MORE

Do Not Go Gentle

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."

 

Whatever the reason for Hobby's attire, the overall effect is reminiscent of an absent-minded college professor. It's one of the traits that makes Hobby so intriguing. Here's a man with the kind of financial resources that most people can only dream about, yet he wears a cheap gray Casio wristwatch that might cost $20 (tops). He drives a beige Chevrolet Caprice Classic station wagon with fake wood paneling on the sides, is prone to skinny bow ties and flies on Southwest Airlines whenever he needs to make one of his frequent jaunts to Austin.

Despite the respect that Hobby now commands, he was never a natural politician. He's introverted and, well, not particularly handsome. Political observers have never been sure what to make of him. Sam Kinch, the editor of the political newsletter Texas Weekly, has covered Texas politics for four decades. Hobby is "genuinely interested in people," says Kinch. "But he's just so awkward in showing it. People come away saying, 'Where is the magic in this guy?' " In politics, adds Kinch, "You have to be a glad-hander and a ball-buster, and he's not either one."

"It took him a long time to get used to the idea of going through the process of being a candidate. He didn't have the personality to be out there glad-handing. It was almost like he was a reluctant candidate," continues Kinch. "He was a horrible speaker. Hell, he still is. But he is excellent at putting words together."

Despite his flaws, and helped immeasurably by his ability to finance his own campaign, Hobby won his first try at public office in 1972, when he was elected lieutenant governor. He arrived at the Texas Capitol 98 years after his paternal grandfather, Edwin Hobby, was elected to the Texas Senate by voters from Polk and Tyler counties. In 1899, his maternal grandfather, I.W. Culp, was elected to the Texas House of Representatives from Coryell County. Culp served intermittently until 1925. Hobby's father, William Hobby Sr., was elected lieutenant governor in 1914. In 1917, he moved into the governor's mansion when James E. "Pa" Ferguson was impeached. William Hobby Sr. won re-election and served until 1921.

Nine years later, the woman Hobby Sr. would marry, Oveta Culp, ran for the state House. She lost to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But Culp had been baptized into politics. Five years earlier, at age 20, she had been appointed parliamentarian of the Texas House even though she could not yet legally vote. In 1931, Culp married the ex-governor, who at that time was president of The Houston Post and was struggling to make the newspaper profitable. In 1939, the Hobbys bought the Post from Jesse Jones for about $4 million. The paper stayed in the family until 1983.

Oveta Culp Hobby, who directed the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II and was appointed by President Eisenhower to be the first secretary of health, education and welfare, passed on her political passion to Bill, her first-born child. (A daughter, Jessica, was born three years later.) Five years after graduating from Rice with a degree in history, Hobby, at age 27, was appointed parliamentarian of the Texas Senate by then-lieutenant governor Ben Ramsey. Thirteen years later, he was elected to the office that Ramsey occupied and ended up holding it nearly twice as long as any other lieutenant governor in Texas history.

Hobby came to office as a reformer in the wake of the Sharpstown banking scandal, an affair that rocked state government in the early 1970s and ended many political careers. Not surprisingly, ethics issues dominated his first few years in office, and proposals regarding open meetings and open records were soon made into law. There were also the recurring problems of school financing, prisons and taxes. The only hint of scandal during Hobby's tenure in office was an arrest for DWI in 1974. Hobby, chastened by the incident, admitted his mistake. And although he kept a reputation as a hard-drinking politico, the DWI issue quickly faded.

State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, a Democrat from Austin, worked with Hobby in the Senate from 1985 until Hobby left elected office in 1990. He describes Hobby as a very smart individual and a person who is at peace with himself. "He's secure in more ways than financially," says Barrientos. As the president of the Senate, Barrientos said that Hobby "was a conservative, moderate and liberal all at once, depending on the issue. He could do team work very well. I worked with him to pass ten to 20 pieces of legislation to alleviate school drop-out rates. I did my best work with Hobby. I admire him as a fiscal conservative, a person with a heart, and [someone] who treated everybody very fairly. In other words, I don't think I can say enough good about him."

 

In 1990, when Bill Clements announced he would not seek re-election to the governor's office, Hobby had a chance to seek the job his father held seven decades earlier. But Hobby would have had to beat former attorney general Jim Mattox in what would have been a bloody fight for the Democratic nomination. Instead, he returned to Houston, to the family's low-slung office building on San Felipe, in River Oaks.

His office provides a few clues to Hobby's personality. It's an unremarkable room. Hobby could easily afford something better. But he likes his smallish office with its gray industrial carpet, the plain Oriental rug, the cheap, black-metal bookshelves and the white masonry walls. A computer hums quietly on the right side of his desk. A framed advertisement from Southwest Airlines hangs on the wall facing his desk. The ad shows a picture of a jet painted in Southwest's colors. Beneath the plane, in bold letters, are the words "HOBBY WORKHORSE." The ad seems to be both a joke and an admonition.

There are photos of his father, a former Texas governor, and his son Paul. Across the room hangs a photo of a much younger Bill Hobby -- a white carnation pinned to the lapel of his blue suit -- shaking hands with Lyndon B. Johnson on the steps of the Texas Capitol. The photo was taken in January 1973, a few moments after Hobby was sworn in as lieutenant governor. LBJ, his health failing, wears a forced smile, his eyes almost disappearing behind the folds of flesh on his face. Hobby is clearly proud of the photo, and he readily tells the story that goes with it. "I called him [LBJ] on the telephone, and I apparently woke him from his nap. I said, 'Well, the inaugural is tomorrow.' He said, 'I know it's tomorrow.' Then he asked what time it was being held. And I told him. And he said, 'That's when I take a nap. What are you trying to do, kill a sick old man?' Then he hung up on me."

Despite his complaints, LBJ showed up. And Hobby got his photo. "That was the last photo of LBJ taken before he died. He died a week after that, I think," explains Hobby. It is one of many photos of the former president Hobby has in his office. Asked to explain, Hobby responds, "Education was his big thing in life."

That sentence could also be applied to Hobby. Throughout his career, Hobby has done everything related to schooling but sweep the floors. He has been a teacher. (He has lectured at Rice, UT-Austin and Bangladesh University.) He has been an administrator. (He was chancellor of the University of Houston for two years. In 1995, when he agreed to take over the helm at the UH, Hobby asked for, and got, a contract that paid him $1 per year.) He has given millions of dollars to schools. (The Hobby Foundation gave Rice $21.4 million last December for the Fondren Library, and Hobby personally gave $1 million to Southwest Texas State earlier this year.) As lieutenant governor, Hobby worked on legislation that increased funding for public and higher education. He also helped institute the no-pass, no-play rule, which mandates academic standards for high school athletes. Hobby's involvement in the Hopwood issue is just his latest foray into the state's education quagmire. It may also be his most difficult assignment.

The Hopwood decision is the most important court ruling on affirmative action in education since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Bakke case in 1978. The Bakke opinion determined that state schools could use race as a "plus" factor when admitting students. (The opinion was written by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who died on August 25.) Opponents of race-based admissions want to overturn the Bakke decision and are hoping that the Hopwood case, or one similar to it, will establish a nationwide precedent.

The Hopwood case has had a dramatic impact on minority enrollment at Texas's top schools. In 1996, when race had been a factor in admissions and scholarships, the UT law school, which admits 500 students per year, enrolled 31 blacks and 42 Mexican-Americans. Last year, only four blacks and 26 Mexican-Americans enrolled. This in a state where, within a decade, whites will account for less than half of the population. Within a generation, Hispanics will be the state's largest ethnic group.

 

Examining statistics like these animates Hobby. A nut for charts and graphs, Hobby does math problems in his spare time. For the past six years, he has made a yearly pilgrimage to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he takes a monthlong intensive session on statistics that is sponsored by the Inter-University Consortium for Politics and Social Research. His office workers call it "nerd camp." Hobby calls it fun. Sorting through a stack of graphs and education statistics that sits atop a small conference table in his office, he insists that Texas has to look at the big picture. Because of the Hopwood ruling, the state's schools will have fewer qualified minority applicants. "Then you will have a university population that is less diverse and less representative of the population of Texas," says Hobby. "It will make wider rather than narrower the already noticeable gap between the population groups in Texas, and that's bad for our society."

When he finally puts away his piles of papers and charts, he can provide sharp analysis about the Hopwood case and affirmative action. "California," he says, "has an idiotic law [Proposition 209]. Texas has an idiotic court decision." He calls the Hopwood lawsuit "frivolous" and says that the decision "impairs the ability of the folks who make the admissions decisions at the state universities to use their own judgment about the betterment of society."

The other members of Commission on a Representative Student Body picked Hobby to lead them because of his political connections and his style. Former FBI director William Sessions, a San Antonian who represents the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas on the commission, calls Hobby a "consensus maker." Sessions said Hobby is "able to bring people together. He's not a man who speaks harshly or in sharp tones. He listens and he brings careful thought together. He doesn't disparage anybody's view."

Hobby's task with the commission is to make a Great Society out of Texas's educational system, a system that lags far behind other states in measures of educational achievement. For instance, Texas ranks 44th in the nation for sending high school students on to college. It ranks 43rd in the percentage of ninth-graders who complete high school, and that figure is falling. Between 1983 and 1996, the high school graduation rate fell by 11 percent, a statistic that, again, puts Texas near the bottom of the chalkboard. And racial disparities continue to plague the state's biggest schools. Blacks make up 11 percent of the state's population and Hispanics 24 percent. But their numbers are not reflected in the student bodies at Texas's biggest schools. At Texas Tech and Texas A&M, 11 percent of the students are Hispanic and 3 percent are black. At UT-Austin, the numbers are only slightly better.

Hobby believes that urban schools such as the University of Houston will fare better when dealing with minority enrollment issues than other state-supported schools. But even if UH does well, Texas as a whole will suffer if the state doesn't do more to bolster enrollment in its colleges and universities. And fixing the problem will take money, at least $300 million, Hobby says, with most of it going to fund more financial aid. Maybe more. Hobby says he has the support of key senators, including Finance Committee chairman Teel Bivins, an Amarillo Republican, and Education Committee chairman Bill Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant. But it's unclear how Hobby's report will be accepted by the Legislature, which has become far more conservative since his departure. Getting the funding for the commission's proposals will definitely be a test of Hobby's clout. The draft report of the Texas Commission on a Representative Student Body recommends a multifaceted approach to the problems posed by Hopwood, including a closer series of connections between the state's community colleges and four-year institutions. Other recommendations will include college counseling programs at inner-city high schools, mentoring programs and increases in public-private partnerships in addition to increases in state-sponsored financial aid for economically disadvantaged students.

Whatever the outcome of the commission's recommendations, Hobby believes that without a serious effort to promote education programs, the Hopwood ruling will continue to reduce the number of minorities who will be qualified to apply to the state's best schools. Asked if he has a message for the people who are trying to dismantle affirmative-action programs around the country, Hobby replies, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Affirmative action worked pretty well."

Hobby's statement on affirmative action draws howls of derisive laughter from the founders of the Center for Individual Rights, the Washington, D.C.-based public-interest law firm that brought the Hopwood case to court. Since winning the Hopwood case in 1996, CIR has taken its anti-affirmative-action battle to other states, filing suits against both the University of Michigan and the University of Washington. Their goal is to carry their race-neutral admissions jihad to the Supreme Court of the United States. "The mission of this place is to cut back on government and to sort of reconstruct basic, fundamental, principled, limits to government power," says Michael Greve, the executive director and co-founder of CIR.

 

Greve may have a laudable goal. But it is also clear that he and other Washington insiders have scant appreciation for the racism that prevailed in Texas just a few decades ago or the psychological damage the Hopwood decision has done. It matters little to them that the UT law school was among the last law schools in the country to admit a black and that it took a lawsuit by Thurgood Marshall to get Heman Sweatt admitted. Or that in 1949, in an effort to keep Sweatt out, UT created a special school a few blocks from the Texas Capitol called the Texas State University for Negroes Law School, specifically for Sweatt and two others. Or that when Sweatt finally won his lawsuit and got admitted to the UT Law School in 1950, he was later greeted by a burning cross that had been planted on the school's grounds.

While those incidents are ancient history for the people who oppose affirmative action, Hobby sees them as indicators that Texas has to continue pushing for better education if it is to prosper over the long term. To bolster his point, he opines, "You know the best bill Congress ever passed, since 1784, under the current constitution, was the G.I. Bill of Rights," says Hobby. "It has transformed this nation, this society, by making college education possible for millions of people." It's not a coincidence that LBJ voted for the G.I. Bill in 1944. Hobby, like LBJ, wants to change society, and he wants to do it by making the schoolhouse our society's most valuable and valued asset.

It's also not a coincidence that Paul Hobby is making education one of his campaign themes. It matters little to him that the comptroller's job has little or nothing to do with education. "The comptroller can't fix public schools," says Hobby the Younger, "but I can demonstrate the consequences of not fixing them." Paul Hobby wants to expand the Texas Tomorrow Fund, the prepaid college-tuition program that was created by the Texas Legislature in 1995. The fund allows parents and others to buy education contracts that are backed by the full faith and credit of the state. After its purchase, the contract locks in a certain tuition rate for students at the state school of their choice. Paul Hobby says he will use the fund, which is administered by the comptroller, "To go right at the lower-middle-income families who don't think college is affordable, and demonstrate that it is." He hopes to increase enrollment in the fund from the current level, 65,000 contracts, to half a million contracts.

Asked why he is focusing on education, Paul Hobby replied, "because education is the only government-sponsored wealth-creation device that works." The candidate is far more talkative and uses hipper language than his father. But his sentiment and his motivation stretch back three generations. "A lot of people ask what was it like, growing up in my family," he explains. "The thing that may be different was that there was never any 'they' at our dinner table. You couldn't say, 'They are a bunch of idiots.' The whole ethic was, 'If something is not right, either go change it, or hush up.' "

He later added, "I knew I was obliged to give something back."
It's an old-fashioned sentiment. And it sounds almost quaint, particularly in an era when cynicism and apathy about politics are so evident. Real people don't say things like that anymore, do they? You do if your last name happens to be Hobby. Never mind that the city's second-largest airport carries that moniker, or that the city's new music hall, soon to be built adjacent to City Hall, will be called the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, or that on August 26 the city held its 162nd birthday celebration and decided to honor Bill Hobby and his wife, Diana, for their service to the city, state and educational causes.

There really are no good explanations for what drives Bill Hobby. He has everything he needs and then some. He could retire and spend the rest of his days on his passions: hunting foxes in Ireland, riding horses in Montana and solving math problems. And yet, when it comes to educational issues, he can't sit in the hallway. He has to be at the chalkboard, drawing a graph, making a chart or figuring a plan of attack. Asked about his motivation, he replies, almost curtly, "Education is really the only agent of change in society. That's how we all live better lives."

 

It's a simple answer. And true. Just don't expect Bill Hobby to elaborate.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >