Hobby, Oveta Culp (1905–1995)
Hobby, Oveta Culp (1905–1995)
First director of the U.S. Women's Army Corps and first secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, whose influence grew out of politics and newspaper ownership in Texas. Pronunciation: OH-vet-uh HA-bee. Born Oveta Culp on January 19, 1905, in Killeen, Texas; died in Houston, Texas, on August 16, 1995, after suffering a stroke; daughter of Isaac William Culp (a lawyer and state legislator) and Emma Hoover Culp; attended public schools and Mary Hardin Baylor College; married William Pettus Hobby (former governor of Texas, newspaper publisher), on February 23, 1931; children: William Pettus Hobby, Jr. (b. 1932); Jessica Oveta Hobby (b. 1937).
Appointed parliamentarian in the Texas House of Representatives (1926–31); was a newspaper columnist and editor for The Houston Post (1931–41); was chief of Women's Interest Section of the War Department's Bureau of Public Relations (1941); served as director of Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (later WACs) and was first woman to hold rank of colonel (1942–45); served as first secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and second female Cabinet member in U.S. (1953–55); was sequentially editor, publisher, and chair of the board of The Houston Post (1955–83); served as chair of the executive committee of H&C Communications Inc. (since 1983). Awarded many honorary degrees later in life.
Mr. Chairman: Rules, and Examples in Story Form, of Parliamentary Procedure Written Expressly for Use in Schools and Clubs (1937); Around the World in 13 Days with Oveta Culp Hobby (1947); Addresses by Oveta Culp Hobby (1953); also wrote syndicated newspaper column "Mr. Chairman" (1930s).
After the 1952 election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as U.S. president, Texas-born Oveta Culp Hobby, already well known as former director of the Women's Army Corps, was appointed head of the Federal Security Administration, the agency soon to become the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). In an interview following her appointment, she noted: "I believe everyone should be chosen on the basis of competence. Most women, I think, would hate to be chosen on the basis of simply being women." The list of her qualifications for this new post were impressive. In 1949, she was on the national advisory council of the American Cancer Society; in 1950, she was on the board of governors of the National Red Cross. She was also a regent for the Texas State Teachers College, a director of the Cleburne National Bank, held various positions with civic organizations, and was writing a book on parliamentary procedure.
Oveta Culp Hobby went on to define herself as "a liberal Republican," or "a middle-of-the-roader; a person who believes in free enterprise but not the freedom to exploit; who sees Government as the tool of the people but not as its master; who realizes that, in a country as large and varied as ours, certain local problems can be handled more intelligently by local governments; but that others, national in nature, need national support and control; who accepts America's position of leadership in the world and the responsibilities that go with it." As a statement of her convictions, it contained the seeds of what would become the worst political difficulties of her career.
Born on January 19, 1905, in the small Texas town of Killeen, Oveta Culp was the daughter of Ike W. Culp, a lawyer and state legislator, and Emma Hoover Culp . She was named for a character in a novel her mother liked, reportedly based on an American Indian word for "forget."
Hobby grew up in an atmosphere charged with politics and ambition. As a child, she read the Congressional Record aloud to her father, learning the lessons of power early. Her childhood aspirations, however, favored a career as a foreign missionary or actress. She displayed self-confidence from an early age. Before a sixth-grade spelling contest, Oveta advised her teacher to go ahead and inscribe her name in the Bible that would be her prize because she knew she would win. She did.
Oveta's parents were both active in state politics. As a teenager, Oveta would accompany her father to the state capitol at Austin to observe him taking part in the legislative sessions. When William Pettus Hobby ran for governor in 1918, the Culps left Oveta and her sister at home to can peaches while they campaigned, never dreaming that it was Oveta's future husband they were helping put into the highest state office. Up to her elbows in peaches and syrup on a hot summer afternoon, a 13-year-old Oveta had little affection for the candidate.
Oveta attended Mary Hardin Baylor College, in nearby Belton, but left without graduating. She revealed her continued interest in state politics by moving to the capital at Austin to take a job codifying state banking laws, while her mother believed her to be attending law school at the University of Texas. In 1927, she was 22 when Speaker Robert Lee Bobbitt appointed her parliamentarian for the Texas House of Representatives, a job she would hold until 1931. During the 1928 presidential campaign, she served as chair of the Smith-Robinson League of First Voters and executive secretary of the Women's Democratic League of Houston.
In Houston, sharing living space with Florence Sterling , sister of Ross Sterling, publisher of the Houston Post-Dispatch, Oveta worked as assistant to the Houston City Attorney, John H. Freeman. In 1930, at age 24, she made an unsuccessful attempt at elective office, running to represent Harris County in the state legislature. She participated actively in the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Repeal and campaigned against the governorship of Miriam "Ma" Ferguson , after James "Pa" Ferguson had been impeached.
On February 23, 1931, at her parents' home, Oveta married Will Hobby, ex-governor of Texas and president of the Houston Post-Dispatch. She was 26 and his second wife. When Ross Sterling ran for governor that year, Oveta worked on the campaign, undeterred by a broken arm and ankle sustained in a fall from a horse.
Meanwhile, Oveta joined the staff of the Post-Dispatch and spent her first six months studying newspaper formats and cleaning out old files. By the end of the year, she had progressed to the position of book editor and become state president of the League of Women Voters. After three years, she was writing editorials for the Post-Dispatch, as well as writing a syndicated column about parliamentary procedure. She also wrote a series of articles on various subjects, including one on social welfare, inspired by her appointment to the State Committee for Human Security, an organization for assisting needy blind and dependent children.
In December 1931, J.E. Josey, a Beaumont businessman reportedly acting for Houston banker Jesse Jones, purchased the Post-Dispatch from Governor Ross Sterling and announced that Will Hobby would assume the roles of both president and publisher of the newspaper. Will Hobby dropped the Dispatch, returning the Houston Post to its former name. On January 19, Oveta celebrated her birthday by giving birth to a son, William Pettus Hobby, Jr. The couple called him "Bill" to distinguish him from his father. Oveta continued her private pursuits, collecting Georgian silver and rare books, and taking roles in amateur theatricals put on at The Alley. Not long after Bill's birth, a fire destroyed the Hobby home while Will was away.
Within Houston's powerful social elite, the Hobbys were part of the "8-F Crowd," a group which met in a suite kept at the Lamar Hotel by the wealthy Brown brothers, George and Henry. Depending on whose interests were served, the Browns were seen either as "master builders" or "puppet masters, who for their own financial gain, pulled the strings of politicians." The Hobbys' purchase of the J.S. Cullinan home in the exclusive neighborhood of Shadyside became an example of the magnitude of the wealth and power controlled by the group. After hiring architect John Staub to renovate the place, Oveta lost interest when the removal of certain walls proved unfeasible. She suggested that it be turned into a meeting place for the nearby Texas Medical Center. Neighbors vigorously objected and obtained a restraining order. Not one to tolerate opposition, Oveta simply had the house demolished and donated the grounds to Rice University.
In 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Texas to celebrate the state's centennial, Hobby played host to Eleanor Roosevelt on a yacht trip down the Houston ship channel, then they traveled with Post owner Jesse Jones to Dallas for the centennial celebration. When the Hobbys were returning to Houston, their private plane burst into flames, went into a dive, and ended in a crash that left two dead. Afterward, the Hobbys agreed never to fly together again.
In 1937, again on her own birthday, Oveta gave birth to a daughter, Jessica Oveta Hobby , named for herself and Post owner Jesse Jones. The Hobbys were recognized cultural leaders, helping to found the Houston Symphony Orchestra and generously funding the new University of Houston. Oveta also continued to edit the book page after she was made assistant editor. As her reputation extended beyond Texas, she was appointed to the national advisory committee for women at the New York World's Fair.
In January 1938, the Hobbys traveled to Washington, D.C., where they enjoyed the company of President Roosevelt, Speaker of the House William Bankhead, House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn of Texas, and Texas senators Tom Connally and Morris Sheppard. In March, Oveta was named executive vice-president at the Post, which gave her increased responsibility for daily operations. The following year, Jones, who owned the Houston Chronicle as well as the Post, decided against having a monopoly on the city's newspapers and sold the Post to the Hobbys for $5,000, without collateral. The Hobbys improved the paper's physical plant, revamped its appearance, bought a new press, and raised advertising rates. Meanwhile, they had also taken over radio station KPRC, with Oveta as executive director.
In 1941, as America's entry into World War II grew imminent, Oveta Hobby went to Washington to handle business for KPRC. By July, President Roosevelt had enlisted her in the war effort, naming her chief of the Women's Interest Section of the War Department's Bureau of Public Relations. Given the task of "selling" the army to the wives and mothers of soldiers, Hobby left the Post, moved to an apartment in Washington, and took up a "commuter marriage" with Will.
In December 1941, the U.S. entered the war, and the country geared up for combat. On May 12, 1942, American women officially joined the nation's armed forces when Congress passed a bill, generated by the War Department and sponsored by Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers , creating the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). Given the rank of colonel, Oveta Culp Hobby was chosen corps director; at the request of General George Marshall, she was to plan "the nation's first army of women in uniform."
In 1943, the WAAC became simply the Women's Army Corps (WAC). Between 1943 and 1945, it expanded from a few thousand women assigned to 54 different noncombat jobs to more than 200,000 women doing 239 jobs. These "GI Janes" received pay equal to that of the "GI Joes"—an exceptional situation for women at the time. "A new chapter in American history is being written," said Colonel Hobby. "We are earnestly determined to make the new chapter a serious contribution and not a feminine footnote." As corps director, she left her mark on everything from the WAC uniform to WAC training, choosing the officers' billed cap that became known as the "Hobby hat" and insisting that African-American women officers be integrated into the regular women's officer ranks.
Uprooted to Washington, Oveta maintained her personal lifestyle. Her apartment was furnished with antiques and Chinese hangings; she dressed stylishly for social events, favoring yellow and chartreuse dresses and "absurd headgear." Her children divided their time between Washington and Houston, Jessica lived primarily with Oveta while Bill stayed with his father in Houston. On a typical day, Oveta went to her office before 9, returned home to dine with her daughter at 7:30, and then tackled the work she had brought from the office. One problem remained insoluble: the WACS had quickly proved so invaluable that Oveta could not find enough women to join the forces to fill the requests from overseas Army commanders. Sophisticated uniforms, moral safeguards, her public exhortation and equal pay were not enough to counter the rising pay women could command in the private sector with so many men overseas. On January 17, 1944, Colonel Hobby was in England inspecting WAC troops. Inspection tours took her everywhere. One shared birthday greeting to her son and daughter came from Algiers. In September 1945, with the war finally over, she was welcomed back to Houston with a celebratory dinner. Speeches in her honor were carried coast-to-coast by NBC. In 1947, she received the Philippine Military Merit Medal for her WAC leadership.
Returning to her work at the Post, Hobby also continued her active public life. In 1948, she was a consultant for the Hoover Commission for the Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government, later acting as a board member of the Citizens' Committee for the Hoover Report. In March of that year, she was in Switzerland as a consultant-alternate for the Freedom of Information Conference. In 1949, she was elected president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association and would later be chair of its board.
Meanwhile, she lunched with her family every day. If work drew her away from Houston, she conferred daily with Will by telephone; the Hobbys viewed their journalistic properties, which expanded to include television stations, as a public trust, and their own work as public service. In the early 1950s, when 19-year-old Bill joined the army, biographer James A. Clark reports that Hobby said in response: "When you've taught a child to make his own decisions and that he owes a great obligation to his government, you can only respect him for acting accordingly."
In 1943, Oveta had been awarded an honorary law degree from Baylor University; in the 1950s, she received honorary Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Human Letters, Doctor of Humanities, and Doctor of Literature degrees.
By the time she was in her mid-40s, Hobby had a reputation for being "as ambitious as she was charming," tough and shrewd. Like other wealthy Texans, she and Will hated the New Deal legislation implemented during the Roosevelt administration to combat the Great Depression, as well as the Fair Deal legislation proposed by President Harry Truman which expanded Social Security and raised the minimum wage. Equally unpopular was the refusal to support Texas' position on the tidelands by Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. (Texas claimed control of a 10.5-mile-wide zone of underwater coastal area based on its previous status as a republic, whereas the federal government sought to limit the state to the three miles of offshore land held by other coastal states.) When the Hobbys came out as leaders of the Democrats-for-Eisenhower, however, regular Texas Republicans were highly disgruntled. Four months before the national conventions, Hobby announced for Ike. She spent much of 1952 in New York City at the Citizens for Eisenhower headquarters, doing "a little of everything," but mostly setting up Democrats-for-Eisenhower campaigns in other states.
With the Eisenhower victory, the press began assessing Hobby's prospects for an appointment in the new administration. When she was named head of the Federal Security Administration—in charge, ironically, of the Social Security Act of 1935—it was with the promise that the position would be raised to Cabinet level. Oveta attended the inauguration with Will, the couple went back to commuter marriage, and shortly the agency became the new Department of Health, Education and Welfare, with Oveta Hobby as its first secretary and the second woman in the U.S. to be a member of a presidential Cabinet.
Almost immediately, however, Secretary Hobby ran into trouble. Her political philosophy of individual initiative and state control ran contrary to the very purposes of her agency. On August 31, 1953, in San Francisco, Hobby opened the 55th annual convention of the American Hospital Association with a speech declaring that middle-class Americans had more problems getting health care than the rich or the poor, but that government should stay out of health care.
What she could not have foreseen was the impact of poliomyelitis, a dread virus which had already crippled or killed an average of 39,000 Americans each year from 1947 to 1951; in 1952, the nation reported 58,000 cases, mostly children. In 1955, the polio vaccine created by Dr. Jonas Salk became available, and Eisenhower declared at Cabinet meetings that "no child must be denied the vaccine for financial reasons." Hobby disagreed. She believed that distribution should be delayed until the states agreed to pick up the tab, or else the public should foot the bill for the vaccine. "By any standards of ability to pay that may be employed," she said, "most families could afford the cost of vaccination for their children." But the three shots required for the inoculation cost an estimated $4.20, at a time when the average per capita income in the U.S. stood at just over $40 per week. Hobby seemed unable to understand why her attitude provoked an ensuing uproar, commenting to a Senate committee, "I think no one could have foreseen the public demand."
In this mid-'50s era, the reactionary "Red Scare" swept the country, targeting Communists and those suspected of communism. Writer Don E. Carleton has surmised that the Hobbys did not believe in the red scare but found it a useful rhetorical tool at the Post for restoring conservatives to power; Ike, in fact, credited the Hobbys and the Post for his win in Texas. Their public image of "respectable moderation" kept the anti-communist editorials at the Post in check. According to Carleton, Hobby felt that the anti-Truman editorials were okay, and she positioned herself as a dedicated Eisenhower Republican and an internationalist but would not be drawn into a more extreme position. In February 1950, she gave the keynote speech to the Alabama Press Association about "irresponsible anticommunism," and she later kept the Post from endorsing the slanderous activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who accused citizens in all walks of life of subverting American institutions for Soviet purposes.
After joining the Eisenhower administration, Hobby's stance changed when she became the target of just such accusations from a zealous group calling themselves the Minute Women and crusading against what they saw as threats to the "American Way." In July 1953, they fixed their sights on Hobby. They accused her of interfering with a planned visit by Senator McCarthy to the San Jacinto monument in 1954. But "Oveta doesn't brook back-talk," as one observer put it, and an exposé on the Minute Women, authorized by Hobby, appeared in the Post in October 1953. This unofficially marked the end of the red scare in Houston.
In August 1955, Hobby resigned her position at HEW, citing her husband's illness. Though many believed the resignation came from her handling of the polio inoculation issue, President Eisenhower praised her as "highly efficient" and as having done "a mighty magnificent job." Back in Houston, Hobby became president and editor of the Post while Will moved up to chair the board. In 1956, Oveta again campaigned for Eisenhower but limited her efforts to Texas.
After Will's death in 1964, Oveta assumed control of the newspaper as editor and chair of the board. Throughout the 1960s, she was active on various educational advisory committees and a member of numerous foundation and corporate boards while continuing in public service, most notably as a member of HEW's Vietnam Health Education Task Force. In 1970, she became chair of the board of the Channel Two television company and director of the KPRC radio company. Two years later, she supported her son in his successful bid for the office of lieutenant governor.
In 1978, the Association of the U.S. Army made retired Colonel Hobby the recipient of its highest award, the George Catlett Marshall Medal for Public Service. Designated the "best known American woman military leader during World War II" and the first woman so honored, she accepted the medal at a dinner attended by 3,000 in Washington, D.C. The following year, the Hobby family created H&C Communications Inc., consolidating their newspaper, TV, and radio interests, with Oveta as chair of the board and Bill as president. By 1983, when Bill took over as chair, and Oveta became chair of the executive committee, H&C operations included television stations in Houston, Nashville, Tucson, and Meridian, Mississippi. Still active as she approached 80, Oveta served concurrently on the boards or committees of the Advisory Committee for Economic Development, the University of Texas, the Southern Regional Committee for Marshall Scholarships, the Houston Symphony Society, the Crusade for Freedom, and the Business Committee for the Arts, Inc.
In December 1983, H&C sold the Houston Post for $100 million. In September 1984, as part of Women in Texas Week, Oveta was inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame for her contributions to business and finance; that same year, she was named one of the richest people in America by Forbes magazine, with a fortune estimated at $800 million. In 1986, she was honored on her birthday by the city of Killeen with a historical marker outside her birthplace, at 319 Young Street. Although she could not attend, her son delivered her personal message during the program at the First Baptist Church, and Liz Carpenter , long-time family friend and erstwhile press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson , also spoke.
In 1992, Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas requested a belated promotion for the "Little Colonel." Because at the time she served women were not promoted to a rank higher than colonel, he asked that her rank be raised to brigadier general on the retired list on the 50th anniversary of the WACs. However, President George Bush refused to grant the promotion because she was "not eligible for promotion when she left the service as a colonel in 1945."
Oveta Culp Hobby remained active in the affairs of the family business as chair of the Executive Committee of H&C Communications. "She reads everything," said her son, "and she watches CNN and C-SPAN. She knows more about what's going on in the world than we do." After suffering a stroke in April, Oveta Culp Hobby died at home on August 16, 1995.
Calvert, Robert A., and Arnoldo De Leon. The History of Texas. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1990.
Carleton, Don. E. Red Scare!: Right-wing Hysteria, Fifties Fanaticism and Their Legacy in Texas. Austin, TX: Texas Monthly Press, 1985.
Clark, James A., with Weldon Hart. The Tactful Texan: A Biography of Governor Will Hobby. NY: Random House, 1958.
Fuermann, George. Houston: Land of the Big Rich. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1951.
McAshan, Marie Phelps. On the Corner of Main and Texas: A Houston Legacy. Ed. by Mary Jo Bell. Houston, TX: Hutchins House, 1985.
Meyer, Leisa D. "Creating G.I. Jane: The Regulation of Sexuality and Sexual Behavior in the Women's Army Corps during World War II," in Feminist Studies. Vol. 18, no. 3. Fall 1992, pp. 581–601.
Stineman, Esther. American Political Women: Contemporary and Historical Profiles. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1980.
Allen, Ann. "The News Media and the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps: Protagonists for a Cause," in Military Affairs. Vol. 50, no. 2. April 1986, pp. 77–83.
Spector, Bert. "The Great Salk Vaccine Mess," in Antioch Review. Vol. 38, no. 3, 1980, pp. 291–303.
"Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby" (35 min. audiocassette), in Actual Voices Famous in Texas History. Limited ed. Latexo, TX: Audio Archives, c. 1985.
For information on Hobby's WAC days, see the Oveta Culp Hobby papers in the Library of Congress and the War Department General and Special Staffs and Army Staff Records in the National Archives. Information about Hobby's work as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare is available in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare Records at the National Archives, the Oveta Culp Hobby Papers and Dwight D. Eisenhower as President Papers at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, and the Eisenhower Administration Oral History at Columbia University. Correspondence from Hobby can be found in the Margaret Bayne Price Papers at the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library, the Benjamin Emanuel Youngdahl Papers at the University of Minnesota, the Walter Henry Judd Papers at the Minnesota Historical Society, and the May Thompson Evans Papers at the North Carolina Division of Archives and Library. Articles about Hobby can be found in the Clippings File of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center. All other papers are still in the possession of Oveta Culp Hobby's estate.
Laura Anne Wimberley , Ph.D., Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas