Writing a biography, the story of another person’s life, is a tricky undertaking. People are busy living their lives and few take the time to chronicle them as they go. Oveta Culp Hobby worked in the newspaper business a long time. She spent much of her life telling other peoples’ stories, not her own.
I used a variety of sources to compile this account of Oveta’s life. I interviewed her son and two of her granddaughters. I read several books that contained information about her, which you can find listed in the bibliography. I read many newspaper articles written about her, especially during her time as director of the Women’s Army Corps and secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. I consulted her archives, which are collections of her papers, located both at the Woodson Research Center Special Collections Archives at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and the Oveta Culp Hobby Memorial Library at Central Texas College in Killeen, Texas. I also read academic papers and dissertations written about her.
There are many people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for believing in me and in this project. First is Theresa May, editor-in-chief at the University of Texas Press. Not only did she love this project from the first time I shared it with her, she stood by me as life bounced me around a bit and reminded me to always follow my passions and ideals. My mother, Ruthe Winegarten, instilled in me the love of good storytelling. While most people my age talk of falling asleep at night to the sound of their mothers’ sewing machines, my comforting nighttime sound was the rhythmic music of my mother’s bright blue IBM Selectric typewriter, which lulled me to sleep as she wrote her books on Texas women’s history.
My father, Al Winegarten, always listens to my ideas and still sends me extra money so I can pay for all the little hidden necessities a book like this requires, like photo permissions, so the gorgeous pictures here can bring Oveta’s story to life. To my heart partner, Cindy Huyser, who picks up the household duties when I’m immersed in finishing a project, I am always and forever thankful for your support. And to my brother, Marc Sanders, who reminds me not to take myself too seriously and to cherish all the little things in life.
A good writer has good writer friends to read manuscripts and give honest feedback, and I certainly have my share of good writer friends. Nancy Baker Jones and Robert Pando provided much-needed critical reviews that helped keep my errors to a minimum. To the Hobby family—Bill, Diana, Laura Hobby Beckworth, and Heather Catto Kohout—I am indebted for sharing their personal memories of Oveta. To the marvelous women in my Wednesdivas critique group—Marty McAllister, Mary Day Long, P. J. Pierce, and Jeanne Guy—you will always hold a special place in my heart for your diligence and love. To Kimberly Cockrill, who sat with me for endless hours and helped me finish the book, you are my hero.
I have tried to put together as accurate a story as possible about this remarkable woman, and I’m sure I’ve made mistakes along the way. I’ve done my best to paint an honest picture of Oveta, to show her sincerity and love of her country, her dedication to making the world a better place, her humor, and her humanity. If this story inspires just one person to take a risk and try to do something they didn’t think themselves capable of, I will consider my job to have been done well. I hope you, dear reader, are that person.
—Debra L. Winegarten Austin, Texas
Growing up in Killeen, Texas
Oh, it's the easiest thing in the world. All you have to do is just be equal.
—Oveta Culp Hobby, 1978
Lynn Culp opened her front door and reached out to hug her older sister who was visiting from Washington, D.C. She took one look at her sister and stepped back, aghast. Her big sister was wearing a uniform—a military uniform!
"Oveta," Lynn said, looking her over with excitement, "what are you?"
"I'm a colonel!" Oveta answered.
In 1943, women did not hold such ranks in the Army. In fact, before the start of World War II, women didn't even serve in the military, except as nurses. But Oveta Culp Hobby had just become the first woman in the United States ever to be appointed a colonel. She was the director of the first women's military organization, called the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC, for short. There was a scarcity of manpower in the United States Army, even though most young men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five had been drafted or required to sign up for military duty. So many of the men were needed as soldiers on the battlefields that there weren’t enough people to fill the non.combat jobs. Congress passed a bill authorizing women to join the military, and Oveta was tapped to lead that effort.
Lynn began to weep when she realized what an important role Oveta had been given.
"Don't cry," Oveta said, comforting her little sister. "I'm going to be the best colonel you've ever seen!"
Shortly thereafter, Lynn, Oveta, and Oveta’s husband, William P. Hobby, a former Texas governor, arrived at the Houston Country Club for lunch. They walked into a huge, noisy dining room filled with people but had to wait a few moments for their table. Suddenly, the room became very quiet as people caught sight of Oveta in her new uniform. A few people stood up and started applauding. Soon, everyone in the entire restaurant was standing up, congratulating America's newest and first-ever female colonel, Oveta Culp Hobby.
Once the Hobbys were seated at their table, people came over to congratulate Oveta—so many that a line formed. Oveta was gracious and spoke to everyone who stopped by.
Her sister Lynn said later, "I don't think she got a bite to eat that day."
Because of her accomplishments, Oveta Culp Hobby’s name is now etched in today's Texas and American history books, but her life started out far more humbly.
Oveta was born in Killeen, Texas, a small town fifty miles north of Austin, in Bell County, on January 19, 1905. She was the second of seven children born to Ike W. Culp and Emma Elizabeth Hoover Culp. Emma Culp read the name "Oveta" in a romance novel and liked the sound of it so much, she gave the name to her second daughter. In the Cherokee language, the word “oveta” means "forget." But the young Oveta Culp was destined to be unforgettable.
Oveta’s father, Ike, was a lawyer in Killeen and a Texas state legislator whose own father, John Robinson Culp, came to Texas after the Civil War. Her great-grandmother, Rachel Eaton Culp, was a “fearless woman who rode on horseback, dodging Indians in darkness when called to aid the sick."
Emma, Oveta's mother, collected food, clothing, and money from the more well-to-do folks in town and shared these resources with the town’s poor people. Emma sent Oveta and her sister to deliver baskets of food and clothing to their neighbors who were going through hard times.
Years later, Oveta's sister Lynn asked their mother what Oveta had been like when she was young. To which Emma replied, “Oh, Oveta was never young.”
During one church Sunday school class in 1910, the five.year-old Oveta received an unusual assignment.
"Class," her teacher said, "today we're signing pledges for temperance. Each of you will sign your name to this paper. In return, you'll get one of these lovely white ribbons provided by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union."
When it was Oveta's turn to sign the pledge, she looked the paper over, thought about it, and handed the pledge back to her teacher, unsigned.
"Sign your name, Oveta," the teacher said.
"No, ma’am," the young Oveta said politely.
The shocked teacher said, "Oveta, you obey me, or I'm going to tell your mother."
Oveta turned and silently walked back to her desk, waiting for class to be over.
But by the time Oveta got home, her grandmother, who took care of her after school, had received word about the matter. As was often the practice in those days, Grandma had a switch ready, hoping to "beat some sense" into Oveta's five-year-old head. It was only after the whipping that Grandma sat Oveta down and asked her why she refused to sign the Sunday school pledge.
Through her tears, Oveta whispered, "I didn't sign because I don't know what temperance means."
Temperance was a social movement that urged banning the sale and drinking of alcoholic beverages. People who promoted the temperance idea pressured the United States government to pass anti-alcohol legislation and encouraged the people in community churches to support their mission. But Oveta didn't know about any of that, and she wasn't willing to sign her name to something she didn't understand.
Oveta's grandmother apologized.
Years later, Oveta told a little more of that story, explaining, “While it’s true I didn’t know what temperance was, I didn’t want to sign the pledge because while I was pretty sure it was something I wouldn’t do now, I wasn’t sure I might not want to do it in the future, and I didn’t want to make a promise on something I wasn’t sure I could keep.”
Her sister Juanita remembered the day Oveta tried to convince their mother to take her to the movies. Her mother told Oveta no. “If you don’t take me,” Oveta pouted, “I will throw myself out of the window!” Mrs. Culp told her daughter she had too much to do and was sorry, but she couldn’t take her to the movies. Oveta then went to the window ledge, stood on a chair, and hurled herself out the window.
Fortunately, the open windowsill was only about two feet off the ground and, landing in the soft grass, Oveta wasn’t hurt in the least.
After the school day was over, rather than going home, Oveta often went to her father's law office, where she spent many afternoons listening to legal talk and reading books far beyond her years or vocabulary. By the time she was ten, she had read the Congressional Record, an extraordinary feat for anyone, let alone someone that young.
"Living in a small town as I did," Oveta would later recall, "I guess the Congressional Record was sort of spectacular in that it had very broad horizons. . . . It touched all parts of the world, all kinds of issues, and it was an interesting document."
Oveta was raised in a prosperous household with six other brothers and sisters, but all the children helped with the family chores. The Culp children picked cotton in the fields. Rich or poor didn't matter in their community; everyone picked their share of cotton.
At the beginning of sixth grade, Oveta's teacher announced to the class that a new Bible would be given to the student with the highest grades in spelling at the end of the school year. Being a lover of both the Bible and reading, Oveta told her teacher, "You might as well put my name on that Bible right now." She was determined to be the winner, and she consistently studied hard all year. By the end of the school year, her teacher awarded Oveta the new Bible, which she later read in full three times.
In the early part of the twentieth century, when Oveta grew up, women were not allowed to vote like men. Every day was full of rigorous chores, both inside the house and out on the farm or ranch. Some women held paid jobs outside the home, but most did not.
In 1917, Texas Governor Jim Ferguson was impeached for, among other things, embezzling state funds. The lieutenant governor, William Hobby, replaced Ferguson and became the youngest person, at age thirty-nine, ever to be governor of Texas. When election time came around again, Hobby decided to run to keep his governorship, and Mrs. Culp and a great many other women in their rural community decided to help him campaign.
One hot summer afternoon, Oveta’s mother stood in their Killeen home doorway. “I can see her open the screen door, and I remember exactly what she had on,” Oveta said. “She was wearing a pale blue suit and a white straw hat and high, laced white boots. She was pulling on her gloves, and she turned to my sister and me and said, ‘Girls, you’ll have to look after the peaches. I’m going out to campaign for Will Hobby.’”
“We had an enormous orchard with peaches, plums and pears," Oveta remembered. "I spent weeks canning fruit in 1918 while my mother went out campaigning for William Hobby in his race for governor. That was the first year [Texas] women were voting. Hobby had gotten that bill through the legislature so women could vote that year. . . . My mother and a great many other women I knew were really out in the backwoods, looking for votes for him.”
In 1918, Governor Hobby defeated Jim Ferguson by the largest majority ever received in a Democratic primary. In Texas, each political party holds what is called a “primary” election, where voters choose which candidates will run for their party in the state-wide general election. Little did Oveta know at the time the importance Governor Hobby would play in her life.
In 1919, when Oveta was fourteen years old, the Culp family moved about twenty-five miles east, to Temple, Texas, which was a larger town than Killeen. That same year, Ike Culp was elected as a member to the Texas House of Representatives. Oveta had inherited her father’s passion for politics. He frequently took her with him to the Texas state capitol in Austin when the legislature was in session. There, Oveta became a serious observer of each day's proceedings and acquired a deeper love for the law and the intricate workings of government.
Ike Culp urged his daughter to get out of their small town as soon as she was able. He understood how much Oveta could offer to the world, and did everything in his power to ensure that she had opportunities to expand her horizons. “My father expected a lot of me,” she said. “He was the one who always kept after me to do my best. Certainly my mother and father didn’t categorize what was for a girl and what was for a boy to do.”
The way the Texas legislature works is that the lawmakers meet from January until May once every two years, and then go back to their homes and maintain their “regular” jobs outside of being state legislators. Because she accompanied her father frequently on his legislative trips to Austin, Oveta had the opportunity to visit the halls of government where her father worked and experience the legislative process in a way most teenagers never do.
Oveta attended Temple High School and did well enough in her classes, but because of her advanced knowledge and experience with the state legislature, she soon became bored with high school. There just wasn't enough intellectual stimulation in the classroom, compared to the excitement of the legislation and law. By the time she was sixteen, she had missed a lot of school because of her frequent trips to Austin with her father.
While in high school, Oveta studied drama and elocution, the art of clear speaking with correct enunciation. She and her friends often put on theater performances for the whole town. She once performed Alaska, the Brave Cowgirl so eloquently that a visiting Chautauqua manager offered her a touring position. When her parents refused to let her go, she and her friends formed a group they called "The Jolly Entertainers." They visited nearby towns and raised money to buy church organs.
Oveta’s youngest sister, Lynn Culp Loving, told this story relating why Oveta never graduated high school:
Before graduation, Oveta had a misunderstanding with the principal at Temple High School. She was to prepare and deliver a speech, and the principal read it beforehand and he did not approve of it at all. He told her to write another speech on a different topic.
Oveta was angry. She walked out of Temple High School. Daddy sent her to Baylor Academy, a part of Mary Hardin-Baylor College, at Belton, eight miles from Temple.
It was not unusual for the Culps to entertain Texas politicians and hopeful candidates at their dinner table. The men would jokingly ask Oveta, “Going to be a lawyer like your Daddy when you grow up?” Or, “Gonna run for the legislature in your Pa’s place next term?” While the men may have been joking, Oveta took their questions seriously, and she envisioned a legal career of her own some day.
Meanwhile, on August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution became law, giving all women the right to vote, thanks to the efforts of the women's suffrage movement and people like William Hobby. For the first time in American history, women could vote in the full elections, including the presidential elections. This was a groundbreaking time for American women, and by her actions in the movement to grant equality to women, Oveta's mother taught her about standing up for women's rights in our country.