky.
JE: Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it.
ET: Oh, you are welcome. I am very pleased to be invited to do it.