The Red Rooster and Elmer Kelton

Elmer Kelton
Elmer Kelton
Elmer Kelton
Elmer Kelton

I was working with Elmer Kelton on the San Angelo Standard-Times when Buffalo Wagons, his first best-seller western novel was published. Kelton was my friend and one of my early influences in the writing game. He told me to always hang onto my day job if I ever tried writing books.

Elmer Kelton was voted the greatest western novelist of all time by the Western Writers of America association. And he was as humble as St. Frances of Assisi.

The following copy details my rough start in the newspaper business.

The English professor’s name was Elton Miles. He was a member of the Sul Ross State College faculty in 1955.

Miles kept me after class one afternoon to deliver this message: “I know you have been writing theme papers for other students and charging them in the neighborhood of $10. The papers are obviously the work of one writer, and many of them are quite good. But this business is going to stop.”

Then Miles asked me what I was majoring in. I told him I had no major. I was taking general courses and drinking a lot of beer. He was a skinny little fellow with a crooked grin and a limp shock of brown hair that kept falling down over one of his eyes. I knew he was plenty smart. I sensed that he sort of liked me. Even when he was dressing me down. He was doing it with his lopsided grin.

“You are accomplishing nothing,” Miles said. “You need to transfer out of Sul Ross to a school with a journalism department.” He was telling more than suggesting. “Southwest Texas State in San Marcos has a journalism department. Joe Vogel is head of the department and he is my friend. I am going to recommend you to Joe. This is something you really need to do.”

The rest is history. I didn’t know what journalism really was at the time, but I became a journalist in spite of myself. Vogel was a one-man journalism department with one parttime professor by the name of Box. I never took a course from Box. All of my J school courses were from Vogel. I hit it big with Vogel, my very first article for the College Star was an interview I did with a half-naked female student with hair scorched in a student housing fire just off the main campus.

The reporter for the weekly San Marcos Record concentrated on the fire, the damage done, and the number of fire-fighters it took to control the blaze. I wrote about nothing but the half-naked girl with the burnt hair, and Joe Vogel loved my story.

I married my first wife, Vicky Miller, shortly before leaving Sul Ross and Alpine for San Marcos. Vicky had just graduated from Alpine High School. She and Ann Bounds were the two prettiest girls in Alpine High. I pegged Vicky as the most comely. After graduating from Southwest Texas State, my first newspaper job was editor of the Bay City News, a small Bay City weekly owned by shrimp boat owner and captain Steve Parsuit. Steve didn’t have a printing press. We got the Bay City News printed just a few miles up the road in El Campo at State Sen. Culp Krueger’s El Campo Leader-News and Svoboda (Svoboda was the Czech language part of the paper). El Campo was and still is rice farming country with roots going back to the Czech Republic. Before this, the country was known as Czechoslovakia and the language was Czechoslovakian. A number of the oldtimers still spoke the language back in the 1950s. I heard it in some stores around Bay City and El Campo.

I would write copy and headlines for our paper, then Parsuit’s business flunky Chuck Arthur and I would drive it to El Campo for printing.

I fished and drank a lot of beer the three months I was in Bay City, the big event of my Bay City newspaper tenure being the birth of my first child, Grady Michael Kindrick. Grady was born premature on June 26, 1957, in Matagorda Regional Medical Center. He weighed three pounds at birth. Within two months, his weight had climbed to that of a normal child of that age. I was making $65 a week in Bay City, and when it began looking like the Bay City News might have been on shaky ground, I headed for Kerrville to write for Rankin Starkey’s Kerrville Daily News. The pay at Kerrville was $70 a week.

We rented a little duplex not far from the Junction Highway that ran through Kerrville. Vicky was spoon feeding baby Grady. We couldn’t afford to go anywhere, and our only entertainment in those days was a little black-and-white TV with rabbit ears. We could see snowy forms on the little screen, and the audio was just as bad. Sometimes we tried to watch boxing and wrestling.

The Kerrville job lasted a month. I started on the wrong foot in Kerrville. Carroll Abbott was Starkey’s editor, and I was all ears as Abbott explained that, in order to become successful in the Kerrville newspaper business, a young newsman like me should join the Kerrville Junior Chamber of Commerce. Abbott was a big wheel with the Jaycees. He insisted that this was the only way for a young fellow with any kind of ambition to go.

I didn’t know what the hell a junior chamber of commerce was all about, but I wanted to do good so I told Abbott to sign me up. Abbott then directed me to the city park. The Miss Texas pageant had just been held in the Kerrville City Park and the Jaycees had been tasked with dismantling the stage and catwalk that had supported the beauty contestants.

The Jaycee who seemed to be in charge handed me a clawhammer.

“What do I do with this,” I asked.

“Start pulling nails out of that catwalk,” he said.

“What’s the pay?”

“Nothing, of course” he said. “The Junior Chamber of Commerce is a civic organization. We do work like this because we are proud of our city.”

I handed him back the hammer and quit the Kerrville Junior Chamber of Commerce on the spot. I never joined anything again.

But my days in Kerrville were already in short number. When Rankin Starkey ordered me to wear a coat and tie to work, I told him I would if he would pay the cleaning bill. He refused and I was headed to San Angelo the next day for a reporting job with the San Angelo Standard Times, the daily newspaper I grew up reading in my hometown of Junction.

I got the San Angelo job by telephone. I called and asked for the editor. Managing editor Ed Hunter came on the line. I told him I was from Junction, that I had graduated from Southwest Texas State, that I wasn’t making enough money in Kerrville, and that I needed to make more than

$75 a week. Hunter said he could start me at $85 a week, and I was rich. I herded Vicky and Grady into our peach-colored 1951 Ford sedan and we were loaded and rolling into the sand dunes and tumbleweeds of West Texas. I had the world by the tail with a down-hill pull. I would make money and history in the metropolis of San Angelo where the Harte-Hanks red rooster was emblazoned on the door of every Standard-Times staff car.

I did know that Houston Harte and Bernard Hanks came out of the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. They founded the San Angelo Standard-Times and branched out with a chain of mid-sized daily newspapers that included the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, the Greenville Hearld, Abilene Reporter-News, and three others that were not Texas papers. Bernard Hanks died during the early going, and Houston Harte kept the Hanks name in respect for Bernard Hanks’ widow.

It would be euphemistic to say that Houston Harte Sr. was eccentric. He was that and then some, a compact-sized executive with the stern and craggy features of a pitbull. He had red rooster images on most everything he owned.

I never knew the story behind Harte’s affinity for the barnyard cocks; I learned quickly, though, that the image of a crowing rooster in red ink was overlaid on the front page of every San Angelo newspaper when it rained an inch or more over three or more counties in the West Texas newspaper’s circulation area.

The red rooster was emblazoned on the door of every Standard-Times staff car. The foyer tile in Harte’s San Angelo mansion was red, white, and black, in the giant image of a crowing red rooster. Harte’s cufflinks were red roosters, and the newspaper icon was adapted by at least one independently-owned drinking joint, The Red Rooster on Concho Street. Harte-Hanks had no interest in the saloon, but most of the Standard-Times staff frequented the place.

The one staffer who did not drink in the Red Rooster or anywhere else was farm and ranch editor Elmer Kelton, a serious writer who was raised as a cowboy near Horse Camp on the Five Wells Ranch near Andrews in West Texas.

Kelton, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, is now recognized by many as the top writer of western fiction in America. His story lines were fiction, but Kelton’s work was as honest and unfailingly accurate as most pieces of library history.

Elmer had published his first western best-seller, Buffalo Wagons, when I met him. I was impressed with his humility. He wrote his fiction at night, his newspaper farm and ranch news by day.

“It’s fine to write western fiction at night,” Kelton once told me, “but be sure and hang on to your day job. There ain’t a lot of money in it.”

He then went on to win every western writers award available. He was voted the best western author in the counry by the Western Writers of America.

I liked Kelton because of his affable nature. He treated everyone the same and we all loved him. But he always declined when I invited him out drinking. I don’t think he even drank alcohol.

Publisher Houston Harte’s office was behind one-way glass. He could sit in his office and view everything going on in the newspaper city room. The outside of the glass was reflective, and new employees were known to fix their hair or squeeze pimples without knowing that the company’s chief executive was looking straight out at them.

I had been with the newspaper for about a year, long enough to rate a staff car with a red rooster on the door when I committed what I thought then was my worst gaffe in San Angelo. I was a general assignments reporter then, covering everything from car wrecks to an occasional murder away from San Angelo and Tom Green County. Each reporter had a designated parking spot in the Standard-Times lot. Mine was occupied by a cream-colored Cadillac when I pulled in from an assignment one rainy afternoon. A wooden sign that read Staff Only had somehow toppled over. It had a couple of rusty nails protruding from the sign board and it was caked with West Texas mud.

I picked the sign up and pitched it onto the hood of the Cadillac, mud and nails included. Then I found another parking place for the staff car and went into the newspaper building. I was in the newspaper snack bar when I heard old man Harte screech at Ed Hunter, the managing editor.

“Goddamn it Ed, find out right now who put that muddy sign with nails on my Cadillac.”

Hunter came to San Angelo from the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. He was a likeable professional, but he hadn’t been on the job long enough to know that the old newspaper pioneer had a soft spot in his heart for drunks and intemperant kid reporters.

Hunter was a little rattled. He seemed to know who to zero in on.

“Okay, Sam Kindrick, what about this?”

I had to confess.

“I thought Mr. Harte had a black Cadillac,” I told Hunter. “This one was cream-colored. I put the sign on it because it was in my parking space.”

Hunter was as collected as he could possibly be.

“Mr. Harte has five Cadillacs,” Hunter said. “One is black, one is white, one is blue, one is red, and this one is cream-colored. In the future, I think you had best not damage another Cadillac in the Standard-Times lot.”

Hunter didn’t know it at the time that old man Harte had never fired an employee for drinking or booze related mischief. George Kunkel would go on knee-walking, commode-hugging benders, only to return to his copy desk job withlittle or no repercussion. I never heard of Houston Harte drinking alcohol or being drunk, but his tolerance for booze-blitzed employees such as Kunkel and sports writer Blondie Cross was a topic of much discussion in high places and some not so high.

Blondie Cross covered high school football for the San Angelo Standard-Times, and anyone who knows anything about West Texas knows that high school football is king. Blondie Cross was a big, puffy albino-looking man with red skin and cloudy eyes. He wrote a Standard-Times sports column for years, and half of West Texas believed Cross had supernatural powers when it came to football game predictions. If Blondie predicted a team would win, that team almost always won, and the Standard-Time hierarchy ignored or tolerated Cross’s penchant for whisky.

First one and then another young reporter would be dispatched across West Texas to fetch Blondie and bring him home. The bosses all knew the score. My first Blondie Cross assignment found me driving to Eldorado where Blondie had supposedly had weather-related car trouble.
I found Cross’s car in a dry wash with water up to what we called the running boards in those days. The car had stalled but Cross was doing well.

He was sitting on top of the car as boiled as an owl.

My second child, Steven Howard Kindrick, was born August 27, 1958 in San Angelo’s Shannon Hospital. It was shortly after Steve’s birth that the word got out. Harte-Hanks was buying the San Antonio Express-News.

This, to me, was the bigtime. Houston Harte, we all knew, had long yearned for a flagship daily newspaper in a metropolitan setting.This was it and I was determined to go with them. I had little trouble making the transition. Ed Hunter recommended me, and I was subsequently hired by Express and News executive editor Charles O. Kilpatrick.

My salary: $100 a week in 1960. I had arrived.