It’s Saturday, January 23, 2010. We’re at the mid-winter convention of the Texas Press Association and this morning we’re going to have a conversation about Rigby Owen, Sr.
I’m Rigby Owen, Jr., born in 1938 in Ada, Oklahoma.
I’m Willis Webb born in 1937 in Freestone County, Texas.
Cash: And tell us how you knew Rigby Owen, Sr.
Owen: I knew him from birth. My dad started out in the newspaper business as a newspaper carrier and worked his way up in circulation in Oklahoma and in 19, I think it was January of 1942, my dad heard from an Oklahoma friend of his that had moved to Louisiana, he got in the newspaper business, that there was an opening for a job in Opelousas, Louisiana, with a little daily newspaper that had just started up a year earlier. The publisher was drafted into the Marine Corps and was looking for someone to take over the paper. And this particular friend of his had applied, had gone down there but it was not what he wanted so he told my dad about it and my dad called John Thistlethwaite who had started the Daily World in Opelousas, Louisiana, Christmas Day in 1940. I believe it was 1940 and it was an offset newspaper started right out of, this John Thistlethwaite and a friend of his Andre, Andrepont, started right after they got out of college. They couldn’t find a job and so they just got the wild idea to start a newspaper in their hometown and heard about somebody printing something on something called offset. They had no idea what it was. And they went to a gentleman in Texas, I think it was Monahans, had a press, a little offset press that was printing broadsheet offset. They bought that, they sold stock to their friends and neighbors in Opelousas, and by the way Opelousas had two, one-hundred year old weekly newspapers at the time so they were very well established.
As you can well imagine it was all political in Louisiana with the Huey Long era, and they were anti-Long people, the Thistlethwaites were. So they bought this, they bought the press, brought this back to Opelousas. The problem they were having they couldn’t ever figure out how to put a negative halftone offset. That couldn’t be, it just couldn’t be done. Someone told them about a gentleman, I believe it was in Mississippi, that had figured out how to do it.
So they went to Mississippi, met this guy and sure enough he was, he would take the negative and rub either kerosene or coal oil on it and that opened up the film to take this, that you could place a halftone on it, for you know, negative for a picture. And that was a revelation that opened the door to offset pictures. So with that in mind they brought that back to Opelousas and they started this newspaper. Well by then the War had started and they were young, Andrepont left, John was drafted, he was gonna face, facing draft. He joined the Marine Corps to be an Air Corps pilot and they had no one to run the paper and the paper was $10,000 in debt. My dad goes down there, he’s older than John, a little bit older than John and has three children so he’s not eligible for the draft yet so my dad talked to John, John said well I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ll sell you 25 percent interest in the paper and you do what you can.
The next day John leaves for the Marine Corps and within a week there was not a man left in the plant, it was just my dad, my mom and I think three women, and deeply in debt. And Daddy’s in Louisiana where he’d never been before and that’s the Deep South at the moment. And he’s got two competitors but he’s, he was always a hard worker. He got busy with the circulation and John would write him, they would write letters, you know they had all these stockholders, local stockholders, which my dad got, you know, began to meet and they would, as the paper started progressing and was getting a little profitable, they wanted out, you know, give me my money back. So Dad would write John and say John, got three shares of stock, so and so wants to sell them, do you want to buy them? And I’ve got these letters at home. John would write back, Rigby I don’t want any, you buy it if you want it and you just buy the stock, I don’t know if I’m even coming back after the War.
And this took place all during the War that Dad would write John and John never wanted the stock and by the time the War was over, my dad had 51 percent of the stock in the paper. John came back after the War and was looking for a job and my dad got hold of him, said, John this is it. You’re the editor. You need to come back in the paper, you know, you started this paper. And so reluctantly John came back and took over the editorship of the paper.
My dad was always in sales and the business end of it. And by then they had become, the newspaper, the offset had taken over and had become extremely successful and my dad, during the War, even, was, went all over the country giving talks on “What is Offset Newspaper”. No one knew what it was and he would explain it to them and they had a little brochure made up of, which I’ve got copies of. These little mini copies of the Daily World, that explains what offset newspaper is. And so he went all over the country giving talks on what offset newspaper was, which was a great deal for him.
And like I said by the end of the War they had won all these awards in the Opelousas, Louisiana Press Association, he’d become president of the LPA.
And by the time about 1948-49 my brother and I were getting old enough because we, in the beginning we had little newspaper routes. We had, you know, worked in the paper ever since I can remember and my dad didn’t want us to have to grow in Louisiana because there was a little more, little more active action going on down there in gambling and what-have-you than he really wanted us to be that exposed to. So he approached John on a buy or sell arrangement— and told John, said John you need to buy the paper, your family has been here a hundred years. You started this program and here’s what I’ll take for the paper. They had an agreement they had so many days to raise the money and John and his family raised the money and in 1951 we moved to, sold in December I think it was and we wound up moving to El Campo, Texas.
Daddy bought that El Campo News in El Campo, Texas,, which at that time had a competitive paper there called the El Campo Citizen and a Czech paper there. And we were there from 1951 to ’53. My dad sold the paper early in about ’53 and went just kinda brokered newspaper sales until in Conroe, Texas, Montgomery County, the publisher there was trying to fight the open range law. Montgomery County was one of three counties in the state in 1953 that still had open range. And lo and behold if he didn’t get killed, hit a cow one night, killed him. My dad read that in the paper and he made a trip to Conroe and talked to the widow of the publisher and she agreed to sell him the newspaper and that’s how we got to Conroe.
Got there in September of 1953, bought the Conroe Courier, it was a little weekly paper, had a little old flatbed press, print four pages, you know, print two pages, flip it over, print two more pages and like all little old papers back then and even in Opelousas, all these little papers had job printing shop and office supplies. That was just standard equipment in a newspaper back then.
So the paper in Conroe and also in El Campo, were weekly papers, and my dad and, by 1955 he thought the town was going to grow a little faster than it was and took the paper to daily. And it just never, the community never really grew enough and it never really caught on and by 19, I guess by 19, I went off to college and my brother went off to college but about 1960 he took the paper twice a week.
And about that time he bought a little offset press called a Webendorfer. In fact the Webendorfer press was a web offset press and I’ll back up for a moment because in Opelousas he was printing the Daily World was being printed on a little old, virtually a sheet-fed offset press and right after the War, right at the end of the War he read where the Navy had ordered two Webendorfer offset presses to publish newspapers for the Armed Forces overseas and they shipped these presses to Guam, the Island of Guam. And they had this one they never used and it was for sale and my dad bid on it, got the bid for this press, brought it to Opelousas, they didn’t have a place to put it so my dad had bought a lot there and they were trying to build this building and they wound up building the first floor of the building, built a little shed, when the press came in, built this shed over the press so they could print it. And it was a tabloid paper and so that’s what the Webendorfer would print, it was a tabloid sized newspaper and it was a roll-fed paper. And that’s the Daily World was, that was really a big innovation.
The big innovation was a web-fed newspaper coming off a Webendorfer offset press. And that was in 1940 — that should have been about 1947, ’46 or ‘7 that that took place. So they finished that building. Anyway, that’s when he got there.
Later on in Conroe he built a new building there and he had ordered, he had bought a used hot metal press, sheet-fed press for the Conroe Courier,, which was a regular-sized paper and then he had bought an old Webendorfer press and he was going to print little newspapers with it. The one Willis had talked about Galena Park and pick up some extra business and it was a little, it was a web-sheet, web-fed Webendorfer press, offset, virtually like the one he had in Opelousas.
By 1961 I was at LSU. My brother had come back. He had gone to Oklahoma University and he was working at the Courier. I went off to LSU to finish my education and we were printing a little paper called the Fort Bend Mirror, which covered Missouri City, Sugar Land, and Stafford, Texas. The guy that owned it owned a fan company in Missouri City, Tex Fan, and my brother called me and said this little old paper they wanted to sell it and he said you ought to buy that thing.
Well, I, the only money I had, my wife and I happened to have, her dad had died and left her a $10,000 inheritance. And I called these people and they took, they said they’d take, the guy say he’d take $5,000 down and we could just pay it out,, which you can’t do that today. So that’s how I, so I left LSU in my senior year and bought this little paper.
My dad thought I was crazy and here again I had learned from my dad what community service was. That’s, you’ve got to be a worth to the community, so I went to Sugar Land, which is a company town, needless to say, back then. In fact, the year before I got there they were still paying the employees with Imperial Sugar script.
So my very first week I’m there I’m putting the paper to bed and at that point I hadn’t hired, Willis hadn’t come in to be my editor and I get a knock on the door and it’s the general manager of the Sugar Land Shopping Center, which is all owned by Imperial Sugar, you know, Sugar Land Industries. And I thought he was coming down there to look at the ads for Sugar Land Industries, which was about 75 percent of all the advertising in that little paper. No, he didn’t want to look at the advertising, he wanted to look at what was on Page 1 because they wanted to be sure there was nothing on Page, in the news that would impact them adversely.
I looked at him. I was not raised that way. I said, look you can look at anything that you’re buying, but you’re not gonna look at this news until tomorrow when the paper comes out. And so he leaves and I realize this is not good. And so I realize I needed to get a little bit bigger or I’m going broke because if I lost that business then I’m out of business.
So I was printing my paper in Conroe of course at that paper. So I moved to, I found an old friend of mine that I had known in El Campo that was working for the, one of the newspapers in Rosenberg. He was selling advertising. I talked to him. Do you want to come in? I’ll give you a little, I’ll give you a piece of this paper and we’ll expand to Rosenberg, Richmond, you know Rosenberg, we’ll be countywide. And that’s what we did. And that’s pretty much saved the paper. And of course when I go into Rosenberg the, Southern group, is it?
Webb: Southern; yeah.
Owen: Southern Group owned the Herald Coaster there. And they were not happy campers so to, by then, Willis had come, Webb had come to work for me as editor and we were little upstarts and they decided they were going to come and start a new newspaper in Sugar Land, Missouri City…and Stafford. And, they also went to Conroe and started a newspaper to show my dad.
Well, you know, I’m sitting there this is not good news for me and so, but I had, was a good friend of the president of Sugar Land Industries, a guy named Tom James and they had gotten into the schools, the Triad group had gotten in the school system and they were gonna capture all the school news. And the lady that ran the journalism department for the school said you won’t be getting any more school news. We’re gonna give it to the Triad. I didn’t think that was too good so I went and met a couple of school board members and went to a school board meeting and told them this was not quite the way it ought to be with freedom of the press and you know we have always given school news. Fortunately, they were very nice people and they agreed that, you know, it was for everybody.
So, then I went to see my friend Tom James one day and told him that I could use his help. He looked at me and it turned out, we both went to the same church there in Sugar Land because I lived in Sugar Land, and he said, he picked the phone up and called the general manager of the Industries and said you will advertise in nothing but the Fort Bend Mirror. Well, that was the end of the Triade. They got no business because it was over with them. And the little paper they tried to start in Conroe never got, I don’t think they ever made the first issue.
So that was about ’62 and by 1963, my dad, w e were putting out a larger paper than my dad was putting out in Conroe because we were bigger, we were hustling more, had to make it. But my dad always had trouble with keeping good ad people, he was kinda getting burned out. So, and my brother did not like selling advertising. So, they needed me in Conroe so at that point I, in June of ’63, I moved back to Conroe to take over publishing the Conroe Courier. And by that time Willis had been on with us in the Fort Bend Mirror and the first year we got there we won virtually every award they had to give at the Gulf Coast Press Association.
So my dad realized then that maybe I could fit in. So I go back to Conroe and Willis takes over running the Fort Bend Mirror. And when I get to Conroe my dad, we— Always there’s been political corruption in Montgomery County for years and my dad had always fought it and so we got in many political fights and he always was of the opinion you’ve got to keep clean government and don’t worry about what, you know, they get their fingers in with, you know, bigger advertisers but you can’t let that bother you if you’re doing the right thing. This was so critical to the community that the majority of the people are gonna get behind you and that will settle down the advertiser. And that has certainly always been the case.
And when we got to the point by 1964, we built a new building, the paper had grown, it was twice a week then, we built a new building and got a Suburban, all offset in Conroe. By then fully offset and within another year or two we bought an Urbanite Press, my brother ran all of our printing division. We printed 20 or 30 newspapers and lots of circulars and I ran the newspaper, and I ran the, and I published the Courier.
By 1960. To show you how, when my dad first got there for example, I was talking about the open range law. The, he got behind the effort for that election too to close the open range. And our editor was a gentleman named Ed Watson.
When my dad got to Conroe the Commissioner’s Court had kicked out the editor of the newspaper, wouldn’t let him go up there any more because he was writing derogatory articles about them. So he couldn’t go up there any more and my dad had no editor, and that guy quit and my dad had no editor. So my dad’s, we went out to lunch, I’m still in high school and I’m backing up. I’m still in high school at this time. We were at this little bitty restaurant that had about six tables in it called Ed’s Place in Conroe and this guy comes up to my dad, it was Ed, this Ed Watson. And he gets to talking to my dad and says you know I used to be a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise. And Ed was an old polio victim and he said, my dad said is that right? He says can you write? He said, oh yeah. He said how would you like to be my editor? So he hired Ed that day, brings Ed in as editor of the Courier and so Ed gets off and starts promoting, going after the open range law and the night of the election the open range law passes.
Ed’s up in the County Clerk’s Office where they’re counting the votes and the vote count comes in and the guy says he’s gonna kill him. Because the week before the election these cattlemen had come and dumped a whole truck load of cow manure at the front door of the paper. They weren’t too happy with what the paper was doing. So the sheriff says Ed I’m gonna take you home and give you this pistol in case something happens. So he takes Ed home and Ed of course is up every morning about 6, going to work and the next morning Ed gets up out of his house and opens his door and there’s a guy in a tree about 200 yards away with a rifle aimed at Ed. So he calls the sheriff’s department. By the time the sheriff gets there the guy is gone, but Ed comes to work, you know. He reports all this and this was just sort of the action that was in Montgomery County.
So we had a crooked commissioner there that had beencorrupt for years and that was when my dad got indicted by this commissioner for libel. My dad calls the Texas Rangers and they come up to Conroe and they tell them, said “Mr. Owen there’s not much we can do here because the whole bunch is corrupt. We can’t, you know, if you’ve got corrupt in the sheriff’s department and everybody’s kind of in cahoots, and we want you to know this that if you think Duval County’s corrupt, they have nothing on Montgomery County.” So that kinda gives you an idea of how bad it was.
But so as the years went by we finally got rid of this commissioner and we had, there were two district judges and one was on the wrong side of the fence and one was on the right side of the fence. And every time you would indict the bad guys by that time the other district judge’s turn came up and he would void all the indictments, quash them all. So this went back and forth for years. Well, finally a young man in a grocery store saw this district judge lift a tube of toothpaste and he got, they indicted him for theft of that toothpaste and that publicity finally got rid of that district judge and a guy named J. S. Holliman was elected. So we finally got rid of that corruption line. So it sort of straightened out the commissioners then with better people.
But then the next problem was we had a problem with the school system, had always had a problem with the school system. In fact the very first month I’m there I had my, we write this article about the school problem.
One of the school board members called my dad and said you gotta get this, you gotta get your boy off this story. And my dad, like I’ve said in the past, my dad told him said no, Rigby’s running the paper. If you’ve got a problem with him, you need to call him. I’m not doing it any more.
So we got off on that and as time went on it got real heated on the school integration issue and by that time we had, my dad had read about FM radio, said boy, you know we ought to get an FM radio permit. There was a little AM station there that did very well. So we said, yeah okay. No one knew what FM was. We were talking about an FM radio permit so my dad says this would be a great tie-in with the paper. We could promote the paper with it and help it. We said, “Well ,Dad, what is FM radio?” He said, “I don’t know but I think, you know, it’s a new deal.”
So we get this Class C FM permit, not knowing what it is.
When we built our new building we put, we had an extra office in there, my dad was in there. So we put the FM radio station in there and it supported stereo so we don’t even know that that is and we built this transmitting tower outside of town about nine miles and so we had to be able to send a signal out. At that time we had to send, they didn’t have, you couldn’t microwave it. We didn’t have, know what that was, so we’d send a signal out on a telephone lines.
Well, the telephone company couldn’t synchronize to get stereo so before we ever go on the air we’ve got to build, we’ve got to take it out of that space downtown and build a building a little concrete block building out there by the tower so the signal, you know, everything would be stereo.
Well there weren’t any cars with FM radio, you couldn’t talk to car dealers and order it, they’d say, “I’m not gonna put that in a car, nobody wants that.” So what we did to sell the advertisement on it, we ordered these little pre-turned radios with the FM, our FM station and everybody that advertised we gave them a radio so they could hear their commercial and they would assume that everybody was listening to it.
And so that’s how we started the FM station. And I don’t have to tell you what FM radio’s done now but that’s what, back then nobody knew what that was so we had these pre-tuned signals.
And we talked the school board into letting us broadcast the football games. Now the superintendent didn’t like us anyway because he was very racist and we were still, we still segregated. But there was a school board member that went to church with us that didn’t like to go to the ballgames, but he was a great sports fan so he talked them into letting us broadcast these ballgames.
So we broadcast both the Conroe High School, the white football team and the colored football team. And by broadcasting the black school we always gave a lot publicity to these kids in the newspaper. That got those people, they couldn’t afford to go to the ballgames and the colored, the black school always won state championship. So that meant that all the people in the black community bought FM radios because then they could hear the game.
So that kind of helped pump that up and we were doing the high school game in Conroe and the superintendent liked to sit up in the press box. Well, you know, by then we’re up in the press box calling the games and took his seat. So he gets hold of my announcer up there one day, after one game and he tells him I don’t like what you’re doing and I’m going to tell you right now you are not gonna broadcast. You have no more authority to broadcast any ballgames for Conroe High School and any news you do with Conroe Schools you’ve got to come through me first.
So we were running about 30 percent school news in our papers. So he comes back and tells me that. I get with the editor, I say “Well, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re just gonna do just what he says. We’re going to take that to mean all news media has been boycotted, blacklisted. “
So what I did in that next issue of the paper, everywhere we were running a school picture or story like if it was a picture, we just ran a blank spot.
I put the cutline in there but no picture and across the blank spot I put in there that we can’t run this picture because Superintendent Wilkerson says he’s boycotted the school. We put the headline for the story and for the whole length of the story was this blank, that space was.
Did this all through the paper, every bit of school news we had. So about 30 percent of our newspaper was these blank holes. Well, let me tell you that day, after that paper came out, I got a call from one of the school board members. “Rigby we need to talk to you. And we’ve got to get, we can’t take this.”
So we kinda got over that hump but then the superintendent got really nasty and they asked my editor to come down to a school board meeting. By this time I had taken Ed Watson and moved him into advertising because he was a tremendous salesman and got a new editor …And they said, they wanted Ted to come to the school board meeting so Ted goes to the school board meeting and at the meeting they chastised the Courier and they got the guy that owned the Pepsi Cola Bottling Company there to stand up, he’s a local guy, stand up and commended the school for doing this.
Well the reason he commended the school for doing this was because in the school there were all Cokes in there. Well, the next day Coke was kicked out and Pepsi went in. And the reason they kicked Coke out, they used the excuse that Coke wasn’t in Conroe, this— the plant. So Coca-Cola builds, they were in Huntsville, so Coca-Cola built a new plant in Conroe they thought and what they were, they were about 10 feet from the school district line so they still kicked them out.
By this time we’re fighting integration and it’s really getting heated and my parents are building, and we knew they had these secret school board meetings but we couldn’t ever crack it. So by this time my parents were building a town house right across the street from the school administration building. So I get with Ed Watson and I said you know Ed, the school board is real hot so I’ll tell you what and I go to Houston and I buy a little hearing device that you couldn’t hardly buy then and get hold of and I also bought a fountain pen that had a microphone in it, a transmitter. So they want to have a meeting with Ed, the school board does, so we wire Ed up.
I put the microphone in his pocket. I park my car in an alleyway behind this school board member’s house where Ed is and I’ve got the tape recorder. Ed goes and meets with this guy named Frank Hill who was a big vote hauler. We knew they were hauling votes, controlling all these school elections. That’s what was happening. They, we never understood how they did it.
So Ed goes in there and this is about 8 o’clock at night and Ed’s so nervous, he’s got a cigarette snap pocket and he knew, and I still have these tapes, and the school board member was telling Ed he said now Ed we’re going to start a new newspaper we’ve got $300,000 we’ve got raised and what we’d like you to do we want you to be the editor.
And Ed said “Well that sounds good.” And so they get to talking and he said, it’s not ever a matter of winning, it’s a matter of how big we want the win to be. He says “You know that’s why we only have one voting box for the whole school district.”
He said because what we do we have, we always have someone that we know what the count is and we send the husband in there to the wife to say well what, honey do you need some, do I need to buy something for supper tonight. She says oh yeah, here’s the list I’ll give you. And the list is the count. He says they bring the count over to us in the superintendent’s office, Ed and ____office and I just get on the phone and I call another school board member and we just get our employees and we haul them in. And it’s not a question of winning. It’s a question of how big we want to win. He said we can’t lose a race because we haul, you know, we’ll bring in, he said I’ll bring in blacks out of San Jacinto County if we have to.
He said so that’s how, you know, we never lose a race. We can’t lose.
So I’ve got all this on tape and I said what have we got here? So the next day we clip a little bit of that tape just to know what we’ve got and Ed, I take Ed, I said Ed, so we drive down to this local drugstore, there’s always a local drugstore where all the gossip is. Well, there was a guy in this drugstore. Ed goes in there and says, “Boy, Rigby’s on a rampage. I think he’s getting ready to go to the U.S. Attorney General. “
So he plays just enough excerpt of this tape that lets him know we know how they’re hauling these votes. And Ed said, “Now you can’t tell a soul this, he said this is on the QT I’m just telling you because you’re such a close friend.”
Before Ed gets out of the drugstore, you can see the guy’s on the phone. He’s calling the school board and I’ve got these tapes. I get another phone call then. By then we’re really putting the heat on these people. I get another phone call then, could we meet in the parking lot of the auction house? Yeah, okay.
So I go to the auction house and they, at this time, realize it’s bad. By then I had also bugged the school board room and taped them where the superintendent is telling them, “We’re never going to integrate. We will by God kill those n***ers in the street first. He said, “It ain’t ever gonna happen.”
So I’ve got all this on tape. So I tell them, I said, “Well, what we’ve got to do is get rid of the superintendent, it’s time to integrate.” And I said, “ Or we’re gonna have a riot in this town.”
Cash: Give me a time period on this.
Owen: This is 1965. We didn’t want to cause a riot in the area, which we knew would happen. And the same thing, and I didn’t know this at the time, and the same thing was happening here in Houston. They were doing the same thing that I didn’t know Jesse Jones did. They, we really did the same thing at the same time and I didn’t know what they doing and they certainly weren’t worried about me. So I told them we were gonna have to integrate, we were gonna have to change superintendents and I didn’t want any problem.
I will say this they said, “Well you know what (unintelligible) has written a letter of resignation for the next meeting and he has agreed and what the game plan is we’re to take the letter of resignation and refuse it and give him a vote of confidence. If you will get off of us and he gives a letter of resignation we will accept it.”
So by this time they are cartoons in the paper, it is big time trouble. Sure enough, I cut out all the publicity. Of course I’m getting razed around town that I’ve lost my backbone, the paper’s lost its backbone.
Sure enough at the next school board meeting the superintendent does give his letter of resignation. And they bring in this school principal named Mack McCullough, made him superintendent. We integrated the next year and never, Conroe never, ever, had an integration problem, community-wise or anything else-wise.
Turns out years later, I learned that’s virtually what happened in Houston, that the newspapers got with those merchants and said it was time to stop this and so anyway, that’s how we, that’s how we solved that problem.
But years later before we sold, I think it was 1970 when we had the fight on getting rid of two commissioners. We had a crooked county judge and two crooked county commissioners and it was time for them to leave. So they had, we were building, they weren’t building Lake Conroe yet but they were building a power plant for energy, which was Gulf States Utilities then and these two commissioners had cut a deal that they got the grass cutting rights and they, you know, they were just getting kickbacks.
Well it was obvious what was happening so we got on and then they gerrymandered the county precincts. And so we’re writing these editorials you know, what they’ve done it’s tied up in this pretty little bow, you know, that they just locked in all the votes.
Because back then, remember back then these sawmill operators pretty much, they had all these black workers, all their workers and they controlled their votes and they either voted the way they told them and they hauled them, you know, that’s just the way it was. So they, we got in this heated problem and I’m downtown one day at this drugstore and this guy meets me on the street. He owned, they owned the big lumber company there. They owned all the land where is not the Woodlands, that’s the family. And they pretty much controlled politics in Montgomery County.
So all this time my dad is saying, “Rigby, it’s you’re running it, this is what we’re supposed to be doing.” He always stood behind me doing this because we were pretty much a big crusading paper.
So this meets me on the street and tells me that they’re gonna run us out of town, that the superintendant, whatever it takes and he just goes on and on about it. So I leave him, I go back to my editor and I tell him exactly what he said. So we run this story that this Horace Grogan threatens to run the Courier out of town. And we got a half a page cartoon of this guy with these horn-rimmed glasses on, wire rimmed glasses on, pleated pants, cramming a piece of pulpwood in the press, stopping the presses and it looks just like Horace Grogan but of course his name’s not on it. We are selling a jillion papers, Horace goes to a lawyer, he wants to sue us. Well, his lawyer is our lawyer also and they looked at him and said, “Well Horace, what’s the problem?” “Look at this, that’s me.” (laughter) And this other lawyer looked at it and said, “Well Horace I don’t know that that looks like you. It doesn’t have your name on there.” “What do you mean it doesn’t look like me, look at those pants, look at those glasses.” They said, “Well, you know, that could be familiar Horace, but you know, it doesn’t have your name on it and really you know, it’s just nothing they can do about it.”
He is mad, of course, nothing he can do. We’re running these cartoons all the time. They’re threatening. I get these phone calls 2-3 o’clock in the morning that they’re threatening to kidnap my kids or whatever. We’re really, I mean it’s gotten heated. It’s gotten so heated that I think I’ve lost the… I tell my folks, I said, “Daddy,” I said, “if we lose this race I think we’re gonna lose the business.” “Don’t worry about it, it’s gonna be okay.”
So two things happened. The first thing happened, I go to the office one morning about 7 o’clock and I look down there and there’s five sticks of dynamite in a box with a clock ticking. Oh, this is bad. I back off. But the only thought in my mind when I’m running, when I back off is that they’ve really messed up bringing this to town.
So I call the police chief, a guy named Larry Ellis. He comes over there. Now Larry is not really bomb-trained because he just reached in there and he grabbed those wires and pulled them.
Well it turned out that they were fake, they were fake dynamite sticks. But I will say this, this is 1960. He pulls these wires out and he realized that these are, he says you know, there’s only one, there’s no computers hardly around here. They were computer rolls, you know paper rolls for a computer and he was smart enough to realize that there weren’t any computers hardly in Montgomery County except out at Texaco plant.
So he goes out to the Texaco plant and those fools that had done this, they thought this was a big joke because it had gotten so heated in town that they would do this as a big joke. They had left their paint, a couple other of those cores on a table out there. Turned out it was the bank president’s son and another guy and I had gone to school with one of them.
And the next thing I know I get a phone call from the president of Texaco out of New York City. He can’t be apologetic enough. They will never work for Texaco again and I said “That’s fine, no big deal,” because I knew it was a great story. So needless to say it was a great story.
Well, we’re coming down the election is the next Saturday and the election is so hot, so heated, that we don’t know if we’re gonna win or not. Well, I get with my dear friend David Crews and I said David, we gotta do something. Well the first thing we did, he said “You know, Rig,” he said, I”f you can get up $300 he said I know an old private eye in Houston and we’ll get… Because back then the sawmill people got these black preachers to go out and haul votes, which is not secret, this happens all the time. He says, let’s do two things, let’s meet, he said I’ll arrange the appointment, you bring the money and we’ll just see if we can’t scare these preachers into not hauling. So Greens Point, which is right outside of Houston, he meets, he called this guy and we were gonna meet at the Greens Point Inn, the guy says, I’ll met you there. He says I have a red carnation in my coat ___________ David and I are there about 7:00 in the morning, we’re sitting at this coffee both and we’re waiting on this guy and in comes this guy, looks like it’s out of the movies. He’s got this red carnation and patent leather shoes. He comes walking over there and David tells him what we want to do. He said here’s a list of these black preachers that we know haul votes. We don’t want you to tell them you’re with the FBI. We want you to tell them that you’re doing some government work and that they’re investigating vote hauling. And they they’re not gonna let this happen in Montgomery County any more. You just go by and talk to them, you’re not saying you’re anybody ______________ see you again. Don’t want to know who you are; don’t want to see you again. So the guy, and the guy does it. He said, he just said you just call me and say I’ve done my job, that’s all I want to know. So he does it. This is like on a, this is like two weeks prior to the election we do this. The week of the election I’m really nervous so I have all these tape recorders where I’ve bugged the school board and I bugged Frank _______ so I take my tape recorder and I come to Houston and I go to the U.S. Attorney General’s office and I tell him we need some help that we can’t get an honest election, that it doesn’t matter what the election is, we can’t win an election the people’s voice
He said, well, and I said I’ve got all these tapes. He said well, we probably couldn’t use the tapes in court anyway, Mr. Owen, you don’t need, you know, I don’t need to hear them. He said the only thing that we can do, he said if there’s a violation of Civil Rights. And I said well I would think there’s a violation of Civil Rights, they’re taking these, they’re making these black people vote a certain way and you know, how do you stop this? So he says, he said well I don’t know if there’s anything we can do and you know, that’s it. So I leave. Boy I’m dejected. I call David Crews, call my dad, I said, boy Daddy, I don’t know, I think we’ve lost it, it’s in bad shape. Called Crews, it looks horrible, tell him what the guy said, didn’t think there was anything he could do. Saturday morning, the day of the election, I get a phone call about 8:00 o’clock, David Crews, Rig you won’t believe it there are U.S. Marshals at every voting place. He says, there’s no hauling going on today. We eliminated the haul, threw every one of those peckerwoods out of office. It was a clean sweep. So that’s how my dad raised us to do. That’s what we did do. And the only, the other time we had a big problem, I forget now what, I thought about it a minute ago, lost my train of thought on what we had done. But we had all these, we were always in the middle of a battle, as Willis will tell you, always in the middle of cleaning up the problems around here because Montgomery County had been that way. Oh, one time there was a, I got a card, a guy gave me a card called the Shamrock Game Club, it was cock fights. Anyway on the back of the card it had all the dates for these cock fights. Well the cock fights were out in the old oil fields of Conroe so I drive out there and I see this big barn in this field, crawl through the fence and I go to this barn and I look inside this barn and there is a cock fight ring, I mean, stands, bleachers, you know? And out there on the side of the field are all these little houses with the cocks in them, you know. So I slipped in there and I’m taking all these pictures and the next thing I know I hear somebody yelling so I run and I get through the fence, I get in my car and I take off, you know. So I called the sheriff’s department, I said you know, I think they’re having cock fights out there. He said no, they’re not having cock fights. We’re not gonna look into that. I can’t get any help. I called the Department of Public Safety, tell them the same thing. They said Mr. Owen I hate to tell you if we can’t get cooperation out of the sheriff’s department, we’ll never get it shut down because they will notify them that they’re coming. So at that stage we were running a little old column called “Answer Please”. People would write in a question and we’d give the answer. So I write the question, “Are there cock fights in Montgomery County?” And the answer was “Well we don’t know, but here’s what we found and here’s this, got a picture of the card, both sides of the card and all these pictures.” The next day those cock pit fight rings were gone, was nothing left. They dismantled everything. It was, it all disappeared. But we had lots of fun. That’s how, that’s how my dad always worked that way. Now when my dad went to Louisiana one time when he first got to Opelousas of course this was back in the early 40s. He went in the courthouse one time, he was telling me about this, he went in the courthouse one time and these four black men came in to register to vote. He said these white games got them and beat them unmercifully all the way out told them if they ever came back they’d kill them. I said Daddy why didn’t you, why didn’t you do something? He said what could I do? He said I hadn’t been in town three months, the little ole newspaper was nothing. He said if I’d printed a story we’d been run out of town. He said there was nothing I could do at that time. He said you just have to take it and wait til you can create, you know get some strength or you know, get to the point that you can do something. And that’s what’s wrong with a lot of papers, they’re afraid to rock the boat. You know, just let the status quo be. And my dad wasn’t that way. We weren’t that way. Willis never was that way. And that’s part of the problem I think with newspaper reporters today. After Watergate there was a ______ surge of kids wanting to get in the newspaper business and had this investigative spirit. But today that’s all gone. They just, it’s all bottom line seem like today. They don’t have that, they don’t have that drive and spirit any more. You just, you never see it, hardly. You never really see it. So anyway, after we won that election I felt like we’d climbed the hill. My dad really was, he was burned out in the business and we had an opportunity to sell and they told me the decision was mine if I wanted to keep the paper we’d keep it but I knew they wanted to really retire and be able to do something. And the only was we could afford it was for them to sell. And my brother really was, he was burned out too, so that’s when we decided to sell. But I will tell you this I miss it every day since we did it.
This is Willis Webb, reminiscing about his mentor, Rigby Owen, Sr.
Pops Owen, Sr. was a second father to me and certainly my mentor. The first 10 of the 13 years I was in the news business I learned everything that was beneficial to my career from the Owen family. And I was blessed to be able to call Pop “Pop” because he was a second father and my mentor. And he taught me, he had ways of very succinctly teaching you what he thought was the proper way to do things and it turned out to me that that was. One of the best things he ever told me was Will if you do your job in the community as a newspaper publisher, the bottom line will take care of itself. And I never found that to be wrong.
He, I think last evening when we inducted Pop into the Newspaper Foundation Hall of Fame, I related the story of my first meeting with him I was a student at the University of Houston and was going to sell advertising at a paper he owned, he and a professor. And four advertising students walked into the newspaper office and Pops happened to be down there in Galena Park from Conroe. And we walked into the advertising office and there was one desk and one chair and one of the wise young men said where are our desks and chairs? And Pops said you don’t need desks and chairs, you’re gonna be out on the streets selling advertising. I didn’t know if I really wanted to know Pop at that point because that was kinda scary. But I found him to be one of the most gracious people I’ve ever known.
I never heard him raise his voice and I never heard him really be critical of anybody. But he always, I mean you talk about a backbone, this man had a backbone and he stood for what was right every time and went through a lot of very difficult things as have related by Rigby, Junior. A lot of threats, a lot of things that could have ended his business perhaps but he never let that stop him from doing what was right for the community. He said if you help the little guy you can’t go wrong. And he became a big guy, but he became a big guy because he did the right thing and he always helped the little people. He said you just, you have to consider when you’re doing something at the paper, particularly if you’re taking a stance you have to figure out is this gonna be the best thing for the most people? You judge any issue that way. And I thought that was wonderful advice and I’ve tried always to remember that and even to expand on.
Pop taught me a lot of things about sales and marketing. He came up through the circulation side and Pop kinda came up with the Little Merchant plan way back in the 30s in Oklahoma where he’d hired young kids to sell the paper and made them little merchants or independent contractors and he actually got put into the Hall of Fame in Oklahoma that had to do with youth work because of what he did in the Little Merchant Program. And that’s just the kind of man he always was.
And he was a beacon in my life because of all these things he taught me and all the things he stood for. And I, in the induction ceremony I mentioned that I used to watch him mess with his pipe while he was talking to me and he took his time telling me things but part of that was I think he cleaned that pipe, which is necessary if you smoke a pipe, but also it was a way for him to sit and think a little bit as he’s relating something to you so therefore he was very deliberate, very slow in explaining things to you but he was thinking it out very carefully. He’d just, everything with him was very well thought out and very well presented and you didn’t doubt it. When he told it to you he knew what he was talking about and he put a lot of thought in what he was saying to you.
Those are wonderful lessons that never left me and watching the courage that he always had and he imparted to his sons and to me to stand up for what was right for a community. To me when I started out in this business I wanted to be the greatest sports writer in the world. I wanted to be the next Grantland Rice who was the very first super star sports reporter, writer, in the nation. But Pop Owen saw that I got printer’s ink injected into my blood in such a way that community journalism was the only way to go and I’m so grateful for that.
It’s been a blessing in my life to be able to do something I enjoy so much because I learned how to enjoy it from Rigby Owen, Sr., Pop, and from both his sons. They’re family and that happened through that kind of relationship in journalism.