Next Stop: Tulia


Legend has it that Nate Blakeslee was on his way to a Ph.D. in American Studies when he decided to leave theory by the wayside and come write for the Observer. At this point in the story a little revisionism is in order, since strictly speaking he wasn’t exactly hired—at least not initially.

He was a regular and valued contributor who had written the most comprehensive piece ever published on the grand scheme to turn West Texas into a radioactive waste dump (“The West Texas Waste Wars,” March 28, 1997). He knew the environmental beat. He had the goods on the concrete and asphalt lobby, whose motto regarding highways was “if we build it they will come.” He was wired into a left activist community that traditional liberals in the Observer readership didn’t know existed. But there was no money in the budget for a staff writer.

So Nate suggested that he use the Observer as a base for his freelance writing, and then proceeded to make himself indispensable. Not only would he regularly drive across the state to prisons, small town high schools, and county jails to ensure that the subjects of his stories were central to the narratives, he brought to bear on each story a great deal of documental reporting. His background on environmental issues was also useful at the Capitol, where he hung out with both the greens who would save the state’s air and water, and the browns who would continue to pollute it. That’s how he was able to get the complete story on how Governor Bush compelled the Legislature to pass his utterly failed voluntary emissions control law (“How a Bill Becomes a Law,” June 11, 1999).

We have reason to believe that Kent Hance, Rick Jacobi, and Eddie Selig would contribute to any foundation that would provide a grant that would get Nate Blakeslee out of Austin. But that won’t be necessary. Recently he was awarded a prestigious Soros Justice Media Fellowship by the Open Society Institute, one of six writers to receive the award.

As Nate tells you in his note below, he’s leaving the Observer to work on a book on Tulia, the Panhandle town whose story he has so aptly chronicled in these pages (“The Color of Justice,” June 2000; “Round Two in Tulia,” October 20, 2000; “Can You Hear Me Now?” November 8, 2002). Those of you who have followed Nate’s stories over the years know that he is an intrepid reporter and a gifted writer. What you may not know is what a superb editor he is, bringing precisely the right mix of compassion, indignation, wit, and irreverence to these pages. He has punched up our prose. He has also managed to boost our spirits (he brought us bagels every week, and in the great Observer tradition, in which all job descriptions are infinitely expandable, was handy with a hammer and screwdriver whenever the occasion called for it).

We will miss him. —B.B. and J.B.

I’m sad to say that this will be my last issue as editor of the Observer. I’m leaving the paper to write a book about the drug bust in Tulia, a story I’ve been covering for over two years now. Though dozens of outlets have now reported on Tulia, we broke the story here in T.O., and when the book is done, I hope readers will think of it as an Observer book. There have been some great ones over the years. I’ll try not to screw up the tradition. I want to thank our readers and contributors, especially those, like Bob Sherrill, who called when I first became editor in September of 2000. “I guess you could use some content, huh, kid?” Sherrill said. Yes, and an instruction manual. I never got one, other than orders to “have fun” from our board chair, Molly Ivins, whom I thank for her confidence in me and in the magazine.

More than anything, I thank the good people I’ve worked with here over the last five years. All the mistakes were mine; all the good stuff we thought up together. Barbara and Jake are damn fine writers, editors, and people, and will make this an even better magazine than it is now. —N.B.