We live in a golden age of investigative journalism.
Not just the renaissance of political reporting at the federal level. But in-depth articles and investigative packages cascading from newspapers such as the American-Statesman, as well as other local, regional and national media.
The Molly Awards celebrate the some of the best work in this renewed civic era. At the same time, the semi-dressy affair at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin raises money for the nonprofit Texas Observer. Much of the attention every year goes to late namesake Molly Ivins, who edited the Observer before moving on to wider prominence at the New York Times, Dallas Times Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, syndicated columns and brainy, brawling books on politics.
The fact that an unabashedly liberal publication gives out these awards obscures the fact that the winning stories show no clear partisan or ideological favoritism. Abuse of power is abuse of power.
Honorable mentions were accorded Seth Freed Wessler (The Investigative Fund, The New York Times Magazine) for exposing a “floating Guantánamos” system of extrajudicial detention of fishermen by the U.S. Coast Guard way outside the usual patrol zones; and Nina Martin, Renee Montagne, Adriana Gallardo, Annie Waldman and Katherine Ellison (ProPublica/NPR) for their “Lost Mothers” series on the death rates of pregnant women in the U.S.
Now, once ceremonial beer steins are distributed, it’s time for red meat. This year’s frank, funny and at times outrageous speaker was Joan Walsh, national affairs correspondent for The Nation and a political contributor on CNN. She pulled no punches going after President Donald Trump and crew.
A nattily dressed young man in the elevator afterwards: “Oh, that was soooo nonpartisan!”
Me: “Agreed. But the awards really are. Corruption is corruption, no matter who commits it. Right?”
The Library was the place to be. Not the Central Public Library. But the blue-and-red rectangular meeting room at Hotel Van Zandt.
It was the location for a Toast of the Town salon to support the Neal Kocurek Scholarship Fund for health sciences careers, operated by the St. David’s Foundation. Thirty of so lucky souls were treated to an enlightening public talk between journalist and author Lawrence “Larry” Wright and journalist and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith.
The two had met soon after Smith moved to town in the 1992 to join the staff of Texas Monthly. He was assigned to edit Wright’s piece on the chemical castration of sexual offenders. Wright was for it.
Smith went on to lead Texas Monthly and now the Texas Tribune, while also interviewing top minds on “Texas Monthly Talks” and then “Overheard with Evan Smith” on public television.
My nominee for best reporter in Texas, Wright has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since he left Texas Monthly in the early 1990s. His books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” as well as “The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State,” “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prism of Belief” and “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David.”
If those accomplishments were not enough, he writes plays and screenplays, appears on stage, and basks in the glow of the lauded TV adaptation of “The Looming Tower” now streaming on the Hulu channel.
Can you see why I dropped everything for this benefit dinner? Smith devoted his early questions to terrorism and world affairs. Wright believes, for instance, we are ignoring the proliferation of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State beyond their Middle Eastern origins while we are distracted by other crises. He continues to state that the intervention into Iraq was the single worst foreign policy decision in American history.
Smith then moved on to main subject for the evening, Wright’s recent book, “God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State,” parts of which appeared in The New Yorker. On that field in inquiry, both sharp minds need no urging.
Wright’s editor at The New Yorker had asked him to explain Texas, a big task. He did not rely on the standard reports about the recent changes in the state; he spent a year observing the Texas Legislature. After all, Texas could tell us more about the future of the country, especially if its voters participated in elevated numbers.
He came away from his research with with a volume full of conclusions and an urge to run for governor. Wright thinks that the primary jobs of state government are education and infrastructure. Those needs tended to be ignored while state leaders spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on bathroom rules and sanctuary cities. He lays heavy blame on traditional business advocate Gov. Greg Abbott, who sided late in the session with radio personality Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick against outgoing Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who held together state government against all odds.
Wright has much more to say about state and national politics and culture, but as they say, buy and read the book.
One speaker in town who could give Smith or Wright a run for their money is Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, an Austin nonprofit that provides free or low-cost spay, neutering and veterinary care at seven clinics in four cities.
The early part of its annual luncheon, which has moved gracefully from the Four Seasons Hotel Austin to the larger banquet hall at the Hyatt Regency Austin, was spent on the tasty vegan fare, video stories of clients and statistics shared by eager board members.
The room grew hushed when Mills rose to the stage. After all, she can so cogently and quickly explain a rapidly expanding and sustainable nonprofit, she would likely trounce every other participant at Philanthropitch.
That fast-action pitch session from nonprofit leaders was an early-week Austin highlight. (I can’t tell you how many ambitious Austin nonprofits are exporting their great ideas around the world. Just a few decades ago, they didn’t look beyond the Austin city limits.)
Some statistics appeared in the printed program. In 2017, the group provided
• 71,539 preventative care visits
• 33,300 free or low cost spay/neuter surgeries
• 622 heartworm treatments
• 177 special surgery procedures
• $883,930 in free services to Houston-area families affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Mills expanded on the last number. With animal welfare partners, they focused, not on lost pets, but on vet care for families hit hard by the storm. They announced that their clinical services would remain absolutely free for 90 days. As workers arrived the first morning, more than 100 people were in line. Some had never visited a vet before. They saw a total of 6,641 animals.
Also in 2017, Emancipet opened its largest clinic ever in Northeast Austin and its first in Philadelphia. It responded to rising vet care costs by seeing 93,576 pets. Just as importantly, they trained 28 vets to take their business model to other markets. They can’t do it all themselves.
Mills saved the most dramatic news for last. Hurricane Maria scattered pets all over Puerto Rico, who then rapidly multiplied. Emacipet with 23 other groups is headed there to spay/neuter 20,000 of them. They will then leave their surgical tools and other equipment there for vets they will train to keep up the work.
This week in “Texas Titles,” we follow a riverine journey, a myth busting gang, the career of a Texas historian, a ship named “Texas” and a Texas modern artist finally receiving her due.
“Río: A Photographic Journey down the Old Río Grande.” Edited by Melissa Savage. University of New Mexico Press. This slender, exquisite paperback volume collects silvery gray images of the Río Grande from the 19th and 20th centuries. Editor Savage arranges them by themes, such as crossings, trade, cultivation, flooding, etc. This is no mere picture book, however, and each page reveals a lot about particular places and people. William deBuys, Rina Swentzell and Juan Estevan Arellano are among those who contributed the accompanying essays. One can find any number of books about this great river, including Paul Horgan’s two-volume masterpiece, “Great River.” Yet few are as beautiful or as evocative as this one.
“Texan Identities: Moving beyond Myth, Memory and Fallacy in Texas History.” Edited by Light Townsend Cummins and Mary L. Scheer. University of North Texas Press. Texas is awash with mythology. This collection of academic essays attempts to sift through them to review the state’s shifting and enduring identities. The Alamo and the Texas Rangers, for instance, are ready targets for myth busters. The editors, professors at Austin College and Lamar University, have already produced multiple books on on the statae’s history that have examined the roles of women and others who have often been ignored by the keepers of our shared memory. Mary L. Scheer, Kay Goldman and Jody Edward Ginn are among the contributors, while distinguished Texas State University professor Jesús de la Teja provides the trenchant foreword.
“Archie P. McDonald: A Life in Texas History.” Edited by Dan K. Utley. Texas A&M University Press. McDonald specialized in East Texas. Molded from oral interviews, this biography, edited by Texas State History historian Utley attempts to recover the career of the late teacher and leader who died in 2012. For decades, McDonald headed the East Texas Historical Association and edited the East Texas Historical Journal. His hand touched many other statewide groups, including the Texas Historical Commission. This book might seem like “inside baseball” — and to a certain extent, it is — but too often this kind of institutional remembrance is lost in the shuffle.
“The Battleship Texas.” Mark Lardas. Images of America. We love the “Images of America” series from Arcadia Publishing. Compiled in template form, these small books offer scores of singular historical images, along with tightly composed captions and chewy introductory essays. (Since these books are not rigorously edited, always check the facts.) This one covers the 1914 dreadnought battleship that served the U.S. Navy in World Wars I and II. Throughout my lifetime — I grew up not far away from its final berth near the San Jacinto Monument — the ship-turned-museum has been under enormous physical stress. Lardas, who writes about maritime and Texas history, pulls from numerous sources to produce black-and-white pictures of the U.S.S. Texas in peace and war, including the charismatic jacket shot of the crew assembled on deck for a USO show starring — it would seem to me — Rita Hayworth, or someone who looks a lot like her.
“The Color of Being/El Color del Ser: Dorothy Hood, 1918-2000.” Susie Kalil. Texas A&M University Press. Texas Monthly has already done a terrific job of telling the almost forgotten story of Dorothy Hood, a respected and distinctive abstract painter who has finally received the kind of treatment she deserves, including a vast retrospective at the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi. After 1941, the Houston native spent most of 22 years in Mexico City working alongside the greats of the day. Following time in New York City, she returned to Houston and, despite her promise and prolific output, never became famous. She died in 2000. The Corpus Christi museum ended up with her archives and now curator Kalil has righted an artistic injustice by making Hood’s case to the world. Makes you want to take a road trip to Sparkling City by the Sea.
In this latest installment of our “Texas Titles” series, we look at a pioneer, a cause, a sport, a feud and a batch of the state’s artists.
“Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist.” Debra L. Winegarten. University of Texas Press. It’s hard to believe that this is among first biographical treatments of a Texan who ran the Women’s Army Corps — becoming the first women colonel — then served as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, only the second woman to be appointed to a president’s cabinet. Not only that, she teamed with her husband, former Texas Gov. William P. Hobby, to run a media powerhouse that included the Houston Post as well as radio and TV stations (an analog for LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson?). Not the least, her son Bill Hobby served as Texas Lieutenant Governor from 1973 to 1991. Winegarten, a practiced freelance writer, penned this slim, readable volume for the Louann Atkins Temple Women & Culture Series, which includes a handy time line. It originally came out in 2014, but the author continues to speak around town on the subject, including a recent presentation to the Capitol of Texas Rotary Club.
“Saving San Antonio: The Preservation of a Heritage.” Lewis F. Fisher. Trinity University Press. Now out in a second edition — in paperback — this essential book on historic preservation chronicles one of the oldest such movements in this part of the country. As soon as the railroads arrived in the late 1870s — ending this major city’s long geographic isolation — lovers of its Spanish, Mexican, Anglo and German heritage spoke out against the destruction of its ancient sites. Fisher, who has written several books about San Antonio and its history, is something of a myth buster, though perhaps not as disruptive as Chris Wilson, whose “The Myth of Santa Fe” stripped away the Anglo-American image-making of that tourist town. This book is thoroughly and painstakingly researched and it includes rarely seen images of San Antonio before, during and after the battles to keep its built environment safe.
“The Republic of Football: Legends of the Texas High School Game.” Chad. S. Conine. University of Texas Press. It sometimes seems that one in every five books about Texas is about football. Waco-based Conine is a journalist and, more to the point, an enthusiast. Here he interviews coaches, players and others to resurrect outstanding high school programs around the state, from Snyder’s 1952 season to Aledo’s record string of wins from 2008 to 2011. Austinites will recognize some greats witnessed locally in high school or college play, such as Drew Brees and Colt McCoy. When historians look back on this time in Texas, they will find no shortage of records about a particular communal activity engaged every fall.
“The Red River Bridge War: A Texas-Oklahoma Border Battle.” Rusty Williams. Texas A&M University Press. Who doesn’t love a feud? I knew next to nothing about this short but consequential fight between Oklahoma and Texas over a Red River toll bridge. In the summer of 1931, National Guard units from the two states faced off, backed by Texas Rangers and masses of angry civilians. The two-week skirmish included the presence of field artillery and a Native American peace delegation. Williams is a former reporter with a sweet tooth for history and every indication suggests he’s also a diligent researcher. The wider question settled for a time after this confrontation involved the place of private highways and bridges in a free market, a subject that has returned to the forefront in recent years.
“The Art of Found Objects: Interviews with Texas Artists.” Robert Craig Bunch. Texas A&M University Press. The found object as art has a long and distinguished history in this state. Bunch, a librarian at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, has interviewed more than 50 Texas artists — including a few expats — about the gritty insides of their creative processes. Despite the size of the volume and its color execution, it’s not a picture book. The sampled images are relatively small. But the details are sometimes priceless. Neither is this a regionalist survey. The artists Bunch contacted — the conversations are rendered in a Q&A format — represent all sorts of styles, materials and genres. It doesn’t appear this edition in the Joe and Betty Moore Texas Art Series is in any way attached to an exhibit. But some curator might get some ideas.
Face facts, it’s still summer, weather-wise in Austin. So let’s look back at some recent Texas titles before rummaging through the fall books.
“The Material Culture of German Texans.” Kenneth Hafertepe. Texas A&M Press. This is a big, beautiful book on a subject that will delight antiquarians and collectors as well as the just plain curious. Heftertepe, who chairs the department of museum studies at Baylor University, has already provided two volumes essential to understanding our region, “Abner Cook: Master Builder on the Texas Frontier” and “A Guide to the Historic Buildings of Fredericksburg and Gillespie County.” Here, he delves into a rich variety of vernacular architecture, as well as covering cabinetmakers, interiors, public buildings, houses of worship and — smart to include — graveyards and grave markers. Hafertepe speaks on his book’s subject at the Neill-Cochran House, designed by Abner Cook, on Sept. 25.
“Haiku Austin: Vol 1.” Carlotta Eike Stankiewicz. Haiku Empire Press. Small gift books are all the rage. And we approve. Not every opus should double as a weapon. Stankiewicz’s slender volume brandishes its bright, quirky images and light, quirky words quite effectively. Don’t seek profundities here. Instead enjoy page after page of knowing smiles inspired by our town’s beloved singularities. Sample “Lucy in Disguise,” based on the costume shop on South Congress: “sequins and Spandex/drag queens flirt with evil clowns/grown-ups play dress-up.”
“We Come to Our Senses.” Odie Lindsey. Norton. I look forward to reading this book more carefully and interviewing the Nashville-based author, who has lived in Austin and sets some of his stories here. Lindsey will appear at the Texas Book Festival Nov. 5-6. I can tell you from what I’ve read so far: His dialogue and scene-setting ring absolutely true. His prose reminds me, to some extent, of the plays and the novel, “Rules for Werewolves,” by Austinite Kirk Lynn, which I understand is being considered for movie or TV treatment. Lindsey’s vets are characters of natural interest, given the generational involvement in what seem like endless wars fought for an American public that doesn’t much care.
“Finding Dorothy Scott: Letters of a WASP Pilot.” Sarah Byrn Rickman. Texas Tech University Press. The author is one of the key keepers of the flame regarding the nearly lost history of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, who trained in West Texas and ferried planes from base to base during World War II. (We recently wrote about one of the WASP flier, Susie Winston Bain, pegged to an excellent exhibit at the Bullock Texas History Museum.) Here, Rickman presents the letters of Scott, preserved by her twin brother, which reveal the flier’s inner life, but also the day-to-day routines of the WASP forces. Incredibly ambitious, Scott died in a mid-air crash at age 23.
“The Mammals of Texas.” (Seventh Edition). David J. Schimdly and Robert D. Bradley. University of Texas Press. I love this book. And I’ve used it in the field for years. I can’t tell you what has been improved in this, the Seventh Edition, but what will likely open the eyes of first-timers are the number of whales, porpoises and dolphins that live just off our coast, as well as the numerous introduced species, such as eastern Thompson’s gazelles, Barbary sheep and Sika deer. There are even Japanese macaques loose in Central Texas. The authors have not left out domesticated mammals, which fewer Texans could identify these days as the state urbanizes and suburbanizes. One thing: The range maps, organized by county reports, seem pretty primitive for such a image-conscious publisher like UT Press.
“A Kineñero’s Journey: On Family, Learning and Public Service.” Lauro F. Cavazos and Gene B. Preuss. Texas Tech University Press. A Kineñero is a descendant of Mexicans who worked on the King Ranch in the 1800s. Former Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos — appointed by President Ronald Reagan — counts himself as one. His father served as ranch foreman. A longtime educator, Cavazos also was president of Texas Tech University. He is assisted here in recalling his journey by Preuss, a professor of history at University of Houston-Downtown. The father of 10 children with Peggy Ann Murdoch, Cavazos was blessed with a wide-ranging interest in learning and, especially in interactions among cultures.
“Texas Land Grants, 1750-1900: A Documentary History.” John Martin Davis, Jr. McFarland. Despite the cover art, this is a serious book about serious history. What could be more important to a country than the claim to the land and its resources? Especially in Texas, where, until the modern era, much of what happened here happened because of land grants. Davis, a retired tax attorney who lives in Fort Davis, is an authority on maps. He patiently takes the reader through the history of Spanish and Mexican grants, military and emigrant headrights, Republic of Texas practices, grants among disputed territories in the Trans-Nueces and Trans-Pecos regions, as well as homestead, education and internal improvement grants. He also provides lots of images of sample grants.
UPDATES: References to Lauro Cavazos, Kenneth Hafertepe and Sarah Byrn Rickman have been corrected.