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Interview with: Martha Wong
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: June 18, 2008
DG: I am interviewing Martha Wong for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Ms. Wong?
MW: I am great, thank you.
DG: Let’s begin at the beginning. Can you tell me about when you were born, where you were born and your early days?
MW: Yes, I was actually born in Houston in St. Joseph Hospital. My parents had moved from Mississippi to Houston so that my sister would have better educational opportunities. I was born in 1939. The United States at that time was quite different than it is today and in those days, they still had segregation and segregated schools in Mississippi. And so, my father wanted a better opportunity for my sister who would have had to go to the African American schools because the Asians were neither black nor white. And so, they considered them, because of a little darker skin, that they would have to go to the African American schools and my father wanted my sister to have a better opportunity, so they moved to Houston. But ironically, when they moved to Houston, no one would rent to them so they had to stay with friends and finally my father was able to rent a store, for a grocery store over in the Heights at the corner of North Main and Studewood, an unusual intersection. And so, my father had that grocery store but nobody would rent a house to him so my family lived in the storeroom of the grocery store. It was double the size of this room that we are in so I guess it is about 25 x 50 or 60. And we had stacks of groceries there and we had our beds there and a little table and a stove where my mom cooked. So, it was kind of an early loft, an early loft in a storeroom.
DG: A positive spin!
MW: Well, you know, we have been taught to be very positive and so, that is where my life began. I was born in St. Joseph January 20, 1939. And so, it was a very meager beginning.
DG: Did you have a sense when you were young of having been denied what was available to other kids?
MW: No, actually I did not. I mean, we thought that was normal. You know, you don’t know what is different until you experience other things. The grocery store in the Heights was in a blue collar neighborhood. All of our friends who lived right behind our grocery store a street had homes but that did not seem to bother us when we were growing up. Finally, my father, when I was ready to enter kindergarten, was able to get a customer who was a good customer to purchase a house and then sell it to him. And so, we were able to move into a home across the street and it was a fairly large wooden home, a typical home of that time. And so, from about 6 years on, we had a home but I shared a twin bed with my sister so it was not luxurious. It had attic fans. I do not know if people remember the days of attic fans but that is how we cooled ourselves. So, I never had the impression that we were poor and mainly because we had the grocery store. So, we always had food. So, that was not an issue at that time but I know that my mom was very, I guess, ingenuous in preparing food because she would always take the food that was about ready to be thrown out, so you would eat the leftover spoiled food that was still good and cook it. So, I do not feel deprived at all but it was a meager beginning. When you go back and you look back, it looks that way but no, I always felt that we were, I guess, average. I remember having 5 dresses for school, 1 for each school day. And so, I thought that was wonderful to have a different dress for every day.
DG: Where did you go to school?
MW: I went to Eugene Field Elementary School and there were 3 of us. I have a younger sister that was born and I have an older brother who was in the Navy. And so, this was, of course, during the war. He was in the Navy during the war. And the 3 girls, all of us, went to Eugene Field Elementary. My older sister, Mary, is very smart and so she kind of set the standard for us that we all had to be smart and we all had to make good grades and we did. We were good students and were all receiving honors and awards.
DG: After elementary school, where did you go?
MW: After elementary school, I went to Hogg Junior High School. It was down the street. We were on 19th Street and Hogg was on, I believe, 11th Street. We would ride the bus in the morning down there because, you know, you are not getting up as early as you should but we would always walk home. And so, there was a drugstore there at the corner of 11th at Studewood that was our favorite thing to do, was to buy a cherry phosphate on the way home and to drink that all the way home on the way to school. And junior high school, I had a teacher that I cannot remember her name but that was a homeroom teacher who seemed to always encourage me to do things. I ran for cheerleader and did not win but had the courage to do that. I also was active in the Honor Society and those kinds of things in junior high school. But as soon as we were able to in junior high school, we began working in my dad’s grocery store. So, every day after school, we would come home, all 3 of us, and we would work in the grocery store until about 7 or 8 and then my dad would close it up. Sometimes we would work until closing and I learned how to sweep floors and stock shelves and finally I graduated to cashier. So, it was a good upbringing. I learned how to make change because in those days, you did not have those little cash registers that told you how much change to give when you put in the money received. And so, that was quite a skill in those days.
DG: What did you do for fun?
MW: For fun, when we were little, over behind the grocery store where we lived at that time, I remember just going outside and playing with the neighbors and we just kind of passed the time doing nothing. We had a big mulberry tree in the neighbor’s yard and I remember us trying to climb that mulberry tree and get the mulberries down. I remember when we had gone treat or tricking and we would go up and down that street and I remember there was one family that we thought was mean because they tricked us rather than treated us. And so, those are a few childhood things. When we moved into the home on Studewood, there was a young couple that lived next door to our home. It was the Grisoms, and he had just returned from the Navy and they had 3 children but they were a young, young couple so I remember the kids in the neighborhood would all get together and we would play hide and seek and we would play red rover, red rover. We would play all those yard games that you play outside. We would play jacks. I was very skilled at jacks. I don’t know that girls even play that nowadays. We played dress up. Our neighbor would give us her old clothes so we would have clothes to dress up in. I remember helping my mom wash clothes in those days. We did not have a washing machine and so when my mom and dad did not work on Sunday, they closed the grocery store, so on Sundays, we would wash the clothes in these big galvanized tubs and a wash board and get out there and scrub the clothes and then hang them out on the line. And we had what you called a wash house connected to the garage which had the big tubs and faucets and those kinds of things. So, I remember those things and then hanging clothes out on the lawn. It was a good childhood. In the summer when we weren’t in school, I remember a game we used to play. You know, we did not have a lot of toys . . . the bus would stop right in front of our home, so we would keep track of the busses that came with their numbers and then when it would come back down, we would see that it came back down and if a bus didn’t come, we were wondering what happened to it. One time, we called and they told us that the bus was broken so it did not quite make it. So, it was kind of a way to pass the time was just to keep track of the busses that came and went. We found unique ways to keep ourselves busy.
DG: You were already in mass transit then. What high school did you attend?
MW: I went to Reagan High School, also where my sisters, all 3 of us went there. At the time that we went to Reagan High School, there were very few Asians in the city of Houston at that time. I believe that there were 2 other families of Asians in that time and that was the first time I was exposed to Asians, so to speak, in the neighborhood. There was the Ong family who lived over closer and went to Washington Junior High School and then there was the Daniel Lui family who now today lives close to me. So, we have been able to keep those close relationships. That has been kind of unique. When I was in Hogg Junior High, I think there was only 1 other Asian girl who was in junior high school with me. In elementary, there were no other children other than our family.
DG: What did you want to be when you grew up?
MW: You know, we did not even think about that in those days but then when it came time to go to college . . . our parents always told us that we would go to college, there was never a question about when you finish high school, what are you going to do? The question was, when you finish high school, which college do you want to go to? And neither of my parents had college educations but they understood the importance of that. My sister, Mary, went to North Texas which is kind of a small school and my younger sister went to Baylor. I chose the University of Texas. When I was in high school, I did a lot of speech work. We had a speech teacher named Pappy Holcombe. He is a wonderful man. I thought he was always very strict on me. We went on speech tournaments and I won numerous medals doing extemporaneous speech. And I think that is what gives me the gift of gab today so that I can probably speak anywhere, anytime on any topic just because I know a little bit about it but sometimes that is kind of dangerous. But extemporaneous speech required you to be well-read and to know topics well, and then you would pull a topic and then you would have 30 minutes to prepare a speech to convince someone whatever it was. It was kind of like debate but to discuss the issue. And so, I think that prepared me well for my public life that I had later on which I was not quite aware of.
In the days that I went away to college, there weren’t too many choices of what women should be. That was back in 1957. Women had the choice of either being teachers or nurses. I did not especially care for nursing and the blood and that stuff so I chose education. And I remember going to the University of Texas and sitting in this huge room where it had all the education majors and they called out, “senior high school teachers, those who want to major in secondary education,” and I just sat there. “Those who want to major in junior high education?” I sat there. So, there was nothing left. By the time they called elementary, I figured I’d better get up and go. So, I majored in elementary education. I had a wonderful time at the University of Texas. My belief when I went away to the University, because my sisters had gone to a small school, they said, “Well, Martha, if you go to that big school, you are going to be a little fish in a big school rather than a big fish in a little school,” and I said, “No, I am going to be a big fish in a big school.” So, I had ambitions then that I did not know that I had. I went to the University, became a member of a service organization called Spooks which they only allowed 4 women who were not in a sorority to be in that organization of all the independents there. And so, I was tapped to be in that organization. And I met Carol Keaton Rylander there and we became fast friends. I became the president of Spooks and she was the spirit of Spooks who trained the next class of girls for service. And then, we went on to be members of Orange Jackets and Mortar Board (??) and I served also as a dorm advisor. So, I felt like I was able to provide some leadership when I was at the University. And, of course, I met my husband there but I met him at home at the Chinese Baptist Church and then we dated when we were at UT. I married him 1 week after I finished college.
DG: The story you are telling tells a lot about your willingness to be active but when did the political awareness kick in?
MW: I think the political awareness . . . you know, I can really take it back to a time when I was a little girl when I go back and I think about how I became politically aware. When I was a little girl, you know, my dad worked in the store, my mom worked in the store and then we worked in the store afterwards but even before I could work in the store, I guess I was probably about 7 or 8 years old and my sister maybe was working in the store at that time but my dad went to vote and it was in the days when you had the curtains, the booths, and you closed the curtains and you pushed these little levers and things. But my dad took me with him to vote one day and, you know, when you have a grocery store, you cannot leave it because there are only 2 of you there, and so I figured somehow that became evidently important. If my dad would leave the grocery store enough to go and vote, and I guess he probably took me so my mom would not have to contend with all 3 of us to go with him to vote and went into that booth with him, somehow, somewhere I think that made an impression upon me on the importance of voting and, to this day, I vote every time. And so, I think that was an early kind of indication. I remember as teenagers, when we were sitting around the table at dinner and our family tradition and custom was that my father would come home from the grocery store, we were already home doing our homework, and then when my father came home and he was ready to eat, he would sit down at the head of the table and then the rest of us could sit, or else we would sit and we would wait but we could not eat until he sat down. So, that was the respect that we were taught for our father. But many times when I was in high school, my father would discuss with us what was happening in the news and me being in the speech world and having to read all the New York . . . Time Magazine and Newsweek Magazine, I was pretty up-to-date on things that were happening. And my father would discuss things. I remember when Eisenhower ran that as young girls, we went out . . . we had leaves in our front yard and we formed “IKE,” the word Ike on our front yard. So, that was some political awareness at a young age.
DG: Well, it was easier to spell than Adelai!
MW: Yes! And so, we did that. And then, technically, I probably did not get involved in actual politics until my friend, Vince Ryan, ran for City Council. And that, of course, was when I was married, had 3 children, my husband was deceased and I was in Waco at that time but I had met Vince Ryan through Leadership Houston, and he was going to run for City Council and I thought he was a good person and he asked me to help him, so I did. While I was in Waco, what I did was I took my church directory and looked up all of the zip code numbers that were in Vince’s district, which is the same district that I represented and wrote notes to everyone from my church who lived in the district to vote for Vince Ryan. And luckily, he won. Then, of course, Vince, after he did not win . . . he term limited himself, is when the seat became available and I ran. But before that, I came back to Houston and a number of Asians were somewhat involved by supporting candidates. I think those who probably wanted to do business with the city were involved. But other people, when they saw that I helped Vince win, then they asked me to support them. Then, I was living in a neighborhood, back in the neighborhood and had a lot of good friends because in the neighborhood that I lived, I was the PTA president. My husband had done Indian Guides, I had done Girl Scouts, I was president of my homeowner’s association, so I knew a lot of people. And so, I would send out cards for people who wanted me to support them, and within the Asian community, people started calling me and saying, “You know, you seem to pick out the winners.” Some of them were not picking out the winners and they said, “Why don’t we get together and support the same people so that we can make Asian issues apparent to those who are running?” And so, we formed what we called the Asian American Coalition and got people from the different ethnic groups. When Fred Hofheinz ran against Kathy Whitmire, if you can remember those days, we felt very good because we had this supposedly huge meeting at the Chinese church down on South Main, had about 1,000 people there, and we agreed that we would do a straw vote. We brought in voting machines so people would know how to vote and that is when they had gone to those punch cards and so we wanted to make sure everyone knew how to do that. And we set that up and had Kathy and Fred debate in front of our group and then we were all going to vote after for who we wanted to win. And the group that was forming the coalition decided that regardless of who won, because of the people that were there, we would support that person even if we . . . because some of us supported Hofheinz, some of us supported Whitmire but we decided we would stick together and we would support one person. Fred Hofheinz won by 4 votes. So, we raised money for Fred Hofheinz and in those days, we raised $60,000, which was a lot of money in those days – the Asian community did – and we worked with Fred and we told Fred that we wanted him to call a press conference to tell people how much money we had raised for him. And he did. He was very gracious and we worked in his campaign and tried to help him win, but Kathy won, and so, then, of course, we had to kiss and make up with Kathy. She was a very gracious winner and she invited a group of us down to City Hall for breakfast and we shared with her our concerns about the Asian community. So, that is kind of how I got started.
DG: Your life began in Houston in the time when a respectable businessman could not rent a place for his family and then a relatively short time later, you are president of the PTA and your homeowners association. In some ways, Asians are the forgotten minority in Houston, where so much attention was paid to black relations and then the emergence of Hispanics. Can you talk about that shift? Was it conscious? Can you point to certain events or did it happen so gradually, you did not even realize it?
MW: Well, I think that my mother and father always told us the importance of being a part of something, and even though they did not have a lot extra time because they worked in the grocery store, when we were little, I can remember we had May fates at those times when each class would dance and perform, and people were to make donations to help, and I remember my mom and dad donating sugar for the cotton candy. So, there was always this idea that you would always be a part of the community. My father was very active in the Chinese community at that time. There is what we call a G family association and my father used to travel to other cities to go to the G family conventions and I remember him coming home and bringing us a doll home from New York City. So, somewhere, his example told us that we needed to participate. And so, I think that that example that they set for us told us to do that. I have always . . . I guess I am a gregarious person anyway and willing to volunteer and to help out, and when my children . . . the neighborhood we lived in was in Meyerland and there, everyone on our street had nearly the same age children. Our children became very good friends of the other children. Everybody slept over at each other’s houses. So, we were very integrated into the neighborhood. We had assimilated big time, I would think you would say. We still attended though the Chinese Baptist Church. And so, that was our connection to the Chinese community as my family was growing up and as we became active in our neighborhood. And, you know, when your kids are in school, you just want to make sure it is a good school so we did that and we had friends on the PTA and they asked us to be the president. It was a couple thing. My husband and I both said yes. My philosophy is you’d better join something to find out what is going on because if you do not like it, then you can change it. If you do like it, then that is fine – you keep it going. So, I have always felt that wherever I lived, that I wanted to be a part of the people who made decisions about what was going to happen with our neighborhood.
DG: Did you ever have a sense though that you weren’t invited to participate?
MW: No, I never did. You know, that is a funny thing because when we were the PTA presidents at Herron, we were getting ready to nominate new people and the piano teacher for my children was also on the PTA board, so I was over there waiting for the children to take piano lessons with her and she was on the board and I said, “You know, there is a new couple in the neighborhood who are African American. I think we ought to include them on our board.” And she said, “Oh, Martha, I don’t think so. I don’t think that the board is ready to accept African Americans on the board or minorities on the board.” I said, “What do you mean you aren’t accepting minorities on the board? I’m a minority.” She said, “Well, we don’t even think of you as a minority.” She said, “We think of you as one of us.” And so, from there, I could tell that, you know, I was easily accepted. The other thing that had happened to me very early on when I was at the University of Texas – this is 1960, University of Texas. I was the president of the Spooks organization which is a service organization for freshmen women. When I became the president the next year, I wanted to include the African American sororities because it was only the white sororities and then independents. And I brought that up as why don’t we start including the African American sororities, and the girls voted it down. But then shortly after I finished school, they included them. So, I think I have always been a proponent of being inclusive because I, not being aware of that . . . I was not aware that my father could not get a house until much later, until I was nearly an adult. They never told us that people didn’t like us or that there were prejudices against us. So, that wasn’t ever in my mind. And so, that is why I just was a part of whatever was there. In those days, there weren’t a lot of Asians in the neighborhoods and so I think when you don’t have large numbers, that other groups are not threatened. When more numbers come, people become threatened. So, the assimilation was fairly easy for us but I will share with you one thing that was kind of funny . . . do you know that as late as 1970 in Houston, Texas, River Oaks would not allow Asians to buy in River Oaks. That was a part of their deed restrictions. And then, in 2003, which is how many years later . . .
MW: I became the representative for the people in River Oaks. So, I think that it shows how far we have come and how accepting people are. I think the other thing that probably makes me more acceptable to, I guess, the Anglo or the Caucasian race is my southern accent because people are always surprised when they hear it. I am not even aware of it. When I was on Council, this one man had called me up and he said, “Mrs. Wong, you must have married a Chinese man with that last name.” I said, “Yes, I did. Why do you ask that question?” He said, “Because you don’t have a Chinese accent.” I said, “Well, I am Chinese and I did marry a Chinese man but I am Chinese,” because he thought Wong was only there because I had married someone with a Chinese name. So, my accent really deceives a lot of people, I think, if they are only talking to me by phone or without seeing me.
DG: I want to go back to the chronology. After graduating from college, you taught in HISD from 1973 to 1976, is that right?
MW: From 1960 . . . I finished college in 1960, got married that same year and I taught for 2 years.
MW: At Durkey Elementary School. I will tell you another story about a little prejudice that I did not expect. Growing up in Houston, I felt very little prejudice. I mean, we were in a blue collar neighborhood, we were well accepted, we were the scholars in our school, we were active in our high school. I went on speech tournaments with people, I shared rooms with other girls, so I felt no prejudice whatsoever. When I went away to college, one of my sister’s friends took me to college with my sister. Both of them were traveling to California, so they dropped me off in Austin, Texas, and my sister’s friend said, “Martha, I think you’d better put a picture of your boyfriend up so they will know you are Chinese. They will see the Chinese boyfriend’s pictures and then they will know you are Chinese.” She said, “So that they’ll know” . . . because the roommate was not there when I arrived . . . “so that when they come in, they will know that your Chinese.” And I thought, what difference does that make, you know, because I had never experienced anything . . . I had a great roommate and we got along fine. The other time that I remember someone saying something to me . . . that was the first incidence . . . then when I finished the University of Texas in 1960, I applied for Houston ISD, was offered a job right away. I also applied for Spring Branch ISD. That was supposed to be a higher school. I came home to Houston, interviewed at the Spring Branch School District. The personnel person that I interviewed with, we were right across the hall from a lounge and he says, “I would like for you to go into the lounge and walk around and visit with the people in there and come back and tell me what happened.” I went into the lounge, there was no one there and so I came back out and went to him and said, “Well, no one was in the lounge.” And I thought, well, that was a strange request but when you go back and you think about things, I think he wanted to see how the teachers would react to an Asian teacher because, at that time, Spring Branch did not have any Asian teachers. And I was not asked to work there. I later had a friend who is an Asian woman who was there, a young girl that I helped mentor and become a teacher and become an administrator and she was an assistant principal and then she wanted to apply for a principalship and she did not get it. She sued them and won because they would not promote her because she was Asian. I do not think that exists today though. Well, give us the chronology then. You taught for a couple of years and then take us through those years.
MW: I married in 1960 and I taught for a couple of years. And then, I got pregnant with our first child and thought I would go back to teaching. I could not quite make it up and so, I decided to stay home. I had 3 children and stayed home for about 10 years with the 3 children. At the very beginning, we lived with my husband’s family and then when our third child came, we bought our own home in Meyerland. I was Ms. Suzie Homemaker. I cooked and sewed, I made our clothes, I made the children’s clothes, I made my clothes, and those days, you know . . . when I first started teaching, I only made $4,000 a year and I thought I was rich! But to save money and to do things, I even made my own napkins so I would not have to use paper towels and I would cut up sheets and sew the edges and made our napkins. I just did all kinds of things to be as frugal as we knew how to. We did not eat out much then but we also knew the importance of teaching our children manners at home and out. So, as they got a little bit older and were able to go out, one of our big events was once a month, we would go out to a white cloth restaurant and have the boys dress up in suits, and they were still young, you know, probably 7 and 8 years old, and teach them all the niceties of eating out, which forks to use and how to open the door and seat mom and sis and hold the chairs for us. So, that was a part of their growing up. One time, we went to – I do not remember the restaurant. It was downtown. It had a safari theme. It had all these animals up on the wall. We were in that restaurant and when we finished eating, my children said, “We don’t want to come back here because we don’t like to see those animals looking at us when we are eating.” It was a very fine restaurant, you know, but they did not want to go back there. So, to this day, we just felt that that was very good training for them. I remember girls that have dated my son when he was at UT and they were saying, “Oh, Troy has such nice manners and when he goes out, he always orders hors d’oeuvres and soups and the whole ball of wax to eat rather than just” . . . you know, a lot of people will just take their dates out for something very small but he does the whole ball of wax. I said, “Well, that is a part of the training that we had as we grew up.”
DG: Yes, you take credit for the good things.
MW: Well, we are very proud. I am very proud of our children.
DG: Then you went back to teaching?
MW: I went back to teaching after 10 years. That was after we had moved to Meyerland. Two of the children were in school and one was in the neighborhood nursery school. My mom and dad had retired and they bought a home – we were on one side of the school and they were on the other, so they were about 2 blocks from us. And so, I decided to try substitute teaching and I substitute taught at the school where the children went. I had been the PTA president and knew the principal quite well, and so she allowed me to . . . that was the only school I would do my substituting in. And the children would walk to my mother’s house which was just across the street and she would watch them until I finished. And then eventually, I went back to full-time teaching and became a special education teacher. And then after that, I taught special ed for a couple of years and then became a principal, an elementary school principal at Coulter Elementary where we had a number of special ed classes and they wanted a principal who understood all of the intricacies of the law at that time. So, I was the principal at Coulter Elementary School for 3 years. My husband had a heart attack in the 3rd year and we were getting ready to decide whether he should move from pharmacy into real estate or not and he passed and so I had another year to go on my doctorate. You know, they tell you don’t change anything when you have a major disaster like that so I stayed another year at Coulter but had to finish up my doctorate because I was at the end of the time line. They give you 7 years. And I had just taken 1 course a year when I was doing my substitute work and when I was a principal so that I could also be home with the kids and my husband and so just 1 night a week, I would go to school. So, I had to finish the doctorate so I took a leave of absence and finished my doctorate. At that time, when I was finishing my doctorate, I had a daughter at the University of Texas, a son at Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, and then my youngest son was a senior at Bellaire High School, and then he went to school the next year, so we had 4 kids in college at the same time, including mom.
DG: That’s great. You went into administration?
MW: I did. I had been a principal before. I already had my master’s, I had my administrative certification, so I wanted to get my superintendent certification and also to get the doctorate. So, when I finished my doctorate, Dr. Billy Rankin was the superintendent at that time and they did not save my job at the elementary school, so he asked me to come into central office and I worked with him just as an administrator and did flunky work for him, but he really taught me a lot, especially board relationships and how to prepare for board meetings, and I instigated several new programs that are very well known today. I worked under Dr. McIntire who was in charge of staff development.
At that time, teachers were not entering into the field of education, so we were close to 3,000 teachers short every year when school started. So, I think Dr. Reagan had gone to the Legislature and asked them to put in what we call alternative certification, and that allowed people who had bachelor’s degrees to come in and to teach and then we would train them with teaching methods and whatever other courses they needed; while they were actually teaching, they would go to school and come to our classes and then become certified at the end of the year. So, I implemented that program and today, it is very successful. HISD still runs that program. I think every school district has it or every regional service center has it so that people who have doctorates do not have to go back through the university system to get their degrees. And so, it is kind of a training course that we set up. It was a very exciting time and to this day, every once in a while, I will run across a teacher. The first year when we did that, it was also a time when people were losing their jobs. So many people wanted jobs. I think we probably had close to 2,000 applications – we only trained 300. It was kind of a trial run because they had not written the rules for it in Austin. We were implementing and writing the rules and then I would have to go to Austin and say, “This is what we did. I hope you write the rules this way.” And so, it was quite an exciting time.
DG: You also worked at Houston Community College?
MW: I did. After I worked at HISD under Dr. Reagan -- I had lost my husband, then Dr. Reagan quit and I said, oh my God, all these men in my life are leaving! He decided he wanted to go on and do other things and Joan Raymond became the superintendent and she brought in her group of people, so I was sent to be a principal again over at Cornelius Elementary over on the east side. I knew that I did not want to be a principal again. I felt like I had learned all of that stuff, did not really want to learn that again, wanted to do something else, so I began looking for a job and luckily, I was very active because I had done staff training and active in the Administrator’s Association and one of my friends from Waco that I had seen at a convention said, “Well, they are looking for a professor at Baylor University,” and I said, “oh?”, she said, “Come and talk to Dr. Estes.” I visited with him and he said, “Will you come down to Waco and interview for this position?” because they wanted someone who had been in the field to be the professor versus someone who had never worked in a public school, and because I had my doctorate and had done the things they wanted the experience to be, I was hired. It was the first time I got to negotiate my own salary, my office and all that stuff because in public schools, you only negotiate that when you are a superintendent, so I felt really good and got everything I wanted, everything I asked for. I taught an organizational development course and also some basic courses in education, enjoyed it, and also headed up their development center there for principals and for administrators. So, I worked with them in Central Texas – very interesting job. And then, you are supposed to do research, you know, and I was ready to do my research proposal and all of that, and thinking about it, decided that I am not a small town girl – I am a big city girl, and I did not really want to stay in Waco. It was quite a different . . . I felt like I was living the 1950s all over again and it was like 1980s, and I did not want to have to go through again, so I turned in my resignation and that is when I came back and did a little consulting work, had some friends that were doing consulting work and they included me in their things. And then, I saw a friend who said, “You need to come to the Community College,” and I said, “oh, I am not sure.” Anyway, they told me to go visit J.B. Whiteley who was head of the Community College and I knew him through HISD. I went in and told him . . . he said, “Yes, there is a job there. You will be perfect for it.” So, I went in as a director for staff development for all of the Houston Community College. I had done the same thing in HISD, so now I was doing it at the community college level. And then, they decided to split up the Community College into 5 colleges and so I went with Southwest College. When I was at Southwest College, I was responsible for community resources and development. So, that put me out into the community in southwest Houston and that is when I was active on all of the little, smaller Chambers of Commerce and the Rotary Club, and going and speaking on behalf of the Community College to recruit kids and see what businesses need and met with business companies to see what kind of training could we provide for them. So, my goal was outreach to the community. So, by doing that, I met many, many people and so when I ran for City Council, I had a very large base of people who knew me. And so, that was the kind of . . . it seems like it just progressed that I could do that.
DG: What were the issues in that first campaign?
MW: That is what is so funny. The issues were, again, transportation which has always . . . but I think at that time, Mayor Lanier was the mayor . . . transportation was the streets, it was the repairing of the streets and making sure that neighborhoods were nice, neighborhood safety, and those kinds of things. And because I had been a neighborhood president and very active in the neighborhoods, I knew what the problems were. I remember very distinctly having been a teacher and deciding I was going to run, there was this little Asian American coalition that decided that I should run. The group that I had put together before, we actually had other people that were going to run and at the last minute, they decided not to run. So, on a Sunday night, they said, “We’ve got to meet and decide what we are going to do.” And we were meeting and they said, “Well, you need to run because you are the only one left. The district does not have someone and it is easier to win when the incumbent is not running.” I said, “O.K.” So, I decided to run. But the last day to register to run was the next day, Monday. That was the deadline. I was supposed to go to Dallas to give a speech in Dallas and so my speech was not until the afternoon so I figured I could go by, get a check, get my cashier’s check at the bank at 7 o’clock in the morning, get to the airport by 9 and get there by 10 and still make my conference. Well, you cannot get a cashier’s check through the drive-in window! So, I had to wait until 9 and then I got my cashier’s check but I still made it. But, in those days, you know, they had those big telephones like this when my mom and dad lived near me and they were not in good health and my husband had passed, so that was my means of communicating with them. So, on the way to the airport, I called them and I said, “If you see me on TV tonight and they say that I am running for City Council, I am telling you now – it is true,” because I had not had time to tell them, because all the cameras were there to see who the last person is that is going to run. I said, “It’s true, so I don’t want you to be too surprised if you see me on TV tonight.” And so, that was the beginning.
DG: What do you think were your contributions and accomplishments while serving on City Council?
MW: Well, I think the one thing that I probably did the most for all of my neighborhoods was I taught many of my neighborhoods and the leaders of those neighborhoods how to be activists. I knew how to be an activist and it was very important for them to be. And what I told them to do is, you know, if they wanted something, I could ask for it and I could try to get it through on Council but, I said, “I can’t do it by myself so I need to have you do this. So, you need to get the people in your neighborhood to support it, you need to walk the blocks and get people to sign these petitions, you need to come to the Council and tell the Council this is what you want,” and that kind of thing. And so, I have little activist clumps out there all over and many of the ladies that I taught are still my good friends today. Every once in a while, we will call and say, “Oh, we are working on this, what do you think we should do?” So, I feel very proud that I have trained some people how to access government, how to make government reactive to them, and to become a part. So, I think that is one of the best things that I did, was help other people learn how to access government.
DG: 2002, you went to the Texas Legislature.
MW: I did.
DG: What were the issues in that campaign?
MW: Well, the issues in that campaign were basically . . . the Republicans were about ready to take over. They had had redistricting and so the issues that I . . . I am trying to think what I brought forward at that time. We had a number of . . . everyone that was running were men, they were all men in that campaign and one woman – I always seem to be the lone woman in a campaign – and I think the issues that we stressed at that time again were not to raise the taxes. In the Republican Primary, you have the same kinds of issues. And when we got to the larger issues, we were running against a 22 year incumbent at that time. Then we switched over because she was not in touch with the neighborhoods. She had not been active in the neighborhoods, she had not solicited their help, she had not found out what their concerns were, and it is always the politics is local. And so, we were able to win that. That was a hard race.
DG: Why the Legislature? Did you have a political bug and you just wanted to continue to serve or were there things you wanted to do at the state level?
MW: Technically, no. I did not have any particular bug. I had become active in a number of Republican circles and an opportunity came and my friend said, “You need to do this. You need to run.” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I am kind of happy doing” . . . “No, no, you need to run.” So, every race that I have run, I have been encouraged to run. Somehow I feel that God opens the opportunity and that I already had the base in that area, the base of people who have always supported me and people knew who I was, so that is basically why I ran. I think that public service is an honorable position. Many people call it politicians. I call it public service. I don’t think the general public understands the sacrifice of public service. It was a time in my life when I could afford to do it, too. My children were all grown, they were all successful, so the time fit my life and I did not mind that sacrifice. I enjoyed public service and the things that you are able to do and the lives you can change by producing laws that will help them. So, I feel good about those kinds of things that we were able to do. My biggest issue at that time was . . . I ran basically on trying to reduce the property tax cap because at that . . . it still is 10% . . . have not been successful. Every time I have tried to do it . . . I have tried to do it 1,000 different ways. I had probably 5 or 6 different bills in the Legislature to try to get it done and we have not been able to do it. What happens is that in Houston, our appraisal district understands the law and they raise the taxes 10% - every year, they can do that. That is what the law allows. Well, in other places across Texas, and this is what most Houstonians do not understand, because Texas is so big and other appraisal districts do not do that. They do not raise their appraisals that much, plus you have to remember that probably three-fourths of Texas is farm or ranch land and ranchers get wonderful tax breaks and farmers get wonderful tax breaks, and so the people that represent three-fourths of the state of Texas do not want us to touch anything to do with the property taxes. They are happy. So, that is why they never vote for what we are doing. I even tried to make it a bill where if a district wanted to do it or an appraisal district wanted to lower it, that they could lower it, so then it would not bother the people in West Texas or Central Texas, but I could not even get that done, so, you know, I don’t know what the answer is. We have tried to do a lot of things and tried to say only counties with over one million people could do this and that did not work either.
DG: Which created a bigger obstacle in the Texas Legislature -- being a woman, being an Asian or being from Houston?
MW: Being from Houston. No, really, being a woman, we had other women there so that was not bad and the women worked together and we were good friends. And so, they mentored me, many of the women mentored me. Beverly Wooley was very good at helping me to understand. I don’t think that being Asian crossed people’s mind like my little piano teacher. They were not aware of that. My accent helped me in the Legislature. I did many things though to prove to them that I could be a good ole’ girl the same way they could be good ole’ boys. I will tell you one adventure that I had. We have a representative from . . . Mr. Chisholm. Long time representative. His family is from the Chisholm Trail. He has this huge ranch out in West Texas and he has an event every summer. It is a fundraiser. And you go to this ranch and you bring his cows in from one pasture to the next pasture and you ride horses and you do that. Now, I have ridden horses before but, you know, 30 minutes, 1 hour at the most. So, I decide I am going to learn as much about Texas as I can so I can understand their point of view in West Texas and try to become friends with them so that they can understand me when we have a bill. And so I decide to go on this roundup. So, I go out to West Texas, invite my sister and brother-in-law to go because he loves this cowboy stuff from California. So, they meet me there and we go to his roundup. My sister will not go on the horse but my brother-in-law does, so we get on these horses and we go on this roundup to get the horses from the east pasture and we are going to bring them to the north pasture. Lo and behold, I did not know it was going to take all day. It was a 4 hour horseback ride. I could not walk. And sometimes the horses would gallop and I was the last one there. One of my good girlfriends who was a state representative kind of stayed behind with me to make sure I did not fall off my horse or something. But I lasted the 4 hours on the horse and came back and could barely . . . I could not sleep on my back it was so sore but I walked around. We had a wonderful time. I just wanted them to know that I was willing to meet them in that way. I visited the Valley so I could understand the Valley. And I have tried to visit parts of Texas to understand it. And then we had a convention in Houston or a meeting in Houston and I wanted them to see Houston as I knew, so I made some special arrangements for them to visit NASA and to visit the Medical Center. And so, I wanted them to understand us as well as me understanding them. So, the Legislature is a very unique place and people are wonderful. I have dear friends. I miss them the most.
DG: So, what is next?
MW: Well, right now, I am just enjoying life. I say I am a lady of leisure. I am right now the chairman of the Texas Arthritis Foundation so it is the whole state of Texas and we are going through some changes there. We were just able to effectuate a big change where we will be combining with the state of Oklahoma or Tulsa to form a region which will be big so that has taken a lot of my time. I have been going to meetings and conferences for the Arthritis Foundation. I am in the process of writing my book about my life and I also plan to write a book about Houstonians and the Asian community in Houston. So, those are 2 things that I am doing. I’ve got my outline for my book and I am not quite through my childhood yet and I know I will have to cut a lot but I am looking forward to that. I am active in a number of organizations. I have accepted being on the board of the American Leadership Forum. I am helping Leadership Houston select its next class. I am still active with the Asian American Heritage Association which I founded and I am working with the Asian American Family Services. We are having a big reunion of Asian teenagers that grew up in Houston in the 1950s so I am a part of that. So, I have managed to be busy but I have been able to travel to China. I am going to New Zealand. And so, taking trips here and there. It has been busy and fun and relaxing.
DG: You may have to go back to work so you can relax. Just to wrap up. What is the best thing about Houston?
MW: Oh, I think the best thing about Houston is the people. It is always the people. I think Houstonians are warm and welcoming. I think it is a city that does not have the pretenses that other cities. If you are willing to meet people, they are willing to meet you and accept you. And so, I think it is a city where if you want to do something, you can do it.
DG: Thank you very much.
MW: Thank you.