Hobby at One Hundred

January 1, 2005 by  
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© Clifford Crouch, 2005

On the centenary of her birth, Oveta Culp Hobby is – or should be – remembered as one of the more extraordinary women this state has produced. Born on Jan. 19, 1905, in the small central Texas town of Killeen, her life would span the 20th century, and her legacy continues today.

Texas in 1905 was a mostly rural state in which cotton was king and the automobile a novelty. In northeastern Harris County, a gusher from the shallow caprock of Humble Field blew a stream of thousands of barrels of oil into the cold January air, as if flaunting the birth of the modern energy industry; but state government was still under the leadership of a former Confederate soldier, Gov. S.W.T. Lanham.

Oveta Culp, the second child of Ike and Emma Culp, established herself as a remarkable daughter from the start. A voracious reader, she won a Bible as the best speller in her sixth-grade class. Her father was a lawyer and state representative, and Oveta spent after-school hours in his office reading and listening. “I have been one of those fortunate women,” she later said, “whose father, husband and son have assumed I was a rational being – When I was about 14, [my father] would take me with him to sessions of the House. He assumed it would interest me as it did him.”

At the age of 20 – before she could vote – Oveta Culp was appointed parliamentarian of the Texas House of Representatives. Within a few years after that, she got her first taste of national politics. When Houston was chosen by the Democrats to host their national political convention in 1928, she came to this city to help with the planning.

It was in Houston where she met her future husband, William P. Hobby, president of what was then called the Houston Post-Dispatch. By 1930, Hobby, a lifelong newspaperman, was already a widower and had served from 1917 to 1921 as governor of Texas. When the pair married in February of 1931, she was 26 and he was 53. Throughout the 1930s, Oveta Culp Hobby worked her way up through the ranks of the Post, assuming ever-greater positions of editorial responsibility. She also had two children – William Jr. in 1932 and Jessica Oveta in 1937 – both born on her own birthday.

In 1941, with global war on the horizon, Oveta Culp Hobby (then executive vice president of the Post) was in Washington on business when she was asked by the U.S. Army to help organize a “women’s interest section,” recommending ways in which American women might serve their country. Under the personal sponsorship of Gen. George C. Marshall, Hobby’s position had evolved by 1942 into the office of director of what was ultimately known as the Women’s Army Corps, or WACs, and Mrs. Hobby had become Col. Hobby. She served through July of 1945, essentially overseeing the creation of an entire branch of the armed forces from scratch, commanding hundreds of thousands of women, traveling constantly and visiting theaters of war such as North Africa and Italy. Pleading exhaustion as World War II drew to a close, Col. Hobby resigned her post, returned to civilian life and became editor and publisher of the Post. But duty continued to call.

“General Eisenhower was one of her mentors,” her son William P. Hobby Jr. told H Texas magazine. When Dwight Eisenhower decided to run for the presidency on the Republican ticket in 1952, he sought the support of the Hobby family; and, despite their longstanding ties to the Democratic Party, they actively championed his campaign. After the election, Ike asked Oveta Culp Hobby to join his administration, and in April 1953, she again made history as the first secretary of the newly formed Department of Health, Education and Welfare – and the sole woman in the presidential cabinet.

As secretary of HEW, Oveta Hobby’s most significant role involved federal support for public distribution of the Salk polio vaccine. The program of elementary-school polio inoculation became, however, the subject of intense partisan dispute (eerily echoed, some 50 years later, in the 2004 political bickering over federal administration of the influenza-vaccine program), with Eisenhower’s defeated opponent, Sen. Adlai Stevenson, accusing the administration of poor planning. In July 1955, Secretary Hobby, citing the poor health of her aging husband, chose to resign, returning home to Houston and the Post.

She continued to lead the Post from the 1950s, through the death of Will Hobby in 1964 at the age of 86, well into the 1980s. Her life seemed, uncannily, to ebb with the existence of the Post itself. The cultural landscape was changing; across the country, locally- and family-owned newspapers were giving way to corporate media empires. In 1983, the Post was sold to the Toronto Sun Publishing Corporation, and Oveta Culp Hobby began to largely withdraw from public life. In April of 1995, the Hearst Corporation (owners of the competing Houston Chronicle) acquired the Post and immediately shut down the newspaper; and on Aug. 16, 1995, Oveta Culp Hobby died at the age of 90.

“She never regarded herself as a feminist,” Bill Hobby Jr. told us. “She didn’t talk a lot about her accomplishments.” Unlike many women of lesser achievement, Oveta Culp Hobby never wrote an autobiography; after her death, her son and daughter had a collection of personal reminiscences privately printed in a limited edition. In that volume, her contemporaries speak of her in terms such as “positively mythic” and “a legend.” She didn’t see herself in that light, however; and her son (who carried on the tradition of public service over 18 years as lieutenant governor of Texas) also says diffidently: “She was an extremely unassuming, highly competent woman.”

“I think I’ll like Houston if they ever get it finished,” Oveta Culp Hobby once said, dryly. As anyone perched atop the masthead of a daily newspaper could clearly see, Houston is in fact continually, and unceasingly, remaking itself. Take, for example, our downtown skyline: The historic but hastily built Sam Houston Hall, where Oveta Culp Hobby attended the 1928 Democratic National Convention, was razed in 1936. In its place was erected the Sam Houston Coliseum and Music Hall. Those landmark buildings were demolished, too, in 1998. Only a simple state historical marker now designates where “on this site, the 20,000-seat Sam Houston Hall was completed in 64 days” to house Houston’s first presidential convention. Next to that marker, however, stands an elegant new structure, whose construction was begun at the end of the 20th century and completed in the 21st: the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. H

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