The Houston Oral History Project is a repository for the stories, accounts, and memories of those who have chosen to share their experiences. The viewpoints expressed in the Houston Oral History Project do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the City of Houston, the Houston Public Library or any of its officers, agents, employees, or volunteers. The City of Houston and the Houston Public Library make no warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the interviews and expressly disclaim any liability therefore.
The Houston Oral History Project provides unedited versions of all interviews. Some parents may find material objectionable for minors. Parents are encouraged to interact with their children as they use the Houston Oral History Project Web site to complete research and homework activities.
The Houston Public Library retains the literary and publishing rights of its oral histories. No part of the interviews or transcripts may be published without the written permission of the Houston Oral History Project.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to:
The Houston Oral History Project.
Houston Public Library
Houston, Texas 77002
The Houston Oral History Project reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to decline to post any account received herein and specifically disclaims any liability for the failure to post an account or for errors or omissions that may occur in posting accounts to the Virtual Archive.
For more information email the Houston Oral History Project at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interview with: Jane Ely
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: March 17, 2008
DG: Today is Monday, March 17, St. Patrick's Day. In Houston, we are interviewing Leprechaun Jane Ely for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. Jane, how are you?
JE: I am fine. How are you, David?
DG: I am doing great, thanks. Let's begin with the fundamentals. Why don't you tell us where you were born and what your earliest years were like?
JE: I was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1939. I probably had a pretty typical youth except that I grew up in the 1950s which were the years of the drought in Texas. We had a flood in Fort Worth in 1949 when I was pretty little - I was about 9 years old. And then, I never saw rain again until like 1957! But other than that, I did all the usual things that kids did - in and out of trouble. Fort Worth is a good town to grow up in.
DG: Why is that?
JE: Because it is wholesome. Well, of course, and I am of an age where you could go as far as you could go and still get back before it got dark. That was the only restriction you had. Children today, I anguish for them. I also spent a lot of time in the country. My grandmother had a place down in Bosque County, Texas, and had a horse. There again, I could go as far as I wanted as long as I could get back.
DG: Your earliest memories of being a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up and when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
JE: I am not sure. I guess I went through all the things that little kids go through and, of course, for my time, I probably was well beyond what lots of little girls wanted to do because I probably did not want to be a fireman. I think underneath, I probably always was interested in the newspaper business and in writing in general. I was one of those kids, I couldn't spell. Oh God, I was a terrible speller! But I could write. And also, I did learn to use a dictionary. And I really learned that especially when I had gone in the newspaper business. I could knock out - and I learned that you didn't have to know much if you could make it sound good. For themes and essays in school, teachers were just so glad to get something with complete sentences in them and an occasional verb. That is how pretty much I got through school. And one time, they had an open house for the parents and I had a theme on every bulletin board. And I had started trying to kind of change my style a little bit so that they wouldn't know that they were for sure written by the same person. So, I guess I kind of always did.
I remember when I went to college, I had to fill out one of those things - what are the 5 things you want to be? One of them was a writer and one of them was I was interested in genealogy at that particular point and I put that down. On reflection, I cannot remember what they all were but I think they were all kind of related to what I have used in my career.
DG: Born in 1939, you came of age in the 1950s which we think of as the time when women were expected to stay home, to keep the house, raise a family. Did you have a sense that you were not going along with the party line back then?
JE: Oh, yes, particularly, of course, when I got to college. I didn't know, and this is pretty genuine - I really didn't know as acutely as a lot of girls probably did that there were things you couldn't do because my family thought you could pretty much do what you wanted to do. My mother was a very independent woman. I remember one time we had taken my sister to camp and my mother and I . . . it was down at Kerrville, you know, and we had stayed like overnight in Austin on the way down and then took her . . . after we got her settled and everything, it was a late afternoon and my mother asked me, "Well, do you just want to go on home instead of stopping?" I said, "Yes, sure." It is not much of a drive really from Kerrville. If you grew up in West Texas, it is not much of a drive from Kerrville to Fort Worth. And so, we drove home and I don't know what time we got home but obviously most of the trip was done in the dark. And not long after that, I was standing . . . my parents had guests and my daddy was mixing a drink for his friend and the man said to him, he just didn't understand how he could let Mary drive alone like that at night with his little girl. And my father said, "Let Mary?" I think that was when I got my first clue.
When I was in college, pretty much what you did was you either went to graduate school or you got married after you got out of school and I didn't want to do either one of those things. And so, I just had to go out and try to figure out what I could do. I went to a liberal arts college. I had a major in English, a major in speech with a caveat that I didn't have all the requirements for but they gave me the major as long as I promised either to never give a speech or if I did, not tell them where I went to school! And I had only like 3 hours of a major in philosophy. So, you can tell I didn't have a real clear idea of what I wanted to do. So, when you get out and you can't do anything, it just seems almost natural that you would wind up in the newspaper business.
DG: You attended Lyndonwood College in St. Charles, Missouri. How Lyndonwood College in St. Charles, Missouri?
JE: Well, in those days, and it may still happen . . . you know, people used to come to schools, high schools, and the high school I went to had a terrifically high percentage of the seniors that went to college. And so, they kind of came down to recruit, you know. I have always said, and I really think there was a matter of truth to it, that I slammed the door one day when I was having one of those adolescent disagreements with those stupid retardeds who were my parents who didn't understand my great abilities and talents, and I think that was then that my father announced I was going to go to a girl's school and learn some manners, which is an indication of what they thought about an education for women in those days. I was going to go to another school and they found out that a friend of mine was going to go there that I had gotten in some minor trouble with along the way -- they thought we might be better separated. And so, I don't know, this woman just said Lyndonwood was a good school and all this stuff, so that is where I went. The idea originally was to do 2 years. It was a 4 year college. Do 2 years and maybe even go to Missouri which is another indication that I probably was thinking about the newspaper business. Or come home. Also, they were just starting to do testing, you know, to get you in school. I had taken the entrance exam. They did a separate entrance exam for UT. They didn't use - what do you call them, scholastic boards or college boards? They had devised their own thing. Well, I wasn't going to UT. I just kind of went and took it because a lot of my friends were. I aced it. I made the best score in the state practically because, you know, I didn't care. I test high on things like that. So, that got me into Lyndonwood without college boards and stuff. They took my UT entrance exam. So, I went off to Lyndonwood. You've got to understand that my family . . . my mother's extended family, they actually founded Fort Worth. They were the first people there and everything. They thought I was going east to school because I was going to Missouri. It is all relative!
DG: A lot of people when they become writers, they look back at their elementary school, high school, college years and they talk about a teacher that really influenced them, and writing is not the sort of thing you do for monetary gain . . .
JE: It absolutely is not!
DG: What role did writing serve for you when you were kid? Was there a teacher that was influential? Was it a game for you to do well or did you need to write?
JE: It was just kind of a natural thing. I say in all sincerity when people say how can you write, well I contend that if you can think, if you can talk, you can write. I don't do that to be glib. It is just because it is just the way it has been for me. I have always been fairly talented with just kind of doing hokum, if you will. I mean, in the days of when . . . it is still an integral part of a newspaper but I could always do the sob story. When I was in high school, if you worked on the school paper and/or the annual, you could get an off-campus pass which meant that you could run errands, take stuff to the printers and stuff like that. It also meant that you could go off-campus and smoke, and probably it was smoking that drove me to the newspaper business as much as anything because I did an awful lot of that. I was never a math student. It was difficult for me beyond description. I usually fared better if I could get in the class that a coach was teaching, you know, I might could get out of that. I only did 3 years of math in high school. Like I say, if you could write, you could just get . . . teachers were glad to see it and so they would forgive you for a lot of . . . if there wasn't a whole lot of information in it, they were still glad to get it.
I had a history teacher that I really liked. She was just a fun, interesting lady. But I don't know that I liked of it, I can't say. When you got to college, they give you counselors -- at least at the school I went to, all the faculty members had a few kids that they supposedly were counseling. Again, this was an instance where they gave placement tests to decide what courses you should go into. Well, the tests that don't matter, I just scored really well on. I was told by some of the upper classmen that if I would go in, to be sure to mark a lot of questions wrong so that I wouldn't get put in advance classes. So, I went in and marked all these things wrong and tested really high and got put in all these advanced classes. At the end of my freshman year, which was . . . I certainly had a lot more fun than anything I gained academically, I can assure you. My teacher, who was the journalism teacher which, you know, at Lyndonwood, wasn't much, waited until all my other grades were in and then gave me a grade which she told me deliberately was to put me on scholastic probation, then that way, I would live up to my potential, she thought. Well, I never really did like that lady very much after that, but I did learn then and it was probably important to me getting into this school -- I kind of alternated. I'd do the dean's list one semester and scholastic probation the next semester. I just kind of went back and forth all the way through but I graduated. I clearly graduated. I have a diploma.
When I got out of college, as I said, I didn't know how to do anything. All my friends, truly they either taught, married or went to graduate school. I don't think there was much else besides that. My college roommate was from Omaha. Well, she was an exception. She was from Omaha, Nebraska, and I had gone home with her for spring vacation and I thought it was kind of a nice town. Her father had died and she was going to go home and live with her mother for a year to kind of, I don't know, you know, help out, help her mother get over the thing. And so, I thought, well, if I went to Omaha, I'd know somebody but it wouldn't be like if I stayed in St. Louis, for example, where so many kids naturally went from St. Charles which was right there. I wanted to be on my own, kind of. And so, I went to Omaha.
I didn't know how to do anything and so I applied a place or two and I went to the Sun Newspapers which were about the second operation in the country that had done this - I think Chicago was first - and they had weekly area newspapers with a certain amount of this stuff being ROP which is run of the paper _______ all of them. They hired me. The guy who ran it was an old-time magazine guy who, by the way, wound up teaching at Ohio or Ohio State, I can't remember which, and wrote a textbook that a lot of the kids some years younger than I were impressed with his textbook. He hired me. I didn't know anything about the newspaper business. He asked me if I knew anything about photography. I said, "Well, hell, a little bit," you know. And he said, "Well, did you take any pictures for the paper?" I said, "Yes, I took some in college." He said, "What kind of camera did you use?" I said, "Well, just a regular press camera that you used." Well, the regular press camera at Lyndonwood was a Brownie Hawkeye and when I went to work for the Sun Newspapers of Omaha, they gave me a Speed Graphic. And you know those old 1940s movies where the press guys are all there shooting these things that look like a howitzer?
DG: The big bellows.
JE: Yes, and they weigh four million tons and stuff like that? That is what they gave me. God Almighty, I didn't have any idea . . . so I went to the guy who was the head photographer and said, "I am in trouble." He taught me how to do it. I was lucky. I had a pretty good sense of composition and if you just took enough on enough different speeds, you'd get it. Later when I wound up applying for a job at the Houston Post, Bill Hobby asked me if I had taken my own pictures and this time, I could tell the truth and say yes, I had.
DG: The convenient truth. So, before we leave this, this first job, you said you applied for a few things. Were they all journalism jobs, all newspaper jobs or if somebody else had snapped you up, you'd be . . .
JE: I might be in the PR business or I might have been a used car salesman!
DG: And a good one! So, tell me how you got to the Houston Post.
JE: Well, I told you that I had gone home to Omaha with my roommate on spring vacation and this was when I found out that Omaha had 2 great weeks of the year. One of them is in the spring and one of them is in the fall and it is just absolutely unbearable all the rest of the time. And you've got to understand that this, too, was . . . I'll get to that in a little bit . . . there wasn't just an abundance of apartments in Omaha, Nebraska in 1961. I graduated from college in 1961. I lived in an attic in a house that had a wooden fire escape. I went to work for $50 a week. I had never heard of an expense account and I certainly had never heard of a 40 hour week. That was good because neither had the newspaper I worked for ever heard of an expense account or a 40 hour week. I got my first raise there because I got paid by the week and we got paid on Friday and I kept running out of gas on Friday and the managing editor would have to come get me. And he finally said, "If I could get you a raise, would you promise not to run out of gas every week?" I promised I would try not to. I was doing all my driving for them. I worked for all 4 papers. They just kind of knocked me around where they needed me and I did a fair amount of stuff that ran in all of them. As a matter of fact, right after I left, they won a Pulitzer. I mean, it was a great learning ground. And Omaha, for a girl from Fort Worth, Texas, who had gone a girls' school in Missouri was fascinating because they had all these ethnic groups that had come to work at the stockyards in Omaha. I didn't know that there were Bohemians and Polish and all these people and they had their little enclaves. I drank beer in every one of their places, I can assure you!
DG: What kind of stories did you write?
JE: It was a weekly paper and most of them were just pure features but some of them were a little bit more in-depth. I just flat didn't do much news, real hard news at all. And I didn't cover government or anything like that because the paper really didn't, unless there was some kind of gimmick or angle that you could do. I am proud to say that the daily paper there, The Omaha World Herald, was really fighting the Sun Newspapers where I worked because they were gaining on them so much and in truth, doing a better job in a lot of stuff. And so, I did everything from something kind of social . . . I don't mean real social, social but light features to I even once went and covered the first ski hill thing that they used artificial snow with in Nebraska. And there aren't a lot of hills in Nebraska. You had to go pretty far to find that.
DG: Are there any stories that stick out in your mind from that era that you remember that you were particularly proud of or that were hard to get?
JE: Well, there were 2 stories that I did that I probably remember the most and one was a woman who was from Greenwich, Connecticut and she was going around and she was trying to get people to subscribe to building . . . I can't remember what she called it but it was almost like a temple of peace. She was an interesting woman and I was quite taken with that. I think the reason I remember it was I kept running across it until just a few years ago when she finally died. And then, I did a story on an artist who had just come from New York and had some kind of fellowship there. I thought that was . . . something about his life kind of interested me and the fact that he was kind of doing what he wanted to do, how he wanted to do it. Other than that, yes, I remember things like if you had ever told me that there were whole great classes of accordion players -- I am not sure I had ever seen an accordion except maybe on television or something, you know, the kind they used to do in the old cowboy movies. I mean, here were these massive things. Hell, they had accordion stores and accordion studios and stuff I never knew about. Omaha had more bars per capita than any other city in the country and I knew how to do that but bowling? My gosh, they bowled like crazy! I think part of that is because it is such a . . . oh God, it snowed before Halloween. By the time Halloween came, it was up to here. I lived in my little attic and I didn't have covered parking. I couldn't lock my door because the locks would freeze, my car door locks, because the locks would freeze. I can remember thinking that the best, finest, most wonderful thing in the world would be to have a garage, an attached garage, that was warm and you could go out and you didn't have to dig your car out every morning. But the summers were miserable. So, I swore that if it ever fogged long enough for me to get out, I would get out and I did. There was still a little snow on the ground when I left.
DG: Now, this is early 1960s, and a heightened sense of independence for women is on the horizon but it is 1961, 1962, 1963 in Omaha, Nebraska. Do you still have a sense of being a pioneer? How many women were in the newsroom with you for the Sun Papers and how many women were doing what you were doing?
JE: None. I was the only woman. They had one woman who worked half-time or something. They charged for weddings and she would come in and write the kind of formula wedding stories for them. That was it. Me. And I was, indeed, a novelty to not only the public but to my colleagues. They didn't know what to do with a woman and so they did what everybody always did - they took advantage of it like crazy. I didn't know what a 40 hour week was. God, I worked and I worked and I worked, and went and did and all sorts of things that I probably didn't really realize I was doing until after I had done them.
And then, when I came to . . . I left Omaha and I went out seeking myself and I sought myself kind of up and down the east coast. I went to New York ostensibly to look for a job but I have to confess, I probably didn't look real hard. And I sought myself until . . . I think my daddy would have let me look a little bit longer but my mother decided I'd better find myself. So, I came back to Texas because that was where the funding was. My sister at that time lived in Austin. She had gone back to school at UT. I went down and stayed with her. And then, I went and talked to the Austin American Statesmen and they, in essence, told me that at that time, they could hire college kids for nothing, you know, and so, I came to Houston. I looked in the Yellow Pages under newspapers and I started to apply at the Chronicle because it came first - C. I could not get a place to park. They were downtown. So, I moved onto the second one which was the Post and it was at Polk and Dowling and you could get a place to park. That is why I applied at The Houston Post. I went in the lobby and they had a receptionist . . . "What do you want to do?" "Well, I want to apply for a job." I didn't know what a city editor was. I mean, I worked for a weekly in Omaha, Nebraska. And so, they had one woman in the personnel department who came to see me and she took me upstairs to the newsroom. I talked to one guy and he said that he would like for me to talk to the managing editor who was in a meeting and could I wait? I said, "Oh, I wait well."
The Houston Post had a place across the street, a small building over there, where they subsidized a cafe that was open for lunch, and you could go across the street and get a blue plate special or a sandwich that you could actually maybe pay for occasionally with what little money you made in the business. I started out in Omaha for $50 a week and I came to the Houston Post . . . the guy wanted me to talk to the managing editor. He said, "Well, you could go across the street and have a cup of coffee or something." Well, across the street to me meant across the street from the front. And there was a little beer joint across the street - it was like no place I had ever been in in my life. I went in and I ordered a Coca Cola in the bottle so I could wipe the top off. And, of course, 3 weeks later, I was eating hamburgers and drinking beer just like everybody else. But I had never seen anything like that.
So, I came back and I talked to the managing editor. It was Bill Hobby's week to be managing editor as he worked his way up. Hobby hired me. I have always said that is proof of what a brilliant man the Lieutenant Governor was because he just hired me. He started me out as church editor or religion writer and he took me over and introduced me to the city editor. I didn't want to say, who is the city editor? What is a city editor? I mean, I knew that you had them but I didn't know really what they did. And I looked down at a telephone directory and it said that Houston was the 7th largest city in the country. You could imagine the confidence I inspired when I said in front of the city editor and the managing editor of the paper that just hired me, "Houston is the 7th largest city in the United States? I just thought it was a place you went through on the way to Galveston!" Oh God! There are some who still remember that and they have never quite let me live it down. So, I was church editor for a while. As you can well imagine, I didn't last very long.
DG: What did you tell Bill Hobby in the interview that made him think that church editor was a good place to start?
JE: That is just what they had an opening for. At this time, they had 2 women who worked in the news department. One of them was Miriam Cass who was covering medicine and Isabel Brown who covered the Houston School Board. So, they needed a church editor. Well, you know, women could be a church editor. So, I went to work for $75 a week at The Houston Post.
So, Bill hired me on a Friday and I was to report to work on Monday. And so, I went back through Austin and picked up my stuff and I went to Fort Worth and picked up more stuff and came back to Houston on Sunday night. I came to town - I didn't know where to stay or what to do. I remember I stopped at a gas station and I asked the attendant if he knew of a good hotel near Polk and Dowling which, at that time, was not a residential neighborhood. So, I wound up at that motel out across the street from the Shamrock. And then, I am working around to it the fact that I called a friend I had gone to high school with and she said, "You have to live in Sin Alley." Sin Alley at that time was Mid Lane and it went from San Felipe to Westheimer. It was a slew of garden apartments, you know, the kind that are built around the swimming pool and all of that. She said, "That is where it all is." Well, I actually got there in kind of the dying days of Sin Alley. I was always convinced there couldn't be much sinning because there was too much noise. I rented an apartment there. But I called my daddy first to ask him if he thought I could afford $100 a month for a furnished apartment. He told me to go for it. That was about the only place really for single people to live. I mean, there weren't scattered willy nilly all over town.
And so, I lived there and I could get to work in the mornings because you could go down Westheimer but at that time Westheimer became Hawthorne became Elgin and it still is Elgin and Westheimer but the Hawthorne in there, and I couldn't get home because I'd go back looking for Westheimer and I couldn't find Westheimer. I know it is really flipping dumb but I'd stop and ask people how to get there and nobody knew. I mean, I was practically in the country. Mid Lane and then there was Sakowitz at the corner of Post Oak and Westheimer. There was Sakowitz and I think Joske's which has become Dillard's was there - I am pretty sure. And there was a Weingarten's grocery store. And there was pasture where the Galleria is now. I couldn't find the Post and I drove and drove and drove. Isabel Brown told me a way that I could get from The Houston Post to Mid Lane without ever having to stop. Now, I slid through a light or two but I never had to stop.
DG: I am intrigued, before we leave the moment, that you met the Post on a Friday and was hired for the following Monday.
DG: Were they looking for a woman? Were they desperate for help? Have you had a chance to talk about with Mr. Hobby since . . . were you impressive to him because of the writing you had done, because of your background? Do you have a sense . . . was it unusual for him to hire you on the spot like that and have you start 2 days later?
JE: I don't know. Truthfully, I don't. I don't think it was grossly unusual. I certainly was at liberty. I had a little, what we used to call clip books, you know, where I had taken some of the stuff that I wrote that I thought maybe would do me the most good. I will tell you this, that Hobby looked at my stuff and he asked me if I really wrote it. I said, "Well, I can't spell very well. I can't say that nobody ever changed a word or something." And he told me that the reason that he asked was that he realized that the Post and the Chronicle had hired people from the Houston Press which was then . . . Houston was a 3 paper town . . . had hired people from the Houston Press and they finally figured out that they had each hired the same guy about 5 times because they had a terrific rewrite man at the Houston Press called Louie Hoffenberg. And Hoffenberg had written all this stuff. No, I didn't have any idea what a rewrite person was so I said, "No, sir, I wrote it all." I think this: I have never asked Bill Hobby that but I am pretty convinced it is not so that I don't think he was out, by golly we're going to hire a woman but Bill is a progressive guy and I think that he just thought that I had some ability so by God, he would hire me. He was more progressive than a lot of the fellows around the city desk were when I got introduced to him, I can tell you that.
DG: Well, for the record, let's just assume that your talents were so self-evident, that he had no choice but to hire you.
JE: I think that is true. I think that is absolutely true.
DG: Before the competition.
JE: And besides that, I took my own pictures.
DG: Did you have a sense either in Omaha or at the Post of being a pioneer, of being a woman, or was it just completely inadvertent and never really crossed your mind - you just did the job?
JE: Well, I mean, I was certainly acutely aware of it, that I was, and at the Post more so than in Omaha because in Omaha, I worked so much that I was just really more of the paper than I was of the community. I wasn't there long enough to . . . but yes, I knew that I was . . . first when I was in Omaha, I got a note one day - at the top, it said, destroy this after reading, eat it or something, and they were going to have a meeting to talk about organizing a union guild. I couldn't go because I had to work. That shows you something. And, of course, the management kept that from every happening. And I did get a big raise. I got a $10 raise, so I was making $60 a week. And then, I had already gotten the $5. I probably wouldn't run out of gas. So, I was making $70 a week when I came to the Post. I got a $5 raise when I went to the Post. And at the Post, one way that certainly I knew it was because there were so few of us. It was me and Isabel and Miriam. They were day people, kind of. And very quickly . . . I was church editor for a short time. The assistant city editor at that time was named C.W. Skipper and Skipper ran the paper on Saturdays, and he really wanted another body. So, he got them to agree to switch my schedule to Tuesday through Saturday. Saturday was when the church pages ran and so that fit in with that schedule. So, I started working Saturdays on the city desk. That was a fabulous experience because 3 of the best newsmen in Houston were there. Skipper was the city editor and Harold Scarlett and Tom Omstead were the rewrite men and, I mean, they were fabulous. Scarlett was just the all-time best. And here I was just kind of bouncing in my chair. I am with big time!
I remember my first page 1 byline. I took the call on a Saturday. There had been a strike at Shell Oil that had gone on for months and months and months. It had gotten to the point that the then, what we called the women's department, had gone out to do a story on how families were surviving while they were on strike. And they wrote that same line that you hear so often. One of the families raised rabbits and they were eating the rabbits. The story came out that the Smiths, you know, didn't really consider this a great hardship because the rabbits tasted like children. It was supposed to be chicken but they hit that CH and it just came out. O.K., that was resolved on a Saturday in federal court. I remember, Skipper was a guy of great drama. He was a fabulous old newspaper man and he went through the big thing of looking at Scarlett and looking at Omstead and looking at me and saying ________ play story on the Sunday paper. That was big time. But when I came down here, not only was it hard to find a women's room at The Houston Post, I went to work for $75 a week and there was a federal law or I was told it was a federal law - I never looked the damn thing up - that said women could only work 54 hours a week. And I think that came out of that old fire in New York when all of the women fell out of the sewing factory. But women could only work 54 hours a week. Well, what that meant at The Houston Post was that I could only be paid for 54 hours a week but oh boy, could I work more than 54 hours a week! And, you know, they'd tell me that it would work out because I could just keep turning in 54 hours a week and catch up. It never did catch up.
I had worked on city desk and then I went and helped build the bill. They were trying to expand Sound Off, the letters to the editor column which is where he wrote answers to a bigger thing. The only thing that resulted in was that they sent me to Dallas to cover the first Beatles tour. I am the only person you know who has talked to all the Beatles and shaken their hands and done the whole thing.
DG: What were the Beatles like?
JE: They were nice kids. I didn't think they were kids. I thought they were nice young men. I thought they were cool. They had a press conference, you know, a little conference before they did their concert. They were very nice and there were a lot of little girls in that room that they were nice to. They were representing their school papers and stuff. That concert was something else. That was the time that I made one of the most unfortunate remarks in my life. I don't remember the name of the hotel where they were staying but it was a reasonably suburban, I am sure luxury, Four Seasons-type place, and the police just virtually had it surrounded. I went by to see it and somebody referred me to the captain or general or whatever he was, you know, who was in charge of the protection then. This would have been probably early 1964 or some time in 1964. I am not sure when it was but let's say it was 1964, mid 1964. And I went up . . . the police literally had the thing surrounded. The captain in charge was kind of kneeling down looking across the horizon like he was waiting for the Indians to come or something. That was the impression that struck you. So, I had kneeled down with him, you know, ________ and I said, with the tact I have always displayed, "Wow, I'll bet you've got as many people here or more people than you'd have for the president." I mean, Dallas, Texas. It hasn't been one year since John Kennedy was assassinated there. That guy showed admirable restraint. He didn't deck me or anything, he just kind of stared me down. So then, I went to cover it. Afterwards, I was calling it in and in those days, and it was one of the fun things about the newspaper . . . and, you know, I am dictating off the top of my head . . . somebody is on the other end and you are just talking. The police were trying to clear the hall so they could get the Beatles out safely. And, you know, am I paying attention during the event? I am talking on the phone and I just was finishing up when I looked down and my feet weren't on the floor. Two big policemen had come up and each one had reached under the arm and they just lifted me up and I am going out. I am saying, "I will have to call you later!" There was a guy from the Fort Worth Star telegram there who reported that Jane Ely had been thrown out of the Beatles concert. My mother was not real thrilled that all her friends had read this in the Fort Worth paper.
So, I worked for 54 hours a week. Two things that show the deal with women: The Post had started a neighborhood section and they started out with the Pasadena Post as a trial thing. And then, they developed it into sections called Close Up. And it ran with the same premise as the paper in Omaha did, a lot of the stuff ran in all of the sections and then you had individual stuff that aimed at the neighborhoods where it went. Now, they had me working there. They named a man editor of it. He had been the editor of what we called The Boondocks which was, in essence, the suburban desk, and then was appointed an assistant managing editor and was still kind of juggling that a little bit, running the suburban desk until they could hire somebody. Meanwhile, I was doing it. I got neither the title nor the money. My daddy always told me he didn't care - don't worry about the title. You can't spend titles. But I didn't get the money either. I ran the whole operation while he was just admired greatly for being able to do 2 jobs. And so, we started that section and it was massive. It was kind of typical of the way the Post did a lot of stuff that just started off just massively. And we were hiring people - I hired everybody off the city desk on overtime. They were all getting time and a half to come produce stuff for this section. It was marvelous fun. I mean, we did stuff that just was unreal. I hadn't known anything about makeup or stuff and they gave me a wheel which is how you size pictures for it. I had more fun with that than ever. And I remember on one of the sections one time, we did a belly dancer. We thought that was appropriate for that part of town. I don't remember which one it was. I did an outline of her, you know, just a full page practical of a belly dancer. Mrs. Hobby said that she would not look at that section anymore. She just was not ecstatic about that but she was a good sport. And so, that is the case of where I knew . . . but what am I going to do? They say they've got this federal law. They can only pay me 14 hours a week overtime but I'll catch up with it. Well, after we had done this for a few months, you know . . . a lot of times, I would come in on Monday and not leave until Wednesday. So, if you are going to talk 54 hours a week, I'd done it. But they announced one time that Mrs. Hobby said no more overtime, so I got up and left and several others got up and left with me and we went across the street and drank beer until they called us back and said maybe they could work something out, you know.
When Kennedy was assassinated, we had all worked the night before because he had been in Houston, and showing you the difference in newspaper then than now, for example, I put out like 2 picture pages. My whole chore was to just fill 2 pages with pictures of the Kennedys and the Johnsons and, you know, the whole thing. A paper to have that kind of room these days is just, you know, wild.
The next day, the Post was going to kick the correct one that, you know, we needed a new dog pound, and so I got sent out to do the dog pound story and I went out and did that. For some reason, I decided to come by the paper before I went home and changed clothes because I had been riding around with the dog catcher. And I walk into the news room and one of the women from the women's department came by me and said Kennedy had just been shot. You know, I just kind of laughed and said, "Well, I figured it would happen in Dallas." I just envisioned a lancing flesh wound of the shoulder or something. I walked on into the newsroom and in those days, you had wire machines where the stuff came in. They had bells that they rang to indicate the significance of what they were doing. I think 8 was the most. And, I mean, the bells were just going crazy. The fact that you could hear them out in the newsroom was remarkable. That was when they knew he was dead. Bill Hobby came in and he came up to me and he said, "We are going to go extra. Will you do it? Will you take care of it?" Well, what he meant was call Ted Welty who was the news editor and all these people and get them in in the daytime because we were a morning paper and a lot of people weren't there. I went to work . . . and there were very few people there because it was the day after, everybody had worked _______ and we were a morning paper and a lot of people hadn't come to work yet, period. And so, I called and made arrangements to get one or two guys on a plane. They agreed to hold it for them until they could get there. This was how phenomenal it was. They were actually going to hold a commercial airliner until they could get there. And then, we actually rented a plane, I think, and sent some up. And, of course, I wanted to go, as any newspaper would. I really wanted to go. They finally said, well, O.K., maybe I could but I had to find out whether Mrs. Kennedy was going to still be there or not. When Mrs. Kennedy left, I couldn't go because I was a girl. As it happened, it is a longer story than worth telling here but we had several male reporters in Dallas and we were getting ready to bring most of them back - they were going to come back on Sunday. The plane had already left with the president and there was a police story going on with Lee Oswald but, you know, it was over with kind of, we thought, except for the funeral and everything. And so, when they found out that the police department had announced that they were going to move Lee Oswald at 10 a.m. on Sunday, the city editor told me to call the guys in Dallas and tell them to stay because Oswald was going to be shot, you know, or they are going to try to shoot him. I mean, it was just so incredible that they would announce, "We are going to move the accused assassin of the president of the United States at 10 a.m. on Sunday." All you guys who want to skip church and get your guns and come on down. And so, I called them and told them to stay. Not one of them was at the police station when it happened. They had worked it out in their heads that it was going to happen around the courthouse and they were all at the courthouse. And I pointed out that if I had been there, I would have been the one at the police station. And so, we used it as a great . . . every time you screwed up at the Post after that, you could always say, "I was covering the courthouse."
DG: Were there other rites of passage for the newspaper people to be in the business, to take on the important roles to move up in the paper?
JE: Sure, and the key one in my era was you had to have covered police. It is like initiation at a college fraternity - your A&M or something like that. I won't equate it with hazing but you had to have covered police because that was your testing ground and if you didn't pass that test, then you weren't going to be a newspaper man. So, I wanted to cover police. Already, you know, they were pushing it because I was working nights some. Women didn't work nights. Women didn't work. And women certainly didn't make as much money as men because men might have to support a family. Even single men needed more money because some day, they might support a family. So, I wanted to cover police. There was one guy at the Houston Post and I think at that time, he was actually managing editor but he told me it would be a cold day in hell before a woman ever covered police for the Houston Post. And do you know what? I hope he is freezing his tail off right now. And the way I got it was I was supposed to be on vacation, and this shows you the difference in newspapering then and newspapering now . . . there were 2 or 3 times that I got called back from vacation and this was one of those times where the guy wanted to do something - I don't remember what it was and how it was but he told me that if I would come back and work, he would do everything he could to get me on police. I said I'd do it. So, I finally made it. They sent me down to the police station and I was to work Saturday and Sunday days -- I guess I worked 2 days and 3 nights, and I think maybe it was Saturday and Sunday days and then Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday night and I had Thursday and Friday off. Yes, that was it, I think. Anyway, I worked 2 days and 3 nights. If it was a culture shock for the Houston Post to have a woman covering police, can you imagine what it was for the police to have a woman covering police?
The Houston Press had had a couple of women - Marge Crumbaker and Marie Duplay who would occasionally go over and do the big holcombe story of stuff, but in terms of just regularly covering police, they just simply hadn't had a woman. It went from the extreme of just gross hostility to wanting to protect the little lady. There was a guy named Jack Weeks who had been at the police station for one million years for the Chronicle and Jack a couple of times just flat had to run interference for me. I mean, I wasn't going to get it. You can only beat your head against the wall so long. There were guys who just thought that nice ladies couldn't know about stuff like this, you know. My first coverage of a murder, you know, when I went out and the body was there, I thought, oh God, I was so scared but I couldn't be scared. I had to go be . . . and I passed that test.
DG: Jane, what made you want to do it? Were you ambitious in the sense that you wanted to climb the ladder at the job? Was it the fact that people hadn't done it before? Was it the fact that people told you you couldn't?
JE: Probably part of it was people told me I couldn't but yes, I wanted to do the job. I am so fantastically lucky. I got out of college and I didn't know what I wanted to do and I didn't know how I was going to do it if I had known what it was. And I fell into something that I loved. Oh, it was fun. I mean, it was so much fun. Obviously, nobody was doing it for the money. I mean, it was just criminal how they weren't doing it for the money. And you weren't doing it for the good hours. I remember they always called when they shouldn't have. I tried to play bridge when I first came and, you know, you can only walk out of a bridge game a couple of times. So, that part of my life was over. I remember I had a date and we were going to the symphony and I couldn't get off. And here is this guy who had bought the tickets and I am saying, "Go and I'll come. I'll get there as soon as I can." That doesn't work. But gosh, it was fun. The fact that you cared and that I can tell you, to this day, that I remember that first page 1 byline - boy that was big time. You just don't know what a kick that was! And then, I just liked it. I don't think I'd be immodest to tell you - I could write it. I was a pretty good writer. I could do it pretty well and I did a lot. And the fact was, I have a very short attention span and in the daily newspaper business, you don't have to have a long attention span, at least in those days. I mean, hey, you did it and it was done, you know. Like when I was on police, the night city editor would call me and say, "We need a cheap story for the five star." We put out 5 editions a night in those days. Actually, just 4. We didn't do much one star. We didn't have television on 24 hours a day. The internet had never been heard of. Hell, the internet hadn't been invented. So, people got their information.
One of the significant turning points, but it took a long time for it to really soak in was when John Kennedy was assassinated, my initial reaction was I want to read a newspaper, I want to find out what happened, and that is when television came into its own. They stayed on just constantly from the moment of the assassination through the funeral and that was when television really came into its own but it took them a long time to really go from there. Newspapering was where it was. It was where it was happening. And when you think of all the things I got to do because I was in the newspaper business, I mean, it was fabulous. It was fun. And when I wound up a political writer, I mean, hell, I didn't want to be a political writer. They were trying to get me to go on beats and I didn't want to. I liked general assignment and I liked rewrite. I liked doing it and it is over. I was a pretty good writer or, at least, a pretty good newspaper writer, and I was also pretty good at finding the angle or the lead or something that would work. The Houston Post used to have a little contest, an in-house contest, where they would give prizes if you won the in-house contest which was once a week or once a month - I don't remember what. They started out giving tickets to the baseball game, you know, stuff that they had free that they were passing on. And then they finally did get up to where I think you got $25 if you won the big one. And there was a guy there who . . . nobody wanted to enter it - I mean, I never entered anything . . . but there was one guy who did and he kept entering and we kept winning and he would enter stuff that I had rewritten, so he had to split it with me. He had to split the $25. I finally said, "Why don't you just enter something you did alone? I'll bet you could win." He finally stopped entering. I felt bad about that, you know. But I was always pretty good at finding leads, for example. I told you that when I was in high school, I had papers on all the bulletin boards. A lot of times, I had several leads in the paper because I could come up with them. But gosh, the things that I did.
Houston is absolutely the best news town in the world, in America.
DG: Why is that?
JE: First of all, it had Houston city politics, it had Harris County politics, it had Texas politics, it had the Medical Center, the Space Program. Texas was one of the most progressive states for women's rights. For God's sake, it built a domed stadium. Now, you can't know what this is like because all your life and in all of the lives of most of the people in Houston, that is old stuff. I came to town while they were in the midst of voting the money for it. I had just left a city where they wouldn't put in sewers. They had raw sewage and they wouldn't spend the money. And these idiots, these wonderful idiots were building a domed stadium. How could you not love Houston? It was just . . .
DG: Tell me how Houston went from being a multiple paper town to being a one paper town and how you ended up at that one paper.
JE: That is survival. The Press folded not too long after I came to town. I think that it was a case of it was an afternoon paper and it was always the small paper. They used to send little boys around, cute little boys, you know, just 2 or 3 feet tall, and if you would just subscribe to the Press, they'd get one dollar. And so, you subscribed to the Press and they'd throw it for a week or two and then it fell through the cracks. I mean, it was a Scripps Howard paper and they, I think, just couldn't get it together to . . . Houston is a town that you had to have home delivery. You didn't do a heck of a lot of newsstand sales although there actually used to be guys in downtown Houston hawking the papers and the Post early edition came about about - I don't remember - 9, 10 o'clock, 8 o'clock, 10 o'clock - and movies, there were 2 or 3 movies downtown and a lot of that stuff, and they would be out selling the paper. I think the Press just couldn't really keep up with this. I will say this: it was a hell of a party when it folded. That was one of the best nights ever. Of course, it was terrible but that made it a little more exciting. And so, then it came down to the Post and the Chronicle and the Post should have been the paper to survive because it is the morning papers that have survived. People were getting to that point when they came home in the afternoon, they wanted to watch the 5 o'clock news or the 6 o'clock news, and what was in their afternoon paper was already kind of old. So, it should have been the morning paper that survived. The Post let the Chronicle become a morning paper before its very eyes. And several things happened -- the Post had had all the news services show up and they let most of them go because they didn't want to pay for them and the Chronic snapped them up. The Post built that fabulous building out on the Southwest Freeway which was the architect's dream and a kind of weird place to put our paper but they looked good, you know. But after that, it just didn't much want to spend a whole lot of money. The Chronicle . . . Dick Johnson, I think, the publisher of the Chronicle was the one who came up with the idea of moving into daytime. They had always had kind of an early edition just as the Post did but their early edition came out about 8 o'clock in the morning or something like that, but it was strictly a street sale thing. And they just eased more and more into delivering a morning paper. And by the time the Post ultimately folded, they still had some afternoon papers, I believe, that they delivered. But they were already moving everybody over to morning paper. I mean, that was it. They went after it, they wanted it. They had always had the most classified advertising. A lot of people thought that it was because it originally was owned by Houston Endowment and it didn't have to make any money, and that they were just kind of giving that advertising away but still making a fortune because they had so much of it.
I remember when I first came to Houston which would have been in the late fall of 1962 - somewhere pretty soon after I came. They had a meeting, Mrs. Hobby had a meeting. She came in the newsroom and talked. That is the only time it ever happened while I worked there. I guess that was when maybe the Chronicle passed the Post in circulation. I don't remember. But anyway, she said we were really going to go after it. But did she mean we are really going to go after them if it didn't cost much money? That was it.
I think what happened is that the Hobbys came to the realization and it is probably presumptuous of me to tell you what the Hobbys did but it is commonly believed that the younger Hobbys came to the realization that if they wanted to spend the money to make it, then they probably need to sell it and they did. They sold me. The fact that it was bought by the Canadians who bought it kind of without any thought behind it tells you that it was already on the . . . and I had gone back and forth. The Chronicle would call me periodically and want me to go work for them. I wouldn't want to at the time and then I'd get mad decided I wanted to. So, I'd run into one of them and say, "Well, I want to come," and they'd say "Well, not now." We hade gone back and forth. And so, after the Hobbys sold it, I really wasn't having a lot of fun. And one of the reasons I wasn't was that all the years that I worked in this business, I didn't have much but my reputation and I had a good reputation. I was generally, I am proud to tell you, thought of as about as pure and objective as you could be, and I was honest. These people they just wanted stuff that I didn't want to deliver. And so, I asked to be taken off of politics. I just couldn't do it.
So, I started working at the state desk and it was kind of fun. It was like going back to the old days. I went all over Texas finding weird murders and stuff to write. It was really kind of a kick. So, I had bought a condo at the height of the market and then the bust came. I single-handedly was responsible for driving the prices of homes in Houston down to the cellars. My daddy was a mortgage banker for most of my life and I just didn't think you walked notes. Everybody in my condo unit did and then went out and got a loan to buy a much better one for a lot less money but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. But I had finally decided that I would walk the note if I couldn't pay it but I was going to go somewhere else. Well, I had had a few job offers over the years usually from people wanting me to work in political campaigns or something like that. I thought I would have to leave Houston and go to another paper, which I had kind of dabbled with occasionally. And so, as it happened, the Chronicle and I just hit at the same time. I was ready to go and actually, they found out because I went up to Dallas and was talking to the Dallas Morning News when they hired me. It was funny . . . I went over there one day when I was at the Post and I told the Post I was going - I mean, I wasn't sneaky - probably I didn't go in and say, "Hey, Mrs. Hobby, I am going over to the Chronicle," but I went over and the managing editor insisted that he wanted . . . what happened was that the executive editor told the managing editor to hire me and I was mad at the Post at the time and was thinking about it. And so, I went over real early in the morning and talked to him and there weren't any reporters there. There was one coming in when I went out and by the time I got to the Houston Post, I had calls from Washington and Los Angeles from people asking me if I was really going to work for the Chronicle. That is how news spreads in the business. Probably there is more news that is never reported and usually it is much more interesting news but it is never reported that you see. But that was how the Chronicle did it and so after the Canadians bought it, they realized that it looked great on the surface but there wasn't a whole lot there. And so, the Chronicle waited them out. I mean, it was kind of . . . and then they sold to Dean Singleton who, at that time, had a reputation for just going in and sucking it up and then killing them and going on, although he now is publishing papers that are still going. The Chronicle just kind of waited for it to die and then bought it.
It is strange, everywhere I go . . . when I went to the Chronicle, I had been a political writer for a long time which is an interesting story I contend in itself, and I had actually written a column at the Post that ran on Sundays on the op-ed page and it had opinion in it but it was pretty even-handed opinion. I mean, if I didn't like something the Democrats did, then I found something I didn't like the Republicans did, you know, that kind of thing. I was pretty even about it. And the Chronicle actually hired me to become the first local editorial page columnist that they had had, which I didn't think that much about it at the time but that really is pretty neat, I guess that, in essence, I was the first and only . . . I birthed it and I killed it, I guess! I don't know.
DG: So, you start out in Omaha writing fluffy feature pieces and then you come to Houston, the big city, and you start off on the church page. Then, you are covering murders and then into politics. Is that a natural progression?
JE: You'd better believe it had a lot in common! It just had an enormous amount in common, and it would make you believe that all those people who thought you needed to cover police were right because you had to show sometimes just remarkable ingenuity to try to get the story as a police reporter.
DG: That ability and even obligation to insert your personal viewpoint into a story, does that come naturally when you . . .
JE: Oh, God, it's the hardest thing to do that you possibly can imagine. It is just really tough. And so, when I went to the Chronicle, I asked to not start that right away. It was in 1988 and that was going to be a good election from the Houston standpoint because Bush 41 was running to be 41. So, I asked if I could cover national politics that first year and then do it. I didn't think that it was the most politic thing, if you will, to walk in to these peoples' newspaper from across town and start being the first local editorial page columnist they'd ever had. And they agreed that that probably was right and it was the way to do it. And so, Nene Foxhall had been the political writer and they promoted her to political editor because there was never any question that I was going to be in any competition with her and it was wonderful the first year because I quit the Post on Friday and I went to work at the Chronicle on Monday, and I was in Iowa on Tuesday.
DG: Have you ever had a vacation?
JE: Not really as many as . . . you know, most people, they switch jobs, they have a little downtime and everything to get used to it. In those days, we had really progressed. You've got to understand -- my first presidential campaign, Western Union traveled with the deal and they'd punch tapes in and send them all over. That was wonderful. You'd just rip it out and give them to Carmen and there you were. Then, we went through things like this, that it took 4 of you to try to carry the portable electronic thing. And so, we progressed to what we called trash 80s. They were Radio Shack Tandy little things. The computer guy handed me one of those and I said, "What do I do? How do you program it?" The Post had the most involved, complicated . . . you had a volume of book that you had to go through to punch in what you were going to do. And they said, well, just . . . and they wrote it in English. It was just fabulous. You turn it on, it said, "write your story." Then it said, "send your story." "Call up and hook this thing up and then punch send," and it happened. I thought it was so remarkable. I quit the Post on Friday and I went to work with the Chronicle. Actually, I went over Friday and I had lunch and they toured me, they showed me where some stuff was. And then, I wasn't back for 1 year. I just kind of came through every few weeks.
The Chronicle, they set me up . . . Nene and I had these 2 desks together and the only thing they could find for me was a lawn chair. And I sat in a lawn chair when I came back. Finally, Dick Johnson came by one day and said, "What are you sitting in?" I said, "I don't know. It's what they gave me." So, he made them find me another chair. When the Post folded, I asked if I could have my chair from the Post and they said I could but I never could find it. I actually went up there and looked for it.
It was just a fun time to be in the business. It is not fun anymore, it is really not. I don't think that that is just because I am old. It is just not the same business.
DG: I will be asking more about that, Jane. We have had a great conversation about the nature of the business. I want to talk about some of the stories that you covered and your role in them. Sort of quickly, if I could run through them. Anita Bryant came to Houston.
JE: That was a wonderful story!
DG: Ray Hill credits an article you wrote in the Post giving them the heads-up that she was coming which gave them time to organize and it was seen in retrospect as a nascent moment in the gay rights movement in Houston. Can you tell me about that story? Did you know when you wrote it that it would have the impact that it did?
JE: Of course I did and was it fun? Oh my, yes it was fun!
DG: How did you find out she was coming?
JE: Well, it was called being in the right bar at the right time. Yes, actually, I think I was. I don't want to blow my source and I don't think it would and probably none of those people are alive now but, you know, there was a young woman in the Bar Association . . . she was working, you know, a low-life little woman, as it always is . . . the little lady was helping out, you know, and she found out they were going to hire Anita Bryant. I said, "You are kidding?" "No." I mean, it was a great story because that was when she was Miss Orange Juice of Florida and so anti-gay and it was just going to be . . . so, I verified it and wrote it and it was one of those things that you wrote that while you are writing it, you know what is going to happen but I didn't do it. I just reported it. That is all I did. I just reported it. It really was a wondrous thing. I mean, they came from far and wide. I had a couple of friends in the Women's Movement. You've got to stand that I am responsible for doing away with the titles of women in the Houston Post. And then, I came to the Chronicle and got rid of them on the editorial page. That was kind of accidental but it really wasn't. I mean, you know, the Women's Movement, when it first started, I mean, you know, it was this joke about burning bras and stuff like that. I went up and covered the first women's political caucus organizational meeting when they organized for sure. They had started a little bit and they were really getting organized. And I had been on the road doing something and I had sinus _______, I just felt terrible. And I came back and I had written some stories up there, you know, while I was there, and I came back to write the story of the women who were elected officers and they were heavily Houston. Those women did not want titles used. They didn't want to be Mrs. and they didn't want to be Miss. So, I came back and wrote this little story about the election of the officers and I carefully wrote it so that if I had to make a second reference, I could refer to them just as "she," so we didn't have to deal with that. And the lovable but crazy old guy who was the city editor working that night, and I was actually supposed to relieve, which is the reason I had come back on Sunday, wanted to know what their titles were and I said, "I don't know. They wouldn't tell me." And there is vulgarism involved in this that I won't share with you but I said, "You know, you can only tell me to go do that to myself once and that is it." And this crazy man went, he looked in the city director -- they don't even make them anymore -- tried to figure out if they were married or not but clearly, he made it up because I knew what most of them were. I knew whether they were married or not. They ran it on the city page which is an entire page of city news which they sent over to the city just at that time to try to proofread some of, to double proofread it. He told me not to look at my story. Well, the first thing I did was look at my story. That was it. I mean, I went ballistic, of course, and went over to the news editor and said, "That crazy goof, he made them up. Take them out and I'll fight the fight." And I swore if I had to go to Mrs. Hobby, we were going to deal with this. And so, I went through Jim Crother who was the general manager, a lawyer, and we got them out. And the Post was one of the first papers in the country . . . the only restriction they had was if somebody specifically requested that if she wanted to Mrs. So and So, she could be. But one of my penances for this was I had to write so many obits for ladies who just . . . it was tough to call them Abercrombie, you know. And I got very skilled. That is one time where being able to kind of write and . . . I got very skilled at being able to not just repeatedly call those ladies by their last names alone. And, I am sorry, where were we?
DG: You are doing fine.
JE: You were asking me about stories, I think.
DG: Yes, I was going to ask you about some others. In one news account, you mentioned riding out a hurricane in a Volkswagen.
JE: Oh gosh, yes. I loved hurricanes. Oh gosh, they are more fun than anything in the world. I say that from the admittedly just horrible attitude of somebody who went through them in other people's towns. There was a hurricane coming in south Texas and, you understand, you chase it down the coast and everything, and I, once again, was called from a party on Sunday afternoon to go chase this hurricane. I had a brand new Oldsmobile Cutlass SX convertible. It was one of the hottest cars on the road. Oh gosh! You could cruise at 105, you know, it was just . . . brand new. I took my car and started down and when it started coming in, a big board came through the two windows on the side and, in doing so, I had glass all over my face. I mean, they were very minor and all that sort of thing but of course I had on the clothes that I had when I left Houston. They never let me know in time . . . I started carrying a toothbrush in my glove compartment. And so, I had to leave my car. I got in Bob Cargill's Volkswagen. We started down the road chasing it and it hit. And so, Cargill angled it kind of into it, you know, and it was . . . you couldn't see. I mean, it was just . . . Bob was worried because we realized at one point the tin . . . a big piece of tin had flown by, and he said that we had to get down in the car. He was a tall guy and he had kind of short legs. He was one of these tall torso guys. And me. I said, "How do you propose that we are going to both get down in the Volkswagen?" He decided we could take turns. I gave him my turn. I let Bob get down under the dashboard and I stayed up. And then, when we got in the eye of it, we looked up and there was one of those big grain elevators that are covered with tin that we were right in front of. All these pieces were the ones that were blowing fast. So, we went on in to town. I think we were on the south side of Sinton and during the eye, we went into town and I got out and I went into one motel. There was a woman in there, she had gotten under a mattress and the switchboard had fallen over on top of her. Bob would not get out of the car so I got the switchboard off of her and left her under the mattress. And then, we went on. And, you know, that hurricane picked me up and kind of sent me down the street. Bob just chased after me and we got in it. And then, we went through the rest of it that day. I don't recommend Volkswagens as the automobile of choice if you are going to go through a hurricane. I love them. They are really neat.
DG: Coming to Houston in the early 1960s, you witnessed the transformation of the city in terms of race relations. What were your personal recollections of the important moments in that struggle?
JE: Well, I kind of fell into that. They sent me to a press conference very soon after I came. A couple of black lawyers had called and there was a Ramada Inn on Allen Parkway - it later became the Allen Park Inn - and they had reserved the ballroom there for Martin Luther King to come make a speech. And the hotel canceled it. These two guys said that it was because they were black and that the Ramada Inn did it for that reason, and that no other hotel would rent to them. They had had a football watching party like the A&M/Texas game probably because that used to be on Thanksgiving. Anyway, they had torn the ballroom apart. And the Ramada Inn, of course, was really doubly upset about it because at that time, office Christmas parties were a real big deal and that was the reason that no other . . . all the other hotels were booked. Their ballrooms were booked for that sort of thing. So, the guy at the Ramada Inn said it didn't have anything to do . . . blacks had been staying there forever and it is not that. So, I came back and, like all good little reporters, I started calling other hotels and saying, "Why can't they come? Is it because they are black?" And they were saying, "No, it is because of Christmas." And they all were saying blacks have been staying at this hotel for a long time. So, I wrote my story and turned it in and they kind of go, oh . . . because the Houston news organizations had agreed not to cover the desegregation of Houston because other communities, they had a lot of news coverage and it just openly caused trouble. So, I wrote the story that said that the hotels were _______ and that was the reason that there wasn't a place for Dr. King to speak. They decided to just go ahead and run it, that it was such a fait accompli that it might be good to run it and do that. Their decision, I think, was probably the correct one, at least in terms of race relations. I am not sure it was the best one in terms of newspapering but it was the best one in terms of race relations. And so, I kind of got to just where I just realized there were just black events and things and as they unfolded, I did a lot of the coverage of them.
One of the things that I did was I cannot remember the holiday but it was one of those kinds of weird holidays where it is not really a holiday but it kind of is. And for some reason, we had a large city desk staff that night and a friend of mine called me and she was at a party at the home of a black couple she knew and they had a guest. The guest of honor was a man who was a witch doctor, who also was a graduate of Oxford but being a witch doctor was a big deal in his tribe and therefore, his country. I can't remember what it is because it was one of those countries that changed their name a lot. He was a really interesting man. And so, I sold the city editor to let me go to this party and the reason I did it was because I wanted to go to the party. I said, "I'll do this neat story on this witch doctor." So, he let me go because, I mean, he had a pretty big staff. And I got over there and the guy was really interesting. So, I did get the information for a story and I called for a photographer. The photographer came over _________ what you do? I asked the hostess to just sit down on the couch with him and then he took a picture of them talking. And so, I went back and I wrote up the story. I mean, you can't miss writing a story about a guy who is chief witch doctor and also a graduate of Oxford and in this country to go to the U.N. to do something. I mean, you know, it just had every angle. He was a real sharp guy and he gave me some good stuff and I wrote up a pretty interesting little story about it. We ran the picture on the front page and I said, "witch Doctor Oxford Dunn talks to his hostess, Mrs. So and So who entertained him in her home." Oh my gosh! I was told that that was the first time that a black social event had ever really been covered in a major paper, much less on page 1. The Post had to print extra copies. I got calls from as far away as Atlanta either congratulating me or threatening to kill me. There were still bigots in the town then and I am sure still are now. That is like the Ku Klux Klan in Houston was really more of a joke . . . I mean, it was awfully hard to take them seriously. They just did well in Houston to get 2 or 3 together and usually, they couldn't even find sheets to wear.
DG: I know of at least one other instance in which you had a gun pointed at you in pursuit of a story about race relations. Can you tell us that story?
JE: Yes. There was trouble in Sunnyside and I can't remember what exactly started it but I think it started at a gas station because I remember going there and dealing it. It was a neighborhood where non-blacks ran a lot of the businesses which, of course, was terribly difficult of stuff and one of the things that was a sticking point in the development of the race relations all across the country. A couple of young black men anyway got angry about something, you know, and they kind of tore the place up and as they tore that place up, then a mob assembled. They were confined actually in a pretty short span of a street, and I can't even remember the name of the street but it was the main street through Sunnyside. And there was some looting. They broke some windows and they chose their stores to break windows in ________ in fact, it was predominantly a young, predominantly a male crowd because they hit a couple of liquor stores and that is where they really were pulling the stuff out. At the time, this goes back to another point . . . the management of the Houston Post above me which was not very high -- you didn't have to be very important to be more important than I was -- decided that probably . . . and I think it may have come up because of another thing that I covered . . . that it would be better if they sent a man to protect me, that Mrs. Hobby would want that. People always did stupid stuff because Mrs. Hobby would want it and they never bothered to ask Mrs. Hobby what she'd want. So, they made me take this guy. He was a nice guy but this wasn't his kind of story. And I finally just took him back to the edge of the point where the police had this _________ surrounded and told him to go do something else. I don't remember what I made up for him to do. And then, I was going to go back in. And the cops said I couldn't go back in because I came out and I said that wasn't fair. I had to bring him out. They wouldn't let me go back in. At that time, the mayor, who was Louie Welch and he had -- I don't remember what his title was but Blair Justice was a Ph.D. sociologist type. He had written for the Post for a while and he was working for the mayor. They wanted Bill Lawson, the Reverend Bill Lawson to go. They always called the Reverend Bill Lawson to situations like that to see if he could counsel and be calm because Bill is a counselor who is very calm. And so, they were going to go in. The mayor's police officer, body guard, was driving and I just got in the car with him and said, "I believe I'll go with ya'll," and I dragged the photographer in after me and he said he wanted to come, too. It was one of those things, you know, where they just decided it would be easier to take us than to push us out of the car, so we went. We drove down and we got down to the end . . . as I say, I mean, you can tell what a wicked race riot it was . . . they confined it to just a few blocks. That is all it was. But they did do damage. I don't mean to say that. And we got down there and we turned around and there was a big crowd of people and there was this kind of funk. And I don't know if somebody threw something at the car or not. I mean, if they did, it was probably a beer can or something. I am sitting in the back seat over here on the right side and that guy drew a canon and slammed it back like this and it is right in my face. And you know how people tell you that it is a really big gun when you look at it? It is a humongous gun. And I really thought he was going to kill me. I thought he was going to fire. He was so agitated. And Bill Lawson said, "Oh now, Homer, take it easy. Take it easy." They finally got him to move the gun and not only start another race riot but kill me in the process. Actually, there was an incident on Dowling Street . . . I can't remember what that gang of kids called themselves. I don't know, the Black Berets or something like that. Anyway, I don't think they were really Black Berets. They had a little storefront on Dowling Street and they were stopping traffic. That was the main thing the cops were upset about and there was a shooting and the police shot at a young man. They were going to storm this storefront. And some way, the signals got mixed up and I was the first one in. But before that, I mean, there was a lot of gunfire. I mean, they were really shooting. And before I had gone out there, I had actually taken a key map and made copies of it and distributed it up and down the city desk, and we used two-way radios then. We didn't have cell phones. We had two-way radios. This guy who is getting to do rewrite for the first time, and to get to do rewrite at a paper was a big deal in those days. He thought it was really important. He wanted to know where I was. I told him I was 2 streets over from _________ and he wanted me to get out and read the street sign, and they are shooting at me. I had bullet holes in my car. And I am saying, "I'm not going to get out and read the street sign! No, look on the map. I left you a map." There were several occasions when I was a lot closer to gunfire than I wished I'd been or had the potential to be.
DG: Amazing! You won a lot of awards during your career. The Associated Press Managing Editors Excellence in Writing Award.
JE: Yes, that was the hurricane. The big hurricane in Biloxi, Mississippi was all up and down the east coast but a lot of the Katrina area although not New Orleans but in Mississippi. They collected . . . Houston is a wonderful town about giving stuff. I mean, you tell them there is a problem and there is an earthquake in Mexico City, there is a hurricane in Biloxi, Mississippi - they just come out in droves to give stuff. And a local trucker was having his people take a huge, one of those big semi truckloads of stuff over there, and I don't know exactly how it came about but anyway, I caught a ride with him. It was a real kick to ride one of those things. You ride along and you go through a small town and you are up on the second floor level. So, I rode this truck over there and, oh gosh, it was just a disaster. You had to line up to use the telephone. That is another story but anyway, I won for the story I wrote out of that story. The hurricane was called Camille and it was the last time the Houston Post ever used "she" and "her" to describe a hurricane and I was the one who wrote it. I wrote, "O Camille, that two-faced woman." And then, I called her "her" and "she." I heard so much stuff from my friends in the Women's Movement that I suggested to the Post that we don't ever do that again. It was the last time. Hurricanes became "it" after that.
DG: Did you ever miss one? Did you ever write a story and felt like you would have written it different when you found out later some things that you didn't know at the time? Ever had a story you wish you could take back?
JE: Well, you know, I don't remember one. And let me say that is because I was in the daily newspaper business and there were a lot of stories that I wished I'd had known of what was later learned but I didn't have any regret for the way I did it at the time. I know I just have just done some stuff that was awfully wrong but I don't really remember it. I am sure there were.
DG: You were on the editorial board of the Chronicle in 1989. What was that like? You have now gone from hard news to being paid to offer your opinions.
JE: It was very difficult. You spent your whole career trying really hard to be as fair and objective as you can and then, all of a sudden, it doesn't matter and it is tough. It is a tough adjustment. That was an instance of where I just frankly had never paid that much attention but the first column I wrote for that page, they said down at the bottom, "Ms. Ely is a Chronicle columnist," or something like that. Someone is __________. There were a couple of guys who were in charge of the editorial page and the op-ed page and they were what I think you could politely call Neanderthals in most matters.
DG: With all due respect.
JE: Yes, with all due respect. The guys I was working with at the time, I mean, they didn't quite know what to do with me, a woman, and also a loud mouth, kind of gregarious person because they were very quiet and staid. One of those old men really didn't speak to the other old man except that they were united on that. So anyway, these guys told me that we had editorial board meetings twice a week with management; by that, I mean, the publisher and the executive editor. The managing editor did not come because he did news. And I should put it on the agenda, my concern about this on the agenda. Well, the executive editor was not there but the publisher was and I had it on a little agenda that they wanted down and, of course, that wasn't what I should have done. I mean, they conned the heck out of me. But we worked. I mean, I told the publisher I thought that was awfully old and so he said, "O.K., we won't use titles on the editorial page anymore." Those two old men never forgave me but I was happy. At least I was Ely, not Ms. Ely.
DG: When you wrote a story, offered your opinion, you can't say anything without making somebody angry about it. How would you respond when people would write letters to the editor about you?
JE: Well, if they wrote letters to the editor, I didn't care, but it is the ones they sent me and the phone calls I would get. The worst thing that ever happened in terms of that was when George Bush 41 announced that he was going to put his library at A&M, I was of the personal opinion that I thought it should go in Houston. Of course, I thought it should go in Houston. He had a guy who was his first class premier volunteer and named Jack Steele and everybody loved Jack Steele. Now, a group of young Republicans are given the Steele award every year for people who have contributed the most. And so, I wrote a column about Bush choosing A&M and, I mean, of course, every Aggie joke that I could make up - I mean, I was making them up. And I had a lot of help. Alan Burnstein at the Chronicle helped me write Aggie jokes. Besides the mail, the volume of mail that came, the people who were trying to get the publisher to fire me, and to use a vulgarity, and I just will - the nicest letter I got said "eat shit and die." And it was written on a big chief tablet. The Aggies went berserk. I have a box somewhere in storage about like this that is filled with the mail I got for that column.
Another time . . . an example of the complaints you get and how there is always going to be somebody mad was one time, I had actually been out of the country -- you asked if I had ever been on a vacation, well I had. I was in Europe somewhere. And I came back. There is nothing worst than coming back and being a columnist and having somebody on your first day back in the country, and they say you've got to have a column. Gosh, I looked at the papers the last few days. Barbara Bush was speaking at The Houston Club and I thought, oh, O.K., I'll do it. And so, I went and Barbara gave one of her great Barbara speeches that just had them rolling in the house and loving her, you know. I wrote some sort of column about that. Well, 41 even called. I mean, I was embarrassed. That is the kind of thing you were embarrassed about. It just looked like paid advertising. I mean, it was just such a fluff piece on Barbara Bush but I just did not have anything else to do and so I was embarrassed and I wrote it and 41 even called me to tell me, "Well, you've finally written a half-way decent column, Ely. Good for you." And then, I get phone calls from people saying why did I attack Barbara Bush? You stupid newspaper people. You liberal red Commie creeps shouldn't be . . . how dare you even write Barbara Bush's name. This happened all the time - I mean, both sides are at you either way, and you just wish you could just splice the phones together and let them talk to one another instead of me.
DG: You met a lot of interesting people no doubt when you were on the editorial board and covering the story. Any personalities stick out in your mind when you look back on your career?
JE: Oh, sure. Actually, most politicians are nice people. They really are. And I like most of them. But yes, you remember the obvious ones. Certainly, President Bush 41 has been . . . the first time that I specifically remember covering him was at a press conference he had with Barbara Jordan. It was to get out the black vote. They wanted blacks to register and vote. And Barbara was kind of the token Democrat and he was kind of the token Republican. So, they had a press conference together. I knew Barbara a lot better than I knew him at that time. He has been a wonderful friend to me over the years. He would tell you that I have not always appreciated the friendship as much as I should have but he has been a good sport about it. I am crazy about him.
Barbara Jordan was . . . the first time I can remember knowing Barbara was in the basement of Gulfgate Shopping Center. She was speaking to a Girl Scout group and as I recall, so was I. Can you imagine following Barbara Jordan?
DG: I wouldn't do it.
JE: Well, you know, I guess I have at least had one conversation with every president of the United States for the last 30 years.
DG: Who is your favorite?
JE: I will tell you that I didn't have a favorite politically. Personally, I have always liked 41. I would have to say, probably for obvious reasons, Richard Nixon was my least favorite because I didn't admire the way he ended it. It was a lot of fun. The first presidential campaign that I covered full-time was the McGovern-Nixon 1972 one. I was with McGovern. That was also, I think, the last just totally drunken . . . it's a phenomenal thing that that thing was covered at all. It was a fun campaign. That is probably one of the things that aged me the most. I am sure not young enough to do a campaign like that again. I did, in 1972, which was the turning point in the Democratic party in the states. It was right after Sharpstown which was the banking scandal that upset the political plans of a whole bunch of folk. I think I was with Ben Barnes when he realized that he was going to lose. I think it just really hit him. And, I mean, you know, he was the anointed one. It was supposed to happen. He did a train trip that started in Amarillo and came all the way down through and went to Galveston. It was supposed to come back up to Houston, this great rally. Number one, I missed the train out of Brownwood which is such a terrible thing to have happen to a newspaper reporter, to miss the train out of Brownwood. I finally caught up with it. And then, when we came back, some kids it later turned out had been smoking under a trestle and do you know that tar stuff that they put on things around railroads? It caught fire. The Railroad Inspectors of America or whatever it was, wouldn't let Ben Barnes' campaign train cross the trestle. And so, he had to take a helicopter in. And, once again, I got into a machine with people just by volunteering. I got in and said, "I gotta go, man. You are going to my town and I am not going to be there to cover it?" So, Ben and I rode the helicopter into Houston. And the crowd had pretty much gone but he gave this little speech anyway. Nobody covered it. Everybody was covering the fire under the trestle that had stopped the campaign train. He was a colorful character. John Connally was a . . . I am sure I have known boring politicians. I am sure I have.
I will say that Jimmy Carter was not a lot of fun but he was O.K. He was a nice guy. A terrible president but a nice guy. He is an interesting guy. Let me divert just enough to say this: He was the one that showed the big mess we are in now because of the political party thing that people are having so much trouble with, because Carter was also one of the ones who helped grow up new rules for the Democratic party and he put even more emphasis on primaries than those who had gone before him. Jimmie Carter got elected president of the United States without the Democratic party. He was a Democratic nominee but the party did not have anything to do with choosing him or electing him. And he went into office and did it only through his PR men and his pollster and his ad man maybe. That is one of the reasons he was a bad president. He was not accountable . . . you can say he was accountable to the American people but there weren't any people there to hold his feet to the fryer and have him do the things that he should have done. He was the first real downfall of partisan politics in this country. I insist on that.
DG: How about mayors?
JE: Well, Louie Welch, of course, was just a man unto himself. Louie Welch paid a friend of mine the highest compliment that I have ever heard of a newspaper person. Her name is Ellen Middlebrook. She goes by Ellen Sakash now but she wrote under her maiden name, Ellen Middlebrook. Ellen is a lovely, lovely lady. Just everything I wasn't. Ellen was just a lovely lady. One day, he said of her, "She's got bile in her heart and vinegar in her veins." Can you think of a finer thing to say about somebody in the newspaper business? I have been jealous of it always. But she was the one where one time, a little kid came over to the police station and he had been at a press conference where Ellen was and he said, "That woman, the Post should not have her out. She does not catch on to anything. It was obvious the mayor did not want to answer it. He even told her he did not and she just kept asking the same question over and over."
When you break a story, that is just enormous fun. Fred Hofheinz decided not to run again, he was a 2 term mayor. He followed Welch and was the first step in changing Houston politics a lot. When Fred decided that he was going to not seek reelection, and the Chronicle had really been after him and did some . . . over the years, the Chronicle was . . . the Chronicle was a very political newspaper and unfortunately for the paper in those days, they did do a lot of their personal politicking in their news columns. They were after Fred. They did not like him. And it just happened that I ran across a letter left on the Xerox machine announcing that he was not going to run again. And, you know, you just love it when you can write that story. And the poor Chronicle was just there. That is fun. I mean, that is really a lot of fun. When Kathy Whitmire was getting ready to run, everybody knew Kathy was going to run for mayor, or at least anybody who knew anything about politics knew that Kathy was going to run for mayor. So, I went to her and said, "I want to cut a deal with you. When you decide when you are going to announce, I want to write a story beforehand that flatly says you are going to do it. I don't want a source that said story, I just want to write it and say you are going to do it." It took I don't know what to get her to agree to that. It took Jerry Woods and Clendine Cash who were 2 of her closest advisors to say . . . I said, "Kathy, you can't miss. You will get terrific play. The Post is going to banner that story." I made that up but they did. And everybody will follow that. And then, when you announce, everybody will be there. You will get it twice. I finally talked her into it. She was also a new phenomenon, you know. She had a strange relationship with the press. We went back and forth, good and bad, that sort of thing.
I loved Jim McConn. He probably wasn't the best mayor in the world but he was a nice, nice guy, and he wasn't that terrible. I guess what it comes down to is I really did like most all of them. Tom Delay would tell you I didn't like him and I did not like anything about his political style but he is O.K. if you are just in a bar with him.
DG: Besides you, who are some of the good writers you worked with at the Post and the Chronicle?
JE: Oh, well, the first obvious thing that is going to come to any Post person's mind is Harold Scarlett. Scarlett was one of those people - great taciturn, kind of rough, little curmudgeonly. Wrote like a dream. And he could do it off the top of his head. I have taken Scarlett on dictation where it has just happened, you know, and he is just reeling it off and it is just lyrical, it is just lyrical. The very fact that I can remember a lead or two that he wrote, I mean, is an indication of the phenomenon he was. And he went to Antarctica. The Post used to send . . . there used to be a junket, some kind of free junket, where they would take reporters to Antarctica and nobody ever wanted to go after Harold Scarlett went and wrote, "at first glance from the plane door, it looked like hell frozen over." A fabulous lead. Fabulous.
I will tell you one of the best writers in Houston right now is Claudia Feldman at the Chronicle. She writes in the Features section. She is a good writer, a good writer. There have been a lot of them. I mean, there have been a million . . . old Marge Krum baker, especially during her days. She was an old Houston Press reporter. She could do that holcombe stuff like you wouldn't believe. She was really good. But there are tons of people who are good.
DG: Is there a novel in you waiting to get out? Did you ever want to write anything other than journalism, other than newspaper stuff?
JE: No, not really. I'd think about it, you know, but that probably requires more creativity than I have, which is strange to say when you think about how creative I have been about some of the stuff I have written for the paper but no. Sometimes I think I will write a book about politics and things that have happened over the years but I do not really think anybody but me and about 4 others would be interested in it, and I certainly do not have one of those ___________ because of the Indians in south Pearland or something, you know. That is one thing - most of the stuff I wrote, and it used to bother my competition, if you will because I really did think that mostly what you should do is just write what the guy said. And if you have to say, 'as he said in the feed lots of west Texas, in the piney woods of east Texas,' he said the same thing - really, that is saying something. And I never was into esoterica like what the numeral vote from 4 years before or 40 years before was. That required more effort than I was prepared to give and because I did not think most people were interested in it.
DG: You've got enough years in the business to look back with some perspective. You made some references earlier that the business has changed, that the newspaper business has changed, and it sounded like not necessarily for the better. How has the newspaper business changed from the time that you got into it?
JE: Well, when I first got in the newspaper business, and I got in on the end of the cycle, the newspaper business was in the news business -- what you read in the newspaper was news. I used to tell people early in my time on the political beat that I actually was pretty influential and it didn't make any difference if only 3 people read me. I knew that they did, and they were the news directors at the 3 main television stations in Houston. Television used to follow newspapers. What you see a lot of today is newspapers following television. And that, in itself, is a fantastic change. Newspaper circulations are going down. People don't read newspapers like they used to and a lot of people, if they read it, they read it online. You pick up the Houston Chronicle today and half its front page may be telling you what blog to read to find out more about something. They are definitely going on the internet. I read newspapers on the internet every day. I look at the New York Times, the Washington Post, usually the Boston Globe and sometimes the LA Times. Do I still like to hold a newspaper in my hand and wad it up and read it? You bet I do. Also, the newspaper business is not even really terribly interesting anymore in the workup kind of story that could be a real news blockbuster-type thing. They are trying to appeal to readers that, in my view, they are never going to get and that is young readers. They ought to be writing for people who want to read newspapers. To me, that is their only salvation because if they wrote really good stuff, then some young people would read them. And then, they would be the old people that they say are the only ones who read them now. It is just that newspapers do not know what they want to be or how to be it. And so, I am like everybody else. I, of course, have great theories on it. But I really do think their mistake is that they have stopped being newspapers and they are trying to beat Entertainment Tonight. And they are never going to beat Entertainment Tonight because Entertainment Tonight goes on and it is happening then. You can't print a paper. And, you know, more and more, they are reporting for the internet. And that probably will be their salvation. Actually, do you know you can do a crossword puzzle on the internet? I hate to say it but I do them.
DG: It has been that way for a while. You started in the business when Houston was at least a 3 paper town except for the small neighborhood, Bellaire Buzz kind of thing. What responsibilities does a newspaper have when you are the only game in town? It might be different when there is competition but do you have more of a sense when you come to work that you have to sort of act as if there is competition there?
JE: Sure you do. I mean, when the Press went out of business, I was young enough that I didn't know a whole lot but I do know that if you worked for the Houston Post and you went to, say, a press conference at 10 o'clock, something like that, you did everything you could think of to drag that sucker out, to keep the Press and the Chronicle from meeting their deadlines. You asked questions about the most esoteric stuff you can possibly imagine and then you didn't understand them and you wanted them to explain it to you again. Anything you could do to make them bust their deadline. After that, and it was just kind of the Post and the Chronicle, you pretty much just took it on what was your time but you still really wanted to be there first. There was competition. Even if you were dealing with your friends, you were competitive. For example, the Hofheinz story, I loved that. Of course I loved it. But when you are the only paper, you feel this obligation, or at least we certainly started out that way after the Post folded at the Chronicle . . . I had gone to work at the Chronicle before the Post folded . . . I mean, you just felt this sense of you had to be better than you had ever been before and you had to cover every story from every angle that you could think of. And I think the Chronicle did a really good job of it initially. And now, I think it is a question of newspapers all over the country are trying to figure out if there is a place for them and what it is. And one thing -- newspapers have always been great money makers. They are just not going to be able to make that kind of money anymore and that makes a difference to the people who own them.
Also, you don't have the locally owned papers. When I came here, the Hobby family owned the Post and Houston Endowment owned the Chronicle, and Houston Endowment was very much a Houston thing. I mean, it was Jesse Jones' foundation. Jesse Jones was one of the most important people in Houston's history. He was before my time but he was still very much a factor in Houston. And the Hobbys were tremendously important in Houston. Not just because of their newspapers but because of their involvement and what they did. Mrs. Hobby was the only woman in that old suite . . . I never can remember the number but the Lamar Hotel suite where the movers and shakers went. Houston initially was pretty much a lawyer's . . . lawyers kind of ran Houston, which is not unusual but it was a different kind of lawyer. The lawyers and the banks and the newspapers, they were all tied up together long past the time that they should have been for the size of this city. But they ran a pretty good place. They ran a pretty good place.
DG: With the growth of the internet and especially as it is becoming relied on more and more as a source of news, it brings to mind a distinction that I have read that the media is in the news business but they are also in the truth business. The problem with the internet is that there is no vetting of the source.
JE: Oh, God, it's a nightmare! It is just a nightmare.
DG: So, to quote NBC Nightly News or to quote the Houston Chronicle is not the same as to quote a blog or an online source or whatever. For somebody who takes a certain amount of pride in the integrity of what you wrote, what do we have to look forward to at a time when . . . it seems almost as if the newspapers are giving up and saying, we'll move our operations online, too. But in a sense, are they sort of playing in a field in which their greatest attribute which is the fact that it is vetted truth to a certain extent is diluted because of the company they keep?
JE: Yes, I think so and I think that it is just a terrible trend. And I hope that they can hold. I really hope that they can hold. I would like to tell you that I believe and I certainly hope that you could go back and look at everything I ever wrote and say, she tried to be fair and she certainly tried to be accurate. And not long ago, I was with a friend of mine and he was on his Blackberry or whatever kind of machine . . . I don't know if I should say a product because I don't really know what it was but he was checking a story that somebody had written. He is an editor. He was reading it there so that he could try to be sure that it was accurate and it was O.K. and it wasn't libelous.
Newspapers used to, and I think still do as much as they can . . . I mean, they really push and take pride in getting it right. The worst thing that can happen to you is to have to write a correction. Oh God, you just hate that! And I am proud to say that I did not have to write very many. At one time, I thought I was terribly lacking because I had never been sued for libel. And then, I decided that I was really glad that I had never been sued for libel because that was as much a part of it . . . you really thought you were doing a public service, and I really believed in the people's right to know. I mean, it is kind of embarrassing to admit that sort of thing because you are supposed to be a lot more cynical than that but gee whiz, that is why you did it. I think that some of that has been lost and the sense that there is not that same identity, has been lost. People work for newspapers now, you know, and hell, they belong to civic clubs. We didn't belong to anything. I mean, the only thing you could possibly belong to was the Press Club and all it did was drank. Every once in a while, they would try to hold to something worthwhile. And actually, it did do one great thing and I've got a great picture of it - just another sidetrack . . . when John Tower and Bob Kruger were running against one another, the Press Club and Channel 8 were holding a luncheon here where the two were to be. Things were getting really bitter between those 2 guys. The thing that . . . I got the Post photographer, you know, and I said, "We've got to be there from the very beginning. We've got to check and see," because the whole thing here is whether or not they shake hands. I just beat it through his head. From the minute they look like they are going to be together, we've got to be there because it is whether or not they shake hands. And he got a wonderful picture. It was a 2-shot thing of John Tower. Kruger had his hand down and Tower just sneering would not shake his hand. It was a great picture, a great picture. John Tower was a great man. His politics -- whether you liked his politics or not, he was a funny, good guy and I really got a kick out of him. He was a wit. He was just a true wit. He was always quoting the Bible. One time, I actually looked it up. But he could make it sound good.
DG: Say it with conviction. As a daily newspaper reporter, in a sense, you kept score every day on how our city was doing in the things that mattered. How is our city doing in the things that matter? Does this city have a spirit that is unique to it and how would you describe the way that the city has been able to live through the adversity it faced, particularly in your role of having, like I say, seeing it every day, in a sense . . . at the end of the day when it is a wrap for the newspaper in a sense, you can look back and see how we did. How are we doing?
JE: Doing fine. Probably not quite as much fun and panache as we once did but that's all right because we are getting older. But you've got to remember: this is a town where I came and they were building the Dome. That is going to be the kind of place it always has been. I mean, this town is a wonderful spirit, a wonderful spirit. Houston is a can and will do city. Like I say, it will take up a collection for just anything in the world - just name it and they will respond. I mean, they will come by the truckloads to make contributions and do stuff. Houston has never known anything that it didn't think it could do. I will cite you just the very fact that despite all good sense and probably good economics, it has built the most whiz bang baseball stadium, football stadium and basketball arena that you can have because that is just what Houston does. It just keeps growing and blowing and it is a fun place to do it, because if you can do it, Houston is ready to let you do it. You don't have to go through a hierarchy that you have to consult and gets it approval. If you want to do it in Houston, do it.
DG: I have one more question for you. Before I ask it, is there anything that I wasn't smart enough to ask you that you wished I had asked you? Anything that is important for future generations to know about you, about the career you have had, about the people you have worked with?
JE: Oh, I don't know - I think we have done way more on me than we ever should have. I should have been talking about Houston more. But, in a way, I am a product, I am representative of Houston. I mean, good grief, I came here a girl's school graduate? You won't believe this but I wore silk dresses and high heels and the whole thing. The last time I wore a pair of heels to work was when I ran out of the dispatcher's office at the Houston Police Station and fell down 3 flights of stairs! I said, "I am not wearing those heel things anymore." I used to carry a pair in case I went someplace where Mrs. Hobby was going to be. I might try to wear them, you know. But the fact that Houston will take somebody . . . women weren't supposed to do that and I did. Just the progress that has been made in that respect. I mean, more women work in the business now than men, I think. I am old but that is really in a pretty quick time that it happened. It is because Houston is that kind of place. If you think you can do it, give it a go and you probably can. It is still the best news town in the world. It's got the Space Program. It's got the Medical Center. It's got politics. It's got the police department. The police department is not the same as it was when Herman Sharp was running it. It is just a great news town.
DG: You have had a long career reporting the news. As a pioneer, as the woman in a man's business, you have made the news. We started early in the interview with you telling me that you had a teacher at school that used to deliberately give you low grades to help you achieve your potential so let me ask you as a final question: have you achieved your potential?
JE: I don't know if I have achieved my potential but gee, I had a great time trying! I can say I was just so fantastically lucky that I found something that I just liked that much. I don't think I realized for forever and I am still not sure I realize that there are people who do jobs that they don't like. I mean, I can't conceive of having to go to work and hating it. I think Houston and I were meant for one another and I think it is because I think Houston is a fun town and I had so much fun doing it with Houston. I recommend it.
DG: Thank you, Jane.
JE: Thank you.