Eliza Holcombe Crosswell

Duration: 55Mins 23Secs
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Uncorrected Transcript

Interview with: Eliza Crosswell
Interviewed by:

Archive Number: OH JL28


I:          [00:05] Mrs. Crosswell, we were talking about the way in which you organized the residential part of the Cancer Crusade here in Houston?

EC:         Well, what I did—I operated that just as I had done as I mentioned about the first Museum Maintenance Fund Drive. I got myself three cochairmen—one Catholic, one Jewish, and one Protestant. Then we divided it. We went on down the line and each one of them had a co-chairman, and each of those co-chairman works their area of Houston, which they had various chairmen in their various areas. It covered the whole city of Houston. At that time, what we did, it was declared by the president—the first—well, I can’t remember—it’s the first part of April, the first something of April, Wednesday or something in April—it was declared National Cancer Day. On that date, we walked every neighborhood in Houston. They had some areas, certain blocks, and all that. All of the money was taken down to the First City National Bank, and it was counted. We’d count all night long (laughter). It was quite a job. Now that went on for years. They still had those residential crusades.

I:          They retained the structure? The organizational structure that you had set up.

EC:         Yes, they did. They certainly did.

I:          Let me ask, you decided to organize it along religious lines instead of racial, for example? Did you cover the Mexican Americans, and the blacks, and Catholics, and so forth?

EC:         [02:07] Oh, indeed we did. It just happened that my three head chairman were of those various religions. Oh, no, we covered the black areas, the Hispanic areas. We had Hispanic chairman. We had black chairman. It covered every race. But they just didn’t have one of the three—They would maybe be one of three co-chairmen—Lower down on the scale chairmen, but it just so happened that those three were just all representing the different religions.

I:          To back up a little bit, according to our research, the local cancer organization—Cancer Society—the local chapter of the American Cancer Society, began in Houston in the late 1940s and continued to raise money by itself until about 1952. In the fall of 1952, they went under the agency of the United Fund where they stayed until 1959 when the American Cancer Society—the national organization—asked that everyone—that all chapters—local chapters, which at that time, were under the United Fund, that they separate themselves from that.

EC:         You want to know why?

I:          Why?

EC:         Well, I’ll tell you why. It’s because we didn’t get enough money from the United Fund. They just—they had too many other organizations that they had to divide up their money between, and the Cancer Society decided that we could do better on our own, which is why we separated from the United Fund.

I:          What was the status of the Cancer Society’s volunteer organization at the time when you came on board? Was it pretty much in disarray?

EC:         Very much in disarray. There were very few volunteers at that time. I think they’ve done a lot better now, I know they have, as a matter of fact. But at that time, people just weren’t really conscious of it. Well, they heard of cancer, of course, but they just didn’t realize how much help they needed. It just wasn’t something that really attracted volunteers.

I:          Do you remember how much your campaign raised?

EC:         No, I’ve forgotten.

I:          Has the residential division of the yearly Cancer Crusade served as a source of volunteers for other aspects of the Cancer Society’s activities?

EC:         Oh, yes it has a lot of them who worked in the residential campaign had gone on to go on the board and served on various committees of the Cancer Society. Some had gone on to the Texas division, which I did. I was vice president of the Texas division of the American Cancer Society for one year—two years.

I:          [04:55] Were you the first woman to hold that position?

EC:         No. No. No, there had been a couple of them before me.


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I:          How did your experience working on the board at the local level help you in making decisions at the state level?

EC:         Well, it’s really all just the same thing, it’s just a little bit bigger operation. You are involved in every area of the state rather than in your own local area, but you have exactly the same type of committees. The same chairman to do this. The same chairman to do that. It’s sort of like—well, I’ll use the Garden Club of America as an example. You’ve got a chairman of horticulture who is on the national board. Then, you have a chairman on the regional board, and then you’d have a chairman on the local board. Well, that’s how the Cancer Society is set up—that same way. They have their national thing. Then they have their state organization, and they have their local. But each one of them has the same chairman. I mean, one of the local ones is under the state who is under the national.

I:          Do you remember any decisions that you had to make as vice president on the state level? Are there any particular decisions that you made in your capacity as vice president that stand out in your mind?

EC:         Oh, I can’t think. I’m sure there were. I was so frustrated many times, but I can’t remember now what they were. No, I can’t remember.

I:          I was wondering if there were any particular issues that came to mind.

EC:         If I think about it after a while, I’ll come back to it.

I:          The Houston division of the American Cancer Society was the first division in the country to own its own building. According to our research, you were on the housing committee which developed an extremely imaginative plan for financing the construction of that building. Can you explain to us how that came about?

EC:         We just went out and begged for money. (chuckle). Do you mean how did we pay for the building?

I:          Yes. I understand that there was loan from the MD Anderson Foundation.

EC:         [06:56] There was.

I:          Of 92, or something like that, thousand dollars?

EC:         That’s right.

I:          You were supposed to pay back $50,000 of it. At which point, MD Anderson would give you the keys and title to the property.

EC:         That’s right.

I:          But for tax reasons, you really needed to own the property as soon as possible.

EC:         Yes. Yes.

I:          Therefore, you went to the Ted Law Foundation, and he guaranteed the $50,000 to MD Anderson.

EC:         That’s right. I had forgotten about all of that.

I:          Then you gradually paid back MD Anderson?

EC:         They were paid back.

I:          And no one was out any—the two foundations were not really out any—

EC:         No, not really. We paid it back.

I:          Now how did all that—that is very imaginative financial deal, I think.

EC:         Well, it was very imaginative. I’m sure some of the lawyers on the board were the ones who dreamed it up. I didn’t dream it up, I’ll tell you. I really have forgotten the circumstances of how we came about with this idea, but it was to avoid taxes was the idea.

I:          Property taxes?

EC:         Yes. I really can’t tell you—I’ve forgotten the details.

I:          [08:07] I was wondering if you had gone to the foundations and asked them—if you had been involved in asking the foundations for the money?

EC:         I was not directly, no.

I:          I see. Who else was on that committee? Do you recall?

EC:         No, I sure don’t.

I:          Recently, Mr and Mrs Albert A Kaufman--

EC:         Kaufman. She was one of my chairmen.

I:          They were cited with some sort of an award for their outstanding community work. We understood that she was the chairman of the Jewish Division.

EC:         That’s right.

I:          Of your residential campaign--

EC:         Don’t say it like that. That sounds like we had them all separated out.

I:          Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t mean. I just—

(talking at the same time)

EC:         I just happened to have selected a Jewish, a Catholic, and a Protestant—Oh, heavens no, don’t say Jewish division, no.

I:          I’m sorry. I’m sorry. All right. All right. Well, anyway, and she later became the overall chairman.

EC:         That’s right, she did.

I:          I was just wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about her community involvement that you recall—why she was given this award.

EC:         Well, you know, I really don’t know. Jean is a fine person. She is a good organizer. Frankly, when I asked her to be one of our co-chairman, I did not know her. She was recommended by several people as a very outstanding person. We later became very good friends. But after that, I really sort of lost track, and I haven’t seen Jean in years. I don’t really know what they’d done to receive that award. I really can’t tell you.


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I:          [09:41] Ms Crosswell, in 1976, the South Main Center Association was organized. You were current the secretary-treasurer of that organization and the only woman on the executive committee. What is the South Main Center Association? And how did it come about?

EC:         Well, the South Main Center is a group of people who are of our boundaries of our area. They are the Harris elevated. Loop 610 West, South Loop—well, South Loop East—anyway it’s that area that includes that whole part of South Main. It includes West University Place at all that area. The board is made up of representatives of organizations in the area such as Rice University, Dr Hackerman; the Texas Medical Center, Phil Hoffman; the museums, the churches—Presbyterian church, St Paul’s Church, the various heads of the different institutions and in the medical center, such as Noel Franz from St Luke’s, and so forth. Also a representative is on the board from the Houston Sports Association, from the Shell Oil Plaza project out there. That is the group that makes up the board. Then from the big board, there are—I don’t even know how many are on the executive board—maybe 12 or something—I don’t know what the composition of that board is. I know one thing, they meet at 8 o’clock in the morning, because it suits all of the men. (laughter) The executive board, not the main body of the board—they would be the ones who would meet once every two months at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

The idea of this group was to try to keep that area of Houston, not only keep it, but improve it because if you’ve driven out of South Main, you know what it is, there’s a lot of junk out there. Also to encourage developers to beautify their property, to set the property lines back, to have greenery, to improve the general looks of it. We’re all so involved in sewage treatment plants, in paving streets—Now, when I say this, it’s actually more of a lobbying group. We don’t pay for anything. We get other people to pay for it. But we encourage them, and we are in contact constantly with the city, the planning commission, and well, actually this group is the one who finally got the University paved very recently and Greenbriar paved. We’re trying right now to expand a section of Fannin Street, which is narrow—which most people don’t even realize, but there’s about a 3-block area of Fannin out towards South Main that is down to 2 lanes. It’s those types of things that they are trying to do.

I:          Did you become involved as a representative from the board of the Art Museum?

EC:         I guess so. I’m so involved in that area. You see, I spent most of my—not most of my life because I’ve lived a lot longer her. My home was on Holcombe Boulevard and my family—well, we gave the property to the Medical Center, but anyway, I grew up in that area. I remember the First Presbyterian Church, and of course, was very involved with the Art Museum. Mark Crosswell is the vice president of the Texas Medical Center. We are just very involved in that area. It interested me a great deal.

I:          [13:52] Have you been a board member since 1976 when it was organized?  

EC:         No, I went on the board the second year, I think.

I:          Is there any term—I mean are you on there for a certain time?

EC:         No, I don’t think so. I think if you’re on it, you’re just on it til you quit.


I:          The work of the association seems to be divided up between four major committees. Environmental arts, development, neighborhood assistance, and transportation. Currently you are chairman for the Environmental Arts Committee.

EC:         Except I just told them that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had been. Yes.

I:          How does that committee function?

EC:         Well, unfortunately it didn’t function much. It’s beginning to get off the ground now. But the idea of the environmental arts—well, one of the things that they have done and which Houston Endowment is financing is a fountain that is going to be very attractive. It’s where Greenbriar and—what’s the name of that other street? Anyway, it’ll be in the Plaza Del Oro area—a lovely fountain. It’s sort of a turn around in the street, and it will be a lovely fountain. The Environmental Arts Committee were the ones who worked on that.

I:          What was your function in that?

EC:         Trying to raise money to do it.

I:          Oh, did you—well, I was going—

EC:         Well, I didn’t talk to them, but somebody got the Houston Endowment to finance it.

I:          I see. I see. Do each of the four committees chose the projects that they undertake according to how well those projects will help achieve an established goal?

EC:         That is the idea. I don’t know how well it’s working, but it’s the idea.


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I:          [15:37] Do the ideas for the projects originate from within the four committees, or do citizens in the community suggests projects to the association?

EC:         They are approached by people who are interested in a certain thing, and they say, “C’mon, y’all get behind this.” It then falls into whatever category or whichever committee it is.

I:          For example, I’m wondering where the idea for the fountain came from.

EC:         Well, actually I think it was just a bunch of people sitting around saying, “Oh, we need to beautify this area.” I mean, it was just a bunch of us kind of. Not me in particular, but the whole group. Then we really need to beautify this area and not have it all just concrete. That’s the way it evolved. Of course, everything we’d do would get donated. So some landscape architect donated the design. It had to get approved, of course.

I:          So your group approached Houston Endowment?

EC:         Yes.

I:          Oh, I see. What has been your committee’s main or greatest accomplishment? Is it the fountain, you think?

EC:         I think to date. I also—Now, let me tell you something else though that this committee did. They got a—oh, what do you call it? Not a law, but a—anyway, this new open South Loop—I don’t know whether y’all are familiar with the area, but anyway, there won’t be any billboards on it.

I:          I saw that it had been designated, or you had gotten it designated as a scenic—

EC:         That’s right.

I:          A scenic parkway or something?

EC:         That’s right, it was designated as a scenic parkway.

I:          Can you tell me something about that? Are there other places in Houston that are designated that way?

EC:         [17:04] Not that I know of. Not that I know of. But that’s the hope is—

I:          And what does that mean? It means no billboards or anything else?

EC:         Oh, I’ve forgotten how many hundred yards, all through the highway it is.

I:          But basically, that’s all it means?

EC:         That’s really all it means. Maybe some beautification, yes, but mainly, it’s the billboards.

I:          So in the 1981-82 program years, the association’s board of directors has approved 26 major projects and 10 additional projects are recognized as “ongoing.” How does the association keep its efforts from being spread too thin?

EC:         It’s very hard. (chuckle) That is one of the problems. That we are spread too thin. What you have to do is you have to look at all of the things and you say, “Okay, we’ll zoom in on this one,” and you try to get it done, but you can’t do them all, of course.

I:          I’m wondering how large a volunteer group you have to work on these?

EC:         It is not very large, frankly. We’re trying to get more people—if you’ve never heard of NCCN, you’ve never heard of it. We’re really trying to get more people interested in what we’re doing, and hopefully there are a couple of other areas where they’ve started groups like this. Hopefully, we’ll be sort of a pilot group for the rest of Houston. Say, the northwest area, the northeast area, hoping that they will start something like this. We had a very interesting thing a few weeks ago, though, the executive committee met with Mayor Whitmeyer. We tried to inform her as to what we were and what we were doing and surprisingly, she was very familiar with it, which was encouraging to us. She seemed to be very interested in it. But we have a very small staff. We have one man whose main job is to be in contact with the city. He is a paid staff member. He seems to have a good rapport with the president of the administration, which is helpful, because we need the city badly.

I:          Mrs Crosswell, you have served in important board positions for many different types of community organizations. What differences do you perceive between the boards, which are composed primarily of business people, and boards composed of boards with little or no business experience?

EC:         Well, frankly, I love to sit on boards that are all men. (chuckle)

I:          [19:39] Why is that?

EC:         They are very business-like about their approach to things and they either say, ‘Yes, I can do it” or ‘No, I can’t do it.’ They don’t say, “Yes, I will,” and then never appear. But, I am very partial, and I just guess I shouldn’t say this, but I can’t help it, I am very partial to any board which has some Junior League members on it. Because the Junior League trains people to be responsible to do what they say they are going to do. If you are serving on a board, and you’ve got a few Junior League people working with you on something, they you can just be pretty sure that they’re going to do it.


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I:          As more women gain professional and business experience, are their roles on boards of trustees changing? Have you noticed that?

EC:         Not particularly. No, I haven’t noticed it.

I:          When you were responsible for nominating persons to serve on a board of trustees, what criteria did you set?

EC:         Well mainly, they’re not somebody who has spread themselves so thin that you see their name listed on every board that there is. They have some kind of an interest in that particular job or that particular organization. You don’t want somebody that just lets their name be listed and never comes and never does any work. To me, anybody who says, “OK, I’ll serve on this board.” They’ve committed themselves. I just think they’d ought to work.

I:          Some of the boards have made board membership contingent on a person’s ability to give or to raise a specified minimum amount of money. How do you feel about this type of process?

EC:         I think that there have been more disappointed people by doing that. You get somebody, and say, “Oh, let’s get someone whose rich and who’ll give us a bunch—let’s put him on the board.” Half—not half, 80% of the time, they never give a dime. As far as money raising, if you’ve got somebody—I mean if they’re known to be money raisers—you’ve got somebody who has done that a great deal, they burn out. I’d rather have fresh blood. Now, you need to have experience of course.

I:          So you think that organizations may lose the interest of persons who might otherwise make valuable non-monetary contributions, but perhaps—I’m thinking about people who cannot afford to give $5,000 to or whatever, or even might not be able to raise that much, but who would have some other quality or talent that would—

EC:         [22:34] They can contribute a great deal without giving money or without raising money. There are certain people whose advice you couldn’t do without in various areas and who are just really good workers, but that doesn’t mean they can go out and give you $5,000 or raise $5,000. No, that should not disqualify them at all.

I:          I know some of the arts organizations in Houston feel that they need this quality.

EC:         Yes, they do. It doesn’t always work, though.

I:          If you were solely responsible for forming a board of trustees for a major non-profit organization, how would you structure it? What I mean is—I’ll give you some examples. Would you limit the number of members? How long would each term last? Would the members have to rotate off, or could they succeed themselves? Just what would be the conditions of membership?

EC:         Well, I would feel like it’s better to have a board that does have certain terms of office. I think, as I mentioned, with the museum with its three-year and two times, and then you go off. I think that’s a very good idea. I also feel that you don’t want too big of a board. That gets unruly. You certainly don’t want your executive board to be too large. Because you just accomplish more if you’ve got a few people who are really interested in working at it than a whole bunch of people who are just sitting there. No, I think small boards—I think, for instance, the large board at the museum is great, and it creates a lot of interest in the museum—their main board of directors. But as in all other organizations, y’all know this, it’s the executive committee who runs the show, and I think that’s the way it should be.

I:          Do you think it’s appropriate for an executive committee to meet more often than the board, for instance?

EC:         Yes, I do.  

I:          To sort of conduct more of the day-to-day business?

EC:         Yes—of the day-to-day business. I think it’s very important for them to meet more often than the board of directors do.

I:          How do you feel about the executive committee keeping the board of directors informed as much as possible as to what is going on?

EC:         [25:05] Oh, yes. I think indeed. I think there are many things that come up in any organization that should have the approval of the full board, but in just the day-to-day operations, I think it’s up to the executives.


cue point


I:          What have you found to be your best tools for effectively influencing decisions on a board of trustees?

EC:         Now wait a minute–what are my best—

I:          What have you found to be your best tools for effectively influencing decisions on a board of trustees? If you were in favor of something and there are all kinds of pros and cons on board, how do you manage to try to get—

EC:         Well, you’ve got to present the best case, of course, and you’d have to be very convincing. If you’ve got something that is controversial, and you feel very strongly one way, you’ve just got to lobby. I mean that’s really what it comes down to.

I:          So when you get into a meeting, you know you’ve got your ducks lined up? Is that it?

EC:         Yes. We can’t wait and let them fall again.

I:          In conclusion, we would like to ask how your experience as a Junior League volunteer has carried over into the rest of your life, especially in the areas where we have been talking about today.

EC:         I think my training in the Junior League is probably the most important thing in my life. Because, well I happen to go in already sort of geared towards it, but it just makes you be very responsible. It makes you—if you say you’re going to do something, doggonit, you’re going to do it. Maybe the only time you won’t do it is if your husband is being buried. Otherwise, if you say you’re going to do something, then you’re going to do it—and you’re going to be on time. I mean this is what I feel is so important about the Junior League. It just trains you to be a worthwhile volunteer. That’s what it amounts to.

I:          Well, thank you very much. Is there anything else that you would like to talk about or say?

EC:         [27:29] I  can’t think of anything. I think you all have done your homework beautifully. I do say it’s marvelous. I’ve been reminded of things that I haven’t thought of in years.

I:          Well, we have very much enjoyed the interview and thank you very much.

EC:         Well, you are very welcome.


[tape ends 27:43] Interview is repeated after this.