Texas History: The Hobby team that led Houston, Texas and America

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Will and Oveta Culp Hobby with U.S. Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers after Oveta was sworn in as the director of Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, the predecessor to the Women's Army Corps, in 1942. Although she was recommended repeatedly for higher status, she remained a colonel because powerful men, especially in U.S. Congress, did not want the WAACs or WACs to succeed.

I read every word of their life stories.

I even read some of the endnotes, those breadcrumbs that nonfiction authors scatter near the end of their books.

All told, Don Carleton's magnum opus, "The Governor and the Colonel: A Dual Biography of William P. Hobby and Oveta Culp Hobby," weighs in at more than 900 pages. 

Yet it reads like a good novel and it unearths more history about Southeast Texas, especially Houston, than I've read in years. (Hobby was governor from 1917-1924)

It makes an excellent shelf mate to another weighty but worthwhile — if fussier — dual biography set in that same dynamic city, William Middleton's 2018 "Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil."

In both cases, the wives outlived their husbands.

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It can be argued that both Dominique de Menil and Oveta Culp Hobby left more distinct legacies than their spouses, Hobby as a leader of national consequence and often the only woman "in the room" alongside power brokers in Texas and Washington, D.C. 

She organized and ran the Women's Army Corps, which performed key roles for the U.S. military during World War II, and later became only the second woman to serve in the White House cabinet. Herself from a political family, she remained personally close to the Roosevelts, Eisenhowers and Johnsons.

Biographer Carleton, director of the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, has worn many hats over the past decades in Austin, as historian, writer, museum founder and steward of astonishing archival and material holdings, especially about Texas, the American South, civil rights, news media, photography and politics.

I interviewed Carleton about his triumphantly researched and written book. What follows are lightly edited excerpts from that interview.

American-Statesman: You have rescued the stories of two Texas giants whose legacies have been lost on many Texans. What should William Hobby and Oveta Culp Hobby be remembered for first and foremost?

Don Carleton: They both are important for more than one reason.

Don Carleton's magnum opus is "The Governor and the Colonel: A Duel Biography of William P. Hobby and Oveta Culp Hobby." It brings the stories of the two Texas giants to life.

Will Hobby was a pioneer of the news media industry in Texas, both print and radio, as publisher and editor of the Beaumont Enterprise and the Houston Post and owner of that city’s KPRC Radio and TV. He was the governor of Texas who signed the bill giving women the right to vote in primary elections and he subsequently played a role in the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Oveta Culp Hobby was a nationally significant historical figure because of her role in successfully organizing and commanding the Women’s Army Corps, and her status as the second woman ever to serve on a presidential cabinet, where she organized and directed the department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).

As partners, they were key members of the business elite that helped Houston grow into the fourth largest city in the United States.

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William Hobby rose from cub reporter to editor and owner of one of the largest and influential newspapers in Texas. He went on to serve as governor, and he remained a statesman in the moderate wing of the Democratic party for decades. Yet he came from the backwoods of East Texas. 

Despite growing up in a rough patch of deep East Texas where little emphasis was placed on “book learning,” Will Hobby’s family gave him a deep respect for the written word, his love of politics, and his interest in civic affairs and public service.

Don Carleton, director of the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas.

He was indirectly influenced by the example of his Uncle Marmaduke, who was a well-known politician, biographer and poet, and by direct instruction from his attorney father, Edwin Hobby.

Edwin not only served three terms in the Texas Senate and nearly 10 years as a state judge, but also authored a highly regarded book that long served as the definitive source on the tangled and complex land laws of Texas.

In addition, Will’s mother, Dora Pettus Hobby, came from a prominent family in Fort Bend County, and she was a graduate of what would later become Mary Hardin-Baylor University.

Will’s career greatly benefitted from his early connection to a network of soon to be prominent individuals with whom his father had been closely associated when he was practicing law in the tiny village of Peach Tree in Polk County. 

That network included the influential U. S. congressman from East Texas, Samuel Bronson Cooper; lumber industry tycoon John Henry Kirby, one of the wealthiest men in Texas at the turn of the 20th century; and Ross Sterling, a founder of the Humble Oil Company and Houston real estate developer who served as governor of Texas during the Depression.

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Like Oveta Culp Hobby, Will Hobby's first wife also was a full partner in his social, political and, to some extent, journalistic career.

Will’s first wife was Willie Chapman Cooper, the charming, urbane and politically savvy daughter of Congressman Samuel Bronson Cooper. Because of the close friendship between Will’s father and Congressman Cooper, Will and Willie knew each other from childhood but they didn’t marry until after Will was elected lieutenant governor of Texas.

Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby being sworn in a as commander of the Women's Army Corps, 1943. Generals Marshall (middle) and Somervell (far right) stand behind her. She often had the full support of the top brass, including Gen. Eisenhower, as she organized, trained and commanded tens of thousands of women who performed essential jobs in the military.

Willie was well known in Washington, D.C., political society during the last years of her father’s service in Congress. She worked in his office and was his escort to social functions in the capital, including to parties at the White House during the presidencies of William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt.

Willie was a college graduate and an active supporter of women’s suffrage who converted Will to the cause. She was an activist first lady of Texas who was deeply involved in the effort on the home front to support the American military during WWI. 

Willie died in her sleep when she was in her early 50s from an apparent cerebral hemorrhage. She deserves recognition as a historically important Texas woman.

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The impeachment of Gov. James Ferguson, which meant the elevation of Will Hobby from his role as lieutenant governor, is an exciting chapter of Texas history, and it involved the University of Texas. Could you share a short version of that story and Will’s judicious role in it?

Actually, I don’t know that there is a short version of this complex event!

Former Texas Gov. William P. "Will" Hobby with his son, future Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby. Will oversaw family and business concerns in Houston while his wife, Oveta Culp Hobby, became a leader during two administrations in Washington, D.C. In those roles, she traveled a great deal.

But basically, James “Pa” Ferguson was a demagogue who was elected governor of Texas in 1914 on a semi-populist platform. Ferguson was a master orator and skilled political strategist who tried to make the governor’s office the dominant power in state government and who brooked no opposition.

After some UT faculty and staff campaigned against his reelection bid in 1916, it led to a chain of events that eventually culminated in Ferguson’s veto of UT’s budget after the UT administration refused to fire faculty who were critics of the governor.

Ferguson had other difficulties than just his problems with the university, including notably serious charges of corruption, including bribery, all of which led to his impeachment and conviction as governor in fall of 1917.

Will Hobby was never a Ferguson ally, but he carefully played no part in any of these proceedings due to the obvious conflict of interest as the person who would become governor in the event that Ferguson was removed from office — which, of course, is what happened.

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Will’s second wife, Oveta, daughter of a Killeen legislator, was quite a bit younger than the governor. She was then — and remained throughout her life — a glamorous, fashionable figure. How was this a powerful asset for the power couple?

Will Hobby was obviously attracted to smart, attractive, strongly independent, politically interested and well-informed women — the proof being his happy and successful marriages to two women who had those characteristics. As a result, Oveta’s possession of those personality traits made possible the forging of a personal and professional team in the strongest sense of that term. Especially during the first 15 years of their marriage, they were close partners in all of their business and civic activities, particularly in developing the Houston Post. One did not act without the other.

Besides her ambition, energy and talent, Oveta’s particular contribution to the Hobby team was her contrast in personality from Will. He was shy and quiet — a man of few words, a listener instead of a talker, which are unusual characteristics for a politician.

Oveta was the opposite. She was outgoing and highly social. She was the external relations member of the team; while Will was “Mister Inside.” Oveta was also very comfortable and skilled at navigating her way through a male dominated world, which also made her a valuable asset to the power couple. They had a highly effective partnership in which Oveta was an equal.

You are very good at giving both a historical as well as a contemporary context for subjects such as racism, sexism and the shifting ethics of the media business in the Hobby empire — newspapers, radio and television. When confronted with these inevitabilities in history, have you discovered a measured way of dealing with them?

It stems from my training. Placing people and events in historical context is absolutely essential to any attempt to understand the past. We are all products of our time in some way. A professional historian is trained to be alert to context, the interrelationship of things and the perspective of time.

“Doing history” is not merely compiling facts — that’s a chronicle not history. “Doing history” is the process of interpreting those facts and giving them meaning. It’s also knowing to always ask the “What’s it all about, Alfie?” questions, or as one of my professors used to ask students about their historical findings: “So what?” Meaning, of course, why is this important?

Oveta’s extraordinary organizational and leadership abilities made her for a while one of the most visible and, for the most part, successful American women of the 20th century. Yet she also nurtured very close personal relationships with the Roosevelts — especially Eleanor — the Eisenhowers and the Johnsons. That’s three White House wins!

Oveta’s skill at fostering relationships was one of her most important leadership skills. She was charming and charismatic, but also highly intelligent and an incredibly hard worker, which undoubtedly garnered her a great deal of respect.

She demonstrated the ability to build great rapport with the important and powerful, but it’s worth noting that she also commanded great loyalty from her subordinates. She also was a socially gracious person, able to entertain and be entertaining on a moment's notice.

Her voluminous correspondence demonstrates how she managed her network of important relationships, from caring inquiries to thoughtful acts of generosity — as well as diplomatic requests and, when necessary, pointed directives. All of those characteristics help underscore her skill at nurturing her connections.

The mighty Houston Post — which I read religiously growing up — once the dominant media outlet in one of the country’s largest cities, is gone. It was all important to the Hobby family ever since Will hung out by its doors in the 1890s, and after their radio and television businesses became more profitable.

You betray no nostalgia for the past place of newspapers in American culture, but you do seem to relish the colorful stories about the Beaumont Enterprise, Houston Post, Houston Press and Houston Chronicle.

When I speak to audiences filled with people who are under the age of, let’s say 40, I’m aware they are quite likely to have no real understanding of how influential newspapers were in their heyday especially before television and, of course, the internet.

While it’s no longer the case, during the first 60 or 70 years of the 20th century, newspaper editorials played an important role in helping voters decide how they should vote. It’s the reason why political candidates fell over themselves trying to meet with a newspaper’s editorial board in an attempt to win the paper’s endorsement.

For example, either Will or Oveta, and sometimes both, always chaired the Post’s editorial board. We should also remember that urban newspapers and their publishers were — and to some extent remain — active partners with local business and civic interests as little engines of boosterism.

Will Hobby at the Old Settlers Ranching Festival in Van Horn in 1918. Hobby was an unusual politician, a listener, not a talker. Yet he could hold an audience with his gentle wit and stories stored up from his East Texas youth.

Will Hobby was very much in that tradition when he was publishing the Enterprise and the Post. He understood that the more prosperous the town, the more profitable the newspaper. There has always been a symbiotic relationship between newspapers and the business interests that provide financial support through advertising.

And yes, many newspapers were populated with colorful writers and zealous reporters who produced memorably sensational stories. That was especially true of the Scripps-Howard chain’s Houston Press, which you’ve mentioned.

You say that Oveta and Will’s son, Bill Hobby, long-serving Texas lieutenant governor, asked you to write this dual biography. Yet I couldn’t detect any stories — and I devoured them — where you pulled your punches. The two subjects came off as full and flawed characters. Did Bill give you free rein?

I did, in fact, have full rein, and I honestly avoided pulling my punches. Neither Bill Hobby nor his two oldest children, Paul and Laura Hobby, interfered with my writing or asked me to delete or change anything because it might reflect poorly on the family. They were hands off. It was an extremely refreshing and deeply satisfying experience.

Bonus question: Will you finish out the Hobby family history with a biography of Bill? He was a powerful figure during some of the most consequential years in Texas history. 

Indeed! I’m currently drafting chapters of a biography of Bill Hobby, who as you point out deserves his own separate book. On this one, however, I have a co-author, Erin Purdy, who is an indefatigable researcher, skilled editor and fine writer. We hope to publish it late next year.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.