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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Gentry: Tell me, when were you born and where were you born?
Paxson: I was born in Houston, Texas, on August the 13th, 1923.
Gentry: Did you spend most of your childhood in Houston?
Paxson: Yes. My brother [John B. Paxson] and I grew up in Houston and were there until I went off to the University of Missouri in my junior year of college.
Gentry: Did you live mostly in one home or did you move around Houston?
Paxson: No, we moved around. Each time we moved, we moved a little bit further out from the center of town, lived in rental houses until my sophomore year in high school when my folks built a home in West University Place which is just outside the city limits. You'd never know it — you know, one of the bedroom communities; we moved in there.
Gentry: You lived in rental houses all that time?
Gentry: How come? Was that unusual?
Paxson: No, I don't think so. People didn't buy houses then like they do now. And my folks were not going to buy a house — first of all, they wanted to build their own, and until they had enough money in the savings account for the down payment, they weren't going to do it. So we lived in — oh, it was three or four rental houses, one of which has now been torn down for the Southwest Freeway in Houston, right near the elementary school that I went to there.
Gentry: Then when they ultimately built their home, what kind of home did they build?
Paxson: It was a two-story red brick house on a corner. The house was on the outside lot and we had an inside lot for extra yard. It was about two hundred feet wide and a hundred fifty feet deep. It had three bedrooms and a sun porch.
Gentry: It was one of those pretty Georgian houses in Houston?
Paxson: Well, sort of, I guess. It didn't have any pillars or anything like that. Not that big or that fancy but it was a nice spacious house, plenty of room.
Gentry: So the neighborhood you grew up in was really three or four different neighborhoods. You didn't have one neighborhood all your childhood.
Paxson: No. They were all sort of in the same general area of town in the Southwest section — Southwest quadrant, if that's what you want to call it.
Gentry: Tell me about your father [Roland B. Paxson] and mother [Marie Margaret Bowers Paxson] and their personalities, what they did?
Paxson: My father was a petroleum geologist. I ought to back up and say that they were both from Pennsylvania, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. My father's side of the family was English and my mother's side was German. They knew each other from high school on and got engaged during World War I and finally were married in 1922. My father went to Penn State, studied petroleum geology, and got a job in Texas working in or near the Spindletop oil field, the big famous one. They were married at ten o'clock in the morning in Lancaster and at eleven o'clock they were on the train heading for Texas and they stayed there the rest of their lives.
Gentry: Hmmm, they must have liked it?
Paxson: They did. They became genuine Texans. And you know there's nothing worse than a new Texan. I'm a native Texan but I think they carried on more about being Texans, maybe, than I do.
Gentry: Well, he wouldn't have been able to have a career in oil, would he, in Pennsylvania? Was there that much oil exploration?
Paxson: That's where the first oil wells in the country were discovered, around Oil City. But I don't think he particularly cared where he went.
Gentry: As long as he was doing what he wanted.
Paxson: He was interested in it, he loved geology, saved fossils and rocks and cores, all sorts of things like that, was always giving us lessons in the geological formations, if we drove around the country. So he was very happy doing what he was doing.
Gentry: And he moved around a lot in his jobs in Houston? Where did he work?
Paxson: He worked for several smaller oil companies. We spent one year actually in Dallas when he was working for the Atlantic Oil — it's now Atlantic Richfield, it was Atlantic Oil and Refining, I think. But I was only four years old at the time, so I don't remember much about that. The rest of the time was in Houston, which was his base, and '33 he went to work for Continental. They had him working a lot in Louisiana and also down in Mexico.
Gentry: He'd have to be on site when they drilled the well, wouldn't he?
Paxson: Yes. He'd sit the well.
Gentry: Sit the well? What does that mean?
Paxson: He stayed on it. He was sitting on the well. That was exactly the expression.
Gentry: That could be dangerous.
Paxson: Yes. Well, back then they weren't too much concerned about safety regulations. Nobody had ever heard of OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] at that time.
Gentry: No, of course not.
Paxson: When I was little, on weekends — oh, probably when we were in elementary school and early years in junior high, if the well was not too far away, he might take us over on a weekend, come home, pick us up, take my brother and me over and then bring us back on Sunday. And we wandered all around the derrick floor and we watched them adding pipe. We got splattered with mud. Everything that happened up there — nobody had on a hard hat. It was a great shock to me when I got a little bit older, into high school, and all of a sudden I couldn't go up on the derrick floor any more.
Gentry: You weren't allowed.
Paxson: Girls. Women.
Gentry: Oh, women weren't allowed?
Paxson: Women brought bad luck and they were not allowed on the derrick floor. It was all right when I was a little girl. It's true in the coal mines, it used to be true on sailing ships —
Gentry: I've never heard that.
Paxson: When I got to be big enough, I couldn't go on it.
Gentry: When you were in high school?
Gentry: I'll be darned. It must have been exciting for you and your brother to go onto the platform and watch —
Paxson: We loved going out there with him. And then when we got sleepy, we would go into the little doghouse, as they called it — the little cabin where they kept all the records and it was heated and there was a bunk in there and we'd go to sleep.
Gentry: Ha. And this would be out in the country somewhere.
Paxson: Oh, yes.
Gentry: Around Texas.
Paxson: Around Texas or Louisiana.
Gentry: Did your mother go, too?
Paxson: Sometimes she would. Sometimes he would just take the two of us.
Gentry: Did your mother ever work?
Paxson: She worked before she was married. She went to secretarial school and was secretary to the head of the board of health in Lancaster until she got married. She never worked after that.
Gentry: Did she encourage you to think about a career or did she expect you to marry and have children? Or didn't she counsel you either way?
Paxson: Her main thing was that you've got to have a college education. She didn't have one. She finished high school with very good grades but women in those days didn't go to college much unless they were very wealthy and her family wasn't. My father, of course, had a college degree. And this was just uppermost in her mind that both my brother and I go to college. There were no ifs, ands or buts about it. "You're going to go." As far as the career or getting married, I think she would like to have seen me married but that didn't happen. And it was mainly that you get an education and do what you want to do. Do anything you want to do but you've got to get that education. You've got to have that college.
Gentry: And that went through probably from the time you were in elementary school.
Paxson: Oh, I heard it all the time. There was also no question about grades. You had jolly well better get good grades.
Gentry: Or what, what would happen? Or you didn't ever find out what would happen?
Paxson: They were never so bad, that I found out what would happen, except that my mother insisted that just to be on the safe side, I take shorthand and I take typing. Now, typing was fine. But I could not get shorthand and I made straight D's in shorthand. This is in high school. It kept me out of the honor society in high school. I simply could not master shorthand.
Gentry: Now, that might have been helpful, taking notes on stories somewhere along the line?
Paxson: Well, it might have. I remember a little bit of it and I have used it on occasion, a very little bit. But I just couldn't manage it and the shorthand teacher — Mom even went to school. When they do that when you're in high school, you know, that's pretty serious. And well, I just wasn't getting it. When the shorthand teacher found out that the D's in shorthand had kept me out of the honor society, she said, "Oh, I wish you'd have told me that." She didn't know what kind of grades I had in other classes because I think maybe she would have improved it a little bit.
Gentry: What about your grandparents? Did they come to Texas, too, or did they stay in Pennsylvania?
Paxson: No, they stayed back in Pennsylvania. And they would come to visit us. My father's father started out as an engineer on the old Pennsylvania Railroad and then was injured in a train accident and lost his left arm and so the railroad put him to work as a clerk — did keep him on but he worked as a clerk. My mother's father was a house painter and they had whatever educations they get.
Gentry: They were from Lancaster?
Paxson: They were all from Lancaster, yes. They grew up there.
Gentry: And stayed there.
Gentry: Did you go up to see them?
Paxson: We would go back to visit them every two or three years, something like that.
Gentry: So you knew all about the Amish, I suppose, because the Amish had settled there?
Paxson: Oh, yes.
Gentry: Did they live near the Amish or right among them?
Paxson: Well, the Amish are out in the — they're farmers and they were out in the countryside. And my grandparents lived in the city. At that time Lancaster was forty, fifty thousand population, something like that. We would ride around the countryside and see them in their buggies, plowing their fields, and go to the market and get some of the good food.
Gentry: Oh, yes.
Paxson: Their cookies and baked goods that they had were marvelous. But we weren't really associated with them in any way.
Gentry: And you just had one brother?
Gentry: How much younger is he?
Paxson: He's twenty-two months younger than I am.
Gentry: Oh, pretty close.
Paxson: So we were pretty close, yes.
Gentry: What's his name?
Paxson: His name's John.
Gentry: And did he get the same philosophy of education, you have to go to college?
Paxson: Oh, my goodness. There was no doubt about it. Of course, he went a lot farther than I because he got interested in biology and botany and he went to Texas A&M and then did graduate work, got his master's from Harvard, and then came back to Texas A&M to finish up and get his Ph.D. And then he became a college professor. He taught at — what's the school at Nacogdoches, Sam Houston?
Paxson: Yes. That was his first — no, maybe he taught at the University of Houston briefly, then Sam Houston. And then he was at Austin College up in Sherman, Texas, and from there he went to Edinboro State University in Pennsylvania, the northwestern part of Pennsylvania. And he stayed there for twenty years until he retired, a year after I did.
Gentry: Your mother must have been thrilled that he had his Ph.D.
Paxson: I think sometimes they thought he was never going to get out of school.
Gentry: Did your dad have that same philosophy of education or did that come from your mother, because she didn't have one?
Paxson: A lot of it came from her but he never objected, he never disagreed with that in the slightest. He was all for it. And, my goodness, I wonder sometimes really how they did it because when I went off to the
University of Missouri, my brother at the same time entered Texas A&M. That's both kids in college, away from home. My father was making $400 a month and he was also supporting his parents in Pennsylvania because my grandfather didn't get that much of a pension from the railroad and there was no social security at that point. This was in nineteen forty —
Gentry: That must have been pretty tough, and your mother never worked?
Paxson: No. No. She frowned upon that now. She was the old school that when you got married, you didn't work. So she never did it.
Gentry: I suppose that the oil business was up and down, too. You said he made $400 a month but I imagine there were years when he was out of work.
Paxson: That was a good salary.
Gentry: I know. There were times he may not have made that much, you know, in the rises and swings of that business.
Paxson: At that point that was a very good salary.
Gentry: Yes, it sounded like it, at that point.
Paxson: He changed jobs frequently and of course, there were times during the Depression when he was out of work, in probably '31, '32. I think it was in 1933 that he went to work for Continental Oil. Then I remember my mother telling us at one point that they had $60 in the bank and that was all, when he got that job with Continental.
Gentry: How old were you at that point?
Paxson: Would have been ten, ten or eleven.
Gentry: Luckily they weren't putting you through college at that point.
Paxson: No. You're right. You're right.
Gentry: Were you a close family as you were growing up? Did you do a lot of things together?
Paxson: Yes, I think we were. We would make little weekend trips together. Driving back East to see the grandparents, that was always a big deal. Sometimes my father would drive up with us and take his vacation and then take the train back and Mother would have to drive us home. But we did a lot of things together. And when we were growing up, there were always young people in the house. The house that they built in West University Place had a great flow to it. You could go in a circle from the living room, across the hall, into the dining room, back into the kitchen, out back into the hall, and then to the living room again. I remember one time we were having a group of friends over — and this was when the conga was the great dance. So we did the conga all the way through the house. And we were doing whatever it was —
Gentry: This was when you were a teenager?
Paxson: Yes. And you could feel the house shake. My father sat there watching us and one of the friends who was there said, "Uh! My father would never allow us to do that!"
Gentry: Was yours the kind of house where everybody ended up, all your friends? There's always one house that has all the kids.
Paxson: A good many times that happened. We had a lot of them. And the folks put up with it. They always said they'd rather have us there so they knew where we were than have us off someplace.
Gentry: At home, was yours the kind of family that did a lot of talking and had political discussions and arguments and a lot of conversation?
Paxson: Well, a little bit. Not a whole lot. As we got older, my brother and I were the ones who could get into the arguments over anything, you know.
Gentry: Sibling rivalry?
Paxson: Well, some think that. But he knew it one way and I knew it the other and, oh, we could get into some of the craziest arguments.
Gentry: About any particular things?
Paxson: Oh, we would argue about mathematics.
Gentry: Well, that's serious.
Paxson: We would argue about the Christmas decorations and how the candles that went outside the front door should be made. We could get into an argument at the drop of a hat — how you pronounced a word, for that matter.
Gentry: How long did that last?
Paxson: That lasted until we went off to school.
Gentry: But then you remained very close all the rest of your lives, right?
Paxson: Yes. We have always been very close.
Gentry: I guess that's just a stage you went through.
Paxson: Yes, I think so.
Gentry: What are some of the things the family did together? Did you take other vacations? Or did you have weekend outings or daily outings that you particularly enjoyed?
Paxson: Oh, the weekend outings would be down to Galveston to go to the beach, over to San Antonio to see the Alamo.
Gentry: So your father was in town much of the time. He wasn't gone for great lengths of time, was he?
Paxson: No, he'd be gone for two or three weeks and then be back in for, say, a month and then gone again.
Gentry: For however long it took him.
Paxson: For however long it took him, that's right, to drill the well.
Gentry: Did your mother have any trouble managing with him gone? She must have been pretty resourceful.
Paxson: She was pretty resourceful and she took care of everything. She was much handier around the house than my father, anyway, so if something needed to be fixed, Daddy could hardly drive a nail. He was good at some other things. He was good at helping us with homework when it came to science or something like that.
Gentry: I'll bet. Or math?
Paxson: Or drawing pictures or diagrams or something like that. He was great at that. But he couldn't fix anything around the house.
Gentry: What were your parents like in temperament and personality?
Paxson: My father was a pretty easygoing person. He liked to play jokes on his friends, he thoroughly enjoyed having people over to play gin rummy or poker — he didn't play bridge. His favorite was gin, I think. He didn't like to work in the yard much. I think really he was in a tough business but he was a pretty gentle person. From the personality standpoint, my mother was tougher. But then, as she always said, "I was the one who had to teach the discipline because he was gone." So that may have been it.
Gentry: He had a great sense of humor, I guess, then.
Paxson: Yes, he did.
Gentry: What kind of jokes did he pull on his friends, practical jokes?
Paxson: Oh, practical jokes, and he was always ready to tell a joke. He loved to get dressed up, he was great for the Forty-Niner Days that they had down at Elks Club when he could get dressed up in his river boat gambler outfit, things like that. He liked to get — he was a little bit of a showboat, I guess.
Gentry: And your mother you said was a little tougher. In what way?
Paxson: Well, she was the disciplinarian and she had very firm ideas about what should be done when.
Gentry: And you did it.
Paxson: Pretty much the house ran the way she wanted it and we did things the way she wanted it and that was it.
Gentry: What were you like as a child? What were the things you liked to do and what was your personality as a young child — you know, eight, ten, when you start forming a personality? What did you like to do most?
Paxson: Oh, I liked to be out in the yard sometimes, I loved to work in the yard. I loved to read, I was crazy about history books.
Gentry: History books.
Paxson: Loved to read history. Still do. I liked to sing, was in the chorus and the church choir. I liked music, I liked western music.
Gentry: Even then.
Paxson: Even then. Oh, yes. Yes.
Gentry: Grand Old Opry.
Paxson: Grand Old Opry, Hank Williams. The original.
Gentry: Yes, the original. Did your mother plant flowers all over the yard and you would help her with that?
Paxson: Oh, yes. We had flower beds down the walk and around the house and all the spring flowers went in. We had a few flowering shrubs but not much. Trees in the side yard. My father — when we built the house, he was working in Mexico at the time, just across the border from McAllen. And he was staying at the old Casa de Palmas Hotel in McAllen. I think it's been torn down now. This would have been '37 or '38.
St. Augustine grass was just beginning to gain popularity in Houston as a lawn grass and here we had this bare lawn. And Casa de Palmas grounds were covered with St. Augustine grass. So my father spoke to the grounds keeper at the hotel and every time he came back, mostly on weekends, in the trunk of the car there would be burlap bags full of St. Augustine clippings. And the whole family — well, the three of us, I don't think Daddy did much of it — but we got out and planted those clippings and that house had one of the first St. Augustine lawns in Houston because Daddy brought them back from the hotel.
Gentry: That's hard work, planting St. Augustine.
Paxson: We did a lot of work outside, though. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Gentry: Going back to the books you read, do you remember as a child any particular book that you especially loved? You said history books but is there one that sticks in your mind or a time of history that you read about a lot? Was it Texas history?
Paxson: No, it would have been world history. I loved reading about the history of the United States, English history, I remember one year for Christmas I got a set of H. G. Wells' histories. And I sat down Christmas Day and started reading them.
Gentry: And got up about ten months later.*
Paxson: Ten months later, right. I still like to read historical novels.
Gentry: So you were a child who spent a lot of time reading, as well as outdoors?
Gentry: So you didn't have any real family discussions, to speak of, besides you and your brother. I mean serious discussions over dinner, things you argued about, or politics?
* This was a joke referring to the length of the books.
Paxson: I don't really remember. We may have but they don't stand out in my mind.
Gentry: Just as your parents encouraged you to get an education, did they also encourage you to read? And as you said, they gave you those books?
Paxson: Oh, yes. They were very anxious that we read and read a lot. There was hardly a birthday or Christmas that went by that we didn't get books as gifts. We did a lot of reading. My mother took a lot of magazines and we always took the newspaper and got both newspapers — that is, both Houston Post and Houston Chronicle — on Sundays.
Gentry: You got both of them?
Paxson: We took the Chronicle during the week and then on Sundays would also get the Houston Post.
Gentry: Newspapers were always in your house. Did you read them as children, too?
Paxson: Yes. We did a lot of reading.
Gentry: All kids have daydreams about what they want to be when they grow up. Can you remember having any of those daydreams, thinking about what you might want to become?
Paxson: I can remember thinking about what I didn't want to become —
Gentry: What was that?
Paxson: — which was a nurse or a teacher.
Gentry: Good point.
Paxson: I don't remember thinking really about what I wanted to be.
Gentry: That was a real stereotype of women's work.
Paxson: It was and I wanted no part of it. It wasn't until my junior year in high school when I took a course and worked on the high school newspaper and suddenly that was it. There was no question about it. From then on, I knew I wanted to be in the newspaper business. And the teacher of that course had gone to the University of Missouri and so that took care of that. I would go to the University of Missouri.
Gentry: Was he — was it a he or a she?
Paxson: It was a he. Mr. Whitaker.
Gentry: Was he a real mentor to you as a child? Did he tell you a lot about journalism?
Paxson: He talked about it. This was a one-semester course. That's the only course I had under him. So I wouldn't say he was a mentor. But certainly I made an impression on him and he made one on me. Years later, when I was working at the Miami Herald, I got a call. And this was from Mr. Whitaker. He had left teaching in public school and was teaching at one of the schools here in Oklahoma. I don't recall whether it was the University in Norman or OSU at Stillwater. They both have journalism departments. But he was taking a group of students through Miami to go down to the Keys and he wanted to come by and see the Herald.
Gentry: I'll be darned. He'd followed your career.
Paxson: So he knew where I was, yes.
Gentry: That's interesting because that's a lot of years.
Paxson: That is a lot of years, that's right. But that's how I got into it, that was it.
Gentry: He must have been a good teacher.
Paxson: He certainly —
Gentry: He fired you up.
Paxson: Fired me up is right.
Gentry: Before that you didn't have an occupation in mind. You just knew what you didn't want to be.
Paxson: No. I knew what I didn't want to be and I really wasn't sure what there was out there if one wasn't a teacher or a nurse.
Gentry: When did you first start writing? Was it in his class or did you start writing earlier than that?
Paxson: Well, I was always pretty good at English. I never did have any trouble with writing themes. Back when I was thirteen, in 1936 with the Texas centennial, my English class wrote poetry and my first published work was a poem that was written for that class. Then another member of the class was the son of the Episcopalian bishop. And the bishop — bless his heart! — had our little book of poems published. And I've still got it.
Gentry: You mentioned before that you sang quite a bit. You said you sang in the church choir?
Paxson: Sang in the church choir. And after I finished school and came back to Houston to work, I was in the community chorus.
Gentry: Your family was quite religious, then? They were regular churchgoers?
Paxson: We were regular churchgoers, yes.
Gentry: What denomination?
Paxson: Lutheran. My mother played the piano very well. I took music lessons and that's about it. One of the worst memories of my childhood is forgetting the Minuet in G during a recital. I absolutely went blank right in the middle of that piece.
Gentry: So you never took piano lessons again.
Paxson: I was mortified.
So we were interested in music. My brother has a good tenor voice. He still sings in a community chorus in Erie.
Gentry: But as you grew up there was never any difference in the way your parents treated you and your brother. It was always do anything you want to be, just go to college. They never directed either of you toward a certain career?
Paxson: No. No.
Gentry: Or expected him to work and you to get married?
Paxson: It was very much the same. There was no difference, no.
Gentry: So then you weren't encouraged to behave in a certain way because you were a girl.
Paxson: No. If you want to get married, all right. If you don't, all right, too.
Gentry: And you didn't have to be real feminine. I mean, you could be a tomboy if you wanted to be a tomboy?
Paxson: You could.
Gentry: Did your father have any definite goals for you or your brother? You know, things he'd like you to become? You speak more of your mother, talking about your education.
Paxson: He didn't have any, no. Not that I recall.
Gentry: Did your mother do the most talking as you were growing up?
Gentry: That's what I gathered.
Paxson: You're right. But when father put his foot down, look out.
Gentry: Oh, yes? What happened?
Paxson: When he got firm, he got firm. And everybody straightened up.
Gentry: You said he was a gentle man.
Paxson: He was. And he was very patient. But sometimes it ran out.
Gentry: You were talking about during the Depression your father losing his job. Can you remember anything of that era and has it affected you as an adult?
Paxson: I don't recall too much about it. We never went hungry. I never remember doing without anything. But then all of our friends were in the same boat and I don't recall looking with envy at somebody unless they were very rich. My parents' friends and our friends, everybody was struggling, watching the pennies, and that was just the way things were.
Gentry: Was that true all over Houston? Was there a lot of haves and haves-not in Houston? Or was the oil business just down at that time?
Paxson: I think the oil business and everything was down at that point. Most of my family's friends were people in the oil business because they had that common interest. They were all just struggling. You got by. My father would find temporary work, something like that, which would get him through.
Gentry: Has it affected you? Do you find yourself changed by the Depression era in any way?
Paxson: Oh, it's just the way I was brought up. I run around turning out lights and I save the backs of envelopes to write notes on, even though I have note pads by the dozens in the office. I watch pennies on some of the strangest things in the world. I can't stand to throw out food, even if it's something that I don't like. That kind of thing. On the other hand, I can be very extravagant.
Gentry: On trips all over the world.
Paxson: True. I don't really think that we did without anything. I never remember, as I said, going hungry. My mother made a lot of my clothes. But when I got big enough to have a bicycle, I got a bicycle — and it was a new one. Things were very tight. I remember my mother saying that when my father got a permanent job with Continental Oil, which was sometime in 1933, that they were down to $60 in the bank and that was all. Another Depression memory is simply that I don't like hamburger yet because we ate so much of it. We had lots of hamburger, lots of beans. About the only thing I like today in the way of beans is bean soup.
Gentry: Do you remember seeing people on the streets of Houston who were poor during the Depression, that image of people out of work?
Paxson: No, I don't. That's something that just sort of escaped me, I guess.
Gentry: You were telling me about your journalism teacher in school. Where did you go to high school?
Paxson: That was Mirabeau B. Lamar High School — in Houston, of course. It was about five miles from where I lived so we had to have car pools for that. The previous schools I rode my bicycles, both elementary and junior high.
Gentry: Did you get any other encouragement from teachers there on your writing, even though it wasn't a journalism class, like in an English class?
Paxson: I always got good grades in English and I had no trouble writing English themes or papers, anything like that. That was easy.
Gentry: There wasn't one particular teacher beyond the journalism teacher that said, oh, you're a great writer. You should do this.
Paxson: No, nobody ever told me I was a great writer. I got good grades but nobody said that.
Gentry: What activities did you enjoy doing in high school?
Paxson: I was on the cheering squad, which I liked. I learned to play tennis when I was in high school and liked that. I played that for years afterwards — not anymore. And I was in one of the social clubs. That was about it. I wasn't in a lot of extracurricular activities.
Gentry: The high school paper that you had was just connected to your class.
Paxson: That's right. The class put out the paper.
Gentry: It wasn't ongoing. You couldn't work on it after you were through with the class?
Paxson: No. No. But that was all that it took.
Gentry: Right! Did you write any one thing for the paper, any one subject or something, or did you get to write all kinds of articles?
Paxson: Oh, mostly I did feature stories for them. The paper divided things up the way most newspapers did: The boys covered sports and the girls covered other subjects. And that was about the way it was. But I just fell in love with it.
Gentry: But it was on school activities and things.
Paxson: Yes. It came out, I think once a month.
Gentry: That was when you first got your first love of journalism then.
Paxson: That's right. And from then on there was no doubt. And I've never regretted it, either.
Gentry: Good! Well, that's good.
What kind of personality did you have in high school? What were you like?
Gentry: Fun-loving? Quiet?
Paxson: Well, I had a pretty good time. I suppose, though, I was quieter than a lot of them. I certainly was not a leader.
Gentry: Were you studious?
Paxson: Fairly studious, yes. Not in too many activities.
Gentry: Studious with pressure from your mother?
Paxson: Well, by that time I had a pretty good track record in school and did make good enough grades that she sort of stopped worrying about me.
Gentry: Did you have other friends that really were caught up in this journalism class the way you were?
Paxson: No, not really.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Gentry: When you were nearing graduation from high school, were most of your friends looking toward college? Were some of the women more oriented toward marriage and family?
Paxson: A lot of them were interested in going to college. Of course college was where you met the men. And a great many of my friends were going on to college.
Gentry: This was a pretty good high school you came from, a good section of Houston, and probably more were going to college than the average.
Paxson: Yes. It was a new high school. My class was the first class to go through it all four years. No, three years. We only went three years to high school at that point. We had eleven grades. Now I think they have twelve. It was in a very good section of town. River Oaks Country Club was at one end of River Oaks Boulevard and Lamar High School was at the other end of it.
Gentry: Oh. That is a very good section of town.
Paxson: It was a good section of town, beautiful high school, beautiful building.
Gentry: So it was very typical for the kids to go on to college.
Paxson: Yes. From that high school. Now, the other ones in town, no. Lamar and another high school, San Jacinto High School, were the two who sent most people to college. I think at that time there were five high schools in town, maybe six.
Gentry: Did you have two or three best friends that you were close to at that time that were going on to college with you?
Paxson: Most of my good friends were all going to Rice.
Gentry: I see. And is that where you went also?
Paxson: That's where I went. Of course, my family — I had decided because of my journalism teacher that I was going to the University of Missouri to study journalism. At that time it was very easy to be an out-of-state student. Texas had a reciprocal agreement with the University of Missouri. I think the out-of-state fee was something like $45 a semester. It wasn't much but of course you were living far away from home, Columbia, Missouri. So my parents said yes, I could go to the University of Missouri but I'd have to go to Rice for two years first. So I applied to Rice. And I had pretty good grades in high school, with the exception of my shorthand course, and I was accepted. You have to keep in mind that at that time the freshman class at Rice was limited to ten percent women, which I don't think is true —
Gentry: No matter how good they are.
Paxson: No matter how good they are, it's ten percent women.
Gentry: It's really a sexist —
Paxson: It was then, I'll tell you. Rice at that point was so heavily endowed by William Marsh Rice and by that time, some other Houstonians had also given endowments. And every student in the place got the equivalent of a scholarship in the tuition for the year. We paid no tuition. We paid lab fees and blanket fees for athletic events and that was it. My first year, I think, going to Rice — the out-of-pocket expense for going to the school was about $250, total.
Gentry: Your parents must have loved that. It gave them time to save up for Missouri.
Paxson: Yes. Yes. That helped for Missouri, yes. And of course, Rice was — liberal arts was what you took there. You took math. And first-year math, Math 100 at Rice, was integral and differential calculus, which I managed to pass and that's all.
Gentry: Thanks to your father, huh?
Paxson: Well, I never really understood it and to this day, I don't understand it. Then you had to take science. The freshman year was biology and the second year was beginning chemistry. You took history, you took English, and you took foreign language.
Gentry: No journalism. Absolutely none?
Paxson: Oh, they didn't have it.
Gentry: They didn't have it.
Paxson: All liberal arts. But Rice had such a good reputation that when I transferred to the University of Missouri, every one of my credits transferred. And I had to make up one course which was in civics and government which journalism school required that you take and Rice just plain flat didn't offer. So that was easy.
Gentry: At Rice did you have any way to get into journalism or writing or any job on the side that could give you a chance to do some writing?
Paxson: Well, as soon as I got to Rice I went down and volunteered to work on the school newspaper which was called the Thresher and worked on that for two years, both years that I was there. And if I hadn't gone to Missouri, I had the chance to become the Rice correspondent for the Houston Chronicle, covering campus events and things like that. So I kept my hand in but of course I couldn't take the job because I went off to Missouri.
Gentry: When you worked on the school newspaper at Rice, was there an advisor or something that would criticize your stories?
Paxson: No. No.
Gentry: No good thing like that.
Paxson: No good thing like that.
Gentry: You had free rein — the students.
Paxson: Yes, it was all students. The editor was a student who was elected. He got some kind of pay for it. Nobody else did. And it was just write your story and whatever the editor wanted you to cover. He might criticize a story but basically it would be to correct your grammar or something like that.
Gentry: Were you much more comfortable at Missouri? You liked Rice, though, didn't you?
Paxson: Yes. But Missouri is where I wanted to go. To get into the journalism school there was the thing.
Gentry: You didn't really miss that much by missing the first two years there?
Paxson: No, because at that time you couldn't get into journalism school until you were a junior. It's changed since.
Gentry: So, it worked out perfectly.
Paxson: It worked out perfectly, yes.
Gentry: So at that time at the University of Missouri, I guess in 1942, when you went there, what kind of journalism courses did they have? Was it a full-scale journalism department as it is now?
Paxson: Oh, yes. It's the oldest journalism school in the country — the first one, I think, and maybe the only one that put out a town newspaper, a daily newspaper, that the students worked on, the Columbia Missourian.
Gentry: The department put it out?
Paxson: The department put it out.
Gentry: I didn't know that.
Paxson: The town's daily newspaper. So you really got the practical experience. Furthermore, there was another town newspaper, the [Columbia] Tribune, so you even had competition.
Gentry: Oh. So even as a junior you worked on the town's paper?
Gentry: Just after you came in.
Paxson: No, you did a little bit on the paper but your first semester there, you took the History and Principles of Journalism, you took the basic course in news writing, you took the basic course in advertising, and at that point they required also that you take more courses outside the school. So I took another course in government and one in business, a beginning business management type course.
Gentry: Did you have any great professors there that you remember at Missouri?
Paxson: Oh, yes, that place was full of them, yes.
Gentry: Any that you remember being really an inspiration?
Paxson: I think my favorite professor there was Robert Neal who was the copy editor and who, as the copy editing professor, supervised the production of the newspaper. And I just thought he was wonderful. He was the kind of professor who had the class over to his house periodically for hot dogs — it wouldn't have been pizza then but hot dogs — and drinks, you know. He helped me to get my first job because he knew the United Press state correspondent in Omaha. That's getting ahead of the story. But he was a great help. And he and his wife were wonderful to the students.
Gentry: By this time were you getting an idea of what type of journalism you were interested in, that early, or you just wanted to get into journalism, period?
Paxson: I wanted to get into journalism and I thought it would be great if I could be a foreign correspondent. But that never quite worked out. But on the newspaper, you did cover a lot of things, did a lot of features. Again, the girls did this sort of thing and the boys mostly did the sports, although by the time I was there World War II was in full swing. The journalism school was full when I entered in the fall of '42 and six weeks later all the men disappeared, they were gone, just like that.
Gentry: How strange.
Paxson: You know, they were all drafted. Where we had had enrollment — I think it started out maybe 250, when I graduated it was 125, and most women. Now there were some of the guys there —
Gentry: It's almost like going to a women's school.
Paxson: Well, not exactly because some of the fellows who were in the reserves stayed in and were still in school and then the army — ASTP, what was that? Army Special Training Program? I don't know but there were a lot of servicemen who came in and attended the university in certain classes and there were some of them in J school.
Gentry: What were you writing for the paper when you did actually work for the town paper as a student? Did you have a particular focus in your writing or were you doing general assignment?
Paxson: You did general assignments.
Gentry: Did you do any war stories, anything about the effect of the war on the campus or on the town?
Paxson: I don't recall those. I do recall the first time I had to go out to somebody's house to get the picture of a serviceman who had been killed.
Gentry: Oh. You did that as a student?
Paxson: Yes. The students did it. You know, if you'd have been a reporter on a paper, you'd have done the same thing.
Gentry: Tell me about that. You were so young. How did that go? Can you remember?
Paxson: It was a very difficult time but I screwed up my courage. We had called and yes, they had a picture. So I walked out to the house, took a deep breath and walked up to the door, knocked on the door and told the young man's mother who I was.
Gentry: And got the picture?
Paxson: And got the picture.
Gentry: And did you speak to her about him also? Or was it just necessary to get the picture?
Paxson: It was just necessary to get the picture. We had the obituary information. I remember telling her how sorry I was. I couldn't think of anything else to say.
Gentry: Of course, there's always been this longstanding debate about journalism schools and what prepares a journalist better, liberal arts education or a specialized journalism education. Do you have a strong opinion on that?
Paxson: I think the liberal arts is a great help and I think a lot of journalism students now don't have enough of it. But I think you need the practical training, too. Certainly the experience I got on the Columbia Missourian as a student was a big factor in my getting my first job because it wasn't the school paper, it was the town paper.
Gentry: A big difference.
Paxson: I had covered club meetings and I had covered city council meetings. You had really done some of the actual work. I question right now this business of starting people in journalism in their freshman year. I think the way I did it at Rice was much broader — two years of liberal arts and the little bit of science and math that I got was much better.
Gentry: And then when you finally got those last two years of journalism school was it course after course of journalism every semester?
Paxson: No, they insisted that you split it and that you take outside courses. As a matter of fact, there was a limit — you couldn't take all of your courses in journalism school.
Gentry: I realize you couldn't take all of them.
Paxson: You had to take — I think you could take up to two-thirds, that would mean at least two courses that you took outside of journalism school. And of course once I got into the business, I discovered that if you're a general assignment reporter, you never know what you're going to be covering. And the broader knowledge you have, the easier things are going to be for you.
Gentry: At that time there was nothing like summer internships or —
Paxson: Oh, no. I would give anything —
Gentry: Your internship was all year, working on the paper.
Paxson: My internship was basically the paper and that was it. And I see the summer interns now, the ones we had from the Miami Herald on, every newspaper we had them. And I thought, "I just hope these young people appreciate the opportunity they're getting." I would have given anything to have been a summer intern. Now maybe if I'd stayed in Houston with the job that I was offered as the campus correspondent from the [Houston] Chronicle, maybe I could have gotten it there. But that still wouldn't have been the equivalent of the training at Missouri.
Gentry: Did anyone else, any teacher or professor at Missouri, stand out in your mind as teaching you a great deal or inspiring you, encouraging you in any way, beyond the man you mentioned?
Paxson: Beyond Mr. Neal? Well, of course, the news professor, Mr. Sharp, was a great teacher. And he knew exactly how to tell you what was wrong with your story and you better fix it. But unless you kept doing the same thing over and over again, he never really put you down. He was great teacher for that kind of writing.
The dean of the school then was Frank Luther Mott.
Gentry: That's a good name to have.
Paxson: He was quite a character and taught us our History and Principles of Journalism.
Gentry: Oh, he did?
Paxson: Yes. Using his book as the textbook.
Gentry: Of course.
Paxson: Of course. And he pulled one. The school year was just turned upside down because of the war. And my junior year, Christmas vacation came very early and then we had to be back in school right before New Year's. And we were expected to be in class on New Year's Day. And that class was Dr. Mott's History and Principles of Journalism. So we all staggered in. There were some students who had been up all night — they were still in their party clothes. At any rate, we were there because boy, you didn't cut it, you know. As a matter of fact, I think there might have been an extra penalty if you missed that particular day.
At any rate, Dr. Mott gets up to speak and he has said about two sentences into his lecture when a student in the back of the room jumps up, runs down the center aisle, fires a gun and runs out the door. Somebody else jumps up, goes after him. All of this happened and we're sitting there totally stunned and Dr. Mott says, "All right. You have the rest of the period to write a report on what just happened."
Gentry: Oh, he set it up.
Paxson: He set it up — on New Year's Day!
Gentry: That's terrific.
Paxson: We found out later that he was rather well known, that he would do that little stunt at some point every year during this particular course. But he did it to us New Year's Day. So, you know, he was pretty good, too. We had a good team.
Gentry: Of course, you graduated in the middle of World War II, so the women in Missouri were pretty much all going to get jobs easily, weren't they, at that point? There were very few men —
Paxson: There were very few men and —
Gentry: — and women were really in demand.
Paxson: Yes, they were. And of course, that's the reason that I got the job with the wire service. And I ended up working for the United Press in Nebraska. I was in Omaha for about two months for sort of an orientation and then was moved down to Lincoln, the state capital. We had a two-person bureau, a woman — Marguerite Davis was bureau manager — and me. The two of us covered everything that went on in the state capital. We covered the legislature, we covered the governor's press conferences, when important visitors came to town we went with them.
Gentry: And two women covered all of that. Weren't you just running all the time?
Paxson: Yes. We were kept pretty busy. The only things we did not cover were the football games and the only reason we didn't do that is because women were not allowed in the press box at Nebraska Stadium.
Gentry: So who covered them?
Paxson: The bureau manager from Omaha came down, the man. He also would come down whenever there were executions at the state penitentiary right outside of Lincoln because he didn't think women should cover that. Now there might have been a penitentiary regulation but I really don't think so. I think this was just his feeling.
Gentry: But you two covered all the other stories.
Paxson: We covered all the other stories, we covered sports. The big thing in Nebraska, outside of the football, were basketball games, particularly the state high school tournaments — they're just as bad in Nebraska as they are in Iowa — so we covered them. And there was a time in my life when I could keep the box score and mark the little squares and do everything else that one does in the shorthand of covering the moves in a basketball game. We covered track meets. There wasn't much baseball. The men who were around were very helpful. The sports editor at the Lincoln Journal where our office was was a big help. And the public information officer — he wasn't the chief but he was in the public information office at Lincoln Army Air Force base — had been a sports writer and he was a stringer for some papers in his off-duty. He was a big help, too. They didn't seem to mind teaching this green kid right out of college how to do it. They would read my stories and say, "Now that wasn't right, that wasn't a lay-up, that was a so-and-so shot." You know, this kind of thing. So they were a big help.
Gentry: Do you think if the war had not been on, with the men gone, would it have been as easy to break into journalism?
Paxson: No, no.
Gentry: That was really many women's big break.
Paxson: In a way because as soon as the war was over, out the women went, you were out. The only kinds of jobs that women could get in newspapers were in the society section.
Gentry: So the prevailing feeling at the time was women were probably temporary help but they wouldn't have a long-time career in the field.
Paxson: That's right.
Gentry: Unless they were society.
Paxson: And of course all of us signed the agreement, waiver, whatever you call it, acknowledging that we had taken a man's job because he had gone off to the war and agreeing to give it up when he came back.
Gentry: How did you feel about that?
Paxson: It never crossed my mind to think a thing about it.
Gentry: Just everyone did it.
Paxson: Everybody did it. Attitudes were totally different in 1944-45 than they are now. And nobody gave it a second thought.
Gentry: Was that true in other fields, too, as well as journalism?
Paxson: Yes. There were a lot of places. You know, the men had gone off to war and when they came back, they were entitled to their jobs back. The problem, of course, was that when the war was over the man whose job I took did not come back to take it. And I was let go by United Press on these grounds but I was replaced by a man with no experience. However, I was at the two-year salary level with the guild and he was hired at the beginning level. So this may be one of the few times in history that a woman was replaced by a man at a lower salary — because he was about $20 a week less.
Gentry: Made you feel —
Paxson: Made me feel good, yes.
Gentry: Pretty good. At that point, when women had signed that waiver, a lot of women were fired in all kinds of jobs. Did many of them just give up at that point and get married?
Paxson: That's what you were expected to do.
Gentry: That was the expectation.
Paxson: That was the expectation. A few managed to survive but most of them just went back home and became — I don't know, secretaries or whatever until they got married.
Gentry: In that first job, the woman who worked with you, was she much older? Had she been in journalism quite a while?
Paxson: Yes. Much older, I think Maggie was in her mid to late thirties by then which isn't — she seemed a lot older to me. She had managed — and don't ask me how —
Gentry: She was a survivor.
Paxson: She was a survivor, that's right, and she had been with the UP long enough that she stayed on.
Gentry: Till the end of her career.
Gentry: Was she a mentor to you in any way?
Paxson: She was very helpful. I don't know, I have difficulty with this word "mentor" because I never heard it until about the time that I was ready to retire.
Gentry: Did she teach you quite a few things?
Paxson: She taught me a great deal because I thought coming out of the Missouri School of Journalism, I knew it all. Maggie set me straight in a hurry. You're never going to know it all, basically.
Gentry: Did she come out of there, too? University journalism?
Paxson: No. I don't know where she went, don't remember where she went to school.
Gentry: She told you the school of hard knocks is coming.
Paxson: Yes. But she was good and —
Gentry: Did she encourage you as well as tell you things like that?
Paxson: Yes. Yes. She was a big help.
Gentry: When you were working there in Lincoln, set the scene for me of what it was like living and working during World War II.
Paxson: We had rationing. We got food stamps for sugar, meat. There was gasoline rationing but I didn't have a car so that didn't make any difference. My starting salary was $25 a week.
Gentry: Oh, boy! Was that typical at the time?
Paxson: Oh, yes. That was the beginning salary under the guild contract for the wire service.
Gentry: It didn't matter if you were a man or a woman?
Paxson: That's right. There was no discrimination.
Gentry: Oh, well, that's good.
Paxson: There was no discrimination then while I worked for the two services and they had the contracts with the guild. Everybody got paid the same thing. And years later when I became a publisher, I got equal pay. In between, I didn't.
Gentry: I see.
Paxson: At any rate, that was my salary. I lived in a room in an apartment with the woman who was the librarian — except they called it the morgue in those days — at the Lincoln Journal. Her place was about six blocks from the office so I walked there. We could walk to the state capitol. That was maybe ten blocks from the office. The University of Nebraska was the other side of town but again it was walking distance. So I did an awful lot of walking to get to cover the stories.
Gentry: It's hard to believe someone covers this variety of stories you covered on foot. Basically, that's what you did.
Paxson: Well, you did that. Of course, being on the wire service, we also picked up a lot of stories from the Lincoln Journal and the other paper, the Lincoln Star. And we would rewrite them and then, of course, you had to sit there and punch the tape and then when the Nebraska leg was split off from the national wire and you threw the switch, then you ran the tape through and transmitted your stories to other newspapers and radio stations — no television then — throughout the state.
Gentry: Tell me about the technology. What were the machines like? Were you working on typewriters?
Paxson: These were teletype machines with a typewriter keyboard and you flipped down a little switch which would perforate the tape. The tape was about three-quarters of an inch wide, three holes on one side, two on the other. I got so I could read the tape but you simply typed your story on the teletype machine, perforating the tape and then when you got the split, as they called it, the signal to transmit to Nebraska only, you started running your tape through. We did have typewriters because we would have to come back and — you didn't write a story on the teletype.
Gentry: No. That might be a bit of a problem.
Paxson: No. You'd never know what you'd get wrong and you couldn't fix anything. So we did have two typewriters, two very small desks. Our office was in the Lincoln Journal. It was at the head of the stairs coming up from the first floor to the second. And we were separated from the morgue by chicken wire. I would guess that the office itself maybe was ten by ten, something like that. It was very small.
Gentry: During the war years on the wire service, did you cover any kind of war oriented stories?
Paxson: No, because the function of our bureau was to cover the state capital for other papers in Nebraska. And most of the war news, of course, was coming from the Pacific or from Europe or from Washington. We did have an air force base there — army air base, I guess, it wasn't the air force then. And there might be occasional releases out of that. But really we did not cover any war stories as such. With the exception of when the war in the Pacific ended and the prisoners of war were released, the war department — or defense, whatever it was called then — decided that the best way to let families know that their sons had been released as prisoners of war was to move the names on the wire services and let the wire services contact the families.
Gentry: That's interesting.
Paxson: That, of course, got the word out, number one, and it gave the wire services some marvelous stories.
Gentry: Oh, yes.
Paxson: So there were three wire services at that point — United Press, Associated Press and the International News Service — and all three of them were moving these lists of names and every bureau was watching the names to see where this person lived. And anybody who lived in Nebraska, you immediately got on the phone and started trying to track the family down.
Gentry: So did you do that?
Paxson: We did do that, yes.
Gentry: Did some interesting stories come out of that?
Paxson: Well, some mighty happy people.
Gentry: I'll bet. I'll bet.
Gentry: Can you remember any particular one that moved you?
Paxson: No. It was just very exciting and very gratifying to be able to reach that family. Of course, it would be disappointing when we would reach them and find out that the AP had reached them a few minutes earlier. And then they would get bent out of shape because they didn't really want to talk to another reporter, they wanted to call other friends and family members and let them know that Johnny or Billy was safe.
Gentry: Even though you weren't covering war stories, you were right in the newspaper building, so obviously you were reading the coverage of war stories all the time and seeing it happen. How was the war treated as a story? A lot of people say that the coverage of World War II was totally patriotic and never critical. Did you feel that?
Paxson: I think if you looked back on it, you probably would say it. I certainly did not feel it at the time. Again, just like with that waiver, the attitudes were different, people looked at things from another point of view, and you simply didn't criticize. It was very rare in World War II, for instance, to see pictures of any American war dead. You didn't see the pictures of the bodies on Omaha Beach on D-Day. You simply didn't. You could read the casualty lists and all this and you saw the coffins coming back but you didn't see dead soldiers.
Gentry: That was poor taste?
Paxson: It was poor taste. You just didn't see it. And I don't think it was — I guess until Vietnam that brought the war into our living rooms but you didn't cover it.
Gentry: Can you remember anybody covering women's roles during the war, like Rosie the Riveter and women going into these men's jobs and really running the country, so to speak?
Paxson: Oh, there were a lot of stories along that angle, yes.
Gentry: There in Lincoln?
Paxson: I don't remember.
Gentry: You didn't get to write any of them?
Paxson: No, the wire service — at that point we covered state government and sports. That was considered the news.
Paxson: The papers did because, you know, they had the feature sections that they wanted to fill up. But we didn't cover them.
Gentry: Did a special camaraderie occur between women journalists at that period when you were really running things? You were running the wire service bureau and probably the women were running the newspaper. Was there a camaraderie among these women?
Paxson: We all got along very well. I don't remember any camaraderie there as much as later on among women's editors.
Gentry: I see.
© 1991, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.