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Interview with: Louie Welch
Interviewed by: David Goldstein, Jill Jewitt
Date: October 20, 2007
DG: Today is October 20, 2007. My name is David Goldstein. I am here with former Houston mayor, Louie Welch. Also in attendance is Jill Jewitt from the Mayor's Office for Cultural Affairs and for the record, any use of any of this footage will be subject to Mr. Welch's final edit approval. Mr. Welch, would you begin by telling us about your early life, where you were born, your early years, and how you came to Houston?
LW: I was born in West Texas in a little town named Lockney. I grew up in Slaton, another little town. Both were within about 40 miles of Lubbock. And once when I was much older, I was asked to speak at a commencement exercise in Lubbock, Lubbock Christian University, and there, I explained that the introduction I had received the night before at the dinner was one of the most unusual I had ever had. I was introduced by the chairman of the board of the University. "You may think that Louie Welch is from a big city because being mayor and president of the Chamber but he is a small town fellow. He was born in Lockney and grew up in Slaton. As a matter of fact, both towns claim him. Slayton claims he is from Lockney and Lockney claims he is from Slaton." It was an interesting evening. But I grew up in Slaton where I was active in a band. I was the business manager for the football team. I was choir chorus soloist. I was a member of the male glee club and I was a member of the band. And I was on the debate squad. I went to the finals and on the same day that I was in the finals on debate, I was in the finals in broad jump on the same campus of Texas Tech but I talked to my dad about it and he said, "How far can you jump?" Well, I was 5'4" and I said, "I jump 20 feet and 1/2 inch, was my best jump." He said, "A frog can out jump you. You are only jumping 4 times your length. Maybe you had better go for debate." So, I did.
I went to Abilene Christian University, then Abilene Christian College, for 3-1/2 years, 1 summer. Dropped out one semester to go to the Naval Academy. Flunked the physical, lost the semester, too, so it took me 3-1/2 years and a summer. This is Abilene. I was graduated magna cum laude at a time, 1940, when the base salary for school teachers in Texas was $810 per year. That was $90 per month for 9 months. And people were standing in line to get jobs as schoolteachers. Even then, they had to take a 1% discount to get cash because they were paid with wires instead of with checks. Some people refer to that as the period of the Great Depression. It did not end with Roosevelt's election in 1933 or taking office in 1933. It ended with World War II. And that was the beginning of the end of the Depression. I moved to Lubbock, World War II came along, I moved to Dallas. I was scheduled to go to work for a company called North American Aviation on December 8, 1941. The accident occurred in Pearl Harbor on the day before. And so, they did not hire anybody on the 8th because they could not tell who was Japanese. They hired me on the 9th which was my birthday. I and my slightly pregnant wife -- she delivered twins in April -- we moved to Dallas and I went to work for North American Aviation for 60 cents an hour for the first 30 days, with a nickel bonus for night duty. So, I got 65 cents, at the end of which I jumped all the way to 80 cents an hour. That was not bad. I worked at North American Aviation until the doctor told me I was near, they thought, to _______ tuberculosis. So, they ordered me off the job working in this air-conditioned, contaminated, polluted environment inside the plant and I moved to Houston. I got an outside job working for North American Aviation. No, I did not go to work for them - I left North American Aviation, I came here and I went to work for Firestone at the store that is still in existence at the corner of Houston and Washington Avenue. 1502 Washington Avenue. A pretty good salary, $225 a month. I did not have a car so I rode a bus. We bought a house in Galena Park. Could not find anything to rent. And we lived in Galena Park for a few months. I found a rent house on the north side of Houston that I could catch a bus and go to work, so we moved there. It was not bad. The rent was $40. That included water.
An interesting period in the history of Houston because Houston had a looser enforcement of the war manpower assignment. They did not check to see if you were released from the job that you had before, they just would sign you up and you could go to work in Houston. Otherwise, if you changed jobs under the War Manpower Act, you had to wait 60 days before you could get another one unless you did it with the permission of the War Manpower board. The War Manpower board in Dallas would not give me authority to change jobs even in Dallas. So, I came down here and went to work the next day. And I have been here ever since, the chagrin of some. But it has been a very interesting ride ever since.
Houston, I thought, was a well generous town in its acceptance. I went to the War Manpower board here to get approval for a job and I rode over to the office on the bus that said Welch. I just got to town now and they had a bus named for me! I never did meet the Welch who it was named for but anyway, the bus still runs, I guess. Anyway, I have been here . . . we left Galena Park as soon as we could afford to get a place to rent and we lived here in Houston, in the Houston area ever since, with no regrets. When I came here, I knew I was going to move back to Lubbock because that is where heaven was but I found out it was pretty good here, too.
DG: What was Houston like in the late 1940s in terms of geography? How big was it?
LW: The county was probably one million. It was a very . . . of course, the Republican party did not exist in Texas yet. We had two Democrat parties. One with Ralph Yarborough, ______ and the other was John Connally. Not at that time. It was Alan Shepherd. But the conservative Democrat and the liberal Democrat. And so, everybody was Democrat. And I stayed here in Houston for 6 years before I was drafted, and I do mean drafted. It cost $1,100 to get your name on the Democratic ballet for council. $1,700, I think for mayor or $5,000 - I don't know. Anyway, my neighbors had a meeting on the night that I was in my store taking inventory and they called me about 11 o'clock. Business neighbors. About 11 o'clock that night. And said, "Could you come down and join us in Fred Halfcott's (sp?) law office for just a few minutes?" I went down there and they said, "We have arranged $1,100 for you to run for City Council." I said, "I don't live out here. I don't live in this district." "You can run at large." So, they ran me at large. Now, there were 3 candidates at large who received the most votes, were automatically elected. There were 15 candidates and the 3 were the highest number of votes. And all incumbents were running. I came in second. And I forgot all about business.
DG: What do you think it was that attracted them to you as a candidate? Had you been active in issues before that time?
LW: We had been annexed and I was sort of . . . I was president of the Alliance Club, which was the most active civic organization out there then, and they wanted representation on Council of the newly annexed people. The mayor, Oscar Holcombe, had annexed about 100 square miles and about 100,000 people. And the newly annexed people wanted representation and I was the least offensive. Out of 15 who ran for at large, I was the one that made the most noise about annexation. So, I was elected to Council and I was bitten by the bug. I have been in politics one way or another ever since. Although I was non-partisan in my beliefs, you had to be on the Democrat ballot to be elected. And then after I became president of the Chamber of Commerce, all my mayor races were run on a non-partisan basis. I never got active in one campaign. Well, I started to be active in the Lyndon Johnson campaign following the ______ candidate. But I had a staph infection that ran ______ 102 degrees on the day that the election was held, so I was denied the privilege of voting for Democrat Lyndon Johnson. And I later supported Hubert Humphrey in 1968, mainly because he had been mayor of Minneapolis, and we had become friends. He came down to study a program that we had instituted called Jobs for the Underprivileged. We did it in order to take the pressure of the youth from opposing. We had put out 5,000 jobs and 5,000 jobs were filled. And then, quite a few more. And they were nearly all filled with black youth. And it was such a success that Humphrey came down and picked it up and put it out nation-wide to all the cities of over 100,000.
DG: Mayor, what year was that, that you joined City Council?
LW: I was elected in 1950. They were on even-numbered years, the elections. And I took office in January, 1951. And then, the charter was changed, Roy Hofheinz was the mayor and he wanted to get rid of his Council. And so, he put a charter amendment changing the date of the election, moving it up 1 year so he could get rid of his Council and it worked perfectly. All the councilmen that ran for reelection were elected and he lost. He did not even make the runoff.
DG: What was city government like in 1950, 1951? Houston is a much smaller town. What kind of business took place at the meetings and how did you interact with the other Council members? What did a city council member do in 1951?
LW: We were strictly part-time. The salary was $300 a month. That is city manager, mayor, charter. It still is that, I think. We had had a city manager during the late years of the war and when Oscar Holcombe came back and ran for mayor, he instituted a charter amendment that said all duties heretofore performed by the city manager shall hereafter be performed by the mayor. And so, he got rid of the city manager. Oscar was the guru. Houston was in a tremendous expansion program. When Oscar was inaugurated, he had a big parade down Main Street and drove all the old equipment that had become obsolete during World War II. They could not buy new bulldozers and they could not buy new graters and they could not buy trucks . . . and said, "I will replace all this." And he did. But the war was over. And he served then 3 terms and was defeated. He never served more than 4 terms in a row but he served a total of 11 terms during that period. And he was a very visionary mayor. He could see so far ahead, he could tell where all the intersections were going to be and where all the thoroughfares were going to be, and promptly bought up land all around it. It was very visionary. And the inside information was published. He just happened to know a little bit about it before it was published. He became very wealthy. But he was a great planner for Houston. He did not overlook any plans that would enhance the value of a property that he owned. But he was visionary in that he anticipated the needs that we were going to have in the airports, the needs we were going to have in water supply, and all in all, he was a great asset to the history of Houston.
DG: What were the duties of a city council member in 1951? How did you spend your days when you were working as a council member?
LW: You did not work as a council member. You attended the meetings. That is all. I had no administrative authority. The committees could not have administrative authority. The committees were appointed by the mayor unless three councilmen signed a resolution to create a committee. They could force the formation of a committee but it was not a standing committee. It had no staff. That is how we got Lake Houston.
DG: Was City Hall where it is today?
LW: Oh, yes and built in 1938 by one of the federal governments, RFC or something.
DG: What was the best part about being a city councilman?
LW: You got a few free meals, and you got invited to some functions. But I was the only one that made a career out of it.
DG: What was the worst part?
LW: That it did not pay enough to make a career out of it.
DG: I want to fill in the time from 1951 when you started to 1960. I want to talk about that cafeteria episode. But you say you got the bug. You decided to stay as a council member. Was that standard?
LW: No, I kept running for mayor.
DG: When did you first decide to run for mayor?
LW: Oh, when I was a little boy. I first decided to run for mayor in 1951, so I ran in 1952 because there were things I could do as mayor I could not do as councilman. But the public was not prepared for that shock. And so, I lost. And I did not try again until the next election in 1954. And I lost. In 1955, Oscar had stepped aside and Roy Hofheinz was mayor. He was elected in 1952 and I ran against him in 1954. He decided he wanted to get rid of the council he had in 1955 and lost. And nobody ever heard of him again. But Oscar ran again in 1955, and he called me and asked me if I would run for council. Not on the ticket but just to run. And I did. I did not campaign. I had a daughter who was dying of cancer. She was not quite 2 years old. And all I did, I forbade them from putting my name on the ballot. And I was elected. And she died 17 days after the election of cancer at M.D. Anderson. Well, actually, she died at M.D. Anderson. She was treated at Texas Children's. That was in 1955. I did not run again for mayor until 1957, at which time, I lost. And I did not run again until 1959, at which time, I lost. And I won the mayor's seat in December, 1961, right after Kennedy's assassination.
DG: That was 1963.
LW: It was 1963. I lost again in 1961.
DG: In the runoff in 1961?
LW: I guess. Yes, I was in the runoff.
DG: The win in 1963 was by a fairly large margin. The notes say you won by nearly 16,000 votes over the second and there were only 45,000 votes cast for you, so it is a very large margin. What do you think happened between the failed attempts and your win? What was the reason for the win, do you think?
LW: I think the opposition shrank and the support stayed steady.
DG: There was the Lake Livingston project that was attached to the then mayor, that it was a project that had caused higher water rates and a lot of people were upset about that.
LW: That was ______ problem. The biggest problem. And I had it analyzed by Jeff Craft (sp?) in New York. The biggest problem was jug hole. But you could not promise to fix the jug holes because nobody would believe you, but you could promise to fix the water rates. And still, that was the one we talked about, was the problem with jug holes. That was an amazing thing that we found out but we tracked that with polling for quite some time and we spent millions to get rid of the jug holes. And now, they are putting in speed bumps to keep you from enjoying the absence of the jug holes.
DG: Tell me about that first term as mayor. What do you remember about it?
LW: It lasted 2 years.
DG: It seemed longer. What are your earliest memories of being mayor? What happened on that first day?
LW: Well, the first day that I was mayor, an agenda was handed out to every Council member -- the first time there had been a written agenda of Council business since the city managers had left. There never had been an agenda. And there has not been a meeting since that they did not have an agenda. We instituted agenda. And I think they have not been without one since.
DG: What were the issues that you faced during that first term?
LW: Well, we had to build a bridge between ourselves and the Trinity River so we would have adequate water supply, and negotiated with the Trinity River Authority, the headquarters of which were in Dallas. I know the name of the chairman is Carter. No, Amon Carter's paper supported it in Fort Worth and Dallas and Houston agreed with the contract for the Trinity River Authority. Our contract gave them a triple A rating on the bonds and if we had issued the bonds ourselves with a permit, we would only have got a double B rating. So, it worked to everybody's advantage. We got the water and as long as Dallas turned the handle, we were going to keep getting water. And they are still pulling the handle. We are still getting the water.
DG: You went on to be mayor for 10 years.
LW: And quit so I could get a raise.
DG: I want to talk about some specific things but looking back at your 10 years as mayor, what stands out in your mind as significant accomplishments, challenges, the things that you remember most that you maybe are most proud of or maybe regret the most? What stands out in your mind?
LW: Well, number one is race relations. Number two would be water supply. Number three would have to be aviation. With the planning, future planning, the freeway system and the thoroughfare system - none of that was there. The planning was but the implementation was not. My predecessor, Louis Cutrer, was a wonderful man. He had one problem: he was a former city manager. I mean, former city attorney. And he had to _______ everything that came across his desk. And whenever he left, his desk or credenza was filled with papers because he was still reviewing everything that the city attorneys did. The plans were good, the plans were there, but they weren't moving. And so, we started putting them into priority. I stayed 10 years. Did not get a raise so I went to work for the Chamber for 3 times the salary I was getting. And I could still win. The polls showed that. I did not cause the _________ for that reason mentioned.
DG: One of the biography statements that I read about you said that you did exactly what you just said, that you picked up the reins on projects that had begun, that had started two administrations before or you actually got them done. What was the secret to getting things done?
LW: Quit reading and start doing. And that is what we did. We looked at it, prioritized it and said this has got to be done. The water supply has got to be handled. This has got to be done. This has got to be done. And put it in the hands of people that were smarter than I was. The civil service director, the personnel director, they now call it human resources, came to me and he said, "Now, I know that you have got a lot of people that supported that are going to be wanting jobs and I want to know" . . . he came to me from Dupont. I never had met him when I hired him. And he said, "I want to know how do you want me to handle this politically?" And I said, "The fact that they supported me does not disqualify them nor does it qualify them. If you give an unqualified person a job because he supported me, you have done me a disservice, you have done him a disservice, and you are embarrassing me because I am going to have to fire him, no matter how good a friend he is." He said, "Well, what criteria do you want me to use?" I said, "Well, don't you ever hire anybody that is not smarter than the mayor." "I know you are joking." "No, I am not. If you hire a street sweeper that can't sweep streets better than I do, you made a mistake. If you hire a stenographer that can't take notes faster than I can and I know Gregg, you made a mistake. If you hire an engineer that doesn't know more engineering than I do, you made a mistake. Just hire people that are smarter than I am." He came back to me some months later and said, "I knew you were teasing me," but he said, "I found out it was not hard to do."
DG: I want to go back to those three things that you mentioned. Let's start with race relations. During your 10 years as mayor, it was a difficult time all across the country for race relations. Talk about that experience in Houston, those 10 years you were mayor, the significant events and how you think . . .
LW: A death out on the university of Texas Southern. An officer was shot. Had one that was injured. I got a bus that went out to a garbage dump where they were standing in front of the bulldozer. They were not letting them land fill. And I got a bus sent out from the police station and warned everybody there that if you don't get out of our way, we are going to put you on the bus, you are going to be under arrest. Some of them brought their children all back and they did not believe me. Helicopters flew out. We had one police helicopter. And we herded them all on to the bus and took them down to jail, and put the children in, I guess, Child Protective custody and locked up the parents, one of whom was Bill Lawson. He was put in jail. And that evening, the shooting started out on the Texas Southern campus. So, I got Bill Lawson out of jail and sent him out there to see if he could talk them out of it, you know, the shooting. I was in communication with him by one of the few telephones that was available. And I asked him to go up and talk to the people and see if he could get them to stop the shooting. And he came back and he said, "Mayor, they shot at me." They had shot into the ground. Nobody shot at him, they just were telling him, "No, we are not going to do it." But in the meantime, they took all the guns out of the other side of the dormitory and then when the police moved in, they could not find any sign of a gun because they had all been removed from the dormitory. But went to the police station where we had made some arrests and we went to the police station. Bill came in about the police response and he said it was absolutely necessary. And we had a little private meeting and we opened it up to the press. When they came in, he said, "It is just another case of police brutality to the press." And I sat there in total disbelief. I mean, he had changed his story. And the press said, "Bill, why did you do that?" He said, "I was talking to my constituency." I said, "You were telling us the truth." He said, "I would lose my standing with my people and my influence if I had told them what I told you, so this is a new way of doing business. Got to lie to stay in business." But he denied ever having said what he had said in the presence of the police chief and a number of other people. But when the media was there, it would change completely. I did not attend the award that was given him recently.
DG: Mayor, you had an event in your political career very early, in 1960, when there was a sit-in planned for the city cafeteria, and you intervened to calm things down. Can you share that event with us? We are backing up a little bit on the timeline.
LW: O.K. I got a call from the manager of the cafeteria. For the first time, the blacks had come into this facility. They had been denied service at the bus stations. They had been denied service everywhere. She called my office. I was a councilman. I said, "Well, call the mayor." She said, "I did." He said, "I have the contract down here to manage this and I will have to handle it. Would you come down?" And I came down. The blacks were in there but not being served. And she said, "Would you come down?" I said, "Yes." I went down and my secretary asked where I was going. I told her. She is my wife now. But anyway, she went down with me. And there were about 50 or 60 people outside in the hall outside the City Hall cafeteria trying to get in; I mean, trying to rock the blacks, two of which were already in there or three, and the manager would not do anything. So, I went down and they said, "Go get them, Louie. Go get them. Get them out of there." So, I went in there and sat down with them and we ate. They were boycotted, the restaurant was, until it rained real bad during noon. And then, they got over it. But they got so mad at me because I did not go in there and do what they wanted me to do. I did the opposite. And that was 1960, I would say. I did not remember what year. But anyway . . . [end of side 1]
DG: In the area of race relations, so much of what we read about in that era talks about the federal government and Houston and the school district, or the Houston school districts trying to integrate the school system. What role did the city play if any during that time behind the scenes or actively involved in helping to integrate the school system in Houston?
LW: We did not participate in that other than to let the school district realize that the responsibility of protecting the students was theirs and they hired Les Burton, who was a well-known HISD coach and Joe Tussa (sp?) to be their HISD police, and they handled it, I thought, beautifully. It was not instant but 1954, the order had come down from the U.S. Supreme Court and we were on solid ground . . . the first act of Congress exempted schools from immediate but deliberate speed to integrate. And they recognized the difference was going to be in Mississippi and New York. I guess Mississippi got integrated before New York did. They are not integrated yet. Well, I guess our gym is ____________.
DG: Most of that era, we think of black/white relations but towards the end of your term as mayor, 1970-1971, the Hispanics started seeking their own voice. Do you remember anything of that; some of the demonstrations that had been solely for blacks now included Hispanic representation as far as equal rights?
LW: That was not a big deal as far as I recall.
DG: Why do you think Houston, although it was in the south, avoided some of the rioting and some of the physical violence of some of the other southern cities?
LW: A lot of it I think was the fact that Houston was layered ______ the central city and the blacks lived around. And then, the whites jumped at and gradually assimilated the ring. But when I was mayor, there was still a segregated community out Westheimer called Blossom Heights. You never heard of it? It was a primarily black neighborhood and at the corner of Shepherd and Westheimer behind, do you know where the Black-Eyed Pea is and all that? That was little pockets of segregated by economics primarily. Fourth Ward, all around the hospital there. It was an interesting period.
DG: Particularly in the area of race relations, Houston of your first term and Houston of your last term represented a pretty dramatic shift in terms of race relations, at least in terms of integration. Do you see that transition when you look back on your 10 years as mayor? Was there any particular role you think city government played?
LW: Example: When I became mayor, there was one black employee at City Hall. He was the janitor in the basement and, of course, across the hall in this cafeteria, it was nearly all black cooks and bottle washers and so on. That changed.
DG: Houston received some attention from the national press during that time. Any stories stuck out in your mind when you were asked to speak, defend, explain Houston to the nation?
LW: I think I told you about the article in Newsweek.
DG: If you want to tell it again for the archives . . .
LW: Well, I was asked in an interview what happened and I said, well, the police and black population got on speaking terms. Prior to that time, the blacks tended to their own criminals. Rape was rarely reported by blacks because the brother, the boyfriend, the husband, the uncle, somebody else took care of it on a personal basis. But now, the reported rapes in the black community has increased substantially. They are reporting it to the police, and the number of rape reports is up dramatically. And I am very proud of that. And, as I said, Jack ______ said, "And they call New York fun city!"
DG: How was it reported in the paper? That is what you said but how was it reported in the magazine?
LW: Or the magazine said, "rape reports are up and I am proud of it."
DG: I want to move on to the other two things on your list. We have got about 10 more minutes left on this tape and then we will take a break while we change tapes. Are you O.K.?
LW: Now, don't move because the light changes!
DG: I won't move. You said race, water supply and aviation. Tell me the story about water supply, what you were able to do during your 10 years as mayor to secure water supply.
LW: It is very simple: we just worked out a contract with the Trinity River Authority to get a lower rate on the bonds to build it, a long-term renewable, renewable, renewable contract that gave us the supply without owning the source.
DG: What would have happened if you had not made that deal?
LW: It probably would still be in a bureaucratic review.
DG: And how about aviation? What are you proud of in the area of aviation in terms of accomplishments?
LW: Well, we grew from a small municipal airport, changed the name to international because there were flights to Mexico. That is international. And then, we inherited not very good management in many respects but our own airline from Denver, Continental Airlines. The airline growth has been because of the demand that is here, and we have our own airline now. Dallas had Braniff. And Fort Worth had American. Did you know those were split that way? And, of course, Denver had Continental. We got Continental. Florida had Eastern. Atlanta had Delta.
DG: During that period of growth, the old Intercontinental Airport became Hobby and then we built the new one. How much of that occurred during your tenure as mayor?
LW: When we moved out of Hobby into Intercontinental, the plans were ready almost for Intercontinental but they were in the stack. Nothing was being done. They hadn't the ability to finance it because the attention was being given to how tall the stack would get. Anyway, it was an interesting time and the demand for the service was here. And Continental went through 2 or 3 bankruptcies but it was the survivor. But now, I see it is the most profitable airline - I believe it is in today's Wall Street Journal.
DG: Mayor, in your 10 years as mayor, we have talked about accomplishments. Does anything stand out in your mind as a regret, as something you wished you had done differently, or maybe just something you had absolutely no control over that you wished just had not happened at all?
LW: Well, I wished I could have gotten a raise so I could still be mayor. I never got one. The theory was that, we've got a good mayor, why should we pay more? Or, he's got stealing privileges, why ain't he rich? Anyway, I did not get a raise, so I left for a raise.
There were some strange things that happened. We had a group that would come in every year and ask for a permit for a parade, the Gay Pride Parade, and they wanted a proclamation declaring gay pride. And I just said, "I am sorry, I won't issue the proclamation." And only the mayor can issue a proclamation. And if you come back again, it is going to be called the gay homosexual week instead of pride." The word gay wasn't with us then. Anyway, it was turned down by me over and over. Finally, they said, "What do we have to do to get you to issue a proclamation?" I said, "You can't do it. I read the book of Leviticus. It is referred to as wrong. I read St. Paul's letter to the Romans in which it is also referred to as wrong and I am not going to issue ever a pride and a violation of God's covenant." "Well, what do we do?" And I said, "Don't ask me for that anymore or I will change it to what it was called in the bible, an abomination. But if you want a resolution for this Council, they are free to issue a resolution. I won't sign it but if you want them to issue a resolution, any one of them can do it and it does not even require a second if it is written and it will be voted on by the entire Council and not just my decision." They could not get anybody to introduce it. So, that one went by the board. I guess I would be called something now. Maybe I am but my book still says the same thing it did.
DG: I am going to change tapes. The first thing I want to talk about is the growth of the city during that time. You talked about some of the things that supported that growth - the water supply - but this was a time when population grew, major corporations moved to Houston. Can you talk in overview during your 10 years as major, the growth that you saw and what you thought really drove that growth?
LW: I cannot remember whether it was when I was mayor or when I was at the Chamber of Commerce, and that is because my memory wheel has slipped a cog or two. Dates are not very good. But go ahead and ask your questions and give me the dates.
DG: In 1967, the Civic Center opened and it was when the municipal government really supported downtown development. It was the public library, City Hall, the federal office building, Jones Hall, the Coliseum. Do you remember that development of downtown?
DG: Well, 1967 was when sort of that development was added to or completed is what some of the research says but what role did the city play in developing downtown?
LW: Well, we accepted all the gifts of the Houston Endowment. They gave us, I believe it was referred to by John Jones as the new Opry House, and Jesse Jones said we needed one so they gave us one. And the development of the Music Hall as a separate venue for primarily professional and public use. Many commencement exercises were held there for the Houston Independent School District. It was a gathering place for many professional presentations. And, of course, the opera and the ballet and the symphony were in the Jones Hall. But now, of course, that has all moved to Wortham primarily. Jones Hall is still an active venue though.
DG: In the early 1970s, over 200 major companies moved their headquarters to Houston and Houston really benefited from that growth and from the building downtown. Did the city play a role in encouraging those businesses to move here or what do you think it was that attracted those businesses to Houston?
LW: A great many of them were attracted here because we had become the interview capital of the world, primarily in the sense that we furnished the expertise for exploration and production throughout the world. But the technology was being developed here and the technology was being supported intellectually. Offshore drilling rigs were being built in South Korea, still are. They were developed, envisioned here in Houston. And this brought a big input. The growth of the Medical Center has been fantastic. It is the biggest medical center in the world today. I was reminded on a trip to Europe some years back, the mayor of Vienna had arranged for me to be taken on a tour and what was the greatest medical center in the world in Vienna when I was growing up. As we went through, the guide said, "And many of our doctors have studied in Houston." He said, "You know, ______ have been brought."
DG: The Ship Channel was expanded greatly during the time when you first joined City Council to the time you left as mayor and that fed the growth of the city. Can you recall any of the significant milestones in the expansion of the Ship Channel?
LW: Yes. We became the number one U.S. port in value of any customs port in the United States. We were not the first in import. New York was. We were not the first in export. Seattle was. But when you put the two together, export/import, we were number one and that growth was primarily because of the petrochemical. Seattle was sending the ______ out all over and New York was getting everything in, but we were number one in the total of the two in value, not in weight. New Orleans had more weight than we had. But everything is heavier in New Orleans.
DG: The ability of the Ship Channel to handle that much tonnage was the result of some rather large scale engineering projects financed by the federal government. Did the city government play a role in securing that vote?
LW: Oh, sure, through the Port Authority. The Port Authority was a joint board. Two members were appointed by the county, two for the city, and a chairman was selected. That was before it was expanded, the board was expanded by two or three members.
DG: The 1960s, early 1970s, were also the time when Houston became known as Space City. The movement of NASA here in 1961 and 1962. Can you share with us what you remember of that time, the excitement of them moving, what it meant to it and the impact that it had on the city?
LW: Well, Albert Thomas moved it here. He was the chairman of the subcommittee on independent agencies for the United States Congress Appropriations Committee, and this was under his jurisdiction so he said, "I will just take it to Houston." But they got Rice University involved and Rice, I believe, donated the land and became partners with them. It was a very prideful achievement.
DG: What was it like back then to be the mayor of the city when the whole world had its eyes focused on Houston? What were those times like? Just for somebody who did not live through that time period that could never really appreciate what it was like, what were those times like, those space launches? I remember when I was a kid, everything stopped for a space launch. Now, we don't hardly pay attention at all unless there is a tragedy. But can you kind of share with us what it was like back then?
LW: It was excitement. I went to the NASA office on several occasions for either blast off or recovery and finally attended the recovery of one of the Apollo visions, 14, off the coast of Samoa. So, it was an exciting period for me.
DG: What was the impact to the city in terms of its self-image, in terms of the business that it brought? We read the statistics but as a citizen and as a mayor, what did it mean to the city to have NASA come to town?
LW: Well, they renamed it Space City USA. I don't know whether the name stuck or not but Space City USA.
DG: In 1965, the first baseball game was played in the Astrodome. Share with us what it was like, the building of the Astrodome.
LW: It was the exhibition game with the New York Yankees. I did not go. I gave my tickets away. A friend of mine from West Texas who was the only baseball fan I really knew when I was growing up - I lived in Slaton and there wasn't a lot of baseball except sand lot. And this guy was a great fan. Somebody called me and told me he was in town and, I think, at Anderson, and I gave him the tickets. And I know he enjoyed it a lot more than I would have.
DG: What do you remember of Roy Hofheinz and the building of the Astrodome?
LW: I remember that he dug the hole and saying there was not enough money to finish. It was not at all dissimilar with his activities. And the holes from the water. So, they had to put pumps pumping it out so that they could put a lid on it and stop it from coming in. It cost millions of dollars with the storm drainage that everybody on the inside knew was going to have to be done but they waited until the hole was there and full before they thought of the part of even having to have, not a revenue bond at this time but a _____ bond to get him out of the hole. And it is no wonder that he died bankrupt.
DG: Houston became known for NASA, the Astrodome, the Medical Center. What was it known for before those things came to town? What was Houston famous for before the Astrodome and the Space Center? All that happened while you were mayor. When you became mayor, what was Houston known for?
LW: It was the energy capital. It was the center of exploration and production worldwide.
DG: Houston has never embraced zoning. It is probably the largest city in America that does not have zoning.
LW: Yes, I had to get some variations to get some of the federal programs into Houston that other cities were getting by grants to zone cities. LBJ helped me do that.
DG: What do you think it is about Houston and the people who live here that make them not want to embrace zoning as other cities have?
LW: Zoning is a restriction on your freedom. We have zoning but it is economic. When a piece of property becomes too valuable for its current use, it is rezoned by economics into something that is more useful. That is the reason you see so many of these storage places or you see so many car washes. Temporary use so you can pay the taxes until a larger and greater use comes by. And that is economic zoning. And you see what has happened with the economic zoning in the near downtown. The economy says these shacks have got to go and it has got to go so that people can live downtown. And look what is happening today. They are carrying out building and the core city is getting bigger. Core cities nearly everywhere are diminishing in population.
DG: In the 1960s, Houston was known in a lot of cities as a place of high crime rates. 1961, the Houston murder rate was 2-1/2 times the national rate.
LW: I will give you the rate when I left the mayor's office. It was tied for 23rd nationally with St. Paul, Minneapolis.
DG: And how did that happen?
LW: Well, I was mayor.
DG: Was it the threat of personal retaliation or was it a policy?
LW: No, we just said we don't like murderers and so go somewhere else. So, they moved to New Orleans and Dallas.
DG: In 1966, there was a study that said that a city the size that Houston was then should have had 2,600 policemen and the city only had 1,300 policemen. During your term as mayor, did you increase the number of policemen? Was that a goal? Was it a priority?
LW: We recruited where ever we could. We got some cops that moved over from San Antonio because we were paying more. But it was hard to recruit cops during that period. It just did not pay that much. But I remember I was driving back from a little town on the other side of San Antonio and an officer pulled me over and said, "You are speeding." "I am sorry, Officer." "Let me see your driver's license." I handed him my driver's license. "Are you the mayor of Houston?" I said, "Yes." He said, "I am not going to give you a ticket. You have gotten every cop in Texas a raise."
DG: Terrific. In the early 1960s, there were those who thought that there were elements within the Houston police force that were members of the John Birch Society and possibly even the Klan. Was that something that you were aware of and that you addressed as an issue when you became mayor?
LW: I don't know anything about the John Birch Society but I do know we had a cop who had his picture made in a Klan uniform and everything, but he was an undercover cop for the police department. And he was elected to office in the Klan. But he was reporting all the time back to us. So, I never did know if we had any cops that were Klansman but I do know that the one that they exploited was working for us. I guess he was a double agent.
DG: Towards the end of your tenure of mayor in 1973, that horrible story broke about the Houston mass murders, the 27 young boys that were found. What do you remember of that story?
LW: Shock. Pure shock. That could go on. That was a homosexual ring. It was operated in the Heights. Nobody knew it. They were exploiting these children. Pedophiles.
DG: We have had a recent experience with hurricanes. In 1961, Carla struck the Gulf Coast and it was one of the more destructive storms in Houston history. Do you remember anything of Carla?
LW: Yes. It took Dan Rather out of Houston. All of those pictures of him in his slicker and his rain hat being blown away -- he was a local news man. And he never came back.
DG: How did the city respond and how did other cities respond? We take certain pride in our response during Katrina. Do you remember if we received help from other cities? How did we respond as a city?
LW: I don't know that we ever got any help from any other city. It was just an act of nature. We dealt with it without any big deal.
DG: And how did Houston deal with it? What infrastructure, what support services were in place?
LW: We had civil defense and they managed almost everything as far as things that occurred in that period of time. We had a director by the name of Robert E. "Bob" Smith who was a very wealthy oil man and a very philanthropic fellow and a strong Methodist and he made sure that the arrangements were made for food and clothing and shelter. And they opened up whatever public building needed to be and they held it. And there, it goes back to getting somebody smarter than you are to do the work.
DG: It sounds like you are not much of a sports fan but during your tenure, major league baseball came to Houston, the Astrodome was built and the Houston Rockets came to Houston. Do you remember those achievements, what it meant to the city, the city's image and the city's economy?
LW: Well, it was _______ on the sports page every day everywhere but if it had any big economic impact, I thought _______ it used Houston dollars to patronize the young millionaires. And if you don't think the Rockets are millionaires, they were, they are.
DG: In 1964, there was an encephalitis epidemic.
LW: It lasted 100 days.
DG: Can you tell me about it?
LW: I did not cause it! But I had a visit from Dr. C.A. Bigford who came to my office and told me that it had reached a proportion that was epidemic and that the deaths were occurring at a rate . . . and he gave me the rate, I do not recall exactly . . . I said, "What do we do?" and he said, "Well, the carriers are birds but the one that carries it to the human is the female Culex mosquito." And I said, "Well, what do we do?" and he said, "Well, you can't kill the birds. There are too many of them." I said, "Well, there are more mosquitoes than there are birds" but he said, "Yes, but they are easier to kill." "What would you do?" He said, "I would have Houston cleaned up of mosquito breeding places." I think this was about, oh, 10 o'clock in the morning. So, I put a call out for the president of the exterminator's organization here. It was not delayed. Anyway, for him to have all the exterminators in Houston in my office. They came and we explained to them what was going on, what it was. And I said, "I don't have but $5,000 that I can give," and he said, "Hell, mayor, we live here." And that day, there was a ball game scheduled at the University of Houston at that . . . I cannot remember the name of the stadium. They went out and sprayed that immediately. And we went on television and Mrs. Hobby came to my meeting. She was heading the Post. And we had all of the media and the exterminators. The media said, "Do these things. Get rid of mosquito breeding places. You have automobile tires you use for swings? Get the water out of them. Get the water out of everything and go to the nearest fire station and get metallothionein and spray every wet place where the mosquitoes could propagate. And 100 days later, it dropped from 100 cases a day to 1 case from the day that we had that meeting. Houston did it. Did not have any federal funds, did not have anything. And I only had $5,000. We later paid them, I guess, maybe an appropriation of . . . not for their time but for their materials, but we gave away materials to every fire station. There was a shortage period of an epidemic that the federal government had. We were very proud of it.
DG: After your decision not to run for mayor and you became president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, what were you most proud of during your tenure there at the Chamber? Tell us what the role of the Chamber was back at that time.
LW: Well, the Chamber was a business organization. It was not a social organization. It has been socialized because there has been city money put into it. And it has now political ballots which is stupid. Excuse me. It is not very smart. That is not what it ought to be. Anyway, well, the growth of Houston has been on its own incentives and not on any government incentives. We have grown some because of space but that is in the Clear Lake area primarily. We have grown a great deal because of the Medical Center. Tremendous growth. And we have had tremendous growth because we are the energy capital of the world, and still enjoy that growth. You can see all around here, over one million people are living outside the city limits of Houston and never will be in the city limits of Houston.
DG: You made a decision to run for mayor again after serving as president of the Chamber. What led to that decision and tell me about that election? [end of tape #1, side 2]
LW: You made a decision to run for mayor again after serving as president of the Chamber. What led to that decision and tell me about that election?
LW: Well, it was a mistake on my part but I was drafted into it by people who thought that I could win. I could not but anyway, I was drawn into it because there was strong discontent on the part of the business community at that time with the way that many of the problems were being handled.
DG: I want to talk about some people. Before I mention some people though, when you look back on your career in public service, some names probably come to mind of what I am going to refer to as heroes and villains. Who were the heroes that maybe most of us might not have heard of -- people who served the city well, people who helped us deal with difficulties, people who you think deserve mention in this kind of historical database?
LW: Blair Justice on my staff was extremely critical to the success of the programs. The entire downtown business community was with me. A lot of the leadership came from people like Bob Dundas, the ______ Citizens Committee. They met in my office frequently but it was not a function of the mayor, it was their function. They just met in my office to raise money, not from me but from each other for the integration process and for dealing with the media. They were able to have the media silent for a 24 hour period and a lot of things occurred. The people who went out of town read about it in the Dallas paper. It was not in Houston. Anyway, it was a good period.
DG: Who are the individuals in the business community that come to mind?
LW: Bob Dundas. He was the leader of the whole thing. _______ community relations man.
DG: Anybody else in the political arena that you think served admirably?
LW: By their silence primarily. Nobody provided any leadership. During that period, the political leadership locally. But they were silent. It was a controversial position that one placed himself in and if you are running for office, why make anybody mad?
DG: What were the issues that divided people during your time as mayor? You mentioned most people were one of two different kinds of democrats but at the city level, what . . .
DG: Nonpartisan, but what were the issues that divided people?
LW: The typical conservative liberal . . . the liberalists let the government spend the money and do it. The conservatives let the people do it. We chose the conservative route.
DG: Leonel Castillo was interviewed as part of this project and mentioned about his respect for you, working with you. What do you remember of Mr. Castillo and his service as the city controller?
LW: It broke my heart but I supported Castillo against a dear friend of mine in the northeast area when he ran for city council. And this fellow had been my friend for years. And he was a city councilman from out there. I think it was Curly Miller. They called him Curly because he didn't have a hair on his head. I had been the one who gave him that nickname. He never got mad at me about it. But Leonel was there when we were supporting Judge Robinson to come on city council. I supported Leonel as controller and he is a good man. Still is.
DG: He mentioned that you and he were naturally on opposite sides of some issues but you were always able to get together over a cup of coffee and get things done.
LW: Well, Leonel followed a man who was controller who wore a belt and suspenders and carried a scotch change purse in his pocket. And Leonel was not of that type at all, but he was rather conservative also with the peoples' money. When the question came, who shall make the decision in the revenue forecast? I said, "I do." And he said, "No, I do." So, we had an election that the city adopt, and it was already the law, a statute which the legislature had passed that said the mayor. And so, there was no more argument about it. We worked it out together on revenue forecast. We always were conservative. Always on the conservative side. We underestimated revenue but we never overestimated the spending, so we gained every year.
DG: You have been given credit in some written histories for Houston's triple A bond rating and through your policies of fiscal conservatism, can you share for the benefit of the people who are going to access this database, was that a personal philosophy? How were you able to turn the city around and to stay consistent to those . . .
LW: Every time we had a bond sale, I accompanied the bond sale to whoever was our bond agent in New York. Usually Chase Bank. And I always met with the rating agencies. And I came in one time and I was introduced to the Standard & Poors analyst. And the fellow who introduced me said, "This is the first time we have ever had an elected mayor come without his ______ of assistants and staff. But, he said, you all have been furnished a copy of their annual statement and you may have some questions you want to ask. _______ shooting fish in a barrel." And they started to ask me a question. One of the guys said, "Now we know why you did not bring anybody." I had studied it fairly, every page, and I could give the ratios and debt service and how we could sell bonds at the rate that we were selling them without any increase in taxes. And these were general obligation bonds. And it was simply because we estimated our revenue growth, we knew what our debt services was going to be, and when I left office, we had a full year debt service paid in advance, triple A. And, by the way, the school district got a triple A, too, because we were their collection agency.
DG: And was that a natural aptitude on your part or something that you picked up after you became mayor?
LW: I was a student in the City Council from the time I was elected to City Council.
DG: How has the city changed from that first day when you walked in and sat in on your first City Council meeting to today? Some of the changes are obvious - the growth is obvious, but in terms of the spirit of the city, the nature of the city, the people that live here, how has the city changed most in your eyes?
LW: It is still a city of opportunity. I think that is an important part of it. It is still a city where you can buy more for your housing with your housing dollar than you could buy in almost any big city in America. Certainly more than New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver. It has a good quality of life. We have an extremely low unemployment rate. We have too many fat people.
DG: What would you want young people who did not live during that time to know about that era when you served as mayor, to either understand it more or what would you want them to take away from it? People can look at the same events and draw different conclusions. What conclusions should we draw from your 10 years as mayor about the city and the people who lived here?
LW: That we live side-by-side with respect to our neighbors, whoever they are. Respect for one another.
DG: Is that a natural part of our character or is that something that has been built up here and guided over time?
LW: It is not a natural part of our character. Two year old kids fight over a rattle. Two years old, they are already fighting over a possession, a toy. So, it is not natural. But it is great.
DG: I want to just see if we have missed anything. Was there anything that I was not smart enough to ask you about that you were hoping to talk about?
LW: You have not asked when my birthday is.
DG: I wrote that down. December 9.
LW: I will be 88 if the Lord lets me live that long. It is 12:20. That says it is time for you to leave.
DG: Any closing thoughts?
LW: I think I just expressed it.
DG: Terrific. Thank you.