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Interview with: Vernon Chambers
Interviewed by: Veronica Perry and Thomas Kreneck
Date: April 24, 1975
VP: 00:07 This is the beginning of an interview with Mr. Vernon Chambers. First of all, Mr. Chambers, would you give us some information concerning your place of birth, family, and educational background, etc.
VC: Okay. I was born in Canal Zone, Panama, July 6, 1912. From recollection, my mother and I left Panama when I was four years of age. My father died at that time. I remember Panama, that is, the Canal Zone very vaguely because I remember the little what they called donkey carts that used to pull the ships through the various locks of the canal. My father was a tailor, and my mother was a dressmaker, as I recall. My father made clothing for the men who worked along the docks there. From what I recall hearing my mother say, we lived rather well in that we would dress every afternoon in my little starched linen suit, my little Buster Brown shoes, and we would be driven somewhere for a ride on Sunday afternoons in I think what they called a Victoria, which is a horse drawn carriage.
Shortly thereafter, her brother, my uncle, asked her to come to the United States because he was there and living in Detroit. So I was taken to the United States. Of course, I was a youngster and didn’t know what was going on, but we were taken to Ellis Island because at that time we saw my uncle—I think that’s the way it was—but he did not see us or something like that when we were on the side of the ship when it was docking. So since we were not able to meet, we were taken to Ellis Island, and he had to come to Ellis Island to get us. And from Ellis Island, New York, we went to Detroit. I did have some elementary schooling there, and my mother worked in one of the factories there. I think her job was to operate a machine that wove the insulation onto electric wiring. We had other friends there, that is, my mother from the West Indies, and some of them had gone out to California, and of course, being from a tropical area, a lot of the people didn’t like the hard, cold winters in Michigan, so when they went out to California and they found the more pleasant weather out there, there was a sort of a migration of a lot of West Indians and people from the various islands to California. And so we were, shall we say, on that bandwagon, and as I recall, I got out there about the age of eight, and it was really interesting that we left Michigan in the dead of winter and when we got out to southern California, everybody was in shirtsleeves, the sun was shining, and everybody when we were riding through the orange groves there was pressing their faces to the windows of the train, etc. We went right straight to Pasadena, California, and I had the rest of my elementary, high school, and part of my junior college education there.
04:38 Later on, after being there for a while, I decided that after graduating from high school I thought I wanted to do a lot of things, but I decided I really wanted to go into the area of theater. I applied for admission to Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre, which at that time was the finest theater school in the country, and it was a very expensive school too. I think it was around $3,200 a year. But when you’re young and you have no qualms about things, you just go on up and ask. But I wanted to be able to work and attend classes there because I knew this was available, and the lady for whom I was working at the time encouraged me because she used to attend the plays at the playhouse. So I applied and they turned me down, but later on I persisted and they accepted me for 30 days, and I stayed for 4 years. I wanted to work in theater, but I was not interested in working as an actor. I wanted to be a director. I was interested in the technical aspects of the theater. As I look back now, a lot of people say, “I would like to do this again,” “I would not like to do this again,” and so forth. If it was possible, even though it was a tough time, I really enjoyed my experiences and all I went through at the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre because I learned a whole lot, I met some wonderful people, and I’ll never forget it. That four years I spent there has helped me all the rest of my life because in various areas of— Well, life is show business. I think Shakespeare said, “All the world is a theater.” In presenting myself and in working with people and being aware of things, putting on things in organizations in which I’ve been involved, the know-how I have picked up has been invaluable.
To continue with theater, have I ever worked at it? The answer would have to be yes because I worked for a short time at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, as a director of the communications theater there, where I worked with some people who went on later to Broadway fame; for instance, Hilda Simms. While I was also on the East Coast, I was affiliated with the American Negro Theatre in Harlem. At that time Abe Hill was the director there, and I had the pleasure while working with Abe to meet—I think his last name is Piscator, who was at the time a director of the theater workshop at the new School for Social Research. In working with the American Negro Theatre I met such people as Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Earl Jones, and Louise Martin who is now doing TV commercials, and I was able to, as a result, get one small part in a traveling show for a play called Decision. We played Boston, we played New Haven, etc., and we were supposed to go across the country, but this was a bad time during the war, and nothing happened of that, although I really enjoyed the experience.
08:48 My other theatrical exposure in the educational area was at Samuel Houston College in Austin, Texas, where I worked in the dramatics department there, and I also took courses which enabled me to complete my college education and finally get the degree. After coming to Houston as a director in the recreation department here, I was able to put on a play called Angel Street. The reason I put on Angel Street was I was familiar with Angel Street because this play was originally done in England by Judith Evelyn. The Pasadena Playhouse invited Miss Evelyn to do that play in Pasadena, and I worked on that play when she did it, and we did it in what we called the Playbox. The Playbox was a very small teaching theater, and you did not have the stage type projection. Most of the kids, who after they got good enough, would get a play to do in the Playbox, and here it was a very intimate technique which was used, similar to the type of techniques that are used before a movie camera. Our little Playbox, at most, seated about 80 people, and it was not in the actual row, row, row but it all depended on the set that we used in the building as to how the audience seats were arranged. Sometimes we could only get 50 people in the audience, but you just had to wait your turn. Incidentally, this theater was not open to the public; this theater was open only to members of the contributing group of the Pasadena Playhouse so that in an audience you had these very wealthy old dowagers and then you would have former actors such as Victor Mature who would come in and see a play, and then you would have movie scouts from the Hollywood studios. When you are circulating in an atmosphere of this type, you can’t help but learn a whole lot, and you meet some wonderful people. These people are in a world all to themselves, and so I profited from this.
And because I profited from this sort of thing, it was no problem for me to get involved in radio because at the Pasadena Playhouse we had a broadcast workshop, and I worked in the area of broadcasting plays over the radio. Some of the plays were written by the students, etc., and of course, we had sound effects, so forth and so on, and with what I learned there I took that to New York City with me and I worked for WNYC, which is a New York City station where we did radio plays there. But interestingly enough, the plays we did with WNYC were plays that were written by and for blacks about blacks, so it amuses me so often when I read about the contemporary writers of today who are writing of the black experience when I was doing the black experience 30 years ago. And then coming to Houston and working in radio, so forth and so on, I find that what I learned in the area of theater, theater practice, and theater usage has helped me there.
That touches pretty much my theatrical experience there, and we will see what goes on after we make this pause, shall we say. (chuckles)
TK: Mr. Chambers, tell us a little about your career with various Houston radio stations.
VC: 13:16 Okay. My career with Houston radio started in about 1948. At the time I was working as a recreation supervisor for the city of Houston in the Parks Department, and to augment my income I walked around to some of the radio stations to find out if I could get a job spinning records or announcing or whatever. The first station I got any reception from was radio station KCOH, which was at the time in the M&M Building, and the manager at the time was, I think, Bill Lightfoot, and I want to say that his wife’s name was Mary. Also at the time the fellow who was in sales was Jack Healy, who I think might still be with KPRC-TV. But at that time radio station KCOH was what they called a classical music station where the hottest thing they played was Guy Lombardo and very little of that. They went into the heavy classics and the light classics, the musical comedies, the Nelson Eddys, the Jeanette MacDonalds, and all that sort of thing. So Bill Lightfoot said, “Well, we don’t have anything to lose. This guy’s got a sponsor.” And how it came up was that the man who owned the Texas Engine Service at that time was willing to buy a radio show, but he did not want to buy classical music, so I guess I fell in the station at the right time. So Jack took me over to see Mr. Hartley, and he said, “Well, I’ll try it for a couple weeks.” And he said, “I’ll give you five bucks a show.” And he had bought 30 minutes. So this commercial 30 minutes was, I imagine, more than all the rest of the commercial time that the station had, so they just had to get this show. I proceeded to play what I thought I knew, and immediately all the listeners called up. I was on from 5:30 in the morning until 6:00. Actually, the station was supposed to go on the air at 6:00 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening. So when people turned on their radio and let it wait or warm up or whatever, say, at five or ten minutes to six and they heard this jazz, they wanted to know, “What is this jazz stuff? What kind of noise is this coming over our classical station?” They called up, so forth and so on. I said, “Well, I’m sorry. I don’t have anything to do with that, and the people who run the station are not here.” So I said, “Will you call shortly after 8:00?” So they said, “What are we going to hear after you get off?” At that time the other jocks were coming in, so I said, “You’ve got to tell these people something.” But anyway, be that as it may, I told our listening audience that this is from 5:30 to 6:00 in the morning, and I remembered now that a lot of people had to get up and catch the bus to go to work. At that time you did not have the freeways that you have in Houston now, you didn’t have everybody riding in a car or driving a car. People were up and about and going to work 5:30 and 6:00 in the morning. I always went down to the Texas Engine Service on Saturday morning to get my 30 bucks. Man, that was a lot of money in those days. I was getting $5 a show. And the second week that the show was on I told the listeners that if they didn’t give us a fairly good response, that I could take cards and letters and telegrams to the man who owned the show, that the show might be taken off the air. That morning when we went to see Mr. Hartley about 9:00 that morning, we waited for the mail, and we got nine telegrams, and I think we got about 150 cards and letters. And when we took that response to the man, he said, “You’re on.” And so this was actually my start in Houston radio.
17:54 Since then I have worked on a couple other stations. I did a jazz show on FM station KRBE when it was over at 1400 Hermann Drive. I also did a show on KYOK. I also broadcast some football games along with George Nelson, who was then known as Brother George, while I was on KYOK. And while I was at KCOH I broadcast the high school football game, for instance, at Jefferson Stadium between Yates and Wheatley on Thanksgiving Day, and we did the daylight games from out at Prairie View. So this was some of my experience there.
A lot of people don’t know this, but years ago when it was KGUL—I don’t know what channel it is now but I want to say 13, but at that time there were only two channels, I think, in Houston, and this syndicate owned the franchise in Galveston, but to reach the Houston market they had to have the studios in Houston. It was known was KGUL, K-G-U-L. They had a series of shows on which they played old black movies, the cowboy movies with Herb Jeffries and Ralph Cooper and some of those people. I was a host on the show and I did the commercials, like for Hollywood Tailors and the Palmer Tailoring Company and all that. So I was in on the early growth of television, shall we say, here in Houston.
That has about wrapped up my experience in the area of radio, etc., but I would like to say that my experience as program director at KCOH was quite interesting because my approach was a little different. Rather than the old blues and rhythm type thing, we tried to have a type of program that was of interest to all people. We had gospel shows and we had home shows, and some of the people who worked with me then are still doing nice things. June Ross I understand is executive director of a poverty program in Galveston. She was known as Hattie Holmes then. And one of the men who worked with me about this time was at that time Reverend Harold Tillman, who is now an attorney here in Houston. I think everybody still knows King Bee, and he’s at KPRC-TV. All of them were doing quite well.
TK: Did you have a broadcasting name?
VC: 21:16 Strangely enough, I did, and I was respected for my stand. I was known as Mrs. Chambers’ Little Boy, Vernon. I refused to be known as the Duke of this or the Hotsie so forth and all that sort of thing. I just refused. So since I had to have—what is it?—nom de plume or something like that, okay, I am Mrs. Chambers’ Little Boy, Vernon. It’s interesting that you should ask that because I always thought that I had a rather mature sounding voice, and people would meet me and they’d say, “I thought you were a little boy. I thought you were just a little, bitty fella, and here you are a grown man.” (chuckles) When I first went on KCOH, many people used to wager that I was white. I had a foreign accent. To them I didn’t sound colored or Negro or black or whatever, and even white people would look at me the second time. They would recognize my voice and they’d say, “I’ve heard your voice somewhere. I’ve heard your voice somewhere. There’s a black guy that plays records or something, I guess.” And then they’d look at me, and I’d say, “I’m that guy.” They’d say, “Gosh, you sound white.” But it’s just that where I was raised this is the way we sounded, that’s all.
TK: Did your training in acting and your radio career stand you in good stead when you got to Distributive Education?
VC: Oh, yes, very much so. In fact, just the other day a young man in the class said, “Mr. Chambers, are you an actor?” And it has stood me in good sense because I know how to use the play on words, and I know how to move in front of the class. For instance, when I want a student to straighten up the way he walks or the way he or she sits in a chair, I will slump down in the chair the way they do, and they think it’s very funny when I do it, but I’m mimicking them. And I imitate their voices. A lot of the kids are on the defensive all the time, and I say something the way they say it, you see, and then I say, “Now, this is the way you should say it.” I show the girls how they should walk down the hall or how they should sit. So in my dramatics training I don’t sit in a chair, I know how to use that chair, you see? And I can sit in that chair 40 different ways to depict the way I feel at this time. So I use this while I’m in front of my classes, and I not only try to describe it to them but I show them.
TK: Would you elaborate a little on the aims of Distributive Education.
VC: Distributive Education is a program for high school students in the 11th and 12th grades. We want ambitious students, students who have initiative and want to get somewhere because the program directs these students in the area of management, generally. Or if a kid wants to own his own business, we try to show him the attitudes that are necessary: how to address his customers and how to manage his employees. We show him that he has to learn how to discipline himself first before he can discipline the young men and the young women who work for him. Whether they be parents or relatives or strangers, he must know how to handle people. This actually is management. We teach grooming, we encourage grooming, we have our own dress code. We don’t abide by the school’s dress code because when that kid leaves school and goes to his training station, he has to abide by the rules and regulations of that job. If the job says you shall wear a blue bowtie that’s what you wear. If you shall wear black shoes, you wear black shoes. If you wear dark trousers, you don’t wear jeans, you wear black trousers. Young ladies, maybe you are permitted to come to school without hose, but when you go to work, you shall wear hose. No exotic hairdos. None of my students go to work, I hope—I don’t think they’ve been called down for wearing the new style corn rows. You see, it’s all right to wear that at school, but if the manager of your store says no corn rows if you want to work there, no corn rows. Then too, Distributive Education is important in an intangible sort of way because it prepares the student for the workaday world and everyday world. He is out in the world in the 11th grade in the afternoons and the 12th grade. I’ve had students who are not DE students who are seniors in high school say, “Mr. Chambers, I want to go get a job. What shall I do?” I tell them, “Just come to class next day if you can get out of your class. Come on over and let my students show you how to go get a job.” So these are some of the things, and we also hope that the students will want to make a career out of retailing.
TK: Earlier you quoted Shakespeare and said that all the world is a stage. Are you trying to convey the idea to these students that all the business world is a stage?
VC: 27:42 I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to say that all of the business world is a stage, but when you are in the business world and you are in front of a customer or a manger or an employer, you are on stage; you are presenting yourself. If you are involved in an everyday endeavor almost anywhere, you’re on stage. Somebody is watching you, somebody is evaluating you, you see? So we cannot live alone. A lot of kids and a lot of people think they can do without, but you have to contact somebody and make a favorable impression every day. When you go to a bank to get a loan, you’ve got to impress that loan officer.
VP: Would you talk a little bit about the impact of the Distributive Education program on the community.
VC: In the Acres Home area in which I work, there was a great impact of Distributive Education on the community because when I went out there, the kids were accustomed to working in the little cafes up and down West Montgomery Road and Little York and the little byways, etc. I could not see a business future in this type of operation, and the fact is when I went to the job, Mr. Conley told me that if I could get a student to work in Sears that I would have it made on my job. It seems like they had not been able to get a student to work at Sears previously. There was one person who preceded me by about a year or two. So I went down to Sears and I asked them would they consider interviewing a couple students. They said, “Why, sure.” I sent the students down, and I’ve had students working at Sears ever since.
29:56 Now, to get back to your question on the impact to the community, after I started getting students working in Globe, Shoppers Fair, Grant’s, JCPenney, and the various other stores outside of the Acres Home community, the adults were accustomed to kids working within the community in the little grocery stores, so forth and so on, and many of the kids would come back and tell me that their mother had to take her friend down to the store to see that that girl was selling or operating a cash register in the store or she was selling records or books or that this student would sell that lady a pair of shoes or a couple pillowcases or something like this. I attended a church service out there with some of my students one Sunday, and the minister had us stand, and he talked about the great good that we were doing because we were getting these kids out into the world of work now and all that, and it had never been done before. So at that time there was a great impact, not only economically but socially. But now it’s old stuff because you see the program out there is about 12 years old now.
VP: Even though it’s quote-unquote old stuff, do you see it as being particularly beneficial to black students?
VC: Very much so because this is their introduction to not only the world of work, but if they are ambitious, they are now aware of the fact that they can be promoted, they can be a supervisor on the job. And they will very quickly come to me and say, “Mr. Chambers, I’m night crew chief. I’ve got four people under me.” I say, “Well, this is good.” So now if they get some more education on their particular job, they can move up a little higher.
TK: So you get pretty good feedback from your former students.
VC: Oh, yes, uh-hunh (affirmative). At the time when they sit in class, many of them figure that I don’t know what I’m talking about, but they come back and they later say that, “Everything you said in class was true.” We get them to do what we call role-playing or playacting. I’ll take a couple of my wife’s old purses that are no good, and I will show the kids how to open a purse, how to display it to the customer. I will show them 20 different ways for a lady to wear a scarf: around d her waist as a belt, on her purse, at her wrist, around her neck, around her head. When the students learn this, they try this in the store and they become more productive salespeople. The employers are aware of this and they appreciate it. This is what they want. They want somebody who can function in that store.
TK: Have you done a systematic study of sorts of jobs your former students are holding down?
VC: 33:27 We are forced to do this by our state. You see, this program is governed by the state, the Texas Education Agency. It’s a part of the regular curriculum of any high school that wants it, so our rules and regulations come out of Austin.
TK: Whose idea was the program originally?
VC: I don’t know. That’s a good question to go into a historic situation. But the program in Texas is about 35 years old.
VC: It’s a national program. Our national convention this year will be in Hollywood, Florida. Our state convention was in March in San Antonio. Our area convention was at Clear Lake High School.
TK: Do you have any private support?
VC: No. Now, we are supported by the private sector in that they offer scholarships and prizes, trophies, etc. The Houston Retail Merchants Association, the Jewelers Association and Gordon’s Jewelers in particular, the Texas Oil Jobbers Association has a $500 scholarship. There are many areas of the industry that will support students who are in this particular thing. For instance, I can take any student who has a hobby, and I can take that student if he’s in Distributive Education and get him a job exploiting that hobby. If cameras are his hobby or taking pictures using a Polaroid, I can go to the store and tell the manager, “I’ve got a kid who knows Polaroid cameras.” So he’ll put him in the photography department.
TK: So you interview a student extensively when he comes into the program.
VC: Oh, very definitely. We check his grades, we check his attendance patterns, we check his health, we check his basic attitudes. If I see a girl who’s a little loud and rowdy and acting the way she shouldn’t and she comes up and tells me that she would like to get in Distributive Education when she gets in the 11th grade, I’ll ask her what her name is and then I will go to the girl’s counselor and I will tell the counselor that this young lady talked to me and that she wants to be in Distributive Education, and then I’ll say something like, “I’ve been aware of this young lady, but I don’t like the way she acts on the patio or in the halls.” I don’t want behavior problems. I don’t want to straighten the kid out to get her started. I want her to come in so I can get her started. Young men the same way. Neither do I want a youngster to come up and tell me that, “I’ve got a job. Can I get in DE?” The answer is no because you don’t have jobs per se. If you’re working at a steel mill or you’re driving a truck, no, this is not a Distributive Education job. Our jobs are in the area of marketing and retailing, merchandising, etc., service selling.
TK: Is it tough to get into DE?
VC: 37:31 It can be if you’ve got a lot of good applicants. Very seldom, though, do we have to scrape the bottom of the barrel. We refuse to scrape the bottom of the barrel because when you do that, you have problems. We want kids who are alert, who are sharp, who can communicate. We want a kid who on the spur of the moment can get up and make a remark or make a comment or make an observation. We work on his vocabulary. We hate this, “You know, you know, you know.” We hate this because when a kid says, “You know,” I say, “No, I don’t.” And after he says, “Well, you know,” and I say, “No, I don’t,” then the other kids catch it and they start laughing, and then they say, “Why did you stop saying, ‘You know?’” You see? (all chuckle) So this is what happens. For instance, I told our students that when we go to visit this church, we don’t know which one it’s going to be yet, but if the minister asks you to say something, you better stand up and say something in front of that congregation because I’m not going to say it because the program is for the students. When we have our employer-employee banquet, the only adult that’s up there is the adult who is to be the main speaker if we have an adult. The fact is I’ve had a former student come back and be a main speaker. This is what we work for. We try to get as closely related to the kids as possible.
Another thing that’s so interesting about Distributive Education is that so many of the managers of stores now are former DE students. So it makes it easy for us to get DE students in the job, in the training station.
TK: If you have a bumper crop of applicants, are you flexible? Can you expand the program a little to fit them all in?
VC: 39:30 What happens here is that at our school, of the four high schools in the Aldine Independent School District right now, we have seven programs: two at MacArthur, two at Aldine, two at Carver, and one at Eisenhower. When you have two programs, the state says you shall have 32 students in each program. This includes the 11th and the 12th grades. So what it means is that survival of the fittest; the best ones get in. You see, we had a speaker not long ago, and he was saying that in industry you’re rated on a register of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. If you’re 1 and 2 when it comes to retransmit, you’re pretty sure to keep your job. If you’re a number 3, you’re just fair; you might. Then if you’re 4 and 5, you’re the first to go. So at school we have A, B, C, D, and F. F, no, D, no, C, maybe, A and B, yes, you see? So we have our five ratings just like industry does.
TK: It seems that you’ve set up a very competitive program.
VC: We try to be because the kids are normally competitive. They try to outdo each other: “I can talk better than you.” “I can do so-and-so better than you.” So we try this, and competition is built into the program because in DE we have competition in job interview, sales demonstration, advertising, public speaking, and window display. So it’s competition in which you work for not only scholarships but trophies and ribbons and certificates.
TK: Could you tell us a little about some of these competitions.
VC: In sales demonstration, which seems to be the most popular because so many of the kids are selling, it’s a sort of a role-playing thing or playacting thing where, when you have competition— For instance, in the state I think there were about ten groups with ten kids in each group, so there were 100 kids competing. We’ll say that this student sells baby shoes, all right? He or she takes the baby shoes, the socks, some polish, whatever, to the competition, and when your turn comes, you set up your little display on a table in the room, and there are three judges in the room. Now, there can be an audience. And then there is a quote, customer, unquote, and you go through the entire procedure of a sale, except for the fact that no money changes hands. If it’s a charge thing, if it’s a credit thing, you write up your slip, so forth and so on. In this you are judged on how you greet the customer, how you display the merchandise, how you meet the customer’s objections, and how you close the sale. And it’s an interesting thing about closing the sale because it’s a psychological point in a sales transaction in which if you don’t sell the object then, you’re not going to sell it. And you can see this thing building up in the audience, and then when the kid misses that point, you see everybody just say, “He blew it.”
TK: Yeah. (chuckles)
VP: Uh-hunh (affirmative). (chuckles)
VC: 43:17 Right. And you’re rated accordingly. The kids get very excited about this thing. I have seen kids who were outside waiting to go in throw up.
TK: They really throw themselves into it. What about teamwork? Do any of these competitions involve teamwork?
VC: Actually, no. It’s an individual thing all the way. I’ve seen a kid sell a hammer. He just walks in with a hammer and he lays it down. He works at a hardware store. I’ve seen a kid selling a gallon of paint. I’ve seen him drop it, this open can of paint, so you can imagine what happens there. I’ve seen a kid sell a Honda motorcycle. He has to bring this thing from wherever he is, it has to be clean, he has to set it up in the room. You see, in this competition we also have what we call trading up, where if you sell a motorcycle, you try to sell a pair of gloves, try to sell a helmet—the things that have to do with riding a motorcycle. If it’s a tennis racket, try to sell a cover, try to sell some balls, try to sell some tennis shorts, so forth and so on. In other words, everything that’s in your department you try to— Well, in some of the shoe stores where they sell polish and hose and things like this, this is what they call up fronts. In other words, your basic item, yes; now sell the stuff that goes with it.
TK: Do you have videotape so the student can see himself perform?
VC: We used to have it, and we would wish very much to have it. We have used it, and some schools do have it. I would hope that our kids could get ambitious enough to have candy sales and projects so they could raise the money to buy a videotape because we have used it, we loved it, and it did a great deal for the kids because it’s one thing for them to hear what they’re doing while they’re doing it, but when you see it on videotape, then you can see your own mistakes. Videotape can sometimes take the place of a teacher because sometimes when I’m criticizing a student or making observations or comments, he thinks I’m criticizing him on purpose. Then if he sees it on videotape, I don’t have to say anything; he knows where his mistakes are. This is the value of it.
TK: What are some of these other competitions like?
VC: In some of our other competitions I think you would find they’re all very interesting. In advertising a student has to lay out a quarter-page ad in which he is given the elements of an ad, whether it’s a motorcycle, a tennis racket, a dress, a blouse, men’s shirts or what. He has to write his copy, his price, his bug, his identification, store hours and all this, and all this has to be placed in a limited amount of space artistically, and there’s a pattern it’s to follow from left to right. We read from left to right, so if he lays out the ad from right to left, it’s not going to be a selling item, it’s not going to promote a sale. So he’s judged on all these things plus the fact that he has a 1-hour written examination.
47:06 The most active of the competition is the display in which a student has a 1-hour examination in window display. Then he’s taken to a shopping center where anywhere from three to five windows have been set up, some of them correctly, some of them with a little gimmick in it somewhere that spoils it or it’s not right. Now, these windows are then judged by a group of professionals who score the window, we’ll say from about a 90 to a 92, 95, 97, or whatever. Then the students are taken in groups. When I worked with it, I had seven students. They get on the bus and they leave the school. Nobody says a word. If you say anything to anybody, you’re disqualified. You get to the shopping center, and you go to the first window. You have a score sheet, you score the window. They score it if the glass is dirty, if one of the bulbs in the window is out, if the garment needed to be pressed, if there’s a pair of shoes and one of them has fallen off the stand, if one of the words on a sign in the window is misspelled or if the sign is crooked, or if the color scheme of the window is not right. They score this sort of thing. Nobody says a word. Nobody can talk to anybody until all of the windows have been scored by all the students. I collect the sheets. Then they can start talking. Then they’re taken to the judges and they are scored, and then your test score and your score on the window is balanced against the professional judges’ scoring. In other words, if he scores his at 95 and you score it at 100 or an 80, you’ve got a differential there, and that counts against your score.
In the business speaking they have six to eight minutes to prepare a 6- to 8-minute talk, and you’re escorted from the preparation room to the room, and you walk in, and the judges sit there, and when you’re ready— I’ve acted as timekeeper. In this you’re not allowed to give any signals whatsoever, but what the timekeeper does is if you’re 15 seconds shorter than 6 minutes or 15 seconds over 8 minutes, you lose 5 points for each 15 seconds.
TK: (chuckles) Five points out of how many?
VC: Out of a possible 100. I have judged things where a kid scored a 30, where he’s supposed to speak 6 minutes and he talks 3. So for every 15 seconds he loses 5 points. This is part of what Distributive Education is about. You’ve got a bunch of sharp kids. For instance, our national president meets with the President of the United States. He goes into every state in the Union, to the national conventions, and he’s the main speaker, and this kid is 16 and 17 years old.
TK: Is the curriculum substantially the same at all levels? For example, how does it differ at University of Houston as opposed to 11th grade?
VC: 51:12 I’m not familiar with it at the University of Houston, but I would say that if a student is a good student at Distributive Education in 11th and 12th grade and he decides, for instance, that he wants to go into display or advertising— See, at the college level you are bordering on either, number one, going in to become a DE teacher for which you can get the degree and go right out and teach, or you go into mid management. Now, this is also at the junior college level. You’ve already had your selling experience, so at the University of Houston they don’t teach you how to sell; you know how to sell when you get there. It’s just like we were having an argument about some grammatical saying, so I said, “Well, Rice is the top school in English in the city, I guess.” So I called Rice and I asked for the English department, and a young lady answered the phone, and I asked her this question. She said, “I’m sorry, but we don’t teach grammar at Rice. You’re supposed to know grammar when you get here.” So they don’t teach salesmanship at U of H, I would think, because you know salesmanship when you get there. Now we’re teaching you how to handle salespeople, do the paperwork. You see, a salesman moves one blouse or one shirt and one necktie. When you’re over a department, you have to move that whole department, and you have to see that every member of your staff does what he’s supposed to do to get that merchandise out. For instance, they can put a pencil on it because if you make, say, $3 an hour on that sales floor, you’re supposed to sell $60 worth of merchandise an hour to earn that $3. So at the end of the week or whatever, if you have not sold the equivalent of what they’ve paid you, they’re going in the hole on you. So it’s very easy. This is why salesmanship is so competitive. When you put down a sales slip, you have either a number or an initial on that sales slip so they can tell who sold it and the amount of that sale. And if you can’t sell or if you’re not selling, you’re paid, you’ve lost your job. It’s just that simple. I’ve had a lot of students who were attractive but they were shy and bashful. They didn’t stay on that sales floor.
TK: About what percentage of your students go on to higher DE?
VC: Some of them get disillusioned quickly because at the beginning entries of retailing you don’t make much money but you work like the dickens. And since they have this know-how, many of them try to get into other areas of endeavor, and I’ve found a lot of my students who have gone into industry who become supervisors very quickly because they have learned how to get along with people and how to handle people. And so they filter to the top very quickly, and management recognizes this, so they become a supervisor. Now they find out that they need some more education, and they go back to school. Any number of my students are going to night school, they’re going to TSU weekends and going to U of H. They find out the higher they get the more training they need. And we don’t necessarily stress college. All we do is stress training.
TK: When you counsel a prospective student who’s black, do you emphasize to him this is a means of mobility?
VC: Mobility, how do you mean?
VC: 55:37 Oh, yes, because they all want the good things of life. They all talk about the swimming pool. They want a car. They want the good things in life. I have kids who spend $40 for a pair of trousers, and in DE they learn very quickly what it takes to get the things they want. I don’t know that I’m doing the right thing or not, but I encourage them to go out to the Galleria and look around. I encourage my students to go to Neiman Marcus and look around. “Not that you can afford it, but I want you to know it exists,” because so many people will say, “There is no such thing as a $300 sport coat.” But if you walk into Saks and Neiman’s and Sakowitz, you’ll see a mohair coat hanging up there and it might be $400, and the slacks that go with it are $150. So I want these kids to know that this does exist because so often they tell me, “I’m not going to pay over $70 for a suit.” I want them to be aware of the fact that as they make more money their needs and their desires will change, so I want them to be ready for this.
TK: Have any of your students ended up back where you came from—in the media—because they have these talents? They might also do a creditable job there.
VC: It’s a funny thing. We have had students who because of our Distributive Education program, although they did not get in the program, they have seen what some of the other kids have done, so they have gone out. So there has been a spin-off. We have one former student who I heard because of our program is now involved in the media. The kids are ambitious, and when they see that one kid can do it, then they want to do it too. A young man called me the other day. He’s communicating quite well now, and he’s a sort of public relations person in his area, Cameron Iron Works, and he goes out and he talks to schools now. But for the media officially per se, as we use the word media, no, because here we stress concentration in the area of good English, the use of English, because now in the media English is a tool, just like a wrench is a tool to a mechanic or a sewing machine to somebody who’s going to make a dress. We stress the fact that excellence in anything is a tool to progress. This is where we’re coming from in our Distributive Education program, and we try to say something like this: “All right. There are 15 of you in this room. None of you are equal, but you do have equal opportunity.” And to further this I will say, “One of you can sing. Somebody in here can sing better than anybody else. Somebody in this room can run faster than anybody else. Somebody in this room has better hearing than anybody else. Somebody in this room can cook better than anybody else. So you do have something, if you are aware of it, that you can use to make a living.”
TK: Have you ever gone so far as to administer some kind of standardized personality test?
VC: 59:56 No. Actually, the school gives a lot of tests. At one time when I first went out there, I employed the services of a then friend of mine, Jim Hefter, who was with the Vocational Guidance Service. We were aware of the fact that our students were not test oriented, and many of the jobs they went to they had to take tests, and they fell down on these tests because they were not test oriented. But we do little pop things on the multiplication tables. Everybody says, “Yeah, I know the multiplication tables.” We have spelling bees in class, and we find out that the kids can’t spell and all that sort of thing. We tell them that, “We do not teach math, we do not teach English, but everything you learn in every class in this school you use in this room.” And in our roll book we check. Every day that the kid is there he gets a checkmark for present. Every day he’s absent he gets an A for absent. And we try to tell them that, “This pencil is going to kill you because you’re cutting class, you’re going to go to a job, they’re going to investigate your high school record, they’re going to look at this sheet and see that you are out.” I had to discuss that just today. I told this young man, “If you were out 12 times in a row, you could probably explain to the prospective employer that you were sick. Now, his next question to you is, ‘Did you go to a hospital? If you’re out 12 days, the logical thing for you to do is go to a hospital. But if you are out two days, you’re here two days, then you’re out three days, this is spotty. This means that in school you had a spotty attendance record. On my job you’re going to have a spotty attendance record.’” You’d be surprised at how accurate that is. I sent a girl to a job two weeks ago knowing that she was not going to work over eight days and she worked five. This has been her record all the way. She has problems. Every week somebody in her family dies, every week she has to take somebody to the hospital, she has to go see an attorney, all this sort of thing. Excuses, excuses, excuses. And this girl is talented in that she can walk into any place and get a job. She’s attractive, she communicates beautifully, but she is irresponsible when it comes to being consistent on getting to a job.
TK: How has DE grown in Houston?
VC: 1:02:54 I would say tremendously. The fact is, Texas has the largest Distributive Education enrollment, I think, in the nation. It’s tremendous. We’re not called teachers. We’re known as coordinators. When I came into the program, you had to have five years of retail selling. But since I had been on the radio off and on over 20 years— The fact is, I neglected to tell you this, but with the Houston Citizens Chamber of Commerce I do a talk interview program once a week, where we interview businesspeople, educators, so forth and so on. For instance, if I was interviewing you for my program, I would just ask you to discuss what you do, why you’re doing it, give us some of the examples of interviews you’ve had, so forth and so on. So here again, I revert back to my old show business techniques and know-how. It’s something that, rather than a liberal arts education, I’d rather go into the dramatics department of any high school. It’s out of sight.
VP: Would you explain to us the kind of attitude changes you’ve seen in Distributive Education, let’s say from when you first got here and now.
VC: Okay. I’m going back a little further than Distributive Education, but when I came to Houston in I think it was ’46, we were very definitely in a segregated society. At that time, really, Distributive Education as such would not have meant too much because even in the downtown stores the blacks that you saw were maids and porters and delivery boys. They were washing windows, they were sweeping the sidewalks, so forth and so on. So why Distributive Education where it’s geared to selling? And where are you going to sell? There were very few, if any, department stores per se in the black community. There were no hotels per se in the black community. Yes, there were some service stations. There were a few drugstores. But now there has been a very distinct change in that in Distributive Education, now that we’re in an integrated society, I would hope that I will one day walk into a Sears store or a Weiner’s Store and one of my former students is the manager of that store, you see? So I would say that Distributive Education came along, and it has affected the black community, particularly the young person, in a very advantageous way because in Distributive Education he now sees what it takes to be the department manager by working in a store, we’ll say. He is not interested in being the head receiving clerk now. He never has to pick up a broom unless he wants to. Employers have told me, “Mr. Chambers, we are not interested in porters and maids. We have porters and maids who have been working for us for 20 years. We don’t want that. We need them, but we want these youngsters to come in and sell, we want them to set up displays, we want them to in a grocery store learn how to write the orders, how to be assistant managers, and eventually manage this Weingartens or this Lewis & Coker store.”
1:07:24 So, getting back to the question you asked me earlier about mobility, there’s very definitely mobility now, you see? And then the next thing is this: that so many former students come back who have finished college, and they now have offices, they have secretaries, they travel on credit cards for major corporations, so they come back to the high school and tell these kids, “You’ve got to watch your grooming. What’s popular in the ghetto is not popular on Main Street. Look at the way I’m dressed.” A fellow came out and he was in a Jaguar the other day, and the kids wanted to see his car. You see, you can’t operate a Jaguar as a maid or a porter, so forth and so on, so one of the kids says, “I want a car like that.” I said, “Fine. You’re going to learn so that you can earn the money to buy a car like that.” So in the area of mobility and change, very definitely, yes.
Then here’s another thing: In one store you will have DE students from Bellaire, Westbury, Booker Washington, Carver. All these kids are in the same program at school. They’re working in the same store, so they get real buddy-buddy at company parties, they go out together and all this sort of thing. So it’s a very healthy type thing. These are advantages that these kids’ parents did not have.
VP: You mentioned just a little bit about the segregation situation when you got here. Would you tell us a little bit about your personal experiences with segregation, especially in the field of media.
VC: The most graphic thing I can think of is the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in 1954. I happened to be with KCOH at the time, and Walter Rubens, who was the commercial manager there said, “Vernon, I think it would be a good idea if we got a national picture on this and we got a local picture on it and did a show.” So we said, “Okay.” And so we got in touch with Walter White, who was then head of the NAACP and Mrs. Hobby was in Washington at the time. We called her office but we got a spokesman for her. We called Governor Shivers’ office and we got a spokesman for him. We had to record the show. We did not have a beeper. A beeper is a tape machine that makes a noise that indicates that the conversation is being recorded. That’s why they call it a beeper. So the closest one was at KTRH, which was in the Rice Hotel. So after this conference call was set up with Mr. White and he had the questions and all that sort of thing, Walter and I walked down to the Rice Hotel. We were in the M&M Building at the time. When I walked through the lobby, naturally, the heads turned because no blacks could stay there. And when we walked over to the elevators, the door opened, several people got in, and I started, and the woman put her hand across the door and said, “You can’t come in here.” So I said, “Well, why not?” So she said something to the effect that, “Your kind don’t ride in the elevator,” or, “We don’t have Negroes,” or something like that. So of course, I got very upset and I wanted to huff and cuss and all that sort of thing, but I realized the fact that I’m surrounded by white people and what chance would I have? So survival is the key to the thing, so Walter said, “Vernon, I know you’re embarrassed. I’m embarrassed. Think of the value of the program to our listening audience. Let’s go on up on the freight elevator.” I said, “No, I’m not going up on the freight elevator.” But there were some stairs over there to the mezzanine, so we walked up. We did the program with some local personalities—Carter Wesley, Hobart Taylor, Dr. Bullock, who was at TSU at the time, and another gentleman whose name escapes me at the moment. It was very well accepted and liked, so that was about the most graphic—
1:12:13 But I would like to add this one other thing: I’ve forgotten the date, but I was with the Houston Citizens Chamber of Commerce, and at that time we have—we still do—we have our annual banquet and installation of officers, and we were to have it this particular evening in the old Pilgrim Building in 4th Ward. We were still segregated. This was in the ‘50s, I think it was. Our speaker was Mr. Weaver, George Weaver, who at that time was Assistant Secretary of Labor. His office had made reservations at the Shamrock Hotel. Remember now, Houston is segregated. So the reservations were made. After all, this man is Assistant Secretary of Labor—a big man. So we met him at the airport, and I happened to be driving the car that took him to the Shamrock Hotel. I got out of the car, took his bag into the lobby, and walked up to the reservations desk. The clerk said, “May I help you?” I said, “Yes, I’d like reservations for Mr. George Weaver.” So he reached in the drawer then and he took out the reservation. He said, “Where’s Mr. Weaver? Are you Mr. Weaver?” I said, “No. This is Mr. Weaver.” And he looked up and he saw this black man standing there, and he turned many different colors of red, and he said, “Just a moment.” So he stepped around the back, and in a couple minutes a well-dressed man came out—white hair, beautifully groomed, and he was the assistant manager or something—I don’t know. But he said, “There must be a mistake of some sort because we have no reservation for a Mr. George Weaver.” After you’ve been going to hotels and all that, you can read upside down, and I saw the card and Mr. Weaver saw the card, and he had his confirmed reservation in his hand. They turned him away. So I said, “Well, what are we going to do?” He was invited to a cocktail party, so I said, “Why don’t you come on by my house and you can change and freshen up a little bit, and then we’ll go to the cocktail party.” And the party happened to be across the street from where I lived. So on the way to the house I got mad, and I said, “Something could be done about this.” He said, “Vernon, take it easy. I’m not going to press this thing because I’ll be gone in the morning. You live here. You have to face it.” So I said, “I’m going to do something. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” But I got home and I called the Chronicle, I called the Post, and I told them what happened, and at that time the Houston Press was in Houston. And all hell broke loose. They wanted to know where I was and I told them. They wanted to know where we were going and I told them. And the media went out to the Shamrock, got a statement from the manager out there, a picture of the Shamrock and everything, and it was on the 6 o’clock news that this man, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for the United States, had been turned away at the Shamrock. All night the phone rang. Incidentally, Mr. Weaver stayed at my home. And 6:00 that morning the phone rang, and it was the Houston Press. Incidentally, when Washington heard about, they called the house and said, “You go on back out there. We’ll straighten it out. You go back out there.” But he said, “Oh, to hell with it.” He said, “I’m comfortable where I am. I’ve got my own bathroom. I’ve got a phone by the bed. I’m with my people, and so I’d rather be here.” (chuckles) So that night at the banquet he departed from his prepared text, and the photographers were there and the TV cameras, and they showed him holding his confirmed reservations and all that sort of thing. The next morning the Press called and said, “If you have any trouble between now and the time you get on that plane and that plane takes off, you call this paper.” I don’t know the exact time, but about a week or two later John Jones called a meeting, and he said, “As of this date, anybody who wants to can stay at the Rice Hotel.” And at one time the Rice Hotel was known as the best black hotel in Houston, and this, I think, is the thing that precipitated integration of the hotels in Houston.
1:17:32 Those are the two outstanding things that have come to my mind as far as segregation is concerned.
VP: Are there any other comments you’d like to make, perhaps something we haven’t covered?
VC: Really, no. I’ve met a lot of interesting people here. Maybe some other time if we have something specific that you would like to see if I know anything about, I would be happy to add to this talk that I’ve given here. But as of now, I can’t think of anything. Incidentally, I can’t think of anything because this is the second time I’ve been interviewed ever since I’ve known myself. (all chuckle)
VP: Well, we’d certainly like to thank you for sharing your time with us. We are completing the interview with Mr. Vernon Chambers.
VC: Thank you so very much.
[end of 022_01] 1:18:27