Published on April 13, 2021
The View from my Seat
Leon Hale remembered by an editor
By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin
The passing of beloved columnist Leon Hale brought back memories of better times in the newspaper industry … and painful reminders of how much has changed.
The Houston Post was prospering when I arrived in 1972 to begin my first full-time job. The company had moved into the modern “Fort Hobby” on the Southwest Freeway, and the paper was competitive with the Chronicle, largely because of a terrific stable of columnists led by Leon.
I remember being wide-eyed the first time I walked into the new building. There was contemporary artwork, slate floors and wood-grain concrete walls. The company gave tours to show off.
And, of all things, there was a conveyor belt in the newsroom.
Why a conveyor belt? Because computers had not yet infiltrated the newsroom.
Reporters, using Remington and Smith-Corona typewriters, hammered out stories on paper. Editors had thick pencils to correct errors in the copy. If a story required an overhaul, there were scissors and enough glue to make an editor woozy.
The conveyor belt moved stories from the city desk, where they received a first edit, to the copy desk on the other side of the newsroom. My fellow copy editors and I would reach out, grab a story, edit it and write a headline.
The edited story was then placed in a pneumatic tube that carried it to a linotype operator on the floor below.
I felt I was at the cutting edge of newspaper technology.
“What would they think of next?” I naively thought to myself, dismissing rumors that all this would someday be done on computers.
I soon learned a trick of the trade. It made my editing job easier and less stressful if I kept an eye on the conveyor belt so I could grab stories from the best reporters.
These stories from such seasoned reporters as Harold Scarlett, a pioneer in environmental reporting, weren’t likely to need much editing. Of course, fellow editors were also watching the conveyor belt.
The prize every day was Leon’s column.
Not only did Leon’s folksy columns break up the usual monotonous stories of murder, madness and mayhem, but they didn’t need editing.
Leon’s copy was so “clean” there are editors today who take pride that they once caught a misplaced comma in a Hale column.
Leon, who died two months shy of turning 100, was a magnificent storyteller with a unique perspective. In 62 years of writing columns for the Post and later the Chronicle, he traveled where few reporters went.
As Andrew Dansby, the gifted culture and entertainment writer at the Chronicle, wrote in his obituary on Leon:
“One didn’t need to know a single one of the hundreds - maybe thousands - of proper names that peppered Hale’s work. By the time he told a story, the minute and intricate detail he’d curated filled in entire lives and spaces. Hale stopped in towns the rest of us might skip, and he’d talk to the people we might not acknowledge at a filling station. He came away from these explorations and interactions with a richly calibrated take on life in Texas throughout the 20th Century and beyond.”
I am ashamed to admit I really didn’t appreciate Leon’s columns at first. The people and places Leon wrote about were foreign to this native Californian who had never been to Texas until he interviewed for the Post job.
I could not understand why a metropolitan newspaper would devote space to a columnist who wrote about Madame Z, the Brazos Bottom fortuneteller, his Old Friend Morgan and talking mules.
As time went by and I became “Texified,” I began looking forward to reading his columns, even ones about talking mules.
“The last time I printed a mule interview here I was challenged by a couple of the customers to prove that I can really have a conversation with mules,” Hale wrote in one column. “But that’s something I’m unable to prove because when another person is with me, I can’t get a mule to utter a word.”
Leon was just one of several columnists that readership surveys showed gave the Post an advantage over the Chronicle in the 1960s and ‘70s.
There was crusty sports columnist Jack Gallagher, who in the ‘60s, got into a fight with Oilers owner Bud Adams at an American Football League meeting at the Shamrock Hotel. A picture of the two - with Adams on top - was circulated nationwide.
Acclaimed writer Mickey Herskowitz not only wrote sports columns but also has written more than 50 books. I once had to follow a speech by Mickey with a speech of my own. Pressure is following a speaker who has authored or ghost-written books on Dan Rather, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Gene Autry, Howard Cosell, Mickey Mantle and Bette Davis, among many others.
The witty Lynn Ashby wasn’t afraid to poke fun at news-makers and was a reliable authority on all things Texan.
Things started changing at the Post in 1983 when the Toronto Sun bought the Post from the Hobby family.
Capitalizing on the uncertainty surrounding Canadian ownership of a Houston newspaper, the Chronicle lured Leon and Mickey away from the Post.
Although we survived another 12 years before the Chronicle bought the Post and closed it down, things never felt the same at the Post without Leon.
Today, the Post is gone, and the Chronicle occupies Fort Hobby. The conveyor belt is gone, and linotypes are found in museums.
And, sadly, there aren’t any reporters traveling the back roads that Leon Hale loved.
My hope is that there is a young reporter out there who will put down his laptop, venture beyond the tollways and visit those out-of-the-way communities to find more ordinary Texans, the kind Leon treated as heroes.
(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)