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June 12th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Lifetime of firsts for “First Lady of Texas”

This Week in Texas History:
A column
by BARTEE HAILE

Oveta Culp Hobby boarded a Pan-American Clipper at New York’s LaGuardia  Airport on Jun. 17, 1947 for the first round-the-world commercial flight.

But the 13-day journey was just another milestone in the busy life of the remarkable woman her many admirers called the “First Lady of Texas.”

Isaac and Emma Culp named their second offspring, born at Killeen in 1905, after a Cherokee character in a romantic novel.  As Oveta explained decades later, her folks were different from most turn-of-the-century parents because they “didn’t categorize what was for a girl and what was for a boy to do.”

The Culps demanded a lot of their daughter, and she more than lived up to their high expectations.  A bright and serious child comfortable in the adult world, Oveta dropped by her father’s law office after school “to see if there was anything I could do.”  While still in grammar school, she amused herself by reading the Congressional Record.

Mr. and Mrs. Culp were a politically active couple.  Oveta handled the household chores, while her mother campaigned full-time for the reelection of Gov. William P. Hobby in 1918.  After her father won a seat in the Texas legislature the following year, she commuted between the state capitol in Austin and high school in Temple.

Oveta Culp was a 20 year old coed at the University of Texas, when the Speaker of the House asked her to be the first female parliamentarian.  As a clerk two years later for the state banking commission, she translated archaic banking laws into an up-to-date and understandable code.

Moving into the political arena, Oveta helped Tom Connally beat Earle B. Mayfield, the Klan- supported U.S. Senator, and rode the coattails of a victorious mayoral candidate into Houston city hall.  She was rewarded with the post of assistant city attorney.

Oveta Culp Hobby

Oveta Culp Hobby

In her one and only bid for political office, Oveta was defeated in a hard-fought contest for the state legislature.  Preferring to nurse her public disappointment in private, the overqualified applicant accepted an entry-level position in the circulation department of the Houston Post in 1930.

The next February, she married the boss — former governor Hobby.  The bride was 26, and the groom, a widower for the past two years, was exactly twice her age at 52.

Oveta Culp Hobby could have retired to a life of luxury and leisure as a selfindulgent socialite. Instead, she spent a decade learning the newspaper business by reviewing books, proofreading copy, writing editorials and unofficially functioning as assistant to the editor and publisher — her husband.  Between 1933 and 1938, her job title changed from book editor, to assistant editor and finally to executive vice president.

The Hobbys’ partnership came close to being dissolved on a hot summer day in  1936, when the private plane carrying them home from Dallas caught fire.  The craft crashlanded in a cotton field knocking Gov. Hobby out cold.  While the other passengers rescued the pilots from the burning cockpit, Oveta dragged her unconscious spouse to safety.

In 1941, two years after the husband-and-wife team bought The Post from Jesse Jones, Mrs. Hobby was the choice of an influential general to run the women’s section of the War Department’s Bureau of Public Relations.  The mother of two young children declined citing family as well as business obligations, but when the request was repeated, Governor, her pet name for her mate, insisted she answer her nation’s call.

It was only a matter of months before the newspaperwoman donned a uniform as the head of a wartime necessity, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.  Under the no-nonsense Texan’s leadership, thousands of volunteers shouldered an important share of the military burden.  By the time Col. Hobby returned to civilian life in July 1945, women were holding down 239 different jobs in the army.

The Hobbys, like the majority of Texans, threw their support behind the Republican candidate for president in 1952 with Oveta playing a prominent role in “Democrats for Eisenhower.”  Ike wasted no time in naming her Federal Security Agency Administrator, which soon led to her appointment as the first secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

When Governor’s failing health forced her to resign in 1955, a wire service noted,  “Not since hundreds of people stood in Union Station and cheered Harry S. Truman at the end of his term has anyone left Washington with such fanfare as was accorded Mrs. Hobby.”  The treasury secretary said simply she was “the best man in the cabinet.”

Back in the Bayou City, the jill-of-all-trades rode herd over the family newspaper and radio and television stations, a media empire worth an estimated $200 million by 1970. After the death of her husband in 1964, her son toiled at her side until starting his record reign as lieutenant governor in 1972.

Oveta Culp Hobby made the case for gender equality in deeds rather than words.  Before she passed away at 90 in 1995, the trailblazer told an interviewer, “I’d like to live long enough to see people not be surprised by the fact that a woman succeeded in something.”

Oveta Culp Hobby on Time Magazine covers and on the stamp memorializing her issued in 2011.

Oveta Culp Hobby on Time Magazine covers and on the stamp memorializing her issued in 2011.

Be sure to visit my new and improved website at barteehaile.com and while you’re there listen to my recent guest appearance on Roy Holley’s radio show “Talk About
Texas.”


San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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