Ken Towery

ken-toweryKen Towery was born in Smithville, Miss. south of Tupelo. His family moved to Texas when he was one. He was in the military and attended Texas A&M, but he contracted tuberculosis and was forced to find work.

He became a reporter and eventually managing editor for The Cuero Daily Record as well as the city’s weekly paper. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for a series of stories exposing fraud and corruption in the Texas Veterans Land Program.

Towery also served as assistant to the chancellor, the University of Texas System, in 1976-79; Assistant Director, and Deputy Director, of the United States Information Agency in 1969-76; press secretary, and then administrative assistant, to Senator John Tower in 1963-69; Capitol correspondent with Newspapers, Inc., in 1956-63.

He attended Southwest Texas Junior College and Texas A&M University. He entered the U.S. Army as a volunteer during World War II and served in the Philippines where he was captured and imprisoned for 31/2 years. He was awarded the Purple Heart, the Presidential Unit Citation with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and other decorations.

He was born Jan. 25, 1923.

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Please tell us your name and when and where you were born.

Towery:  I’m Roland Kenneth Towery and I was born in a place called Smithville, Mississippi, which is in Monroe County and it’s south of Tupelo, not very far south, but a little ways south of Tupelo.  Anyhow the family moved to Texas the following year when I was…  Well, that’s been 60-some odd years. No!  Good grief, 80-some odd years ago.  Excuse me.  Anyhow, I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and went to school there in Raymondville.  We had a farm, I grew up on a farm out southeast of town and we did not always live there but we moved there when I was about five years old and that’s where I grew up essentially, was on that farm.

Now that was in, I don’t know, but I remember that after we had moved to the farm is when they had the, when Roosevelt got elected and I must confess we had, we had a few people around Texas at that time, one of them was a guy named Carter Snooks.  He lived down in Refugio and was publisher of that paper down there.  And he thought that when Roosevelt died there wasn’t any more presidents.  Whereas I think when Roosevelt was born there was no more presidents.  He was just, he was a Roosevelt man.  And anyhow, he well, anyhow, that’s—

How did I get into newspaper work?  Well, I don’t know really.  I would have to ramble a bit on that because I was going to school.  I was at A&M at the time but I had a case of arrested tuberculosis, I mean I had a case of tuberculosis, I’ll put it like that and it ultimately became arrested.  But I, I was, and they wouldn’t let me go — They sent me away when I was at A&M.  They sent me to, I had to go to Waco every 90 days for x-rays and so I went up there—

Louise Towery: He was going to school on the GI Bill after the War.

TOWERY: Yes. And so I went up there to Waco, I think it was Waco at that time, well I know it was, yes.  And they had a, that’s where I had to go to get checked out anyhow.

Louise Towery: It was Kerrville.

TOWERY:         No.  I’m talking about Waco when I was still at Waco, I mean I was at A&M.  Now, at A&M I’ve already left that country down yonder.  And anyhow we can go back to that, but I, there’s a question here that says how did you get into the newspaper work?  And that’s what I’m rambling on.  And so I went to up there to Waco and they told me that you can’t go back to school and the TB had spread in both lungs and I said well, can I go back even to wrap up things and leave?  They said no you can’t go on the campus again.  And said we’ll take care of all that.  Well, anyhow, so that’s what happened and I was, they said essentially, that then this proposition ended up said that I could not go back to school anywhere until I had established a work load or work preference or something, someplace.  And so that is where I was.

That was the situation I was in when I got a call from the Cuero Record, the publisher down there wanted somebody that could fill in and do the farm work and all that stuff.  Well I had a, I had studied soil chemistry in classes in school and I knew about soils and whatever and so I went on and became a reporter then for the Cuero Record. We had a weekly paper there, too.  We had a daily paper and then every Wednesday they had a weekly paper.  And what it was just an expanded, it was the paper that had the grocery ads in it and all that stuff.  It went out to the countryside and covered the countryside and a lot of people took it.

Well, anyhow, it was a bad situation and I couldn’t go back to school and I was waiting and not knowing what to do and Jack Howerton, the publisher there at the paper, and he called or I think he’s the one that called and asked me if I would go to work there and I said went down there anyhow to try it.  I had an old, I had a, my desk was a little deal that had a, I could put my feet around it and it was just a, you know, a wooden thing with a typewriter on it and that was.

I didn’t even know how to type but my wife taught me how to type and so that’s where I, and so I went there and I started to run through the keyboard and the “f” flew off. I remember that to this day.  The “f” flew off and flew on the floor. And I got it and I finally scrounged around in all that paper and put it back on, put some glue on it and put it back on there.  And so that’s the typewriter that I used for quite some time.  Then I got a Remington, a big Remington writer.

But anyhow, that’s I guess how I got into the business.  I remember very well that one day —  and this may answer some of the other questions in the thing.  But one day I was walking, while all that period was going on, I was walking over to the courthouse to, you know, see what went on like we did in those days.  You was sorta like a damned old hound you’d go around at night and —  I mean go around in the morning and find out what went on at night.  And so that’s —  and I saw a squirrel, a ground squirrel, and it ran and stood up and looked at me and then ran down in a hole.

And I was thinking at that time, because I was still worried about well what am I gonna do?  Am I going back to school?  They finally, finally cleared me to go back to school if I wanted to.  And so in the meantime I had started to work at the Cuero Record.

And so I looked at that squirrel and I thought to myself, well the affairs of men are probably more important than the affairs of squirrels.  Whether or not that’s true or not is beyond me.  I had in mind when I started out in school, I intended to go and get a master’s degree in science and then become a professor at some obscure school and study soil chemistry.  And that’s essentially where I was headed when all, ever so often I would have to go into the hospitals.

And so I, the first ten years I was back here I think I spent five years of it in hospitals, various kinds.  And so that, anyhow was where I was when I sort of halfway made up my mind that I would go ahead and stay in school, I mean stay with my job and give up my school and you know I can’t really complain because the business has been relatively good to me.

And I, anyhow, it’s done.  What is done is done.  And that is the way I think that I —  was the reason I got back in, or stayed in the business.

And then it wasn’t long after that that Howerton came in to the paper —  he had a thing about drinking.  He did not like for people to drink on the job.  And I couldn’t understand it.  But he didn’t and we had a guy, a guy named Harry Putnam who was the managing editor and he was also the head of, you know, he grew up with Jack Howerton.  They went to school together and evidently Jack had inherited the paper from his father who founded it in the beginning, right in oh, 18-something or other, I don’t know what.  But I know that Jack, he had this — Anyhow, Putnam would tend to drink and he —  and Jack didn’t like it.

So after I left there and came to Austin for more money and anyhow, Harry, I mean Jack told Harry, said if you don’t quit drinking I’m going to fire you.  Well, Harry didn’t think he would ever do that because they grew up together and whatever.  So he just kept on.

Well, one day, and in those days we had, the front page went upstairs and when it came down the editor checked everything and then okayed it.  Well there was a little bitty story on the front page, a little bitty story that said Harry Putman had resigned his position as managing editor.  And that’s the first time he had seen it because he didn’t think that … so he just promptly went out and shot himself.

He was going, the story was that he was going to go to Galveston and take the cure but he never got to Galveston.  He took a .45 and put it in his head and then blew his brains out.  And so Jack Howerton came up here —  I’m just talking now about general things.  Howerton came up here to the, we met down in the, we used to have, they had started a thing called the Headliner’s Club at that time and it was, it met down in the Driskill Hotel in a corner of the Driskill and it was one of these key deals where you had to go in and all this stuff.

So I, Jack came up here and we went in there and he told me all about it and he wanted, he wanted to, you know, I don’t know why he just had to, he had to unburden himself and tell somebody about it.  And then that meant, of course, he had to get somebody else, which —  And I still had a little bitty piece of the paper and he had told me that if I would come back, that’s when he, in fact he told me, I guess; said if I would come back to the paper that he would arrange his will so that I could buy it, that I would have first option on it, which I should have done.  But I didn’t do it because I just did not believe that I physically could endure that any more. And so I didn’t go.

Because up here it was a strange thing that, we didn’t—  We didn’t have—  sometimes we worked hard when the Legislature was in session, worked very hard, but when the Legislature was not in session it was, you know, kinda easy work really; not a whole lot to do.

Cash:         Were you working at the Austin-American?

Towery: Yes.  Yes, worked at the Austin-American.

Louise Towery:  This was after he won the Pulitzer Prize.  He was made editor because of Perry’s drinking and then he broke the land scandal story and won the Pulitzer Prize and then Austin American-Statesman offered him a good job at that time much better salary than what he was making and he thought he would learn more about government, I guess, I don’t know.  Anyway, we moved to Austin and he worked here at the Capital Bureau, but Austin paper.

CASH: Elaborate a little bit on how you got onto that story about the land deal?

TOWERY:         Well, yes.  Although it is a little fuzzy to me, but I, I —  the first thing I heard of it I was, like you do you make your rounds, and I went by the District Clerk’s Office and the girl that was in there, his secretary I guess.  She asked me a question and she said “Ken what was going on out at the Country Club last night?”  And I said, “I don’t know, I haven’t heard anything about it.”  She said, “Oh they had a big meeting out there I understand.”

And so I put out the word in our office.  We had a totally black Stereotyping crew and a totally brown or Hispanic make-up crew and a white Linotype crew.  They had four Linotypes I think.  And anyhow, and then we had the, you know, downstairs and all that stuff.  But so it was during that period, I think, that I heard another guy behind us, a fellow named Webber, came over and gave me a letter that he had gotten and one of his hands, or hired hands, brought it to him and said “I got this letter the other day and said I don’t know anything about it.”  Said will you look at it and tell me what — So he looked at it and said, “Well it looks to me like you bought some land somewhere” and the guy said, “Well I ain’t bought no land. I don’t know of any.”

And so anyhow that, while all that was going on, while I was feeling around so to speak, then I found out that the County Attorney, a guy named Wylie Cheatham, they were already on it.  They had heard about it and he was checking it out so to speak.  And so that was essentially the beginnings of that whole thing, I guess.  Because I, I don’t know which came first or whatever came first, but I remember certain things.  I do remember going by that office and asking, you know I was just checking in, you know, said what’s going on during the night and that I ought to be aware of.  And she in turn asked me, said, you know, what — She didn’t know anything but said I’d like to know what happened out there at the Country Club last night because it was a—

And then when I said that I had told, later I talked to Elvin Wright, he was sort of the head of the black Stereotyping group and we had about three people, three or four that were in that crew but he was, he spoke for them.  And so anyhow I asked him and he told me oh, I guess a week later, he said, “Mr. Towery, I haven’t found out anything,” said, “all I know is they had a meeting out there and they talked land, they talked about a lot of land.”

And it was, you know, a situation that normally black people do not go to the country clubs in Cuero in those days, at that time, anyhow.  And although that wasn’t what intrigued me about it all was the fact that there were black people involved, that didn’t happen because there were also Mexicans and whites and everybody else involved.  But so it, I wasn’t — But the only thing is I asked that question and the answer I got was that it was, you know, they were talking about land.

CASH: So how did you start digging into this story?  Just shoe leather, talking to people or did you use documentary evidence?

TOWERY: Well the first thing I did was just shoe leather I guess, was, but then I came to Austin and I visited with Bascom Giles and I went in there and he, his secretary told me, because it was around noontime, and because I had been over to the Capitol, I had asked the guy that was in prison camp with me, a fellow named K. L. Berry who was then Adjutant General of the State of Texas, and he was a well-known, I think he was then a Brigadier General and he was Adjutant of the State National Guard.

CASH: And Bascom Giles was the Land Commissioner?

TOWERY: Bascom Giles was Land Commissioner.  So I asked Berry, I said, “Do you know of any honest people up here that I can talk to?” And he said, “Well, I don’t know. I just, I don’t mess around with politics very much,” said “The only one that I know of in this town that’s an honest man I think, is a guy named Cavness.” I forgot what his initials were, but anyhow, this Cavness, C-a-v-n-e-s-s, I guess it was.  But so I went and talked with him and told him where I got his name and whatever.

Louise Towery: Excuse me. Wasn’t he Comptroller at that time?  Or was—


Louise Towery: Okay.

TOWERY:         He was — Who?

Louise Towery:         Cavness.

TOWERY:         No, he was not Comptroller, he was State Auditor.

Louise Towery:         Oh, okay.

TOWERY:         And so, but he said well I don’t know — He said “There’s something going on over there, I don’t know what’s going on over there.”  He said “All we know is we look at the books and they look good but there’s something, we hear stories about things going on over there.”

And he said if you really want to know anything about the history of the area and we were then talking about a place in Zavala County where there had been an awful lot of sales and stuff and I, so what had happened was that the promoters or whatever had, they’d just buy a big ranch and sub-divide it up and then go around and sell it to all these guys and they wouldn’t sell it to them really, they’d just get their discharge papers and all that—

Because at that time they had a deal where the whole thing was all in one and they did that theoretically to save money so the veteran could just sign his name and present his discharge papers and stuff and get on with the work.  And so that was the situation and I went, so I went over to the land, I mean over to the records, record deeds and began looking and I found, you know, all sorts of stuff in there.  And so I, I used some of it for a veteran down there, I said in case he’s interested he may want to know that he owns “x” number of acres in Zavala County and it is valued at a certain value and stuff like that and, for him.  And so I just left it like that.

But anyhow, I came back from when I told the girl that I wanted to talk to Bascom Giles and she said “Well, the General,” they called him general, said “the General may not even be in this afternoon.”  And I told her, “Well you tell him, when you call him tell him where I’m from, what I want to talk with him about.”  And I would guess that within 20 minutes he showed up.  And he had everything all laid out.  He had the guy that I was concerned about, the fellow whose name, who had got the letter, down in, worked for Webber, brought it and he sent someone to get the files and just showed me everything was in order.  The guy had made application for the paper, I mean for the land, and it was all there and everything.

CASH: Except that the guy back in Cuero hadn’t done any of that.

TOWERY: No, he didn’t know anything.

Louise Towery: He had signed stuff but he—

CASH: But he didn’t know what he was signing.

Louise Towery:         He didn’t know what he was doing.  He was illiterate.

TOWERY:         He signed and he gave him his discharge papers—

CASH:         That was the scam?

TOWERY:         Yeah. Sure it was a scam.

CASH:         That they were getting all these veterans to apply for this land…

TOWERY:         Yeah, yeah.

CASH:  …and they never took advantage of it.

TOWERY:         Well a lot of times they didn’t.  And sometimes, though, but you can’t do this, you can’t tell this when you’re writing any kind of a story, I guess.  But like we had one guy, I remember, he said, “Oh I knew there wasn’t no land up there.”  He said, “I knew all that, but they told me, they said well, said we got down to the facts they said they’d give me a new set of tires for my car and so I signed up.” And so he knew, you know he was just as guilty as anybody but you can’t, you can’t bring that out and make it the headlines or anything.

Well, I guess I should have, but I at least mentioned it that it had happened.  But in the process you run into all sorts of things like this and I went down there one time into a black bar, if you want to call it that a beer joint, down in East Austin, I mean East Cuero and I just, I didn’t have any, I didn’t know any better, I just bellied up to the bar and all these guys were in there, Shorty Robinson and he was a black too, but he was the one that, he was the con man that rounded up everybody.  And we had a guy named, oh, I think Ledbetter, I believe it was that, that got racked up for about 80 — well he was the, oh what do you call it?  Notary Public and he just notarized everything, said they were all here and they all gave me their names and all and he signed off on them.  Well, it was all a fraud and he got, I don’t know, he got indicted about 80 times, but they wiped, let him wash it all out because they kinda figured well, you know, there’s so many bigger fish to fry that he doesn’t really matter.  And so there were a lot of things that went on during all that stuff…

CASH:         When you started writing the stories…

TOWERY:         Yes.

CASH:         …what sort of reaction did you get from folks in Cuero?

TOWERY:         Well, very, very well.  Except from, you know, except from the usual ones that phone and don’t leave there name and don’t do anything, just anonymous type stuff.  But as far as, I think because of the story, because of the story angle and we had, we had the Legion Posts and all these people pass resolutions supporting me and whatever and the VFW over in Georgetown[1] and whatever and well it just got to be the point where these people take advantage, are taking advantage of these black people and they didn’t like that.  And the fact that these black people were veterans, they didn’t like that either.

And so it, to me, I think was sort of heartwarming, I guess that the reaction I got and now you know we did get some that, in fact I wrote one column and it was aimed at the district judge but it didn’t name the district judge but it just alluded to a dog with a bone that drags the bone up and buries it on the front lawn and he buries it because he knows where it is and he can go back and dig it up any time he wants to.

So the guy that was involved in all this that they never did, never did send him away or anything, was a guy named Booster Hagan and he was, you know, he was as guilty as sin but one of the grand jurors told me, said our problem was, said we knew he was involved with it or Pete Unster[2] wouldn’t be involved in it if he wasn’t involved in it.  And so he, but the problem was that Booster would, they couldn’t trace the money back to his bank account.  They couldn’t trace the money anywhere after…

You know they could trace the money on all these other guys but not to Booster.  And the Attorney General John Ben Shepherd got all involved in it and this was his thing, they…  He was the only one, I mean at that time in Texas, the Attorney General could go back into bank accounts and the, a district attorney could not do that, but the Attorney General could.  And so they had to, he had whatever, I guess he had the power to do that, which he did and that’s another thing he presented the case against Bascom but they couldn’t make it stick.  Now…

Louise Towery: This is Booster Hagan?

CASH: But Bascom Giles was—

Louise Towery: Yeah.

TOWERY:         Oh, yeah.

CASH:  …indicted.

TOWERY:         Oh, yeah, Bascom was indicted and he went to prison.  And fact is I did a story on him in prison.  I was going to go to Livingston in East Texas to do a story on the Alabama Coushatta Indians and they, at that time, they were all upset and they didn’t want to be moved from whatever division of the State that they were under, Human Welfare or something like that over into something else that they were afraid that they would, they would lose some money in the process.

So they had a big pow-wow, big meeting about it down there and anyhow, I shouldn’t roam around too much, but I will say that on, at that particular thing I had a story, I mean a picture, I have an old Leica camera.  This was in 1950s and I have a, this camera that I used and of course I didn’t have a company camera or anything like that.  I just had my own camera and what happened in it was that evidently a cog went wrong on it and I took a whole bunch of pictures all on the first frame and, but the thing I remember about it and then I’ll get back on the Bascom thing.  But I remember this because there was an old Indian there, an old man and he must have been in his 90s.  He had his headdress or he could get it.  He went back in the house and got the headdress, put it on for me.  And he had a little grandson that he wanted in the picture and I said all right, because I figured I could cut that out if I wanted to.  But anyhow, he brought that little grandson and stood right by and the little grandson… At that time Davy Crockett was a big thing and here was Davy Crockett bashing Indians with his rifle on this T-shirt and here was the old man with that little kid with that T-shirt on of Davy Crockett and I thought…

CASH: And he had his full headdress on?

TOWERY:         Yeah.  And I thought it would be a great picture and it would have, but I… Anyhow, all the damn things went, no dice.

Anyhow, on the way over there I stopped and told the warden, the constable who I was and I told him, I said I’d like to talk to Bascom Giles if he’ll talk with me and I said I will understand it if he will not talk.  There’s no reason why he should.  And he said well, we’ll see and so within just a few minutes here showed up Bascom.  And he had long stories, of course, like all crooks do that I, you know, and I, you know, run into them later on when I was doing Parole Board and stuff, but you know “everybody out there is doing it I don’t know why they pick on me.  Don’t why everybody would pick on me; everybody is doing this.”  And I said well, I told Bascom, I said “I have done as good as I could” and I said “if you know of anything well just name them” You know, he had already been sentenced, he’s got his time.  And he said, “Oh, no, it wouldn’t do any good.”  He said, “They’re all doing it.”

And that was all I could get out of him: They’re all doing it.  And so and, you know, in politics they may all do it I don’t know.  But that was the thing I got out of Bascom and I came back and wrote a story and then the AP picked up the story and, I don’t know why, but…

CASH:         How long? When you started writing the stories in Cuero?

TOWERY:         Uh-huh.

CASH:         Was the Record a member of the Associated Press?  Do you remember?

TOWERY:         No.

CASH:         How did the rest of the media pick up on your coverage?

TOWERY:         No, we were United Press.

CASH:         UP.  Okay.

TOWERY:         UP.  And—

CASH:         So did you and Jack put it out on the wire?

TOWERY:         Well, no we, but UP wrote and got, they gave me, in fact I’ve got it around here someplace, I think the first check I ever got from them, $4.  And what they were trying to do is just get someone to cover them down there and so when I had anything really big or anything like that, I would cover it with them, but otherwise it was just us.

And for a while that’s the way it was and then other people, Sam Kinch with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram came down there.  Raymond Brooks came, Raymond, they didn’t handle it right.  It was mostly a sympathetic story to Bascom but that’s all right.  That’s the way they saw it.  But he, and there was a lot of other stories too that, but and AP finally picked it up I guess, but it was basically a UP story type thing.  And but well, I’ve talked too damn much on this already.

CASH:         And who decided to enter it as a Pulitzer entry?

TOWERY:         Oh…

CASH:         Was that UP?  Was that Jack Howerton?

TOWERY:         Howerton.  It was Howerton.  I told him at that time I said “Oh, Jack for crying out loud, you know, that’s”…  I figured that was way above our league and anything like that.  He told me, said, “It’s just as good a story as a lot of that crap that they use.”

And he was right because later they had that Janet Cooke thing in the Washington Post and then they had, you know all that stuff that just… And that was the only time that I could remember that I thought if I could give this thing back I would give it back.  But I didn’t know who to give it to.  And you know if I did I felt it would just be a self-serving gesture and be of no, it wouldn’t change a thing in the world because the… Things changed somewhere before the Janet Cooke thing, it became essentially a political deal.  It was not…

CASH:         You mean the Pulitzer awards?

TOWERY:         The Pulitzer deal was, and I remember very well I talked with a, I’ve got a book of his here, in here somewhere a guy, he worked for the New York Times at that time, and I can’t remember what his name was now, Krupp or something like that, maybe not.  But anyhow, he remembered it and he remembered me and he said, “Oh, yeah, I remember that story, said, “it got down to the difference between the Sun Times and you.”  And he said “and we went with you because of, you know, we thought it was a better story.”

And, but that was the, you know, that was a long time ago as I say.  But I remember that very well …

CASH:         How long before the Austin paper came calling?

TOWERY:         Oh, I don’t know, it was several days.

Louise Towery:         You mean before they offered him a job?

CASH:         Before they offered him a job.

TOWERY:         Oh, oh, that — That was quite a while.  I was up in the, right away I went to the hospital again and I had to go to the hospital for a long time, a year that time.  And but anyhow, while I was there, the, I don’t remember when it was, but they asked me would I come up here; would I be interested in it.  A guy named Harry Province from Waco was a big wheel in the—

Louise Towery:         Fentress.

TOWERY:         Fentress, yeah, you’re right, Fentress was the name of it.  Fentress and he had a friend, I mean he had a partner that was with it for a long time and they split up and Fentress took Austin, Waco, and Port Arthur and the other guy took all the rest of them.  And the other guy was a great friend of Lyndon Johnson’s.  Well, you know, Fentress was too for that matter.  But…

CASH:         How long did you stay at the Austin paper?

TOWERY:         Sixteen years; too long.

CASH:         Did you get tired of newspaper work?  Did you get tired of that paper?

TOWERY:         Well, I got tired of that paper because it became apparent to me very quick that I would never be allowed to say anything adverse about Lyndon Johnson and that just was not the way, that’s not the way Howerton taught me, or the way I…if I had…

CASH:         Was that a dictum that came down or was it just a—

TOWERY:         Well, it wasn’t a dictum it was just an understanding.

CASH:         Understanding.

TOWERY:         Yeah.  That, that, you know, and when Lyndon, I’ll swear when he was here I covered him all the time.  I went out to the ranch and covered him out there and stuff like that, but…  And I always thought he was a hypocritical, no-good, so and so but now other people have different… particularly around this town.  Good gracious around this town, you know, he hung the moon because he was good for business.  And so that, that is basically it, I think.  But those of us who were…

CASH:         Did you ever have a story spiked because of the content?

TOWERY:         No, I never had one except I had one knock around for months between the lawyers and all that stuff and it had to deal, it dealt with at that time the, they were, these, they were starting, I’ll put it like that, they were starting oh, those things they call water engineering districts, anyhow, it’s the district that has the power to tax and do all that stuff and the engineering …  I can’t…

CASH:         Municipal Development District or…

TOWERY:         Yeah.  Well, one of those.  All right, and I, but the editor, a guy named Charley Green, and if I had known, if I had thought of it, I would have gone on to Harry Province and told him about the deal because he would have, he would have run it.  But Charley Green, he was friends to all these people and he had a great rapport with them and Ed Clark told me once, one time when we had a girl, named Nola Smith, I don’t know what her name was at the time, but at one time when I first knew her she was Smith.   And she used to have a…

Louise Towery:         She was married to Judge Gee at that time.

TOWERY:         Oh, yeah, that’s right.  She was married to a guy named Gee then. And he was a district clerk, I he was a federal judge, you know, from, on the circuit that set out of New Orleans, I think.  But anyhow, she and he were married and they used to have a costume party out there.  We were always invited to it…

Louise Towery:         For Halloween.

TOWERY:         Yeah, for Halloween, yeah.  And we would go and we never wore costumes, neither Louise nor I, we just went.  And you know people were dressed up in costumes and whatever kind.  So old Ed Clark was there this particular night and he too didn’t have a costume on.  So we ended up, he and I, sitting over in a corner drinking Scotch and he told me all about that whole damn business about the land scandals.

And he said, so we get back to this guy Booster Hagan again.  And Ed told me, said, “Well, Booster came to see us,” meaning us the law firm.  And he said “I got all these guys involved in this thing so I figure I ought to take care of their lawyers’ fees.  And he said will you handle it?”

And at the time Ed Clark and a guy named Looney and guy named Morehead were the three big wheels in it.  And Donald Thomas was just a, Donald Thomas and young Looney were just little go-fers in the group.  And, but and he told me he said, “Booster came and talked to us and he told us that I got all these people involved in this and I think the only thing I can do is take care of their lawyers’ fees, would you handle it?”  And so Ed said, “So I told him yeah and he said we did all right.”

Well I know he did all right.  They did great, but they kept, they kept those guys out of prison, most of them anyhow.  And they kept and they didn’t, they didn’t handle Bascom’s case.  A guy named Clint Small handled that one. But they handled the Booster and all those people that they, you know.  But anyhow that… And I was, it was so late in the game for anything like that to come up, but it did.

CASH:         What prompted you to leave the American?  The Austin American?

TOWERY:         Well, I had made up my mind, really by then that I was gonna go and a guy named Jimmie Banks that worked for the Dallas Morning News, he had been in contact with, I didn’t know it, but Senator Tower had, John Tower, had essentially put out the word that he was looking for a press man to a guy named, I forgot what his name was, doesn’t matter now, but anyhow, he was there with me.  But he had told me he was gonna leave.

And so Tower was looking for somebody and he was in touch with Jimmie about it and Jimmie told him, at least he told me later, he said that well no, said I’m all right now and I don’t want to move.  Said you might want to talk to Ken, said he’s been making noises like he might want to move or might be, and Jack had already been up here and talked with me about coming down there and I just did not feel like I could physically handle the job is what I told him and so this thing— I went, finally, then. Tower called me and I strung him out for a while but he finally told me, said I’ve gotta know and I understand that and I said well all right I’ll go.  So I did.  I went up there and, you know, so one thing led to another and that’s about the way it was.

CASH: And did you move the family to Washington?

TOWERY: Yes they came.  They didn’t come right away but they…

Louise Towery: We stayed until the kids got out of that term of school.  He went in January and we went up the first of June.  We had a 14-year old in junior high and one in the second grade.

Louise Towery:  . . . he’d ask where we met and stuff, and that was the pattern, he… The toughest time was when we had a boy, the baby was a boy, he wasn’t a year old and he had to go back for about a year and when he came home, the first time they allowed him home, the baby didn’t know him;  he was scared of him.  That was the toughest.  And they did a test, he never showed threw a but he had something and they didn’t know if it was TB or fungus or what because he never drew a positive test.  So they gave him, they took gastric juices and gave them to a guinea pig, that’s the way they tested this and then they would test the guinea pig after six weeks.  Well, we sweated out that six weeks and he might get to come home if it came back negative.  Guess what?  The guinea pig died.

CASH: So that meant you were pregnant?

Louise Towery:  [Laughter].  Yeah.  Something.

TOWERY:         Yeah.

CASH: Well working on the other side of the press release must have been a jolt after being that snoopy investigative reporter for all those years.

TOWERY: Yeah, it was a, it was different and of course, it didn’t matter what, you know, as far as we were concerned we didn’t think it, there was only 32 Republicans then and so we didn’t really figure. And they had told us when we first got there, they, and this works to this day.  But anyhow, at that time they had a, we had a thing in Texas called the Tennessee Gas Transmission Company.  It became, later, you know, it went through all the transitions and whatever.  And I don’t know what it is now.  But it has, at that time it was a big power in Texas and they had an airplane that ran regularly back and forth to Texas to Washington.  And it, there were a lot of Congressmen, but we were told when I first got there that it was a no-no for any Republican because if you are a Republican and you get your name in the paper— But the Democrats did it all the time and I said, well what is the deal?  I don’t understand. Well, that’s just the way it is.  And so—  But that was the way it was at that time and they, they flew back and forth every week and I didn’t, none of our crew flew on it, but and the only thing is you could get a trip back to Texas if you wanted one.

CASH: So were you working for John Tower when John Kennedy was assassinated?

TOWERY:         Yes.   Yes, I remember very well when he, when they took his body from the Office Building, came down to the, well, the street between, it must be, must be 2nd Street.  So Constitution and, anyhow, it went down Constitution and it came to, well it out of the Capitol, came to Constitution and turned and went down, went all the way to…

Louise Towery:  Arlington.

TOWERY:         Arlington, yeah.  And so I, yeah, I saw all that stuff.  And I don’t, and yeah, I even talked to the Warren Commission about that.  Because I never have, even to this day, I never have figured out all the angles that were present in that thing.  And one of which was just before, well before the assassination we got a, we had a visitor from Harvard, he was a professor of something at Harvard, and the senator wasn’t there so I visited with him.  And he really didn’t want to talk to anybody except the senator. He said it was important.

And so, but he did tell me what the story was.  He said “the story is going all around within the Cuban community in Florida that Khrushchev and Kennedy have made a deal and that as far as America is concerned we will not put our missiles into Turkey and they will take their missiles out of Cuba.”  And, he said they were just, there was a whole lot of Cubans that were upset by that deal, they didn’t want any deal made and whatever.

Well, anyhow, so while we were waiting for the senator to get back and talk to this guy, Kennedy was killed and I’ve never figured out even if the stuff I had had any bearing on any of it.  But he said that the whole Cuban community was just all upset by this new information and that, and that, I mean he didn’t mention Oswald’s name at that time or anything.  But he was, he was concerned about it enough that he had come down there to talk to us.

And the reason they picked on Tower, I guess, because when we, when the Cuban Missile Crisis came and we were going to invade Cuba and all that stuff and they had these people down there and Bobby Kennedy came out and said something about we had never done anything like that and you know, he just made a big point of the fact that they had nothing to do with it.

And we got a letter and some guy was just furious and said “I know that’s not true because I was involved in it,” said “I was the pilot and I,” and there was some, I’ve forgot, “38 or them or something” and he said, told us what they were supposed to do and everything and so I took it all, this was early on and I took it to a guy that Dirksen who was our minority leader at the time, and I wanted to, good gracious, this was important news I thought, call this guy up here and talk with him and find out about that thing.

And Dirksen had a staff man, I can’t remember his name now, but I could look it up I guess.  But anyhow, he used to work for the New York Times.  He covered the, if I remember he covered the Franco thing when Franco was coming to power and they had that big civil war over there.  And anyhow he was with the Times when he went over there.  But he was a Dirksen man and he said, “Well, no sir,” said “they’re not gonna do,” said “I’m going to talk with the legal and Dirksen about this” and said if it was anything like that they wanted to break it.  In other words they wanted to get the news out of it.  And so I said well, I guess because I had already given it, them the letter.

And I told Tower about it and Tower said well, if Dirksen’s involved, well then, of course Tower was just a freshman then.  He was just; he’d been there a couple of years and so he said, you know, let them have it.  So anyhow, then the U.S. News & World Report came out and they had all, you know, a big spread on the thing and about all this stuff and about you know, the pilots being involved and all that stuff and Kennedy’s words about they didn’t have anything to do with it.  “You lying son-of-a-bitch.”  Anyhow, that’s just—

CASH:         Is that one time you wished you were back on the other side of the typewriter?

TOWERY:         Yeah.  I wished, I would liked to have been back there and ran with that story.  But I knew that I would never have had it in the first place had we not been where we were. Because some guy just wrote us and said that’s just a bunch of crap.  And said, “Because I know because I was involved.”  And he went on to tell us how many it was and what they were doing and what they were supposed to do and it was during that Bay of Pigs thing.  So anyhow…

CASH:         So here we are in 2008—

TOWERY:         Yeah.

CASH: Forty years since you worked for John Tower, more than 40 years and what do you think of the state of journalism today?  Are you pleased, are you disappointed?

TOWERY:         Well, I really, I guess disappointed is the better word for it although I try to see you know, what goes on and all that stuff and I know that I probably couldn’t do any better job if I was there.

I can understand why people say that it’s so one-sided because the way they see it, it is.  But I know full-well that a lot of that one-sidedness comes from the other side just recognizing a story when they see one.  And I don’t think that our side, when I say our side, I mean I don’t think the conservatives generally do recognize and understand a good story and I think they do, I think that they are capable of it.  I don’t mean that, because after all, you know, Howerton was, he was as conservative an individual as one could ever ask for and so I could not say that they don’t recognize good stories because he knew what was happening there.

CASH:         Well do you believe that management and newspaper owners are keeping those stories from being told?

TOWERY:         Well, I don’t necessarily think that; I think it’s just a difference of opinion about what would make a good story.  I think that, and you know, I have a daughter out there at Floydada and she’s editor of the paper, publisher of it.  And she’s just as critical as I am if more so, if not more so, I should say.  But I don’t know, I think that, I must confess, I’m very confused about that general thing and I try to understand, but we’ve got guys here, good gracious some of them, I remember when, we’ve got a UPI man here now and, well, I say UP, it used to be UP and UPI and so forth, and I don’t know he’s just, he’s more bitter than I am about, he just says that they’re just left-wingers and you can’t trust them.  And he’s a former newsman and whatever and he knows, I should not say that he knows more about it than I do, but he certainly is no neophyte.

And I don’t know, I… It troubles me, it troubles me a great deal in the sense that…  The thing that troubled me most of all was way back there when I worked at this paper and they started a television station here, KLBJ they called it.  And but that, you know, they could be, they’d come down there at our press conferences, we’d have press conference at noon and they would hustle around and get favorable spots for their cameras and all that stuff and then it would be on the 6 o’clock news while we’re just getting stuff in print for the next morning.  And that, and I couldn’t understand why in the hell that newspapers tolerated that business as much as they did.  Then I find out well they own it, they own those things.  Belo Corporation for instance, they… And good gracious there’s so many of them that they got a hand in there, they own part of it.

The biggest, you know, you go all over the state they’re like that and so I don’t know whether they are choice of well just wait until they got it all in or what…I don’t really think that there’s any stories that are spiked, shall we say, and the only one that I know of that I had anything to do with was just that one that I talked about earlier and it just, they just knocked around and knocked around with lawyers and whatever.

But it was, it was a dodge when I found out later that they had dodged to keep from doing anything about it because they didn’t want to say then that you can’t do this.

CASH:  Do you think there’s more of a drive for putting something out there even though you don’t have all the facts straight?  That 24-hour news cycle on television and the Internet, it’s a great deal of pressure out there.

TOWERY:  Yes, I think that there is some.  I think that, I don’t know where the pressure… I think maybe it is just flat the pressure that comes from wanting to be first, or something, I don’t know what it is.

But I remember once years ago when I was, I had to go to Dallas to make a speech for some reason and it was back in the period when I had some notoriety.  And I got off the plane and was immediately surrounded by radio people and I was going to go that evening to some thing I thought was the American Dairy Association, ADA, dumb me.  And Howerton told me, said well that’s not the ADA, I couldn’t understand why they were, they’d list themselves as the ADA and just early ACLU, you know, and that’s all in the world it was.  But and anyhow, it was a deal, but that night and all that stuff.  But anyhow, I…  These radio people surrounded me, they were getting little snippets to go with, and in the background I could hear somebody telling a reporter there, when this is over with go to a certain place and do certain things, you know.  And I thought my gosh I just can’t stand this whole damn mess because I was, you know, it’s just not the way I grew up that…But anyhow.

CASH:  If you were speaking to journalism graduates today and giving them a commencement speech, what would you advise them?

TOWERY:         Oh, you know, I don’t know except this that about, and it wouldn’t work because they’d laugh, but what I would tell them perhaps is the same thing that an old Mexican man told me at the 40 Acres Club up here at the University when my boy got to be 18 years old and he’s now 60 or something, 59, whatever.

But I asked that guy, and he used to wait on the tables there, I was by myself and I asked him if he, I said, “Do you have any advice that I can give an 18-year old boy?”  And he said, “Ah, just about the same advice I gave my son when he got to be 18, I guess.”

He said, “Just go slow and watch out for snakes.”

And I think that’s pretty damned good advice.

1 comment to Ken Towery

  • Ken, You told the tape recorder some events you never told me. Picture suggests you
    finally found something you could digest. Wasn’t looking for you, but wanted to
    identify Matt Towery. Any relation ? But now that you near 90 years, can you and your
    bride come northwest ( west of Seattle near Port Townsend on Discovery Bay )and see us ?

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