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Interview with: Helen Olshan
Interviewed by: Louis J. Marchiafava
Date: August 12, 1993
LM: [00:06] Today’s date is August 12, 1993, and this is Louis Marchiafava interviewing for the Houston Public Library’s Houston Metropolitan Research Center oral history project. Today’s subject will be Mr. Immanuel Olshan, and I’ll be interviewing his wife. Mrs. Olshan, I’d like to get your full name, including your maiden name and then some background information. Let’s just start with your name first.
HO: All right, my name is Helen Bouscher Olshan.
LM: What was the middle name?
LM: Bouscher. And how do you spell that?
HO: B-O-U-S-C-H-E-R. It should have been B-O-U-C-H-E-R, but my father was born in Alsace-Lorraine, and it was Boucher until Bismarck conquered it, and then he wanted it all Teutonized and had them all put an ‘S’ in front of the ‘H’. So then it was pronounced Bouscher.
LM: Mrs. Olshan, I’d like to begin the interview—before we talk about your husband—and talk some about you and get some background information on the years before you met Mr. Olshan.
HO: I was born on February 14, 1902, and I met Mr. Olshan in 1922. My entire family was at his first wedding, and his wife and my sister were very good friends, but after they were married and I was married a year or two, seven years later, his wife and I became very good friends, and every time they took a trip, they stopped with us so that I was—I’ve really known him all that time, and I’ve admired him since ‘22 to ‘27 when I was invited to a banquet in Chicago, at which time he was given an award for his philanthropic work with Off the Street Boys Club.
LM: [02:29] Now, let me find out about your schooling first. Did you go to public schools, private schools?
HO: I went to—I went to public school first in Newark, New Jersey, where I was born, and then in Chicago, I went to the University of Chicago, moved back to—
LM: What did you study there?
HO: I studied education. Then we moved back to New Jersey, and I finished at Newark State College, which is now called Kent. I taught in—in New Jersey for 38 years.
LM: Did you teach at the high school level?
HO: I taught elementary level, and mostly in the fourth and sixth grades. Still hear from a—pupils I had in my very first class and from some of their parents.
LM: That’s very nice. Now, what occupation did your father have?
HO: My father supervised the purchase of meat for the Atlantic and Pacific Tea stores.
LM: Now we can bring it up to the time you met Mr. Olshan. How did that occur?
HO: I told you I met him the year before he was married when his wife brought him to us to be introduced and really paid very little attention to him throughout the years because every time they visited us my husband would be busy with him and I would be busy with his wife.
LM: What was his wife’s name?
HO: Gertrude. Then they came to pay a condolence call on me when we were living in Florida after my husband and I retired, and within a few days she died very suddenly of a heart attack. About—
LM: What year was that? Oh, approximately.
HO: [04:35] 1972, I think.
HO: Then a few months later, he had—he called me from Florida telling me that he was visiting somebody, and I had crocheted—or knitted, rather, a gold shawl for their golden wedding anniversary, which I wanted to give to his wife. I had given it to her before she died, and when he came to see me he wanted me to take it back, and from then on I had telephone calls from Texas and letters and so on until we got married in September 1973. And I must say that they were the happiest days of my life, and I felt that this marriage was made in heaven.
LM: You were married before—
LM: Also, and your husband died?
HO: I was married for 43 years, and Gertrude and Manny were married for 50.
LM: Now I assume that in all of those years, there was some communication between the families.
LM: Between you and his wife.
HO: Yes, just between the—his wife and I. As I said, I had paid no attention to him whatever. It never dawned on me that I would ever want to get married again because my first marriage was a very happy one. This one was equally as happy, and I felt that I was well-blessed to have two wonderful husbands.
LM: Yeah, you are—you are indeed.
HO: I was.
LM: Very fortunate.
HO: [06:10] I was.
LM: What occupation did your husband have? —your first husband.
HO: He owned an exterminating service in New Jersey.
LM: In the early period of Mr. Olshan’s career when he was married to Gertrude, were you kept aware of some of his activities? He was, for instance, involved in developing a subdivision in Illinois?
HO: At—at first.
LM: At first.
HO: And then, during the depression, they moved to Birmingham, Alabama, after having gone to several other places in between. And while he was there he became interested in the demolishing business but realized that it was a one-industry town, and when the steel mills closed, there was no business whatever. His brother and he were in the real estate business there as well as in—they had been in Chicago. And then a friend of his in Alabama taught him the demolishing business, and he learned something also of the lumber business, and he decided that he would make more money doing that, but he wrote to three different cities, asked for the business bureau information, got telephone books—all the information they could find on the number of businesses—the types of locations and that sort of thing, and by himself started out one night for New Orleans. When he got there, he realized that that was not for him; he didn’t think it progressive enough, and in a drizzling rain set out for Houston, which was next on his list. He said, as he came to Houston, he saw the lights then, I think, of the Esperson building, and he thought it looked very, very welcome to him, and that night he stayed at the Y ‘cause he had very little money.
LM: He stayed at the—
HO: At the Y—YMCA. He had very little money. And looked around the next morning and discovered a lumber yard on Canal Street. He was told that three people that had operated from there before all were—went broke, but he decided that he could probably do something with it. He looked around Houston, and he saw the bayous, and in order to get from one place to the other, everybody had to go downtown and cross over and then go back where he wanted to. And he thought by moving houses, he would be able to do something with this city. He thought there was a great potential here and found out to whom that property belonged that was vacant at the time, and it so happened that it belonged to a banker whose name I don’t remember. And he called him up, made an appointment, and said that he would like to rent it or buy it. Went to see him that day, and the man wanted him to come the following day, and he said he—he had an appointment. He didn’t have an appointment, but he had no money to stay any longer, but the man went, and he wanted really to buy it, and he said I’ll pay 3 months’ rent in advance if you put in new roofing, which he did. And Manny said he had very little money to stock any lumber, but he put in all that he could get in the front so that it looked like more in the back. And he first started out by moving houses because by doing so he felt that there would be room for a street where people wouldn’t have to cut through all the way downtown but just cross over there. And that’s how he started out—moving houses and demolishing them. In those days, you didn’t get paid for demolishing a house. You had to buy it, and the money that you got, if any, would be out of the things that you could salvage.
LM: [10:36] I see.
HO: And that’s how he began.
LM: So in the very early years then of the wrecking business, at least as it was operated here in Houston, you would not receive a fee for dismantling the house; you would have to buy it and recover your expenses—
HO: If possible.
LM: —through salvaging.
HO: That’s right.
LM: I see.
HO: One day I know we—he bought a house, and somehow or other it got burned during the night. Someone had put—had put it on fire, and the owner said, “Well, I guess neither one of us will make any money.” And Manny said, “Oh, yes.” He said, “I already have agreed to buy it.” And he said, “I will pay you for it.” Which he did.
LM: Did he take a loss on it?
HO: [11:31] Yes—yes—a complete loss. There was nothing left of that property.
LM: Well, the land hopefully was worth something.
HO: I don’t really know what happened to it.
LM: I don’t recall if you mentioned it or not, but what year did he come to Houston?
HO: I think it was in 1933. I think that was the year.
LM: I want to go back again to—you mentioned that he learned the business from his—
HO: A friend in Birmingham, Alabama.
LM: So, he gained experience in the wrecking business in Alabama first.
LM: And then he attempted to find a city that had a future to it that he could have his—establish a business. Is that—
HO: There were three cities on his list, but he said when he saw Houston, he completely forgot what the third city was. He’s been here ever since.
LM: He went through New Orleans, you said?
HO: He thought that that was not progressive enough. He realized it that fast.
LM: That New Orleans wouldn’t go—would not grow like Houston.
LM: Yeah, that was very intuitive.
HO: [12:57] I thought he was quite astute and perceptive.
LM: Well, do you know any more about his early years here—how the business was—grew to the extent that it did?
HO: The only thing I can possibly think of was that it must have been his own initiative and foresight. He really was a—a businessman from the time he was seven years old. As I said before, probably not to you, he came from a poor family of seven children of which he was the oldest, and he had a brother a year—a year and a few months younger than he was, but he started out by selling newspapers on the street in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was born and realized that if he went around and—and knocked at people’s doors, he wouldn’t go af—after hawking on the streets, so he knocked at people’s doors on the block where he lived and asked if they would want the paper delivered for a penny a day. And that’s how he started out. He had ten customers. He gave five to his little brother and took one side of the street, and he kept the other side. Then he thought if two of them could sell ten papers, he could get more boys to sell others, but they didn’t want to go around getting customers, so my husband did that, and he said he would knock at the door and say, “Lady, would you like your paper delivered for a penny a day?” And he said, “Most of them said, ‘Yes.’” So, that’s how he started out, and he said he thinks he was probably one of the first newspaper distributors in the country.
LM: (laughs) That’s—that’s very interesting.
HO: He said when he had 50 cents in his pocket, he felt that he was wealthy.
LM: Well, in those days 50 cents meant something, didn’t it?
HO: Well, and they couldn’t—the parents couldn’t afford to put him through school, so he worked in the daytime and went to college at night and graduated from Loyola University as a sociology major.
LM: In Chicago?
HO: In Chicago. And then was very much interested in that—always has been in boys work or in youth work and decided that as a sociology major working in that field he would never be able to afford to get married. That’s when he decided to go into business.
LM: [15:37] I see.
HO: But in 1927, when I was married to my first husband, I went back for a visit, and they took me to a banquet at which Manny was awarded an award then for the work, as I said before, in Off the Street Boys Club, and after that his wife sent me all the bulletins, at which he was interested in, from then on. And I think someplace in the library you must have a list of those activities.
LM: Probably so.
HO: I’m sure you do.
LM: So he finished his high school, and then he went to—
HO: And college.
LM: And college.
HO: In Chicago.
LM: And then he made a decision to go into business. Did he have any idea, do you know, of what type of business he was going to try—attempt?
HO: I think it’s—I think it was just something that came through sheer accident. He was very good at selling and very good at leading people, and it just grew.
LM: One of the other things he did too was not merely demolition, but he also had a foundation business as well.
HO: That’s right. And when they—when they did demolish a thing, he said he wasn’t doing it to wreck anything. He said, “It was an eye to the future.” And he always—his—one of his mottos was, “Making way for tomorrow.” At one time, one of the buildings were slated to be demolished, and he called the Heritage Society and asked them to interfere ‘cause he didn’t think it should be demolished. To this day, I don’t remember what building that was, but “It’s still standing,” he said.
LM: That’s interesting. I wish I knew which building it was.
HO: [17:47] The Heritage Society might know, but I don’t.
LM: Do you know how he got into the foundation business—repairing broken foundations and—?
HO: I think that was when he began moving houses during the war when there was very little to be bought and people couldn’t get lumber. I think it started then.
LM: Was he one of the first in the city to—?
HO: I think the only one.
LM: —to do foundation repairs?
HO: Uh-huh (affirmative) at that time. Uh-huh (affirmative)
LM: How did he learn that business, do you know? ‘Cause that’s completely different from demolition.
HO: He was a student. I don’t think he ever gave up learning, and I know that anything related to building or demolishing led him to the next step.
LM: That’s remarkable that he took on all these things.
HO: Yes, and he never wanted to quit work. He said, “Once you quit work, you might as well do nothing.” And he never stopped working for boys clubs. He worked for the Variety Boys Club when that became—that became a member of—I don’t know what. Then he went into—to boys—worked with Boys Harbor through the Optimist Club, and they bought a boat, I think, and he moved the boat from, I think, New Orleans to someplace in Houston, and that was the first place where the boys could play. I don’t know what became of that. Then he started a gumball machine, and with the money that they got through the gumball machine, they were able to buy a piece of property in La Porte, and that’s where Boys Harbor is now. Today it isn’t just for boys, it’s for boys and girls, and these are for children that are not discipline problems by any means, but whose parents for some reason or other are either temporarily separated—the wife became ill and the husband couldn’t take care of the children or they were in need of temporary homes, and after they got there, they could stay as long as they behaved. They’ve put some of the boys through college, and some of them now are even working at Boys Harbor.
LM: [20:37] Now, Boys Harbor was a permanent place of residence?
HO: For the children that needed it, Uh-huh (affirmative) It’s—it’s still flourishing today.
LM: I was unaware of that.
HO: That’s where the Optimist Club—oh, I don’t remember.
LM: Did he begin that himself with the club?
HO: It just says, “He was one of the founders at Boys Harbor at La Porte, a refuge for needy and underprivileged boys which the Houston Optimist Club established.”
LM: Okay. So he worked with them.
HO: Yes. He was also on the juvenile—juvenile crime commission at one time until he had a—an anonymous phone call saying that if he didn’t stop working with them, harm would come to the family, and so he had to resign from that.
LM: Why was that do you think?
HO: Well, this was when racketeering became established, and he said that if places were dark, this was not a place for children and any teenager, so he thought they all should be well-lighted, and this did not suit the Mafia.
LM: It was the Mafia?
LM: And this was in Houston?
LM: What period of time are we talking about?
HO: He never said what year that was, but I—I would assume that it must have been around ‘40s or ‘50s.
LM: [22:25] That’s interesting.
HO: Uh-huh (affirmative)
LM: So he was actually threatened?
HO: He—either he or his wife.
LM: His family.
HO: They threatened somebody in the family, so rather than harm coming, he resigned.
LM: I understand that.
HO: Then—then he became interested in—in helping establish and found the opera ‘cause before that they had to go to Dallas and stay overnight at a hotel, and there was really no cultural activities here whatever, and he and Elva Lobit with a few other people started a opera company, and they also helped establish Alley Theatre and the symphony. His name is on one of the seats in the Alley Theatre to this day. And we’ve given up going to these things, of course, as we got older and just couldn’t go out every night the way we did before. Then the—the—then he became interested in the youth symphony, and that was his love, really, and through that we decided to take a trip one year because we gave awards of scholarships to the winners every year, and they could go to any camp in the United States for a month that they wanted to. We paid their food and their lodging but not their airfare. And this one summer, we took a trip to every music camp. We went south; we went to Brevard, North Carolina; we went to Aspen in Colorado; we went—we went to Tanglewood; we went to Idlewild, I think it is, in—in Michigan and to Brevard in North Carolina, and decided that Texas had nothing like that. Why should our children have to pay airfare when we could establish one here? That’s when we founded the Immanuel and Helen Olshan Texas Music Festival, and that was in 1889, and I have given—
HO: Uh-huh (affirmative)
LM: That’s when you first established it?
HO: [25:04] Yes, and it’s grown ever since. We’ve had students from all over the world—from Korea, Vietnam, China, Japan, Poland, Russia, Scotland, England—you name it, we’ve had it, and a lot of people from Mexico have come. And in order to be able to attend the summer sessions here, which is now based at the University of Houston where they could have the facilities of the dorms, the recreation facilities, game rooms, and so on, they have to send in a tape and have an audition, and we’ve had—I think this year we had fifteen from Mexico alone, and they’ve been asking now if they could come in. The first year was rather difficult. We came out evenly—I think—didn’t make any money on it, but we’re getting funding now because people are getting to know about us.
LM: How is most of the money raised to finance it? Is it through contributions?
HO: Through contribution. We do charge for some of the concerts. We give one at the Cynthia Mitchell Woods Pavilion every year which is free, and I think two at Cullen Performance Hall. And at the last concert there they played with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and each student sits next to one of the members of the student of the Symphony Orchestra, and they really get wonderful training. The first year, the [27:02] (??) directed the orchestra, and we’ve had somebody of note from anywhere in the world conduct it.
LM: And the funds to pay the conductors come out of the—
HO: Out of our—the funding that we get—Uh-huh (affirmative)
LM: I didn’t realize that it was—it was that extensive—the program was that extensive.
HO: Yes, it is, and it’s—it’s rather extensive now—growing every year.
LM: Are you still involved in it?
HO: Oh, yes.
LM: Are you?
HO: We expect this to be perpetual. It—it is not a temporary thing. That’s why we’ve made a foundation for it.
LM: [27:42] Do you attend foundation meetings?
HO: I’m—I’m the president of it now.
LM: That answers that. (laughs)
HO: (laughs) I hope I’ll be able to see that it gets going just the way my husband would have liked it.
LM: It sounds like you already have.
HO: Well, we try, and I know what his ambitions—and that’s where we’re—and we’ve had letters of thanks from many of the students and their parents, and it’s all been very encouraging.
LM: I noticed in talking with you that both his interests and your interests seem to center on youth—children.
LM: Is there any particular reason for that?
HO: Well, as I said, he’s been interested in the youth ever since he himself was a boy, and I think it’s just natural—there was a natural outgrowth, and of course I’ve taught children, and they’re my main—they’re my main interest.
LM: That’s very commendable. It’s extremely nice to have such a program.
HO: Well, other people feel, “Why not keep money in the family?” And we feel that—
LM: Why not? —I’m sorry.
HO: Well, we feel that other people are worth it also. The family is not forgotten, but—but we think that the coming generations need help.
LM: So, you mean that there are people that think you shouldn’t be spending money on these projects?
HO: [29:18] Uh-huh (affirmative)
LM: Is that right?
LM: But you win out.
HO: (laughs) Well, I know what Manny wants, and I’m—I’m not giving in.
LM: Good for you. What other programs or projects was he involved in or were you involved in?
HO: That’s the only one I’m really—I’ll do myself, as far as he’s concerned, but he had many, and it has amazed me when I saw the list, and I think there are over fifty things that he himself did, and if I’m not mistaken you must have a list of them.
LM: It’s quite possible. I haven’t seen it, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have it.
HO: If you don’t, I’ll have a copy made for you.
LM: That’d be very nice. I’d like to have a copy to go in the donor folder. Let’s see, he’s got the Alley Theatre, the Better Business Bureau, the Boys Club of Houston, Boys Harbor which we talked about, Central Civic Council. Was that a business—?
HO: This was all before I came.
HO: Oh, the one thing that became—that I know about was—have you heard of VITA? VITA, a national—an international organization called Volunteers for Technical—in Technical Assistance?
LM: No, I haven’t.
HO: Well, you’ll see—that’s VITA. And he was most interested in that, and until a few years ago we attended their annual meetings in Washington.
LM: [31:09] Let me turn the tape over now. Continued interview, side two. I see his—his activity awards received go all the way back to 1944. His first award was a wartime citation for the conservation of nickel and metals from the Chamber of Commerce.
HO: I have it, but you said you didn’t want them.
LM: Well, I can’t—I don’t have room for the frames—
HO: They can be taken out of frames. I don’t mind that. But he has one of the few lifetime awards awarded by the Salvation Army. That was another one of his main projects.
LM: Do you have all of these things here?
HO: Yes, they’re all in—I think I showed them to you—they’re all—
LM: I didn’t take a real good look. I’ll take a better look. You mentioned the theatre and Ms. Lobit—Mrs. Lobit. Did you know her very well?
HO: I didn’t know her very well, but I have met her. She is no longer living.
LM: No. I interviewed her some years ago.
HO: Is that right?
LM: Before she died. Yes.
HO: She was a lovely person.
LM: She was.
HO: Oh, when my husband was made [33:04] Cultural (??) of the Year dinner, he wanted her to present the award to him, but she was ill at the time and begged off. I have that there, too. That can be taken out of the frame if you wish. That was in 1776.
LM: Well, I’m amazed at the variety of activities he was in.
HO: It amazed me, too. I had no idea that any one person would accomplish so many things.
LM: [33:45] Now, he was always busy. A few times—I met him three or four times, and he was—
HO: Very active.
LM: Just a couple other questions I have, and I don’t know if you will be able to answer them because they occurred before you married—long, long before you married. He was active in some development—land development?
HO: Yes, in the suburb of Chicago.
HO: I don’t remember the name of it.
LM: Yeah, we have the name—they were in the photographs you gave me.
LM: And I was just wondering if you knew anything more about that.
HO: No, I really don’t.
LM: I was just wondering if it was a success or not.
HO: I said it was until the depression came.
LM: It was—excuse me—until the depression came.
HO: Uh-huh (affirmative)
LM: And then the development ceased.
HO: [34:43] And then it got too expensive to stay there and make very little money, and that’s when they decided it would be cheaper to move south.
LM: Okay. To move south, was it for labor—labor was cheaper in the south?
HO: No, they didn’t—they didn’t need labor, but for them to live. They started in Florida just to look around; they didn’t go into business in Florida, but they did look around, and from Florida went to Birmingham, Alabama, which was doing well until the steel mills closed, then they realized it was a one-industry town, and when they closed there was no business.
LM: Are there any areas that we haven’t talked about that you think might need to be discussed before we conclude the interview? You’ve given me a lot of good information that we didn’t have before. And if there’s anything else you’d like to add—
HO: I—I doubt it.
LM: We can always—if you think of more—we can always meet again.
HO: Uh-huh (affirmative)
LM: I want to thank you very much on behalf of the Houston Public Library for participating in this project.
HO: Anything that’ll help my husband is—just makes me happy.
LM: Well, this will go with the collection, and people who want to know more about his background will be able to listen to the tape. Thank you very much.
HO: Well, you’re very welcome.