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October 30th, 2013
Bartee Haile: The flesh-and-blood Dealey behind Dallas’ plaza

This Week in Texas History:
A column
by BARTEE HAILE

Nov. 4, 1940 was “Dealey Day” at the University of Texas as “Mr. G.B.,” founder and guiding genius of the Dallas Morning News, was honored with a testimonial banquet by the journalism department.

Seventy years earlier, George Bannerman Dealey walked down the gangplank at Galveston with his English family.  Forced by adverse economic circumstances to seek a promising place for a fresh start, the Dealeys chose Texas over New York.

An older brother was hired right off the boat by the Galveston News, and 11 year old George focused on filling in the gaps in his weak education.  That did not mean the schoolboy had a lot of free time on his hands.  When not in class or studying, he did odd jobs like delivering telegrams for Western Union and running errands for a German-owned cotton company.

No one could have imagined what an historic day Oct. 12, 1874 would be.  That was the day George Dealey, just turned 15, went to work for the Galveston News.  Hired as an office boy, he started at the bottom but did not stay there very long.

George had been on the job just a few days, when he met publisher Willard Richardson.  “The Napoleon of the Texas Press” took the time to talk to the fresh face and asked how much he was making.  When young Dealey replied three dollars a week, the newspaper pioneer patted his shoulder and said, “Well, maybe someday you’ll get more.”

In retrospect it was a shame that Richardson did not live long enough for the new hire to benefit from his experience.  In his 30 years at the helm of “The Old Lady by the Sea,” he had turned an obscure handout with a circulation of less than 200 into the biggest and most important newspaper in the Lone Star Republic and later the State of Texas.

Dealey advanced from office boy to mailroom clerk to head of that department while still in his teens.  Then in the early 1880’s, he was promoted to the dual position of traveling agent and staff correspondent which took him to every part of Texas and provided a deep understanding of its communities and people.

Soon Dealey was ready for his next challenge – running the Houston office of The News.  He did such a bang-up job in the Bayou City that no one else merited serious consideration to oversee the giant step the Galveston paper was about to take.

Alfred H. Belo, the Confederate colonel from North Carolina who assumed complete control after Richardson’s death, recognized the need to expand into North Texas.  If he did not act fast, all those readers and all those advertising dollars would be lost to newspapers out of St. Louis already on the scene.

After the purchase of an existing paper fell through, Belo sent Dealey to Dallas to start one from scratch.  The inaugural edition of The Morning News hit the mostly unpaved streets on October 1, 1885.  The proud father was 26 years old.

In those early days, the Dallas Morning News and the Galveston News were literally two sides of the same coin.  Dealey made history with a telegraph link by printing an exact copy of the parent publication.  Never before had two newspapers separated by so many miles published simultaneous editions.

In no time at all, the tail was wagging the dog both in terms of circulation and revenue.  While the lion’s share of the credit belonged to Dealey, who was given an increasingly free hand to run the northern “branch,” the rocket-like rise of the Trinity River town was a critical factor as was the stagnation and subsequent decline of Galveston.

Dealy

B.D. Dealey

Col. Belo passed away in 1901 and was succeeded by his son. But the sudden death of A.H. Jr. in 1905 followed within a few short weeks by the unexpected demise of the next two replacements caused the Belo family to turn to Dealey.  However, he declined to fill the vacancy arguing instead that a Belo should occupy the office of president in name only if necessary.  That was why Dealey’s official reign was postponed for 14 years.

In 1923 the tail finally sold the dog.  For years the Galveston News had been financial drag on the company, and Dealey easily found a member of one of Galveston’s wealthiest clans who felt it might be fun to own the local newspaper – W.L. Moody, Jr.

In contrast to traditional journalists, Dealey not only saw a future in radio but  viewed it as a natural partner of the print medium.  Eight years after WFAA went on the air in 1922, the voice of The Morning News became the first 50,000-watt station in the South owned and operated by a newspaper.

The death of George B. Dealey in 1946 moved even the New York Times to mourn the passing of the dean of American newspapers.  Among the avalanche of tributes was this from a close friend who repeated Dealey’s belief that “the business of a newspaper (is) always to be a newspaper first and a money making business second.”  What heresy that must sound like to the bean-counters who have closed the doors of so many big-city dailies.

The grateful citizens of Big D honored George B. Dealey with the downtown plaza that bears his name.  It is too bad that since November afternoon in 1963 Dealey Plaza is now seen as a tragic landmark.

 

Ten different column collections are available at the “General Store” on Bartee’s new web site barteehaile.com or you may request a list at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.


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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