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Interview with: Welcome Wilson, Sr.
Interviewed by: Dr. Joseph Pratt
Date: September 17, 2007
JP: We are here today to talk to Welcome Wilson, Sr., in the City's Oral History Project. The interviewer is Joe Pratt. The date is September 17, 2007. Mr. Wilson, we can start with a little bit about your background, what your parents did for a living, where you grew up.
WW: Dr. Pratt, I was born in Tom Green County, San Angelo, Texas. Lived there briefly. Lived as an infant in El Paso where my father owned a radio station. And then, in 1932, we caught a train to Corpus Christi where my father also owned a radio station. And my earliest childhood memory is looking out the window of the train when I was about 2-1/2. I lived in Corpus Christi on a cliff overlooking the bay until 1940 when we moved to Brownsville, Texas, where my father opened a radio station. And then, I grew up, from age 12 to 18 in Brownsville and attended Brownsville High School and Brownsville Junior College which is now the University of Texas Brownsville.
JP: All right, and then immediately after the War, you came to Houston. What drew you to Houston?
WW: In my group in Brownsville, Texas, everyone was going to college. Most chose the University of Texas if they could get in. There were a few elsewhere, one at SMU and so forth. My father was a business man. He owned radio stations and such in various places in Texas and he always thought that Houston was the future of America. He thought Houston would one day be the largest city in America. And he was so excited about it. And, of course, in those days, Houston's population was about one-half million people. But he thought it was a magic city. So, I had never heard of the University of Houston. My father decided that my brother and I would attend the University of Houston in order to get established in Houston.
JP: Had you been to the city before?
WW: I had been to Houston because my mother's relatives grew up on the north side of Houston near Humble, Texas. My grandfather, her father, was president of the school board in Humble, Texas, in the year 1900. And so, we had roots here, visited here. I had never been to the University of Houston until the day I enrolled.
JP: Do you have memories of Humble in that period before it was part of Houston?
WW: Well, yes, only I never lived there as a child. I lived there as a student. When I was going to the University of Houston for about 1 year before I graduated, I lived in Humble. But I do remember visiting as a child. There was not . . . all of my relatives lived in the country. No one had electricity. No one had indoor plumbing. Some had what they called a Delco plant which is an electrical generator with a lot of batteries, glass batteries. It made a lot of noise, I remember that, but it was a gasoline engine and whatever and they would crank that up for receptions and parties.
JP: How long would it take you to get from Humble to U of H?
WW: Well, driving, it would take about 1 hour. And my brother and I had various old jalopies that we cranked up. I remember one had no floor board. It was a pickup truck that had no floor board. And during the winter time, it was cold, the air coming up through the floor board, so we went to the war surplus store and bought some aviator caps. So, we would be going along in this pickup, this Chevrolet pickup, with aviator caps on.
JP: What do you remember most about that first impression of Houston and later of U of H?
WW: Well, I thought Houston was the biggest city in the world. I said, well, the only way I will ever learn to get around Houston is to get a job as a taxi driver, and then I will learn the streets. Well, of course, a couple of years later, you knew where everything was anyway. But I was very impressed with the University of Houston. Somewhere around here, I have got my registration for the first semester in September of 1946. I entered as a junior, having graduated from junior college in Brownsville. But Dr., I remember registration day. The University of Houston had had 3,500 students in the spring semester. So, they announced that registration would be at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, a certain day. So, at 11 a.m., there were 10,000 people, most of them ex-GIs, in a single line in front of the gymnasium building. Four abreast and half a mile long, went down Calhoun, about 3 or 4 blocks down University Boulevard, down Calhoun, only because the University of Houston had no idea that that many people would show up.
JP: That is mainly the GI Bill kicking in?
JP: What was there at U of H when you started?
WW: There were 2 permanent buildings. One was the Roy Cullen Building which H.R. Cullen had given them the money for in 1938 to honor his son who had been killed in the oil fields in the 1930s. So, he gave $260,000 to build that first Roy Cullen Building - still there. The Science Building was there across the Reflection Pond. And then, there was a third building which we called the Recreation Building. There was a cafeteria at one end, a card room in the middle, and the gymnasium on the other end. Then, there were a number of metal buildings where we conducted classes and such.
JP: Was there a Cougar den yet?
WW: Yes, there was. That was the card room.
JP: What was it like?
WW: Well, the students played bridge all day. Now, being run of no substance cash-wise, I did not have time for bridge. But my brother and I both worked full-time. The students would sit there and play bridge all day long for money.
JP: What was the tone at U of H at the time? A whole lot of people coming back from the war, probably in quite a hurry to get on with it.
WW: Well, it was a very exciting time for the simple reason that there were no rules. In the first place, almost everybody there was on the campus for the first time or in the University for the first time. We did not have a fight song, which was written that year. All of the traditions that we now have and whatever, we made up as we went along. It was very exciting. Also, no one had any money. We were all great people but just people that had no money. GIs returning from the war, etc. And so, it was just like one huge fraternity.
JP: Who are some of the people that were in that fraternity with you?
WW: Well, Jack Valenti was president of the student body in 1945. Valenti, who was later my partner in the banking business and subdividing business in Houston had been a B25 pilot in World War II. He had attended the University of Houston at night. He was the epitome of what the University of Houston is all about -- someone works full-time, goes to school, gets a degree and so forth. Then he came back after the war, finished his degree and then left for Harvard Business School. Another one was Johnny Goen. Johnny Goen was president of the student body of 1946. Johnny Goen, who also was my partner later was mayor pro tem of Houston for 22 years - a great American, now dead, as is Valenti. Who else was in that class? My brother Jack and I were very close. We lived on the campus in a GI house trailer. After the war, the university bought 200 house trailers for the students to live in. And then, they bought some barracks that they tore down and made into apartments for married couples. I was in trailer #67 with my brother. You had to be a veteran in order to live there. Well, I was not a veteran but my brother was, my brother Jack. So, we lived in this house trailer. The only problem was it had no bathroom. In order to take a shower or go to the bathroom, you walked 2 blocks down the street to where they had a latrine. So, it was primitive but wonderful.
JP: I read in other places about your memories of working on the Daily Cougar, or the Weekly Cougar then. How did that affect your life?
WW: Well, very much. When I was in Brownsville, Texas, my father always wanted me to learn how to sell, so he had me try to sell advertising for the radio station that he owned in Brownsville. Well, I was only 17 and 18, 16, whatever, so I was not very successful at it. So, when I came to the University of Houston, I decided that I would learn how to become a salesman. So, I went to the Cougar office where Johnny Goen was the manager and volunteered to be a salesman. There, I learned that the salesman got a 20% commission. So, the next day, I was pounding the streets of downtown Houston selling ads and mainly to used car dealers. So, I got involved because I wanted to learn how to sell. Well, I later became business manager and then business manager of the yearbook and business manager frontier fiesta and so forth. To answer your question, it gave me an opportunity to be a business man when I was 18, 19, 20 years old.
JP: Did the business school then prepare you well for your career?
WW: Yes. Not nearly as well as they do today. It was more ad hoc at the time. I had some outstanding instructors. There is a great lawyer whose name escapes me - heaven forgive me for not remembering his name - who taught business law. And I remember him so well. His classes had about 100 students, very big for the time. Everybody sat in alphabetical order. The Wilsons were always at the back. But he ran that class with an iron hand. I remember a psychology professor that had a huge class, 100 students, and we sat in alphabetical order. The first day he called the role and he called out your name - Welcome Wilson - and he would look at you. Then go to the next name and so forth. The next day, he called every student by their name. 100 students. I had a great teacher of salesmanship. His name was Jim Taylor. He later became the dean of the hotel college but it was a motivator. I mean, he could get you excited about what you were doing and get you excited about selling and so forth. So, I had some great professors.
JP: Which year did you graduate from U of H?
JP: And what happened then?
WW: Well, W.W. Kimmerer was assistant to the president. Dr. E.E. Oberholser, who was a great friend of mine and so forth when I was a student . . . I was always kind of outgoing or aggressive or whatever, so I always tracked people down . . . but Dr. Oberholser was getting older when I got there. It was Oberholser though that had the vision for the University of Houston originally. It was Oberholser that talked H.R. Cullen into giving the money for the first building. He was the one that got the . . . he was superintendent of schools. He talked the board of education it was called in the city into starting the first junior college and then the university and so forth. But he was older when I got on campus and the campus was run by the assistant to the president, a man named W.W. Kimmerer. A wonderful, inspiring guy. Anyway, he talked me into working for the University of Houston as assistant director of the College of Nursing. That was a first assignment on what was to be a long career in university development they would call it later. Today, they call it university advancement but in those days, public relations would have been a better term for it. But my job at the College of Nursing was to do fund raising and to recruit nurses, which were in short supply even then.
JP: Did you work closely with the administration at U of H and could you talk about the Kimmerers and Colonel Bates and others?
WW: Sure. Dr. Kimmerer, as I said, was a really inspiring guy and I give him a lot of credit for my modest success because he convinced me that I had talent and that I had a contribution to make. And I am grateful to him for that. Kimmerer later became president of the University and a major controversy developed because the Birch Society in Houston felt like that Kimmerer was a left winger, maybe even had Communist ties. Totally ridiculous, in my view, but it was at a time when McCarthy was doing his thing in the Senate of the United States. It was a time when they were blackballing writers in Hollywood. It was a terrible time for America, in my view. But the Birch Society started this campaign of writing letters and making phone calls to the Board of Regents. And finally, at the end of the day, Kimmerer had to resign.
JP: About when was that?
WW: In the 1950s. I do not remember exactly, the exact time. But it was a great travesty. Kimmerer was the guy who dreamed the idea of getting a public TV station. Well, first, a public FM station in 1948 and then in 1950, I believe it was, a TV charter. It is the number one public television station in the nation. The very first charter was issued to the University of Houston. But a man of vision, a man who really set the tone for the University of Houston.
JP: How did he get along with Hugh Roy Cullen?
WW: Well, at first, but Mr. Cullen was a very conservative man and he was the m an that called Dean Atchison, the Secretary of State, a homosexual which, at the time, was something of . . . it was a great expression of disrespect or whatever. He called him a homosexual on national TV. Mr. Cullen, who I loved dearly, by the way, but he was very . . . he felt like that the government . . . he did not like Harry Truman who was president at the time. He subscribed to what McCarthy wanted to do and so forth. He was one of the main contributors to Thurman's presidential bid - the Dixie-crat party. So anyway, at the end of the day, it was Mr. Cullen that decided that Kimmerer had to go because he was too left leaning.
JP: Did you know Mr. Cullen well?
WW: Yes, as much as you can when you are 19 years old and he is 65 or whatever. But in those days, a student organization that was getting ready to do something would ask to go for a chance to go talk to the chairman of the board. And so, we would crank up our ideas about Frontier Fiesta or varsity varieties or whatever it was and we would go down and see Mr. Cullen in the City National Bank Building on Main Street. And he would welcome us in. He had a very spacious office and we would all sit around and we would talk about our enterprise and so forth. And in the first meeting, he saw a picture of my girlfriend, Joanne. So, thereafter, whenever he would see me, he would ask me about Joanne and kid me about Joanne and so forth. But he was very gracious which, by the way, now that I am chairman of the Board of Regents, I am going to encourage more of that type of thing, more interaction with the students themselves.
JP: Did you also get to know Colonel Bates?
WW: Yes, not as well. Colonel Bates seemed more formal. I got to know him much better not in the 1940s but in the 1950s when I was active with the mayor's office and so forth. He was head of the law firm at that time and he had this young, eager partner named Leon Jaworski that later took over the law firm, and other things.
JP: After you left U of H, you went to the city or into private business?
WW: What happened next was I got called in the Korean War. The war was 3 days old when I got my orders to report for active duty. I was in the Naval Reserve. They reinstituted the draft in 1948 because of the Cold War and Russia and Germany and one thing or another. So, I guess it was the Berlin Crisis that caused it. So, those of us in college registered for the Naval Reserve or National Guard or whatever and you could stay in college until you finished, but in July of 1950, the Korean War broke out and I got my orders to active duty. So, I went in as an enlisted man, went to boot camp in San Diego, on to Bambridge Island, Washington State and then about 4 or 5 months later, I was commissioned an officer with the help of Lyndon Johnson, I might add, and was sent to Japan where I served for 2 years. Then, I came back to the University of Houston in 1952, voted for Eisenhower for president for the first time, and about 6 months later, I was hired by R.E. Bob Smith, who was an oil man. He would be called a billionaire today. I was 25, I guess, and he was 65, and he became my very best friend. Judge Roy Hofheinz was mayor of Houston, having been elected in 1952, so he appointed Bob Smith as the Director of Civil Defense on a dollar a year basis. So, I had just gone to work for Bob Smith, so he sent me to City Hall to sit in his chair and run the department as Assistant Director of Civil Defense on a full-time basis. So, I stayed at City Hall for 3 years, later became an assistant to the mayor mainly in political matters as opposed to government policy matters, and we did some very interesting things. This was relatively the beginning of the Cold War. It was a time when I was the one who put name tags on school children; I was the one who installed all of the sirens all over Houston that went off at noon every Friday. And I was asked many times why noon Friday and I said, "Well, it just sounded like a good idea at the time." But the point is I was 25, 26, 27. I mean, I was just a kid and here I had all this responsibility. It was an incredible opportunity. Dr., I remember one event. We were having a test. We were going to have a test and we talked the entire downtown business community into letting us shut down the city for 1 hour. I forget what year it was but for 1 hour, every retail store closed their doors, every person on the street got off the street. The entire city was shut down. Imagine trying to organize that today. And yet, we were able to do it? Why? Because the Cold War was the number one problem on everybody's mind. Nuclear attack was the biggest danger that the country faced.
JP: Where were we going to survive the nuclear attack in Houston? What were the plans?
WW: Well, the first place . . . recognize that in those days, we did not know nearly as much as they know today, number one; number two, the hydrogen bomb had not been invented, so the view was that the Ship Channel would be bombed because that was the heart of the oil business as it is today. So, at first, it was to shelter in place was the plan, to try to get and get away from radiation and so forth by sheltering in place. Later, after the hydrogen bomb came along, evacuation became the plan and we actually had evacuation drills in the mid 1950s in which we would shut down major thoroughfares, have people evacuate and so forth on a test basis. I thought about all of that when they were evacuating for Hurricane Rita a couple of years ago.
JP: Maybe we should go on and finish that thread of your past. You then went to work on the Eisenhower administration.
WW: Well, while I was there, Dwight Eisenhower appointed me as the 5 State Director Defense Mobilization headquarters in the Dallas Fort Worth area in Denton, Texas. We were in Denton so that we would not be in the metropolitan area. So, if an atom bomb hit Dallas/Fort Worth, we would be 30 miles to the north. Before I left that job, I built an underground office building. It is a 40,000 square foot office building built totally underground so that it could survive a nuclear attack on Dallas or Fort Worth. Part of my responsibilities there was FEMA. We had what we called the Office of Natural Disasters which was a division of my agency and we controlled all the money that was passed out to the states and governments for natural disasters. The department that I was in was part of the executive office of the president. It was like the bureau of the budget and the concept was that from the White House, then this agency would control the departments of the government both in terms of planning and in terms of responding to a nuclear attack. We also had the responsibility to help the states get prepared and the cities, of course, and then the individual citizens. But it was a very interesting position. I had occasion to deal with the 5 governors of my states, knew them all personally, the 10 senators from the states, my 5 states. I had, I think it was about 40 congressmen, knew them all. And in those days, all of the powerful congressmen were from the South, from Texas and the South. The chairman of the Appropriations Committee was George Mahon of Lubbock, Texas. The chairman of the Agricultural Committee - I cannot remember his name. Albert Thomas was chairman of the Independent Offices Committee. Lyndon Johnson was a very powerful senator later. I guess he was the Majority Leader of the House, of the Senate at the time. But it was an interesting opportunity.
Then to finish my report on my checkered career, I returned to Houston where my partners and I had already started our first subdivision. And I returned to Houston in 1961 to become head of the Jamaica Corporation which was developing Jamaica Beach in Galveston. And my partners were my brother, Jack, Jack Valenti, Johnny Goen and Bill Sherrill. Bill Sherrill was later a member of the Federal Reserve Board and later yet, a head of the Entrepreneurial School at the University of Houston.
JP: What was the business climate like at that time in Houston, in the post-war boom?
WW: It was great. Let me contrast Houston to Dallas. I mentioned that I lived in Dallas a while and was involved in the business community while I was a federal official. Here is my take on it. In Houston, if someone comes in from out of town and makes a big success, we think it is great. We invite him to all the affairs and we think it is just wonderful that somebody rolls in here and makes a success. In Dallas, in my view, they don't like it at all. I remember a time about 1968 or so, I had contracted to buy the third largest bank in Dallas. It was called Exchange Bank and Trust. So, I had signed a contract to buy that bank. Well, Dallas came unglued -- the idea that a Houstonian would dare to go to Dallas, Texas and buy one of their big banks was just a terrible thought as far as they were concerned. If the roles had been reversed, I think Houston would have been happy to have somebody from Dallas down here.
JP: You were involved in 2 of the real growth industries in Houston: real estate and banking. Any observations you have about real estate through time and banking through time in your career would be useful.
WW: Sure. Well, I remember a remark that Bob Smith made in about 1953. I was talking to my best friend, R.E. Bob Smith for whom I worked and he had just purchased some land on Westheimer for $1,200 an acre. It is now called Westchase and the Beltway goes right through the middle of it. So, I said to Bob, I said, "Well, you know, it is a shame I could not have been around earlier because all of the good deals are gone." I said, "If I had only been around earlier when there were bargains to buy. Now, all the bargains are gone," and so forth. So, he paused a minute. He said, "You peckerwood." That is what he called me from when he was disapproving. He said, "The opportunities are just beginning in Houston real estate." He said, "Do you realize that you can now go to a bank and borrow money on land?" He said, "You couldn't do that before now." He said, "No one would lend you money on land, for heavens sakes! They would hardly lend you money on a house but on raw land," he said, "Now you can go to the bank and borrow money on land." And he said, "You have seen nothing yet." He was the largest land owner in Harris County. He owned both sides of the Loop in the Westheimer area. I think he had 14,000 acres in individual tracts scattered all over Harris County. But anyway, he was right. To answer your question, it was a great time then; it is a great time now. We had some bad times in the 1980s and you wondered if it would ever recover because we thought when the crash came about 1985 or 1986, we thought it would be over in 3 or 4 years. Wrong. It went on 10 years. It was the mid 1990s before we came out of the real estate crash.
JP: Let's talk about the crash some. How did that affect you and the real estate business?
WW: It was terrible for the real estate business. Most people lost a lot. Repossessions . . . the biggest developers in town were having their buildings repossessed all over town. Those that had personally guaranteed their loans were going into bankruptcy, and it was a very unfortunate time in this sense. The federal government who caused the whole thing, in my view . . . let me repeat that . . . it was federal policy that caused the real estate crash in the 1980s. The federal government then came in, hired double the size of the Justice Department to go find the scoundrels that created all of this, so they went around to the financial institutions and second guessed every loan that was made. And, as a result, they indicted people that should not have been indicted. My good friend, Kenneth Snitcher, was indicted and fortunately, a judge decided that that was ridiculous and acquitted him. Many other people were afraid of being indicted. Why? For just being around. So, it was a terrible time.
JP: What were your company's major projects?
WW: Well, I was lucky in that I got into trouble early. In 1984, I had a $10 million note coming due. It was big money at the time. So, it was all secured by raw land and my son and I were in business together by the end, so we scrambled around and sold the land for what we thought was a ridiculously low price just to pay the debt off. The same with some other debt. So, we went into 1985 and 1986 without any debt. So, while everything was crashing around us, we did fine because we had no debt and we were dealing with the government. We were doing a city project called Palm Center where we bought an old shopping center out on MLK and we redeveloped it and then sold part of it to the city and part to others and so forth. We bought a downtown building that was repossessed and spent about $6 million refurbishing it, then sold it to the federal government. And government is a growth industry so we did fine during the crash, better than most.
JP: You were also on the boards of banks. Observations about banking and boom and bust in Houston, and particularly, relationship to real estate and banks.
WW: Well, I received a charter for a bank on the north side. It is now called North Houston Bank. I was the chairman of the board, principal shareholder. It was one of 2 or 3 banks that did not fail in Houston. River Oaks Bank and Trust did not fail, Post Oak Bank did not fail, my bank did not fail, and it seems to me there may have been 1 or 2 other smaller banks, but the reason was all of our loans were in installment loans. We did not have any big real estate loans. So, it sailed through the crash without any difficulties, now about a billion dollar bank. I was also involved in Colonial Savings Association. I started off as a very minor shareholder. Then, one day, I picked up the papers and the headline of the paper said "Prominent Houstonians Accused of Self Dealing." And then, the byline said something about Colonial Savings. So, I said, for heaven sakes. So, I started reading this article and they mentioned prominent citizens, so I had sort of mixed emotions. One is that if I was not listed, I would not be a prominent citizen but if I was listed, then that is not good. So anyway, it turns out I was listed but I was listed on the jump page. So, I was not on the front page. But what had happened was one of our principal organizers -- I was a very minor shareholder -- was director of the Civil Service Commission at the City of Houston, and it turned out that most of the pension money for the City pension funds was deposited in Colonial Savings Association, which was dumb but I knew nothing about it. But anyway, that was done and he was discharged from his position, and one thing or another, so I organized a group that bought out everybody else and then I became the chairman of the board of Colonial Savings Association. Then, I was chairman of the board of an institution in Clear Lake. But banking is not my business. If I were talking to my old friend, Walter Mischer, who is now dead, he was a banker, too. He had Allied Banks, Continental Bank. And much bigger than my banking operation. But we were talking before he died about the fact that if we were there now, we would not make anybody a loan. In business, so many things happen to you over time. You are so punchy from all the things that can go wrong that it is hard to realize that somebody is going to make a success and whatever. I would not make a good loan officer, I will tell you that.
JP: But, in your own interests, how did you sense that a rebound was coming in Houston and how did that play out in real estate?
WW: It came very slowly. In 1995, it began to turn around a little bit better after 10 years. We were all buying up buildings from the RTC that should not have been foreclosed on in the first place, but we were buying them up for 25 cents, 30 cents on the dollar. And then, you could lease them up for a change. And then, finally by 1996, then things began to move forward and it has been a real fine roll ever since. The last 10 years have been great in Houston. [end of side 1]
JP: So, any observations about business to close out that section of the interview?
WW: Yes, I would just like to point out what R.E. Bob Smith said, "That it is only the beginning," that Houston prices are extremely low compared to every other major metropolitan area. People from California coming here and they are startled; whether it is a single-family house, a shopping center, an office building, whatever it is, the Houston prices are 30%, 40% of what they are elsewhere, so Houston has a great future in real estate.
JP: All right. You mentioned earlier that you have started very early in life in the mayor's office. Any reflections on Houston politics and national politics as they affected Houston?
WW: Well, my first mayor's election was in 1948 and I was selling advertising for the University of Houston Cougar, the newspaper. So, I went down and called on a guy named Ben Kaplan who worked at the Houston Press, the old Houston Press not the new one. And he was campaign manager for Holger Jeppesen. Later, the Jeppesen Stadium was named after him. Holger Jeppesen had been president of the school board in Houston and he ran for mayor against Oscar Holcombe. Oscar had been in and out of the mayor's office for 10 years and he would always come in on a big wave and then the trouble would develop and after 2 to 4 years, he would leave the offices and come back again. So, Oscar came on a platform to change the city charter because he blamed the city manager system for a lot of the problems that Houston was having, that what we needed was a strong mayor government. So, he proposed a charter that simply took the charter we had and ever place it said "city manager," you strike through that and write in the mayor. He was successful in the '48 election in spite of the fact that I ran ads for Holger Jeppesen and Houston developed the strongest mayor form of government in the nation. Why? Because he is chairman of the City Council, the legislator branch; he is the chief executive officer of the City and he appoints the judicial, judges in the city. So, the mayor controls every aspect of city government, to the better, I think. I mean, I think the system is just right. I would not change a thing. Then, in 1952, Judge Roy Hofheinz who had been county judge, then left the county judgeship and went into private business in a radio station called KTHT, 790 on the AM dial. The 4th radio station in Houston. Had become a millionaire and ran for mayor, and was elected, beating Oscar Holcombe. He beat Oscar Holcombe. No, that is not right. Well, I forget who he beat but anyway, he became mayor and that is when I was appointed to move to City Hall and run the Civil Defense department. So, Hofheinz and I became great friends.
He was only 42 years all, as I recall, when he was elected mayor so they called him the "boy Mayor." Very articulate guy. A great pitch man. A great inspiration. The trouble is unlike Bob Lanier and people like that, Hofheinz had the inspiration but he did not have the consensus building ability of a Bob Lanier or a Bill White. So, in no time, every member on the City Council was opposing him. Why? Because he called them dumb! And when they would do something they shouldn't do, he would point it out. And so, in no time, there was a big conflict between the mayor and the City Council. And, in 1 year, we had I think it was 4 elections or 4 major controversies. And I was in charge of most of them. By that, I mean, for example, the City Council voted to fire Hofheinz' assistant, _______. So, I led a petition drive to get 16,000 signatures to create an ordinance by petition, which is allowed on the charter, to reverse that action. And then, that same year. There was a move to impeach Hofheinz. I was in charge of a campaign to have an election to change the city charter, and to have the elections in odd years instead of even years. In other words, it was mid term, we would terminate everybody's office and start electing the city officials with the school board in odd years. In years before, it had always been in even years. We were successful in getting the charter changed where everybody got thrown out of office and we elected a whole new slate of people but we just weren't on the slate. In fact, we were defeated 2-1/2 to 1 because the public just couldn't believe that 8 people on the Council could be wrong and one person, the mayor, could be right. But anyway, they were exciting and colorful times.
JP: As a person working in city politics but also friends with R.E. Bob Smith, did you see much of the 8F crowd, the so-called 8F crowd that he was a part of?
WW: I knew them all. I did not go to suite 8F. The youngest guy there was Walter Mischer, and Walter Mischer was 7 years older than I. Mischer was there. But I knew George Brown. I knew him very well. I knew Mr. Wortham. I called George "George," but Mr. Wortham, I called "Mr. Wortham." I knew others in that group. I personally knew Judge Elkins very well. And the 8F crowd was beginning to fade when I came into business. But I remember that hotel where it was located, the Lamar Hotel. It had a great buffet on the 2nd floor. And that is where I met Jesse Jones.
JP: Who lived on the top floor.
WW: Back in the 1940s. Mr. Jones, I did not call him "Jesse" for sure, but Mr. Jones lived at the Lamar and he traveled around in a chauffeur-driven convertible. Why? Because a convertible is easier to get in and out of. So, he had a chauffeur-driven convertible and the chauffeur would pick him up on Lamar Street, take him down to the Banker's Mortgage Building where he had a fabulous office with all of his political cartoons. See, Mr. Jones was head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the RFC. He was Secretary of Commerce. He was a world leader back in World War II. He owned the Houston Chronicle. He owned the largest radio station. He owned 7 office buildings in downtown Houston and 9 hotels. Now, is that a powerful man or what?
JP: Yes. When you think back of that group of people, Mr. Jones slightly older, slightly separate from the 8F crowd, what do you see in terms of the development of Houston? How do you place those people?
WW: Well, you know, Mr. Jones, and I wasn't around at the time, but the crash of 1928, it was Mr. Jones in his office in the National Bank of Commerce Building, now the Gulf Building. No, maybe it is now the Chase Bank. He was the guy who called all the banks, the bank presidents together, the bank owners together, and said that this bank over here is about to go busted because of a run on the bank. If we all give them enough money, they can make it. And he talked them in, all competitors there, all bank competitors, he talked them into pooling their money saving this bank. As a result, not one Houston bank went broke during the Depression, unlike every other city in America. That was Mr. Jones. Well, I am not sure we have the people of that stature today that could do something like that but when I was a young business man, if you got half a dozen people or maybe 10 at the most behind something, it was done. If you could get Gus Wortham and George Brown and Mr. Cullen and W.A. Smith - a handful of people - Walter Mischer and people like that behind something, they put it across. Those people are . . . another difference . . . in those days, you personally knew the president of Humble Oil Company, now Exxon. You personally knew the vice-president for Texaco. The president was in New York but the vice-president ran Texaco. And you knew him. Cannot remember his name now. You knew the president of Shell and such. And now, it is not quite the same.
JP: It has a lot to do with the size of the city or the fact that people then were more committed to the city?
WW: Size. It must be size because in those days, it was a small business community and everybody knew everybody. So, size must have a lot to do with it.
JP: How much influence did such civic leaders have on city government?
WW: A great deal. One of the things that got Hofheinz thrown out of office was he turned on what he called "The Fat Cats," and he went on television night after night talking about "The Fat Cats are trying to run this city." The Fat Cats, who were they? They were people like Judge Jim Elkins of Vinson & Elkins, the president of the second largest bank in town. Gus Wortham, the head of American General Insurance Company. George Brown. So, Fat Cats . . . so, you saw what happened to Hofheinz. The business community has always been active in government. Let me tell you an incident, by the way, speaking of government. I forget the year but it was in the 1960s, as I recall. Mr. Johnson had completed his term as president of the United States and had gone to the LBJ Ranch where he wanted to have seminars on certain subjects. Sort of think tank sessions. So, he invited a group of us from Houston to join him. He was gathering about 100 people from all over the state to hear Milton Freeman, the economist. So, George Brown called me and wanted to know if I wanted to fly over in his plane. He said, "Some of us are going in my plane." It was a Brown & Root plane. So, I said, "Sure." So, here we are on this plane and there is Gus Wortham and George Brown and Herb Friendsley and just the top leaders of Houston. How I got in that group, I am not sure but anyway, I was there. So, in the plane, we are all in sort of a circle in a sitting group. It was set up like a lounge. And we are flying to the LBJ Ranch. Well, there was a new state representative that had been invited to fly over with us who I had never met although I had given some money to her because I was asked to by Johnny Goen. So, she is sitting there and George Brown starts talking to her and asking her questions. Well, in the 30, 40, 50 minutes it took to fly to the LBJ Ranch, we were spellbound by this woman. Barbara Jordan. The most impressive, the most articulate, the most reasonable person you could have ever met. And everything you asked her, she told you what she thought about it. She was a state representative at the time. So, needless to say, we all got behind her and backed her to Congress and everything else. And, of course, she made a great record. But a very impressive girl.
JP: We were talking some about national politics and Kennedy and the Johnson and the Yarboroughs, real titans that were passing through our region. Let's talk a bit about national politics and some of the people that came through Houston like Lyndon Johnson and Ralph Yarborough and John F. Kennedy.
WW: Sure. I first met John F. Kennedy in my hotel room. I was at the Congressional Hotel in Washington and the guy I was staying with, we were up there - he was from New Mexico and he was a friend of John F. Kennedy, so Kennedy came over. He had just received the nomination for the presidency. He beat Lyndon Johnson in the nominating process and then he selected Johnson to be his vice-president. So, Kennedy came to the hotel room for about a half an hour and we talked and had some friends in and one thing or the other, and I was immediately taken by his presence. By that, I mean he had a presence that you could feel; that as he walked in, he seemed to send out positive vibes. Very friendly. Always smiling. I was very impressed with Kennedy. Later on when the manned spacecraft center was to be built in Houston, Kennedy came to Houston to make the announcement at Rice Stadium. I was in charge of the event on behalf of the mayor who was Louis Cutrer, a great mayor of Houston. Under Cutrer, I was a dollar a year man. And I was chairman of everything that came along but not as a paid employee. But I was in charge of the group out there and the one notable thing I remember about it is that I placed myself directly behind the speaker's stand so that when the television was on Kennedy, it would also be on me. That was my big contribution to that event. But Kennedy was an interesting person. Bobby Kennedy, who I met and knew slightly, I felt was mean-spirited, if that is the way to put it. But Kennedy was open. And Lyndon Johnson loved him. Lyndon Johnson thought Kennedy was great and supported everything he did and so forth. Any conflicts between the Kennedys and the Johnsons were with Bobby and some of the Kennedy people. It was not with the president. Later on, Kennedy came back to Houston to speak at the Albert Thomas dinner. The Albert Thomas dinner was held in 1964, I guess it was, 1963. It was on November 22. Jack Valenti was the chairman of the event and the president was coming down to honor Albert Thomas, a long-time congressman, a very powerful congressman, and Lyndon Johnson was coming as well to speak at the Coliseum, now torn down, at a banquet of about 1,000 people that we had organized. My responsibility was the airport. I was in charge of the arrival of Air Force 2 and Air Force 1, and then organizing the motorcades to come downtown and so forth. And Air Force 2 arrived first with Johnson. Then, Air Force 1 arrived. We had a reception line with the mayor and civic leaders and union leaders and such. I had various people responsible for various things. Johnny Goen I put in charge of getting Senator Ralph Yarborough into his vehicle for the ride downtown. Johnny gets Yarborough by the elbow and he starts taking him over to this limousine to get him in.
Yarborough walks up to the limousine and he looks inside and Lyndon Johnson is there because Johnson had told me that he wanted to ride in the limousine with Ralph Yarborough because we were trying to prove that the Democrats in Texas were united and all that kind of stuff. Well, Yarborough looked in there and saw Johnson and he jumped back, jumped back and wrenched his arm away from Johnny and he said, "I am not riding with him," and he stomps off. And went over and got into a press car. Well, the next day, Lyndon Johnson is president of the United States. So, Yarborough was not pleased with himself for having done all of that. But anyway, so the motorcade went downtown to the Rice Hotel. Then, we had the fabulous banquet. I sat about 4 seats away from Jackie. Just a spectacular personality, a spectacular looking woman, and a superstar in every sense. Everybody made great speeches and all the rest. Then, we went back to the hotel where I was expecting Lyndon Johnson to pat me on the head and tell me what a great job I had done in organizing everything and whatever. Well, at first, he would not even come out of the bedroom of the suite. And then, when he finally did, he gave me the finger in the chest treatment because I had put him in a closed limousine when he wanted to be in a convertible. And I said, "I knew you wanted to be in a convertible but the Secret Service came to see me and they said no, no, no, we've got a bubble top for the president but he's got to be in a closed vehicle." And I said, "Well, I thought the Secret Service was the one that told you what to do," and he said, "The vice-president tells you want to do. Not the Secret Service." Anyway, he was angered about that and I guess he got over it later. But he was visibly upset because I had not followed his instructions and he did not get to wave to people in the parade, the motorcade coming to town.
But later, Ralph Yarborough, who was a friend of mine, I knew him very well . . . when he was a senator, he complained a lot about not having any authority because he was a senior senator from Texas. But the vice-president was from Texas. John Connally had been governor of Texas. So, Johnson's personal relationships . . . Jack Valenti was Johnson's assistant. And so, Yarborough complained that he did not have the authority a senior senator should have.
JP: Did Johnson come back to Houston much after he retired?
WW: Not often. He spent most of his time at the LBJ Ranch, and then died, you know, in 1972 or something? An interesting man. I hear in read the press talking about Johnson as being a Liberal. Not so. The Johnson I knew was as conservative as anybody you ever knew. In Texas, we did not have a Republican party but we had two wings of the democratic party. Houston as well. We had the Ralph Yarborough wing, the Mrs. Ball and others. Bernard Rappapo from Waco were, let's call it the Liberal wings. They called themselves the Harris County Democrats in Houston. And then, we had the wing of Lyndon Johnson and Price Daniel and people like that including Alan Shivers and Buford Jester as governors that were extremely conservative. When Johnson went to the White House, he was known for going around cutting off light switches in order to save electricity. He was known as a business candidate. But after he became president, that is when he decided that certain things needed to change, that he did not want old people to suffer. He passed Medicare. He thought he could make a difference with his war on poverty. He thought that in 25 years, that every single poor person could be raised out of poverty in the United States. And maybe it could have happened but it did not happen.
I remember an incident that happened. I was sitting in Jack Valenti's house after Valenti had married Lyndon Johnson's secretary, Mary Margaret Wiley, a wonderful, cute blonde lady. So, Johnson is now vice-president and they are living on San Felipe in River Oaks. So, Lyndon Johnson was in town. So, Valenti invited my wife and I over and my brother and a couple of other friends, and 8 or 9 of us are sitting around in the living room and Lyndon Johnson is sitting there as he always did and chain drinking, if that is the right word, decaf coffee. He would sit there and drink cup after cup after cup of decaf coffee. I do not know whether it was just a need to have something in his hand or what. But anyway, we were talking about a variety of things and I was sitting kind of like we are here, kind of across from him. So, I asked him about civil rights. This was, say, 1962. And Kennedy was trying to get civil rights passed and so forth. And he said, "Well, something needs to be done about that." So, I kind of pressed him and he said, "Welcome, let me tell you a story. When we were campaigning for president and vice-president, we were driving through New Mexico and we had stopped at one of those filling stations out in the prairie to get a Coke and go to the bathroom and such. There was a caravan of about 6, 7 vehicles, so everyone was there 15, 20 minutes, and then we were getting ready to leave and an assistant that worked in my office was missing. And so, everybody was looking around for him and whatever. She was a young black secretary that worked for me in Washington. And she said she was missing because she was 100 yards behind the building squatting down to go to the bathroom because they would not let her go to the bathroom in the building." And he reached over and he hit me on the knee and he said, "Welcome, that is wrong, and when I get a chance to do something about it, I am going to do it." And, of course, the president is assassinated, he becomes president, he gets the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 passed and changed that forever.
JP: How had race come into Houston politics in the 1950s? How did that play in city politics? Clearly changes in the air.
WW: Let me tell you, in the first place, it was not much of an issue in the 1940s and the 1950s. Why? Because few of them voted, few of them could vote. I am speaking of African Americans. But by the 1960s, change was in the air. Louis Cutrer was mayor of Houston when a group of students from Texas Southern University went down dressed in coat and tie and sat down on the lunch counter at Foley's, later Walgreen's, and tried to order service, and they would not serve them. So, they just sat there. It was the beginning of the sit-ins. And they would sit there 4, 5, 6 hours and management would not serve them any food or give them a drink of water or anything. And then, fortunately, the mayor had enough sense not to send the police down to arrest them or whatever although I think some were arrested in other locations. The business community of Houston, the Houston Restaurant Association, and others came to the mayor and said, "If you will give us time, we can work this out." They said, "Let's just keep the lid on and let's work this out and we will desegregate the Houston restaurants." And that is what they did. So, without any confrontation, without any big fanfare or whatever, the Houston restaurants were quietly desegregated in the 1960s. A big success. It does not happen that way elsewhere.
JP: As was U of H.
JP: The same era. Let me ask a concluding question here. It strikes me that as you become a Regent at U of H, it must be a time to think back about your life in Houston, University of Houston, and the city. What do you think about when you see the impact that Houston and U of H had on you?
WW: Well, I love Houston. I love the University of Houston. I would have to tell you that the University of Houston was a great influence in my life. The opportunity to be a part of it for now 61 years, the opportunity to help it grow and so forth. See, at University of Houston, we have 57,000 students. A lot of people don't know that. 57,000 students. Our annual budget, Dr., is a $1,120,000. The annual budget. We have 8,000 faculty and staff. Our economic impact on Houston is tremendous. We spend $90 million a year on research. This semester, we will graduate 75 people from Beijing with a master's degree in business. And these are not just normal students, these are heads of industries in China. The University of Houston is doing world class things everywhere in all fields. We are heading up a consortium to develop wind energy in the Gulf of Mexico. And the list goes on and on. We are building a great football team, having beat Tulane Saturday night and a great basketball team. And so, across the board, the University of Houston is a growing and developing force in this city. Houston itself, in my view, still is the outstanding city of the world. I have friends from the Persian Gulf that come to Houston frequently mainly for the Texas Medical Center. They love Houston. And I am hopeful that we will be able to develop some programs at the University of Houston that would link the Persian Gulf with Houston even closer.
JP: So, your dad gave you good advice?
WW: I agree. He did indeed.
JP: All right. Do you have anything you would like to add?
WW: I guess not, except that I am proud to serve as Chairman of the Board of Regents at the University of Houston and we are going to become a flagship university soon, sooner than later, and we are working on that every day.
JP: All right. I want to go back to one thing that we talked about before. I think it might be interesting for the tape. When you were working on civil defense, you were responsible for responding to Hurricane Audrey and for people who don't know, Audrey took roughly the path of Rita and killed 500, 600 people in Cameron, Louisiana. I would like to just talk a bit about how you responded to that and maybe think through some differences in how we have responded recently.
WW: Sure. Well, when I was a federal official in the Eisenhower Administration, I was responsible for 5 states for defense mobilization and that included what is now called FEMA. At the time, it was just the Office of Natural Disasters but it was under our responsibility. The Texas region, which included Texas and the 4 surrounding states, had probably more natural disasters than anyone because we had tornadoes in Oklahoma and North Texas, we had floods of many, many rivers and we had hurricanes. So, we had more than our share the 5 years that I was in that position. And in 1947, I had been in office about 1 year and Hurricane Audrey developed off the coast of Louisiana. And in those days, the reporting and warning system was very poor. One of the things I was able to get changed after that disaster was the fact that until that time, all of the weather report warnings said the eye of the hurricane will enter Brownsville, Texas or Corpus Christi or wherever, Galveston, at a certain hour. Well, the eye is not the danger, it is 8 hours, 10 hours before when the tide comes in and the winds start blowing. So, after the hurricane was over, we had a hearing in Lake Charles, Louisiana, at which time the Weather Bureau agreed to change the way that they reported. I presided at the hearing to make that change when we were trying to see what we did wrong and so forth. Hurricane Audrey came in, hit Cameron, Louisiana, killed 35,000 head of cattle, 550 people were in an ice house, dead people in the ice house in Cameron, Louisiana after the hurricane. It destroyed 5,000 homes. A devastating hurricane. Basically, the same path that Rita took just 2 years ago. But it was an interesting time but one thing that was characteristic frankly with respect to Katrina -- I do not think that is the federal government's failure. I would argue with anybody that that was a state and local government failure. What happens always is this: Disaster relief is a state and local responsibility. The federal government does not come in and take over state government. It is against the law to do that. So what happens when a disaster is developing is that the feds who have all the resources and who have all of the high paid payroll and the experts and whatever, are on the phone calling the state and they are calling the cities and whatever, saying, What can we do to help?, let us do this and that and the other thing. And the states and the cities always are saying just keep your shirt on, just stand back, we are in charge here, we will handle all of this and when we need you, we will call you. In the meantime, just relax and whatever. O.K., now the hurricane hits and the state and local government says, where is the federal government? Michael Brown, who was head of FEMA at the time, was in this office about 6 months ago and I said, "Michael, let me tell you what happened in Katrina. Here is what I will bet happened. Your staff was trying to get the state to let you come in and help. You are trying to get New Orleans to let the federal government come in and help and they said no, stay back." He said, "That is exactly what happened." But let me say it again: the federal government has no right to come in and take over a state government or a local government. And the idea that this was a federal responsibility . . . I am not talking about the building of the levees or whatever, is just wrong.
`Well, anyway, back to Hurricane Audrey, I had a very good relationship. Earl Long was governor of Louisiana, a friend of mine. A real character. Wore high-top button shoes. I remember a guy named Delepse Morrison ran against him for governor. I heard a campaign speech one time. He said, "Delepse. What kind of name is that anyway?" And he said, "He stands up there in all of those $300 suits," and he may have said $100 suits which was a lot of money at the time but anyway, he said, "He stands up there in all those $100 suits. Man, if I put on one of those $100 suits, it would look like a stocking on a chicken leg." But Earl Long had a way of connecting with the Baptist part of Louisiana which was most of it and got elected time and time again. But anyway, we worked very closely with the state government and I established a headquarters in Cameron, Louisiana. My brother, Jack, was in charge of it on the site. There was debris 25 feet high on every street. The court house was standing and the post office was standing and that was about all that was still there. I remember an incident that may be instructive. The White House told me, get down there and get that messed cleaned up. So, I go to the state and to the local government and I said, "Look, here is what we will do. I will get the Corps of Engineers to let a contract to somebody like KBR" -- at the time, it was just Brown & Root -- "and they will come in here and in 48 hours, this place will be clean." So, they said, "No, no. Our local contractors need to work. No, no, the federal government, you guys stay out. Let the local resources . . . we will do this." Of course, everybody wanted to help out their friends and so forth. Well, 8 months later, the place was still a mess. When, like I say, if we had had the authority, we could have gone in there and done much, much more than we did.
Another incident I remember for that was I arrived by plane and I was getting ready to transfer to a helicopter which was fairly new at the time to fly down to Cameron. I had landed in Lake Charles. There was a wild-looking guy kind of in the audience or the group that met the plane. And so, as I got off the plane and started to walk, he ran over to me and he grabbed me and he said, "Mr. Wilson, Mr. Wilson, you've got to give me one of these helicopters. You have got to give me a helicopter." [end of tape 1]
He says, "My wife. She is out there on the prairie in the swamps. I know she is alive. I can tell she is alive." And he said, "If you just give me a helicopter, I know I can go find her." So, I said, "Well, we have a regular pattern. We have 10 helicopters going back and forth searching every inch of ground looking for people on an orderly basis, so if she is there, I am sure we can find her," or whatever. So, he got down on his knees and he said, "Please, please give me a helicopter. With a helicopter, I know I can find her." Well, you know, that is the kind of thing that really tugs at your heart. It really breaks your heart. They did not find her. And when I was on my way on that trip to Cameron, I saw a body floating head down and the helicopter did not land. The person was face down in the water bloated but we radio'd somebody and gave the location so they could come find it. But anyway, that was a tough time.
JP: Your daughter handed me a note to ask you about NASA and the moon landing. Your role in that? Your memories of that? In relationship to Houston, how important that was to the city.
WW: Well, you know, we were so proud of getting NASA, and the responsibility, a lot of the credit goes to Lyndon Johnson. But the real credit should have gone to Albert Thomas. Albert Thomas was head of the Appropriations Committee that handled the money for NASA. It was Albert Thomas that got NASA located in Houston though Lyndon Johnson helped, I am sure. Of course, they named the Space Center after Lyndon Johnson. But in the early days, you knew all the astronauts. Alan Shepherd was my neighbor. He used to jog past my house in black socks. I knew Gus Grissom. Armstrong. You knew them all. You knew Dr. Gilruth who was head of NASA in the early days. Chris Craft who was there. So, you had an intimate involvement with NASA back in the 1960s when all that was going on. And then, we were oh so proud that when they were calling NASA, they would say "Houston" on the television or radio or whatever. They would always refer to it as "Houston"; like, "Houston, we have a problem," or whatever. So, we thought that was great for Houston. Mayor Louie Welch, a great friend of mine who is still alive and a great Houstonian and a great citizen of Houston, appointed me to head a committee to make a study on what we should do in Houston to call attention to the landing on the moon. We ended up not doing anything but the idea was we were going to try to get a celebration or something that would call attention to the fact that the Manned Spacecraft Center is here in Houston and so forth. It was in the summer, I forget what year it was. But anyway, NASA has been great for Houston and still is. And by the way, the University of Houston works very closely with NASA in all kinds of research experiments. And every time a shuttle goes up, there will be 6 or 7 things aboard the shuttle that relate to the University of Houston research.
JP: All right. And we will give you a chance again to say anything you want to conclude.
WW: Let me look at my notes here a minute. Well, there is so much to talk about. I would not know where to start except I would like to say something about James E. Lyon. James E. Lyon was chairman of the board and chief shareholder in River Oaks Bank and Trust. Lyon was an early Republican. Back when there weren't 7 Republicans in all of Texas, he was one of them. It was he that helped build with Hutchison and others the early Republican Party in Texas. Step by step. Very slowly over a long period of time. And Lyon was a business man unlike any other. He was articulate. He was a visionary. He built the Flagship Hotel out in the Gulf of Mexico. He built office buildings. He built subdivisions. But he and I were . . . he was my closest friend for 25 years before he died of pancreatic cancer. And everybody I know who knew James Lyon has a James Lyon story. He was a character of . . . I remember Walter Mischer said that Lyon called him one day to meet him at the Houston Club. It was during the time that Lyon was drinking. Most of his life, in his later life, he was a tee-totaler but at the time, he was drinking. So, Mischer went over there and sat down and Lyon said, "Excuse me, I've got to go make a phone call. I will be right back." Well, after about 30 minutes, Lyon did not come back. So, Mischer finally got up and left. So, about 5 a.m. in the morning, Mischer gets a call at home and he said, "You sorry so and so." It is James Lyon on the phone. He is calling from the Houston Club where he is locked in because he went to sleep in the phone booth. But everybody I know has a James Lyon story. A great American. A great Houston business man.
JP: All right, thank you, and thanks for your time.
WW: Yes, sir.