`These People Didn’t Want a Vision’ -Jones When Steven was fired, the question naturally was asked, Why? Steven said it was the politics of the matter, and John T. Jones said it was much more a question of the Endowment’s concern to conserve its dollars, but the people who did the firing, the directors of the Endowment, never said. “I’ve never been given a reason,” Steven told the Observer in a three-hour interview. Saul Friedman, the ace reporter whose lengthy special study of Houston’s Negro community has not yet seen the light of day in the Chronicle, said \(before he left the Endowment’s new board wanted to meet the day after the firing “in the middle of the city room to make the announcement to the staff with Steven there. They wanted to humiliate Steven . . . in front of the staff. It’s like drumming a guy out of the corps and ripping out his epaulets. I suppose they were going to break his copy pencil.” Steven confirms that “The night he fired me, [John T. Jones] told me that Houston Endowment had instructed him to bring me in before other people, to make it as humiliating to me as possible. . . . He wasn’t going to do it.” Jones had been out of town on his farm when the board of the Endowment met and fired Steven. That night Jones was the guy who had to go tell Steven, and of course Steven asked him why. ” ‘Bill’,” Steven quotes Jones that night, ” `I said to the people on the Endowment board, ‘Why do you want to fire Bill Steven ?’ They said, ‘We want him out of there’.” Steven’s wife Lucy said, ” ‘Why, John, why? I don’t understand’.” Steven recalled from that night: “Finally he said, ‘Well, Lucy, I had a vision, and Bill had a vision. And those people didn’t want a vision. They wanted their voice’.” In light of what has happened since last fall, how does this account of Steven’s firing stand up? Houston Endowment has sold the Chronicle and other Jones properties to John Mecom, whose fortune is estimated in the hundreds of millions, for a total sum of $85 million. \(Mecom has signed a contract that Collier will continue as editor and the paper’s policies and personnel will not change. Mecom’s politiesa subject of engrossed but virtually contentless speculation since he bought the Chronicleare hard to get a clear idea of. He is a Democrat; he was for Johnson and Humphrey ; he has said Allan Shivers was a great governor; he attended an appreciation dinner for Ralph Yarborough. Under Collier’s continuing editorship, the Chronicle’s editorial page has seemed more conservative in columnists displayed and letters to the editor published, but Collier, in an Observer interview, indicated he wants a balanced, not a one-sided, editorial policy. When Houston Endowment sold the Chronicle to Mecom one could comb the reports in vain for clues to why. J. Howard Creekmore, the president of Houston Endowment, would say nothing; his secretary told the Observer he had had many inquiries and was answering none of them. Thus it was illuminating late last month when Collier, in a speech at a banquet at which Mecom was presented the Sons of the American Revolution good citizenship award, revealed that Creekmore had decided that Mecom was “the man to buy the Jones properties.” “Howard has given me permission to reveal to you tonight,” Collier told the S.A.R. banqueters, “how John Mecom came to buy the Chronicle, the Texas National Bank of Commerce stock, the Rice Hotel, the Rice Hotel Garage, and the Rice Hotel Laundry. To me this story is the greatest tribute that could be paid to John. . . for some time various interests had tried to buy portions of the Jesse H. Jones interests, especially the Chronicle and Houston Endowment’s 30% stock holding in the Texas National Bank of Commerce. At least five out-of-state interests and more than half a dozen local ones had tried to buy the Chronicle. Several had tried to buy the bank stock or other portions of the Jones interests. “But,” Collier continued, “the trustees of Houston Endowment were determined to keep these properties in the hands of someone who has the same deep love of this community and the same concepts for its betterment and progress that Jesse Jones had.” The meaning of these words will be of interest, of course, to the people in government who have been evaluating the role of tax-exempt foundations in the nation’s economic life. One day last fall, Collier said, an architect associated with Mecom went to see Creekmore about’ buying a small tract of land adjacent to the garage of the Warwick, the once run-down hotel that Mecom bought and turned into one of the state’s authentic showplaces. “The name of Mecom rang a bell with Howard Creekmore,” Collier said. “He knew Harvey Mecom, he knows John Mecom. `This,! Creekmore thought, ‘is the man to buy the Jones properties.’ . . . He consulted with other trustees of Houston Endowment and found unanimous agreement that John Mecom was the man to own these properties. “When John Mecom met with Howard Creekmore it was only a matter of minutes before the deal was madeand they sealed it with a handshake. “For the sake of this community, John Mecom was asked to buy these properties which had been sought after by others. I can not think of any finer tribute to a man than this,” Collier concluded. This, then, is the broad framework of what has happened to the Chronicle. But on this broad framework the name of the story is not written. One must begin a considerable time ago say, with Saul Friedman’s memories of the way the Chronicle was, before Steven. JESSE JONES was a Roosevelt man and Roosevelt’s head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, but away in Washington, he paid less and less attention to the Chronicle, which became more conservative. Under the editor, Emmett Walter, managing editor Roderick Watts,. and associate editor Everett Collier, Friedman says, “the Chronicle was slightly to the left of Rasputinand to the right of the Dallas Morning News.” The Chronicle’s columnists were Fulton Lewis, Jr., Holmes Alexander, George Sokolsky, David Lawrence, and William S. White; editorially the Chronicle was predictably critical of the United Nation and reflexively hostile to federal programs, as Houstonians who were there as far back as the 1950’s will remember. Then, however, something started happening over at the Houston Post. Post staffers, including Managing Editor Arthur Laro and Ralph O’Leary, brought the Post alive. O’Leary’s series on the Minutewomen, a right-wing band of feminine patriots-at-the-ready, was something quite new to the city. “This marks the time of the Post’s ascent,” Friedman recalls. O’Leary was named city editor; the Post had some top-flight reporters and got others. The Post passed the Chronicle in circulation. Shocked, the Chronicle braced for a fight. A committee formed to unionize the editorial staff, and the Guild won in a close election. John T. Jones, Jesse’s nephew who had come into authority by then, in 1960 announced, very suddenly, that Steven was hired, replacing Walter, who was given a senior executive title. No flaming liberal, Steven is a man of practical, often progressive values. He himself summarized his tenure at the Chronicle after his firing, for Newsweek : “Our socalled liberalism would hardly meet the test in the rest of the country. We backed medicare, the U.N., civil rights, the tax cut, and LBJ, but we opposed abolition of were strong supporters of Gov. John B. Connally. a conservative Democrat.” This latter fact led Steven’s Chronicle into frequent jousting, more than once acrimonious, with Sen. Ralph Yarborough. But the context in which Steven’s editorship was tested was not “the rest of the country,” but a Houston whose conservatives, and reactionaries as well, were accustomed to a Chronicle they could count on. That the city as a whole responded well is proved by the Chronicle’s circulation gains, even as its prices were being increased, until it became first in the state; but the community on the right did not like what was happening, and there was plenty of cocktailparty grumbling. Steven brought in Bob Cochran, a Georgetown University graduate of liberal values, March 18, 1966 3
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