[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Moorhus: Please start this afternoon by telling me where and when you were born and about the family into which you were born.
Howell: I was born January 15, 1941, in San Antonio, Texas, in the Baptist Memorial Hospital. My mother is Mary Delorah Howell; she's always been called Mary Dell. My father's name was Henry Ghent Howell. His rather odd middle name came from the doctor who delivered him, named Dr. Ghent, from Ghent, Belgium, so they named him Ghent.
My father was a journalist, and my mother and father met in the newspaper office of the San Marcos Record in Texas, where my mother was editor of her high school newspaper at the San Marcos Baptist Academy, and my father was working on the San Marcos Record, in his home town.
My father had been born in Belton, Texas, but had spent most of his life in San Marcos, had gone to then Southwest Texas State Teachers College there, and then continued his journalism education at the University of Missouri. But he had to drop out because it was the Depression, and he had to dig ditches to help support his family. Eventually he was able to get a job on the home town paper.
My mother was the daughter of homesteader ranchers in Schleicher County, Texas, and she was born and raised on a ranch out in the middle of nowhere. She was at the Academy when she met my dad, although she was a slightly older student than most. They married during the Depression, and I was their first child.
Moorhus: So they were married in the mid-thirties?
Howell: I think they were married in '38. They were married three years when I was born. By that time the little paper in San Marcos had to let him go, because they were in such desperate financial straits. He was out of a job right after he got married, but then he got a job at the San Antonio Express and Evening News, and went there as a night city editor. My mother had gone on to the University of Texas for just a little while, and then they had gotten married, so I was born in San Antonio, where my dad was working on the paper.
I had terrible asthma. I've had asthma all my life, but I had terrible asthma when I was a child, and they recommended that they move me to a different climate and that it might help. So they moved me to El Paso. My dad worked on one of the El Paso papers, and it wasn't any better for me there. That was a dry climate. They thought, "Well, we'll try a wet climate." So they moved to Houston. My father worked for the Houston Post; he was the slot man* on the Houston Post. That didn't work; it was even worse. So about that time, my dad got drafted into World War II,
* The slot man functioned as chief of the copy desk. He sat in the "slot" of the horseshoe-shaped copy desk and assigned stories to the "rim men" for editing.
and my mother and I moved out to the ranch in Schleicher County, Texas, where my grandmother lived. I believe my father was drafted into the navy. Then six days before he was supposed to report, there was a law passed in Congress that fathers with pre-Pearl Harbor children didn't have to go, and I was pre-Pearl Harbor, so he didn't go by six days. I had an uncle who went by six days, and he had a pre-Pearl Harbor child, too.
So my dad came out and decided that since he had quit his job and we were out there on the ranch, that we would ranch for a while.
Moorhus: What year was this?
Howell: This was now '44. I was born in '41. Then we moved to—I'd have to go back and ask my mother about this, but we moved to El Paso when I was two or three, and then moved to Houston when I was three or four. Then we moved to the ranch when I was five. We lived there a year or so. My mother got pregnant with my youngest sister. She was an Rh-negative, which in those days was a big deal. She started to bleed, and she needed a blood transfusion. We had to rush her into San Angelo. It was such a mess. And my asthma was no better. My father said, "We cannot have two children out here in the middle of the country where there is no health care." And so we moved back to San Antonio when I was six.
Moorhus: Had you started school?
Howell: No. But I have actually quite vivid memories of those years, and I was very conscious of the fact my father was a newsman, and I remember him, in Houston, bringing me colored funnies. I could have Sunday funnies early, and the other kids had black and white. And a hurricane, and my father having to cover this hurricane, my mother and I being home alone. I knew that he was doing something exciting—he took me down to see the presses roll on Sunday—the Sunday paper on a Saturday night in San Antonio—and I thought, boy, was that exciting.
The ranch was a very interesting place to live for a kid, because, all of a sudden from the city, I was moved way out in the country, and I cannot tell you how far. I mean, this is just nowhere. Dirt roads. It was a big ranch. My mother's family had thousands of acres out there, but so did everybody else.
Moorhus: What did they raise?
Howell: Sheep and goats and cattle. I had my own little herd of goats as a five-year-old, and when the sheep and goat shearers came, I went down to oversee the shearing of my goats. I wanted to be sure they weren't nicked too badly. I just have very vivid memories of being underneath a car in the hot blazing sun, and the only shade out in the middle of this parched land was underneath the car, as my mother and father were helping to notch goats. We lived in the hired hand's house. It was all very exciting for a little girl. I had my sheep and I had goats and I had cats and dogs, and there were cattle and deer. I don't remember in particular being too eager to move back to the city.
Moorhus: But you had no playmates?
Howell: No, none.
Moorhus: And you didn't miss any?
Howell: No, I did not miss having playmates. I grew up a very solitary child between being sick a lot with asthma and not being able to go, run, jump, and play with the other kids and simply being in isolated circumstances. I do not remember a single playmate I had before I went to school. I had imaginary playmates. I made up kids to play with. My grandmother, as a matter of fact, taught me how to play. She discovered at the age of five that I had no concept of running and jumping, because I was an asthmatic. I just sat in a chair and I read. So she took me out in the back yard and showed me how to run and jump, and my mother was horrified. She said, "Oh, she'll get asthma." My grandmother, who was a pretty savvy old lady, said, "The kid's got to learn how to run and jump." But I led a fairly sheltered childhood.
Moorhus: How did you learn how to read, and when?
Howell: I have no idea, but I read very quickly. I was read to a lot. My mother and father were readers and read to me. It's unclear to me, even though there are pictures of me with books, whether I was actually reading them or I was looking at them, but they would give me a picture book and put me in a chair, and that's what I did. It was at the ranch that I developed a little larger life, and running and jumping and having the sheep and goats, lots going on. Of course, me being the only child on a ranch, all the adults played with me.
Moorhus: So you had plenty of attention.
Howell: I had plenty of attention, just no children of my age. I grew up very much in an adult world.
Moorhus: Do you remember the books that you looked at? You mentioned picture books, but do you remember any of them in particular?
Howell: Not a one. I remember starting to read with the Dick and Jane books that were the books of the time, but, no, I don't, I don't have any particular memory. I remember being read to, and I remember living in Houston and El Paso, but, no.
My mother tells me that when I was a little kid, I wouldn't eat anything but Mexican food, and that was the only thing I really liked. I liked hot, spicy Mexican food. She was terrified, and went to the doctor and said, "She really loves this Mexican food," and the doctor said, "Well, it doesn't seem to be harming all the Mexican children. Why don't you give it up. Feed your kid Mexican food." So my mother learned to cook Mexican food and is still a pretty good Mexican cook.
So we lived there a year or so, and my dad, I think, was bored stiff on the ranch, though he learned how to ride and rope and do all the things that ranchers do. So we went back to San Antonio, and he got a job on a radio and TV station. My sister was born back in San Antonio, and I started school in San Antonio and went to a three-room country schoolhouse for my first six grades. Then I transferred in the middle of the sixth grade to a slightly bigger schools. It had six rooms, six grades, but was still a country school. Then I went to a small country junior high and high school in rural San Antonio. It's suburban now, but we always lived out in the country.
My sister Pamela was born when I was six, and my brother Ghent was born when I was eight. We were all born in San Antonio.
Moorhus: What do you remember about school?
Howell: Actually, for a three-room country schoolhouse, I got a pretty good education. I learned how to read, and I think I would have read more if there had been more access to books. There was a bookmobile, and I got lots of books from the bookmobile. There was always reading material around.
The asthma still was disabling, and I can remember because I was physically not very coordinated. When the kids chose up teams for sports, it was always, "You take Debbie. We took her last time." I can still remember the moment at which I had my first base hit in softball. It was an incredible triumph. I'd never hit the ball before. There was a wonderful classmate of mine, Julia Rodriguez, who coached me in how to hit a ball, and I finally learned how to do that, although I was always a terrible sportsperson.
Though the schools were segregated with blacks, there were lots of Mexican kids, and I went to school with, early on, lots of Mexican kids. So it's really part of my heritage as growing up with Mexican food, hearing Spanish spoken, growing up with Mexican kids. When I later moved to Minnesota, I missed it terribly. I love San Antonio's richness and diversity.
I learned how to write and I learned how to do math. I was never much good at math. I didn't get a great education; I got an okay education. My high school education was dreadfully mediocre. A small country school, you know. It wasn't till I got into college that I realized how bad my high school education had been. My parents considered sending me into town to school, and I wanted to stay with my classmates. But if I had it to do all over again, I would get a better education than I got, because I had to self-educate myself on a lot of things I didn't know in college and afterwards, like world history. There's just a lot that I did not get.
I went to a small school [North Side Rural High School] and I took the secretarial sequence. It never occurred to me that I was going to go to college and be a newspaper person. I worked on the high school paper and I was the editor of the high school yearbook. But in 1958, the year I graduated, in a rural community outside of San Antonio, everybody got married and had babies. I had a graduating class of sixty-seven, and probably less than ten went on to college, and I was one of, I think, just a few girls who went on to college.
I didn't want to go to college. I wanted to do what my girlfriends were doing. They were all going to get married right after their senior year and start families. I was not an unpopular kid, but the guys didn't ask me out a lot. I was skinny, kind of frail, and it wasn't until my senior year that I ever had a date at all. So I thought, "Well, I really don't want to be a secretary." My parents had pushed me, and I had no interest in going to college. Then finally the light dawned on me, and I thought, "You cannot not go to college."
Moorhus: How did they push you?
Howell: They just wanted me to go to college. They said, "You ought to go to college. You ought to start thinking about going to college." And they pushed me and took me to some schools. I had to go to a state school. We didn't have any money. But there were good state schools in Texas, so I settled on going to Texas Tech in Lubbock because it was far away, and I had to enter on probation because I hadn't taken any college prep courses. But I managed to do okay, and after a year I transferred to the University of Texas in Austin, which is a great school.
The culture in the country where I grew up was that girls didn't go to college. My parents, however, did encourage me to go to college, but I was very much influenced by the culture of the kids who didn't go. Of course I'm dreadfully glad I went. When I went back to my high school
reunion probably in '81 or '82, probably my twenty-fifth high school reunion, it was the only one I ever went to, and I looked around and thought, "Oh, my God. If I had been stuck out here as a dairy farmer's wife, I would have gone nuts." So I was lucky that everything turned out.
Moorhus: Did the asthma continue to be a problem all the way through high school?
Howell: It's been a problem all my life. It's under control, but it's always a problem. It limited me until my thirties, when drugs came into being and I could get better drugs that have kept it under control—steroid use. You could take small doses of steroids, which I do now, and at least I don't think there are any long-term effects from it. I do fine. I hike and canoe and backpack and do all sorts of outdoorsy things that I would never have guessed I would be able to do when I was a kid. But when I got to Minnesota, I became a big outdoorsperson, and still am.
Moorhus: What was your relationship like with your younger sister and brother?
Howell: Distant until we were older, because I was so much older than both of them. My sister and I kind of got to know each other a bit. I went away to college at eighteen, and she was twelve, thirteen, and we just didn't have a relationship until we got older. The three of us are fairly close now, but we just weren't, growing up, because of the difference in our ages. Rh-negative women were told to space their children five years apart, so my sister was born almost five years to the day from when I was born, and then my mother had an accident and had my brother two years before she was supposed to. He was born three years later; he was supposed to be born five years later.
Moorhus: Do your siblings have asthma, too?
Howell: No. Everybody's got allergies of one kind or another. I had an uncle who had asthma. But allergies run in our family. I just kind of got a double dose. Allergies, curly hair, and narrow feet all run in both sides of our family. [Laughter.]
Moorhus: The curly hair surely hasn't been a problem. [Laughter.]
Howell: No. But I always wanted long, straight hair, especially in the sixties.
Moorhus: Do you remember teachers that were influential?
Howell: In high school I had an English teacher, Mrs. Lovelady, who was also the yearbook sponsor, who taught me a love of literature that I hadn't quite figured out. She was very influential. There was a Mr. Perkins, now dead, a journalism teacher at the high school. He'd gone to the University of Texas, and he was really quite influential.
I didn't decide to go into journalism until after I graduated from high school, and I couldn't decide what I wanted to be. My parents gave me a bunch of aptitude tests, and the spike was real high in English and journalism. My father wasn't too hot about me going into journalism, because he thought it was too tough a life for a woman. But between the high school yearbook and the high school newspaper, I thought that's something I might like. Then by the time I got to college, I was relatively sure relatively quickly that's what I wanted to do, and didn't have any second thoughts after that.
There weren't a lot of influential teachers. There weren't a lot of good teachers all the way along. I did not have a lot of good teachers. I had a good first grade teacher, Mrs. Hickok,
and I had a handful of other ones, but my public school experience was semi-dismal, as I look back.
Moorhus: Did it feel dismal at the time?
Howell: No, I just didn't care very much about school. I did what I had to do. I didn't work very hard. It was not until my senior year in high school that I ever pushed myself. I never broke a sweat until then. And I still graduated, I think, eighth or ninth. I graduated in the top 10 percent of my class, in the top ten members of my class, and I never did anything. I barely did my homework. I was a very unmotivated student. Then I got it, finally, my senior year in high school. I had a fairly "hang loose" freshman year in college, but after I went to the University of Texas, I worked hard and did well. I didn't graduate summa cum laude or anything like that. I'm not scholarly. I'm not a brilliant person. I have, I would say, above average intelligence, but nothing more than that. I work hard.
Moorhus: What kind of work did you do on the high school newspaper, and what part of it did you like?
Howell: I wrote a gossip column and I wrote some stories. I helped put out the paper. I was in charge of the yearbook, so it was more my baby. Mrs. Lovelady was the sponsor, so I worked real closely with her. That was fun. I learned layout and copy editing and all of that. Writing the gossip column was fun.
Moorhus: Were there other extracurricular activities that you participated in?
Howell: I was in the drill team. I was the vice president of the drill team, and I was in the senior play "You Can't Take it With You." And I was the manager of the girls' basketball team. I tried out every year, never made the team. The coach took pity on me my senior year and made me the manager, so I got a letter jacket. That was about it. This is a teeny country high school, and I might have done some other things I just don't remember. If you were in the drill team and went to all the football and the basketball games and cheered, was on the high school annual and the paper and senior play, that was a lot. That was about all there was. There weren't a lot of opportunities for cultural enrichment at North Side Rural High School. [Laughter.]
Moorhus: Did you go into San Antonio?
Howell: Oh, yeah. My dad would take me. Occasionally my mother and father would take me to the symphony, and there were a few things we would go to that were culturally oriented. I always loved movies, and we went to movies.
Probably one of the greatest cultural experiences I got in high school was when my high school integrated in my junior year, and black kids came to the high school. The year before they were to come—my high school integrated very early. My dad was on the school board, and this little country school board was very courageous. They decided to integrate the schools. They closed all the black schools and put all the black kids in the white schools.
Moorhus: That was right after Brown v. Board of Education?
Howell: That was '54, and this was in '56 or '57. So all of a sudden, there were black kids in the school, and I'd hardly seen a black kid in my life, except on the street. So this was real interesting. It was about the time rock and roll was hitting, and I got real interested in black
music and rock and roll. And hearing their music and getting to know black kids was a big deal. While I have a couple of friends I've stayed friends with since high school, but not with any of the black kids, still it was a big cultural experience for me, and a positive one. So I've always been very pro-multicultural, very pro-integration. It's been very important to me.
Moorhus: Was there a negative reaction to the integration of your high school?
Howell: No, it was amazing.
Moorhus: Not at all?
Howell: I have meant to write about this. In fact, my high school principal is still alive, and he lives in my mother's retirement home. I really should go interview him. I don't know what happened. We had no negative experiences. I don't know why. The principal, who makes me look big,* just said if any of us gave any of these "Negro kids" any problems, that we would have to answer to him. There would be no incidents. And there weren't. Black kids started playing football and basketball, they joined the pep squad. Everything was integrated—everything. We had some trouble with other schools who didn't want to play us because we had black players. We had to forfeit some games, but mostly it just worked. We couldn't have our senior prom at this country club we were going to go to—it wasn't a real country club; they just called it a country club—because the black people had to come up the service entrance. So we said, "Screw it. We won't have it there."
There was a real collegiality, a real spirit in this little nowhere high school, and there was not a single racial incident that I remember, and I would remember it. Not one.
Moorhus: You said your father was on the school board. Had he talked at home about this, before the decision was made to integrate?
Howell: My parents were very liberal about this. My father was liberal for his time and place. Later I started dating a Mexican boy, and he went berserk. But for the time and the place, as long as they weren't dating his daughter, he was, "It's the law of the land, and we need to obey it." And I would say that he was paternalistic, but what passed for a liberal in those days. I'm glad it happened, I mean. It was a plus for me. It was a plus for the entire school.
Moorhus: Do you remember discussions of current events in the household?
Howell: Yes. Oh, yeah, because my father was very current events oriented. In fact, he was always wanting to listen to the news, and I never wanted to. I mean, it was only later I got interested. I remember talking to him about when [General] Douglas MacArthur got fired. My sixth-grade teacher had stopped everything and we listened on the radio to the live broadcast of MacArthur's last speech: "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away." I came home (my teacher was a big MacArthur fan), and I said, "Why did that nasty President Truman fire that nice General MacArthur?" And my father said, "Well, President Truman was right to fire him. It was the right thing to do." I said, "Well, I just thought this was terrible," and so I remember sitting down, and him telling me why we had to have civilians over the military and what this was like and why it was important. I was thinking that was interesting, something I didn't know.
* Ms. Howell is 5'5" tall and slightly built.
I can remember discussions about integration. I remember this when I was in the first grade, that my mother got every kid a valentine in my class. I was to give every kid a valentine. This was my mother's rule. You didn't do like some of the other kids did and only give valentines to your friends. Every kid had to have a valentine, and every kid had to have the same kind of valentine. We bought one kind of valentine, and all the kids got the same. There was a migrant laborer's kid in the back of the room, and he came forward to thank me for his valentine. I was the only one who had given him a valentine. It had a powerful effect on me. I went home and I said, "Oh, (whatever his name was) was really happy he got a valentine. It was the only valentine he got, Mother." She said, "That's the reason you need to give valentines to all the kids."
At Christmas, my mother would make presents for every girl in the class—not everybody in the class, for all my little girlfriends. I remember one year she made hair bows for all the little girls. Julia Rodriguez and Susie Herrera, who were in my little class, got hair bows just like all of my Anglo friends got hair bows. I remember their reaction about getting the hair bows, what a big deal it was that they got these hair bows. So that had a big effect on me. Why would I remember Julia Rodriguez and Susie Herrera's names all these years later? I hardly remember anybody from that era except maybe a couple of kids.
So that part of my upbringing was very, very solid. Everyone is to be treated alike. Everyone is to be treated well.
Moorhus: Did you associate that with your father's profession?
Moorhus: That was part of who he was as a person?
Howell: No, it was part of who he and my mother were as persons. No, I did not. As far as the profession, I associated my father with news. We always had to listen to the news on the radio and the television, reading newspapers. We always had to stop if there were wrecks. I remember every single goddamn wreck we had to stop at. If there was a fire. If he would hear sirens, we had to go. To this day I can't hear a siren and kind of not want to chase it. We always chased ambulances or sirens. We lived way out in the country. If anything was going on, I mean, it was usually one of our neighbors. But if we were in town, we'd chase them anyway. My father's curiosity, I think, rubbed off on me, because I remember being curious even as a child, though not necessarily curious in a way of wanting to write a story. I can remember reading newspapers as a child, even if it was just the funnies. That was part of what you did. We very early had a television set, because my dad was working by then for a radio and television station, so the media was always there.
Moorhus: What about religion? Did that play a part in your early life?
Howell: Not a lot. I was raised a Southern Baptist. My parents were both Baptists. My grandmother was a very hard-shell Baptist. When my grandmother visited, I remember my sister and I playing cards in the closet with the light on, because we couldn't play cards where she would see us. In fact, my father smoked around her, but he didn't drink around her. My mother didn't even smoke around her own mother. So there were all these little things that you hid from my hard-shell Baptist grandmother. While we were Baptists, we were not like very conservative Baptists. It was an off-and-on kind of thing.
When I was twelve years old, we were going to this Baptist church in San Antonio. I was listening to this preacher, and he said something about Mary, "the so-called queen of heaven by the Catholics." It was very anti-Catholic. I listened and I said a twelve-year-old's version of, "What is this shit?" I just got up and walked out. My mother followed me out, thinking I was sick or something, and I said, "I'm not going to sit and listen to that preacher talk that way. I have Catholic friends, and I know what he meant by that 'so-called queen of heaven.' I know what he meant by that." I said, "I'm not going back," and I didn't. So I never had liked the Southern Baptist Church very much, either. I hated revivals, where these shouting preachers would try to get you to come forward and save your soul. My grandmother was hard of hearing, and she'd have these evangelists turned up, you know, shouting through the whole ranch house, when we would go out there, and I just hated it.
So when I was—I think I was a senior in high school, my parents became very concerned, because I wasn't going to church and I wouldn't go to church with them, so kind of to get them off my back, I joined a Methodist Church out in my community, which was very liberal and had black people and Hispanic people in the church. But I was not, I would say, particularly religious. My grandmother was upset that I was not fully immersed and that I was only Methodist sprinkled. They baptize by sprinkling. So I'm the only one in my family that was not fully immersed. [Laughter.]
Moorhus: So you had not been baptized before you joined the Methodist Church?
Howell: No. My parents hadn't had me baptized. I don't know how I escaped. Maybe they had. There's a possibility they did, because I went to Sunday school. When I was a little girl, I mean before I started school, my mother had taught me the Lord's Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm, and I had memorized it. She'd go around and have me say, "Now, Deborah, say the Twenty-third Psalm. Say the Lord's Prayer." I was about three years old. I remember reciting it. I think Sunday school was okay. It was just when I got older that I understood what the preacher was saying, and I didn't like it, and I didn't like revivals.
So I went to church for about a year and never went to church after that again. Both my husbands were fallen-away Catholics, and I probably have gone to the Catholic Church more than I've gone to any other church in my adult life, especially with my first husband [Nicholas Coleman] and his family. Though I consider myself an extremely spiritual person and religious, even, I draw a line between organized religion and my inner beliefs.
Moorhus: Between churchgoing and being religious.
Howell: Yes. I'm a religious person who doesn't go to church. My husband [C. Peter Magrath] and I talk about joining a church, but we've never quite done it. We go to the [National] Cathedral. When we go anyplace, we go to the Cathedral. The spiritual part of my life doesn't begin until I'm in my forties, though. The only part it plays in my earlier life past this incident of "no more Southern Baptist," I was active in my church for a year when I was a senior in high school, and a lot of kids I knew went to that church.
Then I took Catholic instruction when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, because I was going to marry this Mexican guy who was Catholic—which was a fascinating experience and I loved taking instruction because it was really interesting and I learned a lot—but at the end of it, the priest looked at me and he said, "You're not a Catholic." I had looked at him previous to this and said, "I believe in birth control. I don't care what you say." And he said, "Then you're not a
Catholic." I said, "Well, hey, that's the way it goes." Then I ended up breaking up with this guy and it became a non-issue.
So I would say the church I know the most about is still the Catholic Church because of that period when I went to instruction and because I then ended up marrying a Catholic.
Howell: Twice. My first husband was a real Catholic. My second husband is—
Howell: Nominal. No, he's not even nominal. He would not probably rejoin the Catholic Church. My first husband, he had been divorced and remarried, still he was never not a Catholic.
Moorhus: Still, at the age of twelve, you were not only aware that people were of different religions, but that there was something inherently wrong with criticizing one.
Howell: I learned religious intolerance in the Southern Baptist Church.
Moorhus: And from someplace you also developed a strong sense of tolerance and acceptance of all religions. You didn't want anyone to criticize one of the others.
Howell: That's correct. I used to try to keep my mouth shut with my Catholic in-laws in my first marriage, because they were true believers, and they didn't have much truck with Protestants, either. Until the day she died, my first mother-in-law tried to convert me. But I don't like religious intolerance no matter where I see it, or racial intolerance.
Moorhus: What do you trace that to?
Howell: I trace that to growing up in a very multicultural background with parents who were generally pretty liberal. Did I send you the speech I gave on this subject?
Howell: There is one. I've just been blessed all my life with a number of friends who are not white, who are not like me—Mexicans, mostly Mexicans and black people.
Moorhus: While you were growing up in San Antonio, were you aware that there were other people not like you in this general environment, did you think about traveling? Did you want to get beyond Texas?
Howell: I didn't know there was anything beyond Texas.
Moorhus: Some people may say there still isn't. [Laughter.]
Howell: My parents made a special effort to take us kids to each coast. We had a big family vacation to Florida, one to Colorado, and a big one to California, so we would see other parts of the country. My grandmother went with us when we went to California, because she wanted to see California. She had never been out of the state of Texas. She was seventy-five, seventy-eight
years old, and she'd never seen the Pacific Ocean. I can remember her standing there, facing the Pacific Ocean, just blown away.
When I went back to my twenty-fifth high school reunion, there was hardly anybody at that reunion who wasn't still living in Texas. I came from the furthest away, from St. Paul. Everybody not only was still living in Texas, most of them were still living in the same community. Some of them had moved away. People could not believe I had moved to Minnesota. Texas is an insular place. Going on these family vacations at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, however old I was, most of my friends graduated from high school and had never had been outside of the state, and some of them had graduated from college and never been outside the state of Texas. It never occurred to my grandmother, except that she wanted to see the ocean. She had never seen mountains and she had never seen oceans.
Moorhus: Did you drive on those two trips?
Howell: Oh, yeah. So that was considered big-time travel. I took my mother on her first trip to New York three years ago. She'd never been to New York. My brother took her to Hawaii. Two places she wanted to see before she died were Hawaii and New York. My father traveled a fair amount in his work, so he had been around the world. My mother, except for Hawaii, has never been out of the country. My sister's never been out of the country. I'm going to take my brother to Europe in May, and that will be his first time, except for Caribbean islands and things like that. Travel was not built into the family culture particularly, except for around the U.S.
Moorhus: Did the trips to California and Florida whet your appetite?
Howell: Oh, yeah, especially the trip to California.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Moorhus: You knew you wanted to leave Texas.
Howell: At some point. And so I did. But I love Texas. Make no mistake about it, I mean, for as backward as it sometimes is. For a while here, just because of circumstance, three of my five women reporters were from Texas, and me, so it was really kind of fun. I love to go back to Texas. I love San Antonio. I left there for a lot of career reasons, and it was so backward and it was so conservative. It's not anymore. Texas is still relatively conservative, but nothing like when I was growing up there. So I don't feel uncomfortable going back to Texas anymore.
Moorhus: You graduated in 1958, and your high school had been integrated. Were there other national or world events that you remember in that period up to the point that you finished high school?
Howell: Sputnik.* In college, of course, was the beginning of the civil rights movement.
* On October 4, 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik I, the first manmade earth satellite. It circled the globe for ninety-five minutes and shattered American complacency over the alleged lead of the Western world in technology.
Moorhus: Were you interested in the national scene, in terms of President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower at all?
Moorhus: Nothing like that?
Howell: I had no interest in national politics.
Moorhus: Were your parents politically active?
Howell: No. See, my father was a journalist, and my parents, I think, both voted for Eisenhower. They were generally Democrats, but they did vote for Eisenhower. I think they both voted for [President John F.] Kennedy. My first glimmering of any political interest was really in Kennedy. I couldn't vote for him; I was still too young. But his assassination—I was already a reporter by then down in Corpus Christi—leveled me. I mean, it was one of the defining moments of my life when it comes to national politics—as the civil rights movement was for me.
But during the fifties, it was like nothing happened. It was boring. I was pretty much enveloped in the world of my high school and my community. I didn't look very far beyond. The only place I really wanted to go some day was Japan. I had this fascination with Japan when I was in high school. I still haven't been there, except for an overnight near the Narita Airport [Tokyo]. But there wasn't a single world history or world affairs course in my high school, so it was really quite insular in that regard.
Moorhus: Then let's get you to college. Tell me more about the process by which you ended up where you did for that first year.
Howell: My best girlfriend in high school and I were going to go to the state school the furthest away from our home, and that turned out to be Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas. Then at the last minute, she chickened out and went to Texas Lutheran College, and I went up there almost all alone. But I fairly quickly made friends, and I spent an interesting year up there. But the dust storms leveled my asthma, and I ended up in a hospital. Then I fell in love after my freshman year in college, and those two events made me decide to transfer to the University of Texas in Austin, which was a much better journalism school, nearer to home and a much better school in general.
Moorhus: What kind of courses did you take that first year? The basics?
Howell: Yes, the basics. My worst grades were in my freshman year. I played a lot of cards and I did a lot of the things that freshmen girls do when they're away from home for the first time. I pledged a sorority, I went to dances. I studied as little as I possibly could. I got campused for a dirty room, got drunk the first time, had two or three boyfriends, and worked on the school paper. The only thing I remember about academics is weeping tears and hoping that I would get passed by the algebra professor, because I had an F, and all I asked was that he give me a D-, and it was one point, and I hated math. "Please!" I got my D-. And working on the school paper. I covered the ROTC, and I was a very social freshman. Mostly West Texas kids—
Moorhus: What does that mean?
Howell: West Texas kids? Farmers and ranchers and stuff like that. I made a lot of friends. The girls from Dallas, they were the ones who had all the class and all the sophistication, but most of the kids were kind of middle-class kids, lower and middle-class kids. Going to a state school that cost fifty bucks a semester, you know.
The University of Texas was a much more high-class joint, and so when I got to the University of Texas, I thought, "Oh, wow! You buy your clothes at the University of Texas." My mother made all my clothes. I didn't have any store-bought clothes. I got to the University of Texas, and I thought, "Oh, shoot. I've got to get me some store-bought clothes." Literally, except for winter coats, she had made everything. Linda Ellerbee wrote an absolutely wonderful column—I wrote her a note—how she discovered when she went away to school, how her mother's clothes weren't good enough. She went home and tried to figure out a way not to hurt her mother, because she wanted store-bought clothes. And her mother began to cry and said, "Well, I'd hoped that my clothes would really work." My own mother was telling me, "I can't afford to buy you store-bought clothes."
So we poured over McCall's and Simplicity pattern books, hunting for patterns that were like what they wore at the University of Texas, like what the Dallas girls wore. I found some that were just what I thought was pretty perfect, and my mother made me really nice clothes, that I was happy to have—if they weren't exactly like the other girls', they were good enough. I even sometimes got complimented on my mother's clothes. But my mother was so conscious of that, that I would look like the other girls. I'm not a sorority type, but somehow I had ended up in a sorority, and luckily, most of the girls in the sorority were real egg-heads and there were lots of journalism students, so I was not out of place. I had joined a sorority in Lubbock and then transferred my membership.
Moorhus: What was the sorority?
Howell: Gamma Phi Beta. I loved the University of Texas, and Austin is still a great place. My sister lives there. I told my husband, I said if they ever called me and said they wanted me to be the editor of the Austin paper, I'm outta here. I mean, I love Austin and San Antonio. Even though I had to leave because the political climate was just god-awful in the sixties, I mean, those are two great towns. Austin still is a terrific town.
Moorhus: Transferring to the University of Texas, you mentioned you had fallen in love. Was this somebody that you knew from high school?
Howell: It was somebody I had met. I taught ballroom dancing part time.
Moorhus: Where did that come from?
Howell: My senior year in high school, a couple of my friends took ballroom dancing and wanted me to come along. So Mother and Daddy said, okay, that was probably a good skill for me to learn, how to be a good ballroom dancer.
Moorhus: And it wasn't too much exertion for somebody with asthma.
Howell: I was good at it. This ballroom dancing school had a contract with two of the air force bases in town, and they would take us out to Kelly Air Force Base, and the guys would sign up
and learn how to dance, and we would be the girls they would dance with. It was very much on the up-and-up, or my parents wouldn't let me do it. My father was very strict. I met this guy at the dancing school. We started to date. He was a real jerk, and I broke up with him after I was in Austin and looked around at the other guys and said, "This guy's a jerk," and dumped him. But he served one good purpose in my life: he got me to Austin, Texas.
Moorhus: But you made the move for personal, rather than academic, reasons.
Howell: Right. Yes, I made it because I wanted to be near this guy. My parents let me do it. We had a big wrangle about it, but they let me do it because they figured it was a better school, anyway, and I was nearer to home. And it wasn't going to cost them any more money.
Moorhus: Did you find the University of Texas more challenging academically?
Howell: Oh, yeah. And I settled down to try to be a decent student. I was never a great student. I was a B student.
Moorhus: And you had declared journalism as your major?
Howell: I declared journalism in my freshman year.
Moorhus: Were you in the journalism school or in the liberal arts school?
Howell: I was in the journalism school, and journalism at that time, you had to get a very liberal arts degree as well as go to journalism school, so everybody had to have a double major. I chose a double major in English and journalism. You could choose a double major in either political science, history, economics, or English. I also had a minor in psychology. I had some good teachers and I got a good education.
Moorhus: Who were some of your teachers, and what classes did you particularly like?
Howell: In journalism, Olin Ethmar Hinkle was my editing teacher, and an absolutely fabulous editing teacher. I'm still a better copy editor than most copy editors I know. That was because of him. William L. Rivers taught me public affairs reporting, and that was a very valuable course. There's a guy named Bill McReynolds, who's still teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and they were all excellent teachers.
I learned a lot simply by doing on-the-job training at the Daily Texan, which was a very good daily college newspaper, and I learned from my peers. I did a lot of reporting and a lot of editing on that paper, and it was a lot of fun.
Moorhus: Did you start at the paper as soon as you came to the university?
Howell: No, but as soon as I broke up with the jerk, I did. By my junior year, I was very much in the life of the newspaper, and my senior year, that's all I did. I went to class on the side. I was really working on the Daily Texan almost full time, and all my classes were journalism. I think I made straight As my senior year. The professors I remember the most are journalism professors. I took some semi-decent English courses. But journalism was just what I loved.
Moorhus: Who were some of your friends during that time? People who worked on the newspaper?
Howell: Yes, and sorority sisters, and often those were both. One of my best friends was Lynn McDonald, who is now Lynn Millar, and was working at the Houston Post until she died from sclerdoma. She was a roommate and a good friend. Donald P. Myers, who works on Newsday, I was engaged to for quite a while. Hoyt Purvis, who is now at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville running the Fulbright International Center, was a good friend. George Phenix, who's a political consultant in Austin, and Sam Kinch, who's a reporter in Austin. And Jack Keever and Cindy Keever, who are reporters in Austin. And Dave McNeeley, another political reporter. Lots of these people are still in Austin, never left. Many became political reporters. I grew up in a generation that became some of Texas' best political reporters, and I've stayed at least loosely in touch with most of them.
Moorhus: Did you stay in Austin during the summers?
Howell: The first summer, I came home. The first summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I worked as a secretary. Between my sophomore and junior years, I went to school. I took chemistry. I was scared to death I was never going to graduate from college because I wouldn't get chemistry, so I spent the whole summer cramming two years of chemistry into one summer, and made As. It taught me I could do something I didn't think I could do if I applied myself. Between my junior and senior years, I had an internship with the Austin American Statesmen and lived in Austin. Then I graduated from the University of Texas in 1962.
Moorhus: What kinds of things did you learn in that summer at the Austin newspaper?
Howell: I learned there are a lot of assholes in the newspaper business. The city editor was a real jerk, and he was always trying to hurt my feelings. He was really mean to me. He loved to pick on summer interns, I found out. A reporter there named Anita Brewer took me into the bathroom, and she said, "Don't you let him make you cry. That's what he's trying to do. He wants to make you cry. Don't give him the satisfaction."
Well, I had been doing some work in the public library, and I was up in the stacks, and some guy came up and exposed himself to me. So I went running down the stacks. I didn't know if this guy was going to come after me or something. So the police came. By that time, he was gone. So I went back to the paper, and the librarian had called the paper and told my city editor what happened. So when I came in, the city editor looked at me and he said, "Well, what did he look like?" And I said, "I didn't get much of a glance," and I went in the bathroom and I just cried. Anita came in there and said, "'Atta girl. I don't care if you cry, just not in front of him."
But I did some pretty good little news stories, and a couple of people complimented me. A friend of mine, George Phenix, was working in the advertising department. It was an interesting summer. I had my very first apartment that summer with a girlfriend who was also a journalism student. It was great fun, and reinforced me going to go into journalism.
I had a job with the AP [Associated Press] after I got out of school, and the week before I was to report after graduation, they called me and told me that they were not going to hire any more women in the Texas AP, because the last one ran off with the boss, and I didn't have a job. It took me ages to find a job, but I finally found one.
Moorhus: Did the summer experience set up red-flag warnings about what it was going to be like, being a woman?
Howell: Yes, because in school, I had no problems being a woman. In the journalism school or on the Daily Texan, women were treated equally. I didn't know this was going to be a problem until I went out in the real world.
Moorhus: So that was the period between your junior and senior years that you really had that first real-world experience.
Howell: But I just dismissed it, because I thought, "This guy's just a jerk." That was true, he was a jerk, but also it was more like the real world than I knew.
Moorhus: What kind of advice or support was your father giving you as you were experiencing challenges in the course work and then the summer experience?
Howell: He was very helpful when I was in college, and he was very supportive. At some point in time, he didn't like the fact that I was going with this Mexican guy, and it created a big family brouhaha. But after a while, as I began to do more and more things, and his career hit the skids, he didn't like to talk about what I was doing, and he was not particularly supportive. I think he was either jealous or he didn't want his daughter doing better than he was doing. I think it was a problem for him. I found out in later years, he used to talk about me to everybody else, but he didn't express it. Well, when we won our first Pulitzer [Prize] in St. Paul, I called home to tell my folks. My father's first comment was, "I never won a Pulitzer." [Tape interruption.]
Moorhus: You were saying that your father said he had never won a Pulitzer.
Howell: He had never been involved in winning a Pulitzer. So I think he had very mixed emotions. He both thought it was wonderful I went into his profession in a way, but he thought it was too hard for a woman. And when I got good at it, I think it was at the wrong time in his life when he was kind of going downhill. He had a nervous breakdown when he was in his late forties, I think, early fifties, and he had a bunch of shock treatments, which I wish now he hadn't had, that destroyed his memory and destroyed his career as a journalist. He really hit the skids and drank heavily.
It was a real tragedy, because he had been a very well-known, very well-respected South Texas journalist, and everybody knew my dad. He had a radio show at 12:15 every day, that he developed and marketed on his own, because when he had been out at the ranch, he saw the need for a farm and markets and weather show. He schooled himself in weather and in markets and in agriculture, and everybody knew who Henry Howell was, because he came on at 12:15 every day. When the farmers came in at lunch, they turned on the radio. He had this show, "Good afternoon, farm and ranch friends."
So I was really Henry Howell's daughter, and I was very proud of him. He was somebody to be proud of until I got out of school, and things just fell apart for him. It was really tragic, and he never regained his life. He spent about the last twenty years of his life being kind of an old, bitter drunk. It was really very sad. But he was a great mentor for me early on, and I watched how he did things. I hung around the newsroom where he was, and I knew the guys who worked with him. From that standpoint, for those years, he was wonderful. I was very proud of my father till I was, say, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, when he kind of fell apart. I've never quite understood exactly what all happened to him, but it did. So as I began to make more money than he ever made, there were just certain things we never discussed. He never wanted to know, and I played along.
Moorhus: What about your mother?
Howell: My mother is still alive and is a very feisty old broad. She's got a boyfriend that she's shacked up with in the retirement home, seventy-seven years old. She's got this guy she's been living with for a couple of years, and she's having a good time, which is great, because she had a pretty miserable life, her last twenty years with my dad. She's very smart and very earthy kind of person.
Moorhus: What kind of support did she give you as you were—
Howell: She was a wonderful mother in the sense that she was a great stay-at-home mother. She was very supportive of me. I remember her spanking me as a child and the usual kinds of things. The only time I ever remember her giving me a total and complete batch of shit was when I lied to her about smoking, and she knew better. I started smoking when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. Everybody else did. For an asthmatic, it was just a dumb thing to do. I smoked for seventeen years. She was right to give me a hard time about it, even though she started smoking in her forties. But she was very supportive. I had a very supportive childhood and adolescence. I had asthma, and I was kind of a skinny, frail kid. When you're a teenager and no one asks you out, and all that kind of stuff, still I was proud of my parents. I thought they were neat people.
Moorhus: How did she feel about your Mexican boyfriend?
Howell: She didn't like him either. Big family crisis. They were both furious at me. I didn't go home for a year.
Moorhus: Was it because he was Mexican?
Howell: Yes. He was a great guy. Eventually, I mean, his parents hated me, my parents hated him. It was very difficult, and I think it probably was the thing that finally broke us up. The prejudice was enormous. Interracial couples just didn't happen in those days. He and I both went down to Corpus Christi. He was from Laredo, and he was working in Laredo, and I was working at Corpus Christi, and we were seeing each other all the time. Then he got a job in Corpus Christi, and we never lived together, but we were together for about a year. We just finally ended up breaking up. He was the only guy that I ever broke up with that I'm not sure it was the right thing to do. But it was brutal.
Moorhus: Did your mother support your wanting to work?
Howell: Oh, yeah.
Moorhus: Was there any message about your having a family? Would she have supported that, as well? How did she feel about the choice?
Howell: They got very worried when I didn't get married for a long time. I didn't marry for the first time till I was thirty-four, and they were very worried about that.
Moorhus: But as you were going through high school and college, what kind of messages were they giving you about marriage at that point?
Howell: They wanted me to go to college, but they also wanted me to get married. So I got a kind of dual message. I got engaged my senior year in college to Don Myers, and he went away into the navy.
We were going to get married. We got engaged at Christmas. The engagement lasted about two months, and then he broke it. Or he wanted to postpone our marriage date. We were going to get married in June, and I was going to go join him and be a navy wife. Then he got cold feet, and I sent the ring back. That's when I started dating the Mexican guy, David Lopez. So I had planned to get married, and I had no plans to go to work right after I got married. I was going to wait and see where Don was, and go join him wherever he was. When we decided not to get married, then for sure I decided I was going to go to work.
Moorhus: So you saw it at that point as a choice, one or the other?
Howell: Not necessarily, because wherever it was that I went when he was in the navy, I might have worked there. But the decision was made absolutely crystal clear when we decided not to get married.
Moorhus: What about your parents and your younger siblings? What kind of messages were they giving your sister and your brother? Did they have different expectations for your brother than they had for the two girls?
Howell: They treated my brother quite differently.
Howell: He was allowed more freedom. I had a very strict upbringing, and my sister had less so, but still had a strict upbringing. My brother was like allowed to have a car. We didn't even get bicycles. And was allowed to do things we would never have been allowed to do because he was a boy. But he turned out to be gay, and so that issue, as it played itself out, as he went to college—
Moorhus: When did you and they and he—
Howell: I knew he was probably gay from the time he was a child. I knew he was different. I was pretty sure he was gay in college.
Moorhus: When you were in college?
Howell: No, when he was in college. So when he came and made a big trip up to tell me in Minneapolis that he was gay, I said, "So what else is new?" But it was very hard on my parents. But he was not "out of the closet" when he was in high school or anything like that. My sister's more traditional. She always wanted to have kids. She went away to college, but she always wanted to get married and have children. She's not career oriented. She works. She's divorced and has a couple of kids and works, but she's not career oriented.
Moorhus: What about your brother? What does he do?
Howell: He's a window dresser in Neiman Marcus Union Square in San Francisco, and he's got AIDS, and he's sick. So we'll see. I'm taking him to Europe on a big trip in May, and I hope he's well enough and does well enough. It's kind of his last hurrah.
Moorhus: Did he ever consider the newspaper business?
Howell: Oh, no. My sister and brother never had any interest in journalism. They were both less career oriented than I am. My brother has been in sales and display all his life, and my sister's been in various government jobs, but neither of them were strongly career oriented.
Moorhus: I just wonder how your father dealt with the fact that it was his daughter that went into journalism and not his son.
Howell: Not his son.
Moorhus: Whether that was a factor.
Howell: Well, he kind of made me, for the longest time, his honorary son, although he was very happy when I got married. I can't remember when my sister exactly got married, but for the longest time, here he had these three kids and none of them were married. Finally, my sister got married and had children, so at least there was that. The fact that my brother was gay, for he and my mother, was a tragedy.
Moorhus: Anything else about the period up through college? Other influences on you?
Howell: I had a great time, especially my junior and senior years in college. I mean, they were great kids. I was in journalism school with some great kids, and we had a great time. They were two very happy years of my life, except for romantic ups and downs. My high school wasn't bad. It wasn't that I didn't have a good time; I actually did have a good time through part of it. It was just kind of all very, in retrospect, pretty mediocre. But my college years, those last two years really prepared me well to do what I decided was exactly what I was going to do. Once I really got into journalism and liked it a lot, not that I didn't want to get married—I did at some point—but my career was overwhelmingly important.
Moorhus: Shall we stop here?
© 1994, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.