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Interview with: Leon Hale
Interviewed by: Gabrielle Hale
Date: November 29, 2007
GH: It is November 29, 2007. We are interviewing Leon Hale for the Houston Oral History Project. I am Babette Hale, Gabrielle Hale, and we are interviewing Mr. Hale in my office. I am his wife. Mr. Hale is a long-time newspaper columnist and author, and has won numerous awards that he will not talk about. We can get started, I believe. How old are you?
LH: 86 and counting.
GH: And you have been in Houston since when?
LH: The fall of 1947.
GH: And you have been employed by a Houston newspaper all that time, right?
LH: Well, no, not all that time. I quit for a little while and went to work for an oil company until I found out that that was not where I belonged.
GH: How long did you stay at the oil company?
LH: Oh, that is easy for me: 2 years, 10 months, 3 weeks and 4 days.
GH: So, except for that, you have been a newspaper columnist in Houston ever since 1947?
LH: That is correct. Not making any progress, whatever.
GH: That gives you a kind of unique perspective. I have got several categories here to talk about. I want to start with kind of the changes in Houston. One thing that has always interested me is this comment that I had heard, that the intersection of Main and Texas Avenue is the heart of Houston – you would have to say the heart of downtown.
LH: Yes, downtown.
GH: Downtown Houston. Can you describe how it looked the first time you saw it?
LH: Yes, actually it was in the year before I came to work down here. The first time I ever saw downtown Houston was in 1946. I thought that it was just about the most exciting and citified intersection that I had ever seen anywhere. I had not been very many places. Well, it was noisy and crowded and people walking fast like they had someplace to go that was terribly important. And, of course, a big tangle of traffic. Street cars still in 1946. City busses. And the main thing that I remember now is that they still had news men hawking papers on the street, shouting out headlines and selling papers for a nickel. I think it was the center of downtown Houston at that time. It seemed to me that as the years went . . . well, when the Rice Hotel closed, I think it seemed to me the center of town sort of migrated south towards Foleys maybe up close to the Lamar Hotel which is gone now, I am sorry to say.
GH: Texas Commerce and The Houston Club were down there.
LH: Yes. But now, I do not know, since the Rice was saved and has come back to life sort of and people live in it anyway . . . I know the center seemed to me, so I was trying to go east now. Well, isn’t that true, towards Reliant Stadium . . . not Reliant Stadium, towards Minute Maid Park . . .
GH: George Brown Convention Center.
LH: That is right. The George R. Brown. But I do not know, Main and Texas may still be part of it now, but it was an exciting place to be.
GH: Were the men wearing hats still?
LH: I believe so. A lot of the women were. Women getting out of offices going to lunch. I have pictures of them on the streets with big hats on.
GH: It has changed. Can you find one word that describes the Houston you first saw compared to the Houston we have today?
LH: No. One word?
GH: Well, one characteristic.
LH: I am not very good at reducing complex situations to one word. Say the question again.
GH: O.K. Can you find one word that describes the Houston you first saw compared to the Houston we have today? It can be a characteristic.
LH: Oh, yes, well, Houston, in 1946 and 1947, it was this great big old country town. Hubert Mewhinney on The Post used to call it the “whiskey and trombone town” – just kind of a rowdy place and it was. It seemed like a terribly big and important city to me at that time. And the difference now is what we have here, you know, the 4th largest city in the country, metropolitan place. That is the main difference to me.
GH: I think I was thinking in terms both of traffic and the fact that all those people walking around downtown with hats on there were probably white and they would not be today.
LH: Well, that is for sure. If I had to call Houston by one word, I would call it variegated or whatever . . .
LH: Well, multicultural for sure. That, to me, as far as the people, has been . . . ______ a lot more of them but the ethnic variety has increased terribly and that, to me, is . . . I do not know, it is really an outstanding characteristic of Houston, to me. I lived in a bachelor apartment in the decade of the ‘80s before we got married and it was just inside the West Loop, and I always thought that that building and the people in it were kind of a microcosm of Houston has become because we had everything in there. We had Germans, we had Czechs, we had Asians of all types, we had a guy that claimed to be an Eskimo. It was the only Eskimo I ever saw unless he was kidding us. It was just a wonderful place to me. You could walk down the hall and you could smell the ethnic foods, like the Indian people, their curry – it would just hang in the halls forever, and it had all those different cultures and yet, it worked. And, to me, that is kind of like Houston. We do have problems and it is big and a lot of people complain about it and everything, but all these folks here together in schools that keep it. I mean, it works. The town works. That is encouraging to me.
GH: It encourages me, too. Do you think there is any one place that you can go in Houston and feel that this could only be Houston?
LH: Well, maybe so. We will just get down to my favorite places in town. One of them, to me, is South Main out there just like from the Mecom Fountain on out to the Texas Medical Center where those live oak trees reach across the pavement and meet. That is the neatest thing to me. And, of course, adjacent to that would be running off of there, North and South Boulevards – those beautiful homes and the trees on the esplanade. When people come to town, visitors, I take them out there and show them that because it is just a beautiful place, and I am worried about it. I am worried about all those live oaks because there are all these diseases knocking around and these people that get in pickup trucks and flatbed trailers and go out and chop wood, firewood for winter for their fireplaces here and haul them back and they are hauling back the greatest threat. I do not know if they realize it. It would be just an absolute tragedy to me, a disaster, all those trees were diseased and started dying, and it could happen.
GH: They are importing it with the firewood. They are importing the ________.
GH: Gosh, that is a horrible thought. That is interesting. Those trees were part of the Civic Houston Project of the early 1900s where the city fathers all believed in city planning and in the beautiful city syndrome. Long gone, I am afraid. O.K., well, let’s see – the physical changes you have seen. Does one street seem to give you a snapshot of Houston?
LH: One street? I have always thought it is Westheimer. If you follow Westheimer from one end to the other, I think you can get a pretty good idea of what Houston is all about as far as what you can see, except for the heavy industry but the east end of it is pretty close to there, and you just pass through neighborhoods and developments that just, to me, is kind of what Houston is, all the way up from the University of Houston and the residential areas and now mostly Texas Medical Center and there, out here at the Greenway Plaza. Well, Galleria.
It is interesting, me talking about changes – everybody wants to talk about changes. When I first came here, I went up and down Westheimer quite a lot, like in the late 1940s, and going west of Westheimer, when you got to Post Oak Road, which was a country . . . it was paved, yes, it was paved but it had about an 8 foot drainage ditch going down one side of it. It was a country place and when you passed Post Oak Road, you were in the country. Somewhere, I have got a picture of a country schoolhouse sitting on a muddy lot that was just the other side of Post Oak Road on Westheimer. I tell people, when we are sitting around talking about all the changes – it is kind of a Houston pastime, is trying to see who can tell a dirty story about changes – and I told that one time in a group. An old guy got up and he said, “Well, how about this – I used to milk 40 cows at my dairy at what is now the intersection of West Gray and Shepherd Drive,” which is the entrance to River Oaks. So, you know, the first liar has not got a chance! But I am sure it is true. I wish I remembered his name but I do not.
GH: O.K., that is wonderful. You lived in several places in Houston and I think you said at one point, what about Bellaire? You, at one point, moved to Bellaire. Tell us where you lived? I am going out of order here but go ahead and tell us where you lived.
GH: Do you mean all the places? Well, I started out renting a room in the 700 block of Marshall Street in Westmoreland which is . . . I love that place and I do not love it now because they are building the wrong kind of stuff there on my block. But anyway . . . and then I moved to an apartment on what you would call Montrose now. I did not think of it as Montrose. It was Fairview and Park, Park and Fairview. That is where my son was born. Not there but in the hospital. That is where we lived when he was born. And then, out in the 4600 block of Valerie Street in Bellaire. I built a house there in about 1950. It cost $11,350.
GH: How many bedrooms?
LH: It had three bedrooms but just one bath. I had a 30 year combination FHA/GI loan on it and the payment was $78 a month. And I had a hard time making that payment. The interesting thing about that house is that when the West Loop came along, it took 4 houses off the end of my block and my house was the last one. So, the feeder road on the West Loop runs through my living room there in Bellaire, and I took a beating on that enterprise, too.
GH: You mentioned something about having a photograph of something rural out there at one point?
LH: Oh, yes. Somewhere in my files, and I wish I could find it – I never will – I ought to have at least a negative of a rice combine, cutting rice. Of course, in the rice field, in what is now city limits of Bellaire, I took that picture the first year I was here working for the Houston Post because that is what I did and I was farm and ranch reporter. They called me an editor. I did not edit anything. I just reported. Anyway, I took that picture of a rice combine and about . . . let’s see, that would be 1947, so 3 years later, my house was built in a subdivision in that rice field because everything was moving west then and gosh, is it ever now!
GH: Well, of course, a lot of the rice fields west of Houston now are being developed? What do you think about that? What about the birds?
LH: Well, I guess sooner or later, the geese will not have a place to land on the Katy prairie because it just keeps going. It is amazing, every time I go west on I-10, there is another 50 or 75 or 100 acres of houses there and on 290, too. It is just amazing. I just have a nervous feeling that some day, it will go all the way to San Antonio. We will meet San Antonio somewhere about Columbus. I am sure that will not be true, it just seems that way. Something about it makes me nervous because I feel like maybe those places will become slums but maybe not. I thought when we built all those houses in Bellaire in the 1950s. They were cheap houses. My block, the 4600 block of Valerie in Bellaire, I am proud of it. The houses did not get taken by the Loop, they have been kept up, they have been added to. The trees. We had no trees out there with the rice fields. Trees are now 40, 50 feet tall and the lawns are good and people have really kept those houses and improved them and that is good.
GH: That is great. That is good. That is a very good point. Well, you had Mark, your son. You have two children. And he is the eldest. Your daughter, Becky, also. Was she born here, by the way?
LH: Oh, yes.
GH: Anyway, when you were raising babies there, what was it like? What were the differences, say, between raising a baby then and now as far as you know?
LH: Well, you could let them run around the yard anyway.
GH: Milk deliveries, I was thinking.
LH: Oh, you are thinking about the food delivery. Yes. We lived in an apartment there at Park and Fairview. Well, it was just like when I was still growing up – our groceries came from Frank’s Grocery over on Westheimer about 2 blocks away, and we could leave town and leave a note for Frank – this was in 1948, 1949 – and Frank would deliver the groceries, come up the back steps, open the door, go in the kitchen, put the milk in the refrigerator, put the meat in the right place, and even put the stuff up in the pantry. I do not know how widespread that sort of thing was but it was just common. I did not think it was particular unusual at that time. It would be unusual now. However, you know, there are remnants of that kind of stuff going on still. I did a story 2-3 years ago about a milk delivery man. We still have milk delivery here in 2007. And this guy, he has established a kind of reputation where he does go into homes now and puts milk in the refrigerator. I saw him do it.
GH: I did not realize that. I saw the truck just the day before yesterday when I was walking the dog right here . . .
LH: Yes, the milkman still delivers.
GH: The milkman still delivers. Old truck. One of those old Westmoreland Dairy trucks and it just rattles. It is still there though. Everybody has stories about chances to cash in on Houston’s land boom. Did you ever have a chance?
GH: Well, didn’t we all? Everybody has a story like that. A fellow offered me a land deal out off Westheimer west of town in about, well, early 1950s, I guess. He was blocking up some land out there and for some reason, my part that I was going to buy was 13 acres. And I do not remember the price but it was, you know, I don’t know – maybe a couple of hundred dollars an acre. Near as I can figure, that 13 acre block is sitting in what is now Tanglewood. And, you know, people can tell stories like that, how close they came to being land barons and rich.
GH: And good old missed opportunities.
LH: Well, yes.
GH: Hindsight. I want to talk a little bit about books. I am going to get to the ______ stuff after I do the books because even though your reputation – most people know you as a columnist, the premier columnist for the Chronicle and the Post before that for many years, you are a published author with 11 books to your name, and I would kind of like you to talk about your books. I believe that your first books were published at Doubleday. I could not remember if it was the first 2 or the first 3. Why don’t you run down the list of books with me? The first one was . . .
GH: The first book was a nonfiction book about the interviews with people that I had done. I had done stories for about the first 10 years at the Houston Post. I traveled . . . I did not do a whole lot of Houston stories. I went around, I talked to characters, bums under bridges, and old storytellers and cowboys and nice old ladies making quilts and things like that. And country bankers and country storekeepers and cow people and farmers. Mostly just storytellers though. And I put them into a book and that was in the mid 1960s. 1965. I called it “Turn South at the Second Bridge,” which was taken from the directions that people . . . I was always looking for people to stop and say, “How can I find Wendell Pupeck?” And then, they would give me directions. I have come to hate that title but I am stuck with it. That was the first one. That book did pretty well, too. It was published by Doubleday in New York. The second book was a novel. I called that my beer joint books. It was called Bonnie’s Place. It did pretty well, too, and is still, by the way, a viable property, film property. Not exactly under option but people are still talking to me about it. That was in the 1970s.
GH: Who did Addison? Who published Addison? Was that Doubleday?
LH: Doubleday published Addison. It was classified as an Army novel, which it was not. The characters in it were not in the Army but I just put them there because that is where I wanted them. There was not even a war going on at that time. It was a love story, really. Not this romantic love but all kinds of love. Yes, that was Doubleday. I wrote that one while I was living in Pasadena.
GH: Let’s see. You had other books. Katy Hatton, is that the next one?
LH: Yes. Then we started doing collections of the column. The first one was Smile from Katy Hatton. Katy Hatton was a 103-year-old black woman who lived down in Spanish Camp in Wharton County. She had been through . . . she missed slavery _______. Her folks were slaves. And she had had a really tough life. And yet, she had the most brilliant smile, and that smile impressed me so I put it in the title of the book. That was Sheer Publishing that did that, wasn’t it?
GH: Easygoing. That is another collection. Then, you did Texas Chronicles.
LH: Yes, those are collections.
GH: And then for Winedale, you have done Homespun and Suppertime and Old Friends. Let’s see, you have 2 memoirs. Paper Hero and then a Food Memoir which was my idea which was a weird idea. Suppertime.
LH: Suppertime. Yes.
GH: O.K., well, that is a lot of books and, for that, you got the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, which we will get to in a minute because I think it is really an interesting and unusual thing. We have a state here with its own Institute of Letters and its own literature and it is unusual because many of the regions of this country have regional literature but we have a state literature, and I wanted you to tell us a little bit maybe about the Texas Institute of Letters and about why Texas has a literature, maybe?
LH: Yes, well, I think why we have the Texas Institute of Letters which, of course, has caused an awful lot of books, I think, to be written just because it does have it. The reason we have that is because of people like Frank Dobey (sp?) and a bunch of others . . . people in Austin sat down and organized the thing, the organization of people and write what passes for Texas literature and is the only such state organization in the country, and Houston I might say, it would not exist without Houston money – I can tell you that.
GH: Funding for the . . .
LH: Yes, the funding for the prizes that came from The Houston Endowment for years and still does. And all the _______ the state has provided. A lot of Houston money for the TIA, Texas Institute of Letters.
GH: Well, what I was wondering . . . it really kind of promotes Texas writers and it gives awards every year.
LH: Oh, yes, that is the idea. It promotes books about Texas and it gives many thousands of dollars worth of prizes every year.
GH: Very useful. A very useful thing. You were a board member of that for a while.
LH: Yes, 2 terms on there, and raised a little money. I do not mind saying that. Raised prized money and I am glad to have that on my record.
GH: Good deal. Why do you think Texas has a literature? I mean, for one thing, if you name some of the people who were major writers in the state . . . maybe, name a couple. Can you think of a couple of major writers?
LH: Well, come on. People like Larry McMurtry and Gormack McCarthy was a Texan for a long time. And boy, he is the hottest thing going now. Well, you know all of them better than I did, of course, early back there. You could even go way back to O’Henry who spent a lot of time in this state and was a columnist for the Houston Post at one time.
GH: I did not know that.
LH: Why do we have . . . I do not know what we have it, just because it has been encouraged and because there is an awful lot to write about in this state.
GH: Exactly. One of the major writers you have always talked about is John Graves. You are a friend of John Graves, aren’t you?
LH: Well, yes, John is an old buddy of mine. Everybody that writes in this state likes to be friends with John Graves because he is practically worshipped and he is a highly personable guy to be friends with. He is in a fishing group that goes out in the Hill Country. You call it fishing. There is not too much fishing that goes on but a lot of camping and talking and storytelling and lying and Graves is a part of that group. I get asked about once a month, sometimes two or three times a month, if I am the Hale that Graves refers to in his famous book, Goodbye to a River. Goodbye to a River is written by Graves back when he thought the Brazos River was going to be dammed up, so he floated down about 100 miles of it in a canoe and wrote that book. That was in the 1960s. It has been in print ever since. It is still in print which is absolutely amazing when you think about how quick books go out of print now. Now, in that book, he referred to a friend named Hale. I get emails and telephone calls, “Are you the Hale in John Graves’ book?” And I was not. I was a friend of his but I did not even know him at that time.
GH: And the river never got dammed, did it?
LH: No, it did not, not the way he thought it would.
GH: So, it is not really Goodbye to a River, it is kind of almost Goodbye to a River.
LH: It was really hello, as it turned out.
GH: O.K. Well, you were published by Sheer Publishing. Do you have anything you might like to say about Bill Sheer? He was important for a while there.
LH: Well, yes, and he was important to me. Bill Sheer died of a brain tumor when he was 46 years old. He established, organized, he and his wife, Kathy, the Sheer Publishing Company and he published 2 or 3 of my books. He published a lot of books in this state that needed to be published and probably not would have been any other way, and like all publishers, he published a few that should not have been published, too, but he became a real good friend of mine. I became very close to Bill. He was like a son to me. I always thought he even looked like my son, Mark. He moved to Fredericksburg and bought a dance hall out there and turned it into a book publishing place. Most of his business or a lot of his business was done here in Houston, so he stayed with me during the 1980s in the apartment, there in that bachelor apartment. So, it was a great personal loss to me when Bill died and I think to Texas Letters, too.
GH: Yes, I agree with you. O.K., on books . . . well, you know, did you ever read that essay McMurtry did on Ever a Bridegroom that faulted Texas authors for having ignored the life of the city?
LH: Yes, I remember reading it but I cannot quote from it or anything like that. It just caused a big flap among Texas authors. He was absolutely right, of course. They thought they were going to have sort of a mano a mano between him and A.C. Green who had criticized him for writing that and Green kind of folded up on it. He did not apologize. But anyway, that is about all I can remember about it. It did not amount to a whole lot. McMurtry himself said when he was challenged about it, “Well, it is not wholly writ.”
GL: Well, you do think it is fair though? There aren’t many books written about Texas cities. They are mostly all written out of the rural tradition.
LH: That’s right.
GL: Including you. I mean, a lot of your stuff.
LH: Well, yes, but that was natural for me because that is where I came from and it is where my work was, was in rural Texas, not in cities although I have . . . I must be one of the few people that really loves Houston and I always will because, you know, it has fed me all these years.
GH: Well, tell us a little bit about how the column started and what you did then, and how it has evolved.
LH: O.K. I had quit the Post after working for five years there and when I went back, I made a deal. It was a very sweet deal to me. It was just exactly the job I wanted. The only thing that would have made it better would be if the Hobbys had paid me a little more. They let me move where I wanted to and so I moved out of Houston and I lived for 25 years up on the banks of the Brazos in Brazos County in Bryan College Station. I traveled out of there. I did not write exclusively, by any means about that area. I traveled pretty much over the state and just wrote about anything I ran into like I said a while ago. Bums under bridges to highly important people. And so, that is what, for the first, really 25 or 30 years, that is what I did was write about other people. Interviews. This is what goes on out in rural Texas and this is what people are saying, this is what they cared to talk about. And then, when I left . . . gradually though, that changed and it really changed when I left The Post and went to The Chronicle in 1984, I believe. I changed over, at their encouragement, to a personal essay column where it was mainly my voice rather than someone else’s. Much harder to do and to keep up, maintain quality. And that is the way it is now. It has been a long time since I did an interview but man, I did plenty of them.
GL: So, you went to work for The Chronicle and you did 3 columns a week for them? You had done 7 originally for the The Post.
LH: Yes, I had done 7 and a lot of other stuff in addition to 7 columns a week but one of the reasons I went to the Chronicle was they let me cut down to 3 columns a week. And I did that for 22 years. They asked me to come to The Chronicle . . . come on, I was 63 years old when I went to the Chronicle! I was thinking about retiring. I had friends that were 55 and had already quit. And so, I went over there and they said, “Well, you can work a couple of years until you are 65 and quit.” So, I went in, said, “Well, I am 65. Do you want me to quit?” “No, work a little while longer and I worked to 70.” I remember going in when I was 75 and telling them, “Well, isn’t it time for me to quit?” And they said, “No.” So, I went on until 86 doing pretty much the same old personal essay column.
GL: And you are still doing one column a week but you really have kind of retired.
LH: Well, I have cut down. They let me cut down last spring to two columns a week and then now, I am really officially retired on November 9, 2007, but they are going to let me do one column a week on Sunday and do this blog thing I am doing now.
GH: We are going to get into that blog in a minute.
LH: I do not really feel retired yet. It has not been long enough. I do not know what it feels like.
GH: I want to go back for a second and just ask you, since you did work for both The Post and The Chronicle, you did not work for the old Houston Press.
GH: People think you did.
LH: A lot of people accused me of that but I never did work for the Press.
GH: Can you give a distinction – what was the different character of each of those places? Could you go into that at all?
LH: The Post at the time that I went there in the early years, in the 1950s and the 1960s, was trying to become a state paper which a lot of morning papers did that but not so much the afternoon papers. The Dallas News would not do that. ________. They would do stories in the Valley, they would do stories in ______ Afghanistan stories, and the Chronicle was more an afternoon paper –strictly an afternoon paper at that time and they stuck mostly to Houston. The Press was known as . . . everybody called it the scandal sheet. It liked flashy stories about crime and about gossipy stuff. Its success was dependent on that kind of presentation because a lot of people loved it. It was a Scripps Howard newspaper and that was kind of common among Scripps Howard papers, that kind of style. And then, the Chronicle bought the Press. I forget what year it was. And took a lot of people with it.
GH: And the Post died.
LH: Well, of course, the Post died in 1995. A lot of people think the Chronicle came and bought the Post which is not so. It went broke all by itself. The Chronicle did buy . . . 32 years at the Post and I am still calling the Chronicle the Post. But the Chronicle did buy the physical plant of the Houston Post.
GH: And you had left the Post when it was sold from the Hobbys to this Canadian group?
LH: Yes, we talked about the Canadian invasion. There were things that happened at the Post that I was not happy about then, so that made it pretty easy for me to go over to the Chronicle.
GH: One of the things that seemed interesting to me about that was that there had been a gentleman’s agreement, right, at some point between . . .
LH: Well, that was the myth anyway. Whether it is true, I don’t know. For years and years, the story was that Ovetta Culp Hobby and Jesse Jones had an agreement that they would not raid one another. They would not go and take good people from each other’s paper and give them more money and hire them. It may have been true because it certainly did not happen, at least not very much. There were some of them that changed over but I do not think it was because they were invited. They probably applied. But I was invited. I think that myth, if indeed that agreement did exist, it was no longer in effect after the Canadians came.
GH: O.K., that is what I thought, too. Well, you have mentioned that the Post wanted to be a statewide paper. Now, with the Chronicle, it does not do that, right? It still stayed Houston predominantly?
LH: Well, mostly. I mean, they do not have a state desk and if there is a big story in Navasota or El Campo, they cover it but not the way the Post used to. The Post used to . . . you know, if you were elected president of the Women’s Missionary Society in Louise, Texas, you got your name in the Houston Post and that sort of thing. The Chronicle never did much of that.
GH: What do you think is the biggest change in the newspapers since you have been involved with them?
LH: I think the biggest thing that has happened to them is their disappearance. They seem to be disappearing pretty fast. We got one big daily left here, one in Dallas, one in San Antonio, but outside of that . . . of course, the biggest change is computerization, is the internet business that is going on now. I am probably not a very good person to discuss it. All I know is my part in it . . . I have had to quit doing my work in the ways that I have done it for 50 years and do it on computers and that kind of thing. It is amazing this change and how fast it has happened to newspapers. All of a sudden, they are just wham, it changed. I thought the greatest thing ever said about this tech revolution in journalism was said by one of our editors down at the Chronicle, who said, the main thing he could figure out that the tech revolution has done to newspapers, it has enabled us to screw up at the speed of light! It can be when the change was going. . . . it runs pretty smooth now but during that change period, boy, a lot of mistakes were made.
GH: Well, you have been a telecommuter for more than 20 years. You started with a . . .
LH: Well, actually, I looked up telecommuter in the dictionary one time and it does not have to have anything to do with electronics. So, I have been a telecommuter ever since 1956 when I moved to Bryan and I sent my stuff in. Even by mail. So, yes, a telecommuter. I am a veteran telecommuter.
GH: You sure are. You talked about a blog. Do you want to talk about what you do, what your blog is?
LH: Yes, I mean, blogs are kind of fun. I do not really understand why they are important. They may be. Somebody down at the Chronicle could talk all day about their importance, I guess. In my blog, it is kind of a stream of consciousness thing. I think about whatever I am thinking about that morning and I write two or three paragraphs on it and put it on the blog, and then people read it and they say what they think about it and tell their little story. Like, I may say, “Well, I cooked a pot of pinto beans last night,” tell them what I put in them, chili powder and onion and jalapeno pepper, and they will get on the blog and say, “Well, we don’t use jalapeno pepper in our pinto beans.” The importance of that totally escapes me but maybe it is just to get people used to communicating that way - I don’t know - because apparently that is the way it is going to happen. They tell me that newspapers are going to become more and more like daily magazines and not so much news. All the news is going to be on the internet. We are going to read it on the internet. And, of course, that is already happening. I don’t know – I guess it will happen totally. I do not believe that we are going to see the end in my lifetime, well, certainly not mine or yours or anybody in this room; that when print newspapers will be gone forever. Look at the Sunday Chronicle, man, right now. November 2007. It has got so many ads in it, you cannot hardly lift it.
GH: What would you say about the main necessity that you have to have if you want to write a column?
LH: Well, I just think you have to have just pretty, what is normal journalistic sense. You have got to be a curious person and you have got to want to write, and you have got to want to take a big chance that you may not make a great living. You have just got to want to do it so bad that you will pass up opportunities that would probably make you a better living. So, I am a little bit at a loss as you can tell about what . . .
DG: Well, you have to have ideas.
LH: Well, of course, you have to have ideas. That is what the column writing business is. When I was doing 5 and 6 and 7 columns a week, it just took out . . . that is the only thing I ever thought about and even at 3 columns a week, it just occupies my life, everything I do. It used to, if I did a thing like this, I would say, “Well, I will do it because I might get a column out of it.” If I went to church . . . I have been accused of going to church not for the right reason but to get a column out of it. But to do anything, anything I do, I have to think about, hey, is this going to make a day’s work or not because if you do not, you run out of soap. Of course, you’ve got a lot of help and I am amazed at the length that a lot of people will go to, to help a columnist do a day’s work. And some of them have axes to grind but most of them do not. Most of them just know something that they think would be a good column idea and will take off a day’s work and take you there and show you what they think ought to be in the paper. It is kind of an interesting phenomenon.
GH: Some of your best known columns are involving recurring characters. Can you talk about the recurring characters and their purpose?
LH: Oh, yes. Almost every columnist has characters that they go back to. For about 30 years, I had the Brazos Bottom fortune teller, Madam Z, lived in the Brazos Bottom. I would go to see her once a month and she did strange things, you know, anywhere from flying kites to fishing in the Brazos River. In the column writing business, that sort of thing is called a crutch. When you run short of stuff, you can go see the fortune teller. And everybody has them. I remember Mike Royco had this guy . . . he had a strange name. His last name was all consonants. He would interview him once in awhile.
GH: Well, name some of yours. Do you feel like telling about which are your recurring characters?
LH: Well, yes, I had my friend, Mel, who I have had for many years. I have had 2 or 3 guys named Mel who are my friends. I had him because I can make deals with him and I can write about highly personal things that I could not write about any other person and he will not complain, he will not sue. And then, I have my old cojers (sp?). Cojers Club. A bunch of us. The average age is about 82 point something. We still meet once in a while. And then, the most popular thing I ever had was my search for spring every year with my old friend, Morgan from Freeport. We used to go . . . we did for more than 20 years, every first week of March, we would get tired waiting on spring and we would get in the car and go and search for spring just to be sure it was coming; go down into south Texas and when we found the mesquite putting out leaves, that is when we declared well, spring is coming after all, 1 more time. And we did that for years and years. And, strangely enough, it is still a mystery to me – it has been as far as reader response is concerned – it has been the most popular thing I have ever done in 55 years of journalism. Why? I do not know. It is just some ________.
GH: And you do a lot of food, oddly. It seems amazing that you do a lot of food columns. I mean, just every so often, there will be a food column and every so often, there will be a piece in the column about Winedale, your place at Winedale and that will be from the old front porch, and that fits. That, to me, fits very well. The food thing is really interesting because you do strange cooking. Can you mention . . . like, mention your soup witch. I always thought that was kind of . . .
LH: Oh, yes, well, that 10 years that I spent in the bachelor apartment during the 1980s, I tried to feed myself and I tried to learn a little bit about cooking. Mainly though, I just invented things and the soup witch was one of them. It was just take a bowl and put a slice of bread in it and then make vegetable soup and pour it over the bread. It is just a wonderful, healthful meal and I ate it many, many days. I could never convert anybody to it. But I liked it. But I lived for years on things like that. Mainly, I just cooked beans.
GH: What was the most unhealthy thing you ever cooked?
LH: I think it was . . . I don’t know if you would call it cook or not. I think the most unhealthy thing I ever did was the chicken pot pies that I lived on. I got hooked on those for years. Finally, the doctor told me it was running up my cholesterol and so they were just full of stuff that I should not eat.
GH: Well, one thing I was thinking . . . do you know of any little pockets in Houston where you feel that the small town quality still survives despite the development?
LH: Well, I think Houston is full of them, full of little neighborhoods that are still small town. Everybody talks about their . . . we still have little mom and pop grocery stores but they are not like they were then. They are being run by an Asian but they are there. We have people who never go anywhere in this town. They stay right in their little neighborhood. They’ve got everything they need right there.
GH: I always thought the Heights had a very small town, sort of ‘40s small town feel up until all the most recent boom. I was also thinking about . . . we were talking about food here. When you went to lunch in Houston in the 1950s downtown, were there specific places that you went?
LH: In the 1950s? Oh, yes. We go back to the intersection of Main and Texas and right across the street on Texas Avenue from the Rice Hotel was George Kelly’s Oyster Bar, which is an extremely popular place. It was just wonderful. To me, it was just a picture of plenty. It had this display window where the food that you were going to eat was sitting there and all the meat and the stews and the oysters, and they had guys opening oysters at the bar. That was ______. And, of course, the Rice Hotel coffee shop. I still think it had the best cup of coffee in the world. I am probably just . . . the way I remember it is probably not accurate but I still hold onto that.
GH: James Coney Island.
LH: James Coney Island. Of course, still we have here, out on Post Oak Road and Shepherd Drive. Bill Williams’ Chicken Shack was a famous place.
GH: Were these social . . . was it a social center like Kelly’s? Was it a place . . . was it mostly men eating there? Were there women eating there?
LH: It would be mostly men but women did eat there, sure.
GH: Were people visiting each other at different tables? I mean, what did it look like?
LH: It had a big bar and tables also.
GH: No alcohol, right?
LH: I do not remember.
GH: It was before everybody could drink, that is for sure.
LH: Well, if they had alcohol, it was beer because we did not have a liquor bottle to drink at that time. A lot of people think that was a huge change in Houston when we had . . . and some of them created liquor bottle drinks setting off the growth of Houston. I do not know if that is true or not. I hope it is not.
GH: What was it like before, before then? What did people do?
LH: Oh, well, they joined private clubs and had their liquor drink anyway. Like, the best one was the _____ there. What was it ______?
GH: The Confederate House.
LH: The Confederate House. Yes. It was on . . .
GH: San Felipe.
LH: Well, San Felipe for a while.
GH: For a long time.
LH: Yes, until it moved over there on West Alabama and Weslayan. But yes, we had many of those clubs where you would go in, you could join and get you a drink.
GH: When you were working at the Post and all, where did journalists go to drink?
LH: There was always a bunch of little bars around out there at the Post. And some of them even went in those places along Dowling Avenue which were mainly black. That was some of our first integration going on out there in those bars. We used to get off at 10 o’clock at night and go to the places where predominantly black people, where we felt perfectly at home. We were not challenged in any way.
GH: The Post was actually on Dowling, right at one point?
LH: Yes, at the corner of Polk and Dowling in the black part of town predominantly. That building is gone now. There is no Post building. Anyway, the Houston Press Club, the Press Club of Houston which was in the Rice Hotel for the longest time.
GH: What was the Press Club? Was it really a press club? Was it a full club? How did it operate?
LH: Sure, it had meals, a bar and everything. Not just journalists belonged to it. Also, people who were in . . . advertising people, and PR people belonged to it. The Press Club here in Houston, for some reason, it seemed to me did not flourished like it has in some places and I do not really know why. I did not go to it very much because for 25 years, I was living outside of Houston.
GH: Did you ever go to the Rice Hotel as a nightclub place?
LH: Oh, yes. The Crystal Ballroom in the Rice Hotel a couple of times because it was a little bit expensive but that was a big night out for young people. A lot of young married people there and unmarried people, too, that went there and danced. They had good bands.
GH: Did you bring your drinks? How did that work?
LH: We must have been carrying . . . it must have been a bottle in a brown paper sack at that time. You used to go in with your bottle in a brown sack and put it below and then order a mixer and pour the booze in, put your bottle back down under the table. It was really kind of ridiculous but we did it for many years.
GH: I always thought that was so curious. Here are these people dressed up elegantly to go somewhere and carrying a brown paper sack. That was just really terrible. O.K., I wanted to get back to the kind of life of a writer, you life and your daily routine generally from when you started. When you started off, you had a certain daily routine. Then when you were married and living in Bryan, you had a routine and you actually worked in the home. And then, you got married again and then you got married again. And how your daily routine has changed over time. It would be interesting to see all these technological changes have changed your daily routine in any significant way.
LH: Well, they have for certain. I started out . . . in the early days of the column _______ of course, I was on the IBM Selectric typewriter on copy paper and made two carbons, and did that for years and years. I even carried an IBM Selectric typewriter with me when I traveled for a long time but most times, just a manual portable. Manual, no electricity. I used to stop by the side of the road and do the column on it in a roadside park or on a stump, off the back of a station wagon. I used to use station wagons. And even after I changed to electric typewriters . . . I swore I would never change to an electric typewriter and then I had to. I quit writing. I carried it in the station wagon. I even had a rig a fellow fixed up for me where I could plug my electric typewriter in to my cigarette lighter and it would invert the DC current to AC and it would run my Selectric. But then we changed at some point in there to . . . I am just telling you about how I worked now . . . to what we called a scanner when we worked on the scanner paper, it was legal size and ruled and you had to type only inside that window on the paper and you carried pink fountain pens, a pink pen because you could edit yourself and the scanner could not see pink. You could write . . . that was a weird time to me, the scanner. From there, we went, of course, to the computer terminals.
GH: Well, you had that Zywrite thing, that little . . .
LH: Yes, that little . . . it had a window in it about 2-3 inches tall, you could see about 6 lines of a page that you were typing.
GH: That must have been a strange sensation to a writer to only see six lines.
LH: Well, I did not go happily into the computer age. I went kicking and screaming. It was either that or get out of the kitchen. So I did. I am still convinced I have a learning disability about computers. I have a hard time with them but here we are.
GL: Now, about your personal routine. How has that changed?
LH: Well, back when I was writing six columns a day, I would get up early and that is the first thing I did. I always worked at home, ever since the mid 1950s. I have never gone to an office. I work at home and sent my stuff in early by mail or _______ computers, could send it by telephone. But I always got up and went straight to the . . . it was natural for me to go immediately _______. I used to be able to get up at 5 o’clock and cook breakfast and go and write a column of 600 words, load up the car and be 100 miles down the road by 10 o’clock in the morning. I did that many, many years. Gradually, that changed, of course. Now, I am getting pretty lazy and have slowed down. So, I don’t know, what do you want to hear about?
GL: Well, I just thought it was interesting that at one point, you were getting up early and doing a radio program, and then coming back and then what? Writing? And then, what, going down the road? What did you do when you went down the road? You interviewed?
LH: Oh, yes.
GH: And then you interviewed. And the thing is about today, your routine, you know, you get up, up until really recently, you would . . . you know, you know your routine. I do not want to tell it.
LH: My routine is very different now. I write the column at home and when it is ready to send, if I hit the right buttons, I hook it up to the telephone and if I hit the right buttons, it goes down to the Chronicle. And the theory is that you can do that, get hooked up about anywhere in the world.
GH: And you have done it from . . .
LH: I have done it from Europe a few times when we traveled. I have tried it over there when it did not work, too, and ended up writing by hand and faxing it and sending it that way a.
GH: What was the strangest experience you ever had with a fax, with faxing your calls?
LH: Oh, I think that was when we were in Italy one time. We were traveling. I have been out of Texas a couple of times. That time, we spent one month in Europe and we were on Lake Como in Italy and it was kind of in the early days of faxing. I had to write a column. I was staying in this hotel and they charged me I think it was $75 to send a fax from there to the Chronicle. I never did get it back either.
GH: You have been well known over the last few years for doing an awful lot of public events where you read stories, and people have enjoyed that very much. I had the publishing company that published a couple of your books here and it certainly was very helpful to us. I wonder if you could read one of your stories that people have particularly enjoyed. I believe it is “Homer Come Back.” Is that the one you are reading?
LH: Yes. That is about my homing rat. This is one of the most popular columns I ever did. This story starts out entirely truthful and goes along that way for quite a few paragraphs. It is about an extraordinary rat. Every now and then in the house where we live, a rat gets in the attic. It chews on things and wakes us up in the middle of the night. We spend a good deal of money sealing places we think might admit rats. Still, they get in. Now, I bought rat traps, industrial strength traps, the old-fashioned kind that go whap and the metal bar comes down and kills the rat, except sometimes it does not kill the rat but only traps it and this really is not pleasant. I do not enjoy seeing rats suffering. Also, I have never been comfortable setting a trap of that sort. I am always afraid it will go off while I’m handling it and break a finger for me, and in this business where you work on a keyboard all the time, a broken finger is an injury of consequence. It would almost be better to break a leg. So, I went to the hardware store and I bought a trap that does not kill anything. It is a wire cage, 16 inches long and about 6 inches wide and 6 inches tall. The literature said bait it with peanuts. You put the peanuts on a trigger pan, set a trap draw in one end of the cage, the rat goes in, touches the peanut and clack, the door falls and traps that rodent. The second night, I caught one, and I mean this was a serious rat. You could put a fuzzy tail on that thing and pass him off as a squirrel. All right, I had a rat in my cage and I had not thought of what I would do when I caught one. Kill him? Yes, but how? Feed him poison? Watch him die? Open the door? Try to whack him with a stick when he runs out? Or shoot him? Here in town? Well, my partner had a suggestion. She said, “Why don’t you take him somewhere and set him free?” Well, I had mixed feelings about that but I drove to Memorial Park. I carried the cage back in the woods and let the rat out. He went loping into the timber towards Buffalo Bayou. It seemed to me he loped funny. One of his hind legs looked splayed as if it might have been injured and healed. A couple of days passed. Then, we heard rat chewing noises in the attic again. I got the peanuts out of the refrigerator, set the trap and that night, clack, got another rat. I noticed this second one had the same kind of splayed hind foot the first one had. It made me laugh at myself for even thinking it might be the same rat. But just for fun, I opened a can of white enamel out of the storage closet, found a small brush and dabbed that rat’s tail before I took him away, with about an inch of his tail showing bright white. This time, I drove way outside the Loop on San Felipe and turned the rat loose under the Buffalo Bayou Bridge a little way west of Voss and measured the distance back home. It was 5.1 miles. I kept the trap baited in the attic. Nothing happened for five days. Then, about 4 o’clock one morning, clack. I climbed up to check and there he was looking scruffy and tired, chomping on his peanuts. The paint on his tail identified him well enough even though it was flaked and dim. Well, I kept him around for a couple of days, let him rest and fatten up some. Then, I freshened his tail paint and named him Homer. I drove him out the Katy Freeway to Texas 6 and let him loose in the parking lot of the hotel. You got out and sniffed and looked at the sun and loped back east and was home again in 11 days. Well, you can see why I got pretty excited about this discovery. A homing rat. I figured I might make money off of him some way but now, I have fouled up. For the final test, I carried that rat 30 miles from the house and set him down along Farm Market 1463 south of Katy. That was 3 weeks ago and I have not heard a squeak out of him and I am worried. He might have gotten run over by a pick-up or caught by a hawk or a coyote out on that prairie. I am asking folks west of town to watch out for my rat. He’s got a splayed right hind foot and a white tail and he answers to the name “Homer.” Give him a handful of peanuts and point him east.
GH: That is wonderful. I love that so much.
LH: Well, the fun thing about that was that 1 week after that was in the paper, I started getting phone calls and emails from people who had had my rat out on I-10 and were feeding him peanuts and offering to bring him in and turn him over . . .
GH: One guy sent you a rat trap with a make believe rat in it with his tail painted white. It was really crazy. I wonder if you would mind telling a little more about . . . before we wind up, a little more about the primavera trip. Just kind of what you did the first time and what caused you all to think of it.
LH: Yes, O.K. Old friend, Morgan, was living down in Freeport at this time. I for get the year that we first started. We were both about around 60 somewhere, maybe not quite.
GH: Mid 60’s.
LH: Anyway, we were already feeling our age a little bit and the weather was bad. It was one February day and we were sitting there having a drink, looking at the weather and feeling kind of down, and this was Morgan’s idea – actually, the whole thing. He said, “Wouldn’t it be awful if we died and did not see another spring ever?” And I agreed that that would be pretty bad. And he said, “I’ll tell you what we ought to do. We ought to get in the car and go south until we meets spring, just to be sure it is coming, and just to be certain that we can experience spring one more time.” And so, we did. We got in the car and we go and the way we found spring was to look for foliage on a mesquite tree. We both grew up in mesquite country and we believed, just as sure as we believed the sun would come up tomorrow that a mature mesquite tree will not be caught in a hard freeze. And so, if we had foliage on the mesquites, we figured that was the leading edge of spring and actually, you could even follow spring up through . . . . we figured that it came out through anywhere from 3 to 5 miles per day in March in south Texas. One time, we stopped on a ranch down below Corpus Christi and kind of got hung up down there and stayed 3 or 4 days and spring caught up to us on the last day. The mesquite came out while we’re on that ranch. It gets pretty fast. Actually, if you could take . . . it is not going to be a clean straight line across there but if you were in a helicopter, and we always wanted to do this – we wanted to rent a helicopter and fly over it and see that line. It could be seen. Anyway, that first year, I came back and I wrote a story pretty much about what I have been telling you here and the reader response was, well, it was fantastic. It was probably more than anything I had ever written before. People really liked the idea of going down and meeting spring. So, we did it again the next year the same way. Went down there, did the same thing, found spring, and what did we do? People asked us what did we do when we got spring? Well, we would celebrate it. We actually could go in in and out of spring. You can go 25 miles down into Mesquite and come back out. So, we came back and I wrote a story again. The same story. The response was even greater. And so, we thought, well we had better make this an annual. So, we did it for more than 20 years and by far, as I have said here before _____ that that was easily the most popular thing as far as reader response that I have ever done. I quit it after Morgan died. I tried to go by myself a time or two. It was no fun going by myself. We tried to go together a couple of times. It did not work. So, I finally quit but people still fuss at me for not going. I have already had, and this is late November that we are doing this, in early November of this year already, 5 years after I quit, I already had people, ask, “Well, are you going to change your mind and go meet spring again?” I might do it again once more just to see how it feels.
GH: One last thing that might be interesting to talk about is, you know, everybody says there is a unique spirit to Texas and we have really not gone into that much but do you think that you could define a spirit of Houston? Is there a sense you have of what Houston actually . . . well, it’s spirit, what it feels like, if there is one?
LH: Well, no, I probably can’t but it is just sort of an open, everything goes city. Part of it is, you know, we do not have zoning. I think that has . . . to me, the town . . . if you made me find one word to describe Houston, I would just call it variegated. It is so different from other cities, but this business about the spirit of Texas . . . I don’t know whether any such thing really exists. I think it does. The Hollywood version of it exists. The Texan is supposed to be ______ he is going to be either a wildcatter, oil man or he will be a frontier cattle man that is tough and resourceful because the weather is bad down here and everything that grows has thorns on it and all that and a lot of that does exist but the people, to the extent that it does exist, the ones that created that were not really Texans. They were people that came . . . who is that guy, Richard King, who created the King Ranch – he had never seen a cow in his life until he was a steamboat captain, Richard King was.
GH: Oh, I did not know that.
LH: And Shanghai Pierce is one of the great Gulf Coast early cattleman and had something to do with this Hollywood image of the Texas. He came from Rhode Island, for God’s sake. Well, we’ve got just as many Mr. Peepers type people in this state as we do people like that so I never did go for this business of all Texans being rough and tough and everything, being bigger and better. I am so sick of that bigger and better stuff. I celebrated when Alaska joined the union, so we would not, for God’s sake, be the biggest.
GH: Well, but, you know, it is interesting . . . the bigness of it is part of the variegated quality of Texas as well as Houston.
LH: Well, it certainly is the biggest seller.
GH: Different regions?
LH: We’ve got a half dozen different climates in this state because of the bigness. I do not think that can be said about the climate of Houston.
GH: Well, you divide Texas into various sections and you have a pretty clear idea of which sections are where. Can you kind of describe that?
LH: Well, yes, they are not my divisions. They are pretty much geographical divisions. Of course, we live on the coastal plain, upper Texas coast and up to the north of us is the Piney Woods of Texas, 10 to 12 million acres of deep east Texas. We’ve got the Post Oak Belt that runs down through and the black lands that run down through Dallas and Fort Worth and the Grand Perry. Then we have the Winter Garden district in the ______ country where the mesquite is, where we used to go the and look for spring in the Hill Country.
DG: What is the area where your country place is located? Where is that? What is that called?
LH: Well, that is over in the Post Oak Belt and there is a ______ that runs north and south from Dallas and Fort Worth down through there. ______ Edwards plateau on west and anything west of the Pecos where all the mountains are _________. Then, the cap rock and the Panhandle.
GH: You sure could tell that cap rock. Well, the last thing would be something about this Houston . . . people, for a long time, wanted to have an image of Houston, some visual image and it seems to me that you have nailed it when you say that Houston is variegated. It is so varied that it is impossible to find one thing that characterizes Houston. Would you agree?
LH: I would absolutely agree with it.
GH: Yes. O.K. Finito.