Do Not Go Gentle

Former Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby fights on for better, more diverse education in Texas

Bill Hobby should be relaxing. He's 66. He's rich. Big Rich. He's spent his entire adult life working in politics and business, including an 18-year stint as lieutenant governor and 18 years as the president and executive editor of The Houston Post. If anyone has earned a good long rest, it's Hobby. There was really no reason for him to be in a drab meeting room in northeast Austin on a muggy morning in late August trying to hash out the final details of a report on race and higher education. The Hopwood ruling that eliminated racial preferences at Texas universities doesn't affect him or his family.

But the scion of one of Houston's most famous families just can't help it. Why? If you ask him, he'll stammer and look at his shoes and play with the pen in his pocket and shyly mumble a response of some kind or another. But the truth is, Hobby believes public service is not just a responsibility, it's almost a commandment. You simply can't have a last name like Hobby and be a slacker. It wouldn't be right.

That's why, when University of Houston Chancellor Arthur Smith called and asked Hobby to join the yet-to-be-formed Texas Commission on a Representative Student Body, Hobby agreed. And when the commission -- which is charged with coming up with a plan to counteract the effects of the Hopwood decision -- met for the first time in January and the members of the commission elect-ed Hobby to be the chairman of the group, well, Hobby couldn't refuse that either.

An awkward, enigmatic man who stutters and who was born to vast wealth -- Forbes magazine once estimated the Hobby family's fortune at $650 million -- Hobby could have chosen a life easier than a life of politics. He could also have limited his public service to gigs easier than education. The symphony, the ballet and other cultural institutions would have presented much more manageable issues than the intractable behemoth of higher education in Texas.

But education is Hobby's passion. Whether it means doing math problems in his spare time, or dealing with no-pass, no-play as the president of the Texas Senate, Hobby wants to learn, and he wants everyone else to, too. So there he was, in the center seat of a U-shaped table at a meeting room owned by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, hashing out the final details and wording of a report that its authors hope will help more minority students attend Texas's colleges. The report, which will be released at a press conference in Austin on October 21, aims to counteract the 1996 court ruling named for Cheryl Hopwood, a white working mother who was denied entry to the University of Texas Law School while minority students with lower test scores were admitted.

Hopwood's name was mentioned many times during the August 24 meeting in Austin. The focus of the meeting was the first draft of a report the commission will present to the Texas Legislature in January. The meeting did not start well. The early discussion among the 21 members of the commission, all of whom were appointed by the administrators of the state's biggest universities, centered on rather picayune issues, not the big picture. Miguel Espinosa, a Conoco executive from Houston, wanted to know why the draft report did not mention the Hopwood case. Other commission members quibbled with the term "minority." Hardy Murphy, an associate superintendent with the Fort Worth Independent School District, said the commission needed to stop "dancing around the issue" of minority students. He suggested spelling out exactly which students were being targeted by the commission, "including students of African-American, Hispanic and Native American descent who are under-represented." After the group had spent nearly an hour picking over the draft report, Hobby was getting irritated. When someone asked if the group should actually define the word "minority," Hobby replied testily, "There's a big book called a dictionary that defines minority as a group that is less than half."

He then added, "What I'm hearing here is objection to the use of the term 'minority.' In a few decades, we are all going to be minorities." If that is the case, then William Pettus Hobby Jr. may belong to the smallest minority group in America. After all, how many fox-hunting, multimillionaire sons of former Texas governors are there?

Bill Hobby hardly looks -- or dresses -- for the role of cultural and political heavyweight. He has been charitably described as an "indifferent dresser." At the meeting in Austin, he wore a cheap black blazer. The hem of the blazer's right sleeve was ripped out. His trousers, also black, had a large, whitish stain on the right knee. A bow tie and chunky, black soft-soled shoes completed the ensemble. His only sartorial flourish was his short-sleeved white dress shirt, with his initials monogrammed on the pocket. Whatever his clothing, he always looks slightly rumpled, a look that is accentuated by his close-cropped beard. His son Paul, the Democratic nominee for Texas comptroller (who, by the way, blames his political aspirations on a "genetic flaw"), has a ready explanation for his father's dress code. "All his satisfaction mechanisms are internal. He doesn't care about things like clothes and shoes."

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