• U.S.

THE CABINET: Lady in Command

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The sixth-grade teacher in the public school in little (pop. 750) Killeen, Texas had an announcement for her class: the prize for the best speller at the end of the term would be a handsome Bible. The dismissal bell was still resounding when a self-assured little girl came forward from her desk, and in a firm, quiet voice told the teacher she might as well go right ahead and inscribe the Bible. It ought to be inscribed to Oveta Culp. Pig-tailed Oveta Culp wasn’t being brash or smart-alecky ; she knew she was the best speller, and was merely stating what she regarded as inevitable. At term’s end, Oveta won the Bible.

Last week another inscription was hung up on a signpost on the fifth floor of

Washington’s vast Federal Security Building. “Office of the Secretary,” it read, in shiny new gilt letters. Beyond the door, in a mulberry-and-cream office, Oveta Culp Hobby, the nation’s first Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, was beginning the biggest spelldown of her career. She looked small and feminine behind her broad mahogany desk, but she moved with the poise and confidence of a successful business executive, as she checked “yes” and “no” on a long list of requests for appointments and telephone priorities. Now & then she paused reflectively and puffed on a Parliament, then turned back to work. Outside, down through the mazes, corridors and channels of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), the news was spreading that Oveta Hobby was a lady in complete command.

A Theme of Unity. Oveta Hobby’s new job brings her into direct contact with more U.S. citizens than anyone else in

Government. As supervisor of the Social Security Administration, she is custodian of old-age funds for 67 million people ($17.7 billion gathering interest), disburser of pensions and welfare funds amounting to $4 billion a year, the protector of the nation’s disabled and needy, orphans and old folks. In the name of the President and the Public Health Service, she manages one of the world’s greatest medical research centers, provides operations for harelipped children and blue babies, maintains hospitals for merchant seamen and dope addicts, an insane asylum and a leprosarium. Through the Office of Education, she distributes funds to land-grant colleges and administers the teacher-student exchange program with foreign countries. She is legally concerned with the problem of tapeworm control among Alaskan caribou, with cancer research, and with the attitude of Congress toward fluoridation of children’s teeth. She prints Braille books, extends credit to deserving citizens, bosses the nation’s largest Negro university (Howard, in Washington), and brings out new editions of the Government’s most durable bestseller.*

Because her department is newest in the Cabinet, Secretary Hobby must walk at the end of all official Cabinet processions, yet her Department of Health, Education and Welfare is bigger in budget terms ($1.7 billion in fiscal 1953) than all other Cabinet departments, save Defense and Treasury. She must fend off more pressure groups and lobbies than any ten Senate committees; she must woo a shy but fascinated Congress (already she has made nine trips to Capitol Hill). Yet, amid the bewildering mass of unrelated facts, figures and projects. Oveta Hobby was quick to discover a theme of organic unity: through the department, she said recently, runs “a common thread of family service. Cut one, and you destroy the lifeline of the others.”

The Senate Agreed. Ike Eisenhower chose Oveta Hobby to run the new welfare department partly because Oveta is a Texan and he owed an election debt to Texas, partly because she is a woman and he had promised to install women in positions of responsibility. But he chose her principally because Oveta Hobby possesses a rare talent for tactful administration. The Senate agreed with the President. Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson, a Texan himself, took her under his wing and introduced her around Capitol Hill. When her name came up before the Senate Finance Committee, the Senators confirmed her in seven minutes.

“Texans,” explained Lyndon Johnson later, “are not always in agreement on everything. But there’s one thing there’s no disagreement on—that’s Oveta. She’s the type of woman you’d like to have for a daughter or a sister, a wife or a mother, or the trustee of your estate.”

The Call Was Necessary. Oveta Hobby’s life moves with the precision of a metronome. At home in Houston, she issues household instructions to her domestic staff at weekly meetings. A fitful sleeper, she keeps a notebook on her bedside table, makes frequent midnight notes on her “planned life.” Her office appointments are lined up on a conveyor-belt schedule. Her double-handled calfskin bag, which she carries everywhere, is a special efficiency container which she designed for her business papers, her purse, and a Book of Common Prayer.

She never bustles, but she is constantly busy. Her calm demeanor almost never deserts her. When she is displeased, her expression telegraphs the clue: her warm smile vanishes, is instantly replaced by a gelid stare. She is never fussy, but her eye and ear catch the smallest details. Last month, when the old Federal Security Agency was officially christened the Department of Health. Education and Welfare and she was sworn in as Secretary, Oveta went immediately to a White House telephone to call her office. She noted with satisfaction that the operator promptly chirped “Health, Education and Welfare” instead of “Federal Security Agency.”

Between Oveta and her husband, onetime (1917-21) governor of Texas, William Pettus Hobby, there is a deep bond which distances and careers do not seem to disturb. During the war, when Oveta was in Washington, she talked to Will in Houston every night. (Once, when an operator asked him if his long-distance call was necessary. Will replied ‘”Course it is. I gotta talk to Oveta, don’t I?”) Last month, when Will celebrated his 75th birthday, Oveta left her Washington desk in time to catch a 10 a.m. plane. She arrived in Houston at 2 p.m., presided over an enormous birthday party, turned in at midnight, turned out again at 3 a.m., and flew back to Washington in time for a 9:30 a.m. Cabinet meeting.

A Girl Named Forget. The Culp family can hardly remember when Oveta was not the successful mistress of her own destiny. When she was a little girl in Killeen, her mother and father had to urge her to go to the movies or on a Sunday afternoon drive. Oveta was usually too busy reading. The Culps liked to fish in the Lampasas River, but Oveta couldn’t waste valuable time on such nonsense. She rarely participated in children’s games, except for an occasional round of “church,” where she could parade her Biblical knowledge (she had read the Bible three times through by the time she was 13).

She was born on Jan. 19, 1905* in a frame house on a quiet street shaded by hackberry trees, the second of Isaac and Emma Hoover Culp’s seven children. Her mother named her Oveta (an Indian word for forget) after a character in a romantic novel, and because it rhymed so pleasantly with Juanita, the name of the first Culp daughter. Mother Culp is a remote cousin of Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover; at 72, she still leads an active life in Killeen, fishing, gardening, and driving her own Buick. Ike Culp was a rawboned, fiery-tempered lawyer, a Baptist, a Prohibitionist, a politician and a lover of horses. As a skinny kid, Oveta became Ike’s undisguised favorite, absorbed his love of horses and politics. On summer evenings, Ike Culp liked to stand among his horses and, cracking a whip, make them gallop around him in circus-ring precision. The lesson was not lost on Oveta.

Too Young to Vote. When Ike Culp won a seat in the Texas legislature in 1919, Oveta went with him to Austin, never missed a day’s session. A solemn-eyed child of 14, she sat beside her father in the turbulent House of Representatives, picked up the nuances of politics and law like a prairie hen picking up seeds. Ike vacated his seat in 1921 and Oveta returned to the life of a schoolgirl, but after Austin, school was a big bore. She frequently skipped classes at Temple High School, though she managed, nevertheless, to lead her class. One year at Mary Hardin-Baylor College was enough for Oveta, and in 1923, when her father was returned to the legislature, she began to spend nearly all her time in Austin.

She let her mother think she was taking a degree at the University of Texas law school, but actually Oveta got herself a job at the capitol codifying banking laws for the State Banking Commission. Later, Oveta was appointed a clerk in the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, and in 1925 was selected by the speaker of the house as legislative parliamentarian for the new session. She was not yet old enough to vote. She soon became such a knowledgeable expert on parliamentary procedure that she wrote a book on the subject.

In Austin, Oveta Culp grew to dark and serious young womanhood. She went to dances and basketball games with the rising young men of Austin (among her beaux: Silliman Evans, now a Nashville publisher, James Allred, who became governor of Texas (1935-38), but most of the time she was too busy for the flapperish goings-on of the day. Old Ike Culp took to carrying a long-bladed, switchback knife in his pocket, ostensibly to pare his nails, but word got around the legislature that he intended to use it on any young man who attempted to get smart around Oveta.

Between sessions of the legislature, Oveta lived in Houston with Florence Sterling, sister of Ross Sterling, an oil millionaire and soon-to-be governor of Texas. Through Miss Sterling, who had been a leading suffragette in her younger days, Oveta got an off-session job as secretary to the new Texas League of Women Voters (inevitably, she became president of the League in later years). In 1930 Oveta decided to run for the Texas House of Representatives, was roundly defeated by a rival who campaigned against her by thundering that Oveta was a “parliamentarian and a Unitarian.” It was Oveta’s only try for elective office, the only major defeat of her career.

In 1924 Ross Sterling bought the Houston Post-Dispatch (later the Post) and installed as president Will Hobby, a successful Beaumont publisher and one of the most popular governors Texas ever had. Oveta went to work as a clerk in the circulation department. Ike Culp and Hobby were old friends. After the death of Hobby’s wife, Oveta and Will began to see each other after office hours. In 1931, when Oveta was 26, Hobby 53, they were married.

Elocution & Roses. At the time of the wedding, Ike Culp told his prospective son-in-law: “Will, she’s going to embarrass you. She doesn’t give a hang about clothes and doesn’t dress up the way she should.”

But Oveta knew her faults and her talents better than father Culp did. She ironed out her central-Texas drawl with elocution lessons, cultivated a taste for Modigliani, Bartok and yellow roses—as well as gowns by Valentina and Bergdorf Goodman hats.* She learned how to manage a vast (27-room), vaguely Georgian mansion. She learned aboutarcchitecture and decoration, collected antique silver. She acted in amateur theatricals, became a leader in social work, a Junior Leaguer, a patroness of the symphony.

Moreover, Oveta presented Will Hobby with two children. (William Pettus Jr., now 21, a student at Rice Institute and a part-time reporter on the Post, and Jessica, 17—named for Hobby’s good friend Jesse Jones—a student in Miss Hewitt’s Classes in Manhattan.) The old governor was inclined to spoil his children, but Oveta was not. She taught them everything from horsemanship to management of their allowances, ran the range from Bill’s Boy Scout merit badges to Jessica’s romantic confidences.When Jessica bought a strapless evening gown to wear to the Eisenhower inaugural ball, her mother ruled that it was much too daring. But instead of scolding, or returning the dress, she bought a stole which properly covered Jessica’s shoulders.

A Thorough Housecleaning. On the Post, Oveta progressed rapidly from book reviewer (good judgment, indifferent writing) to editorial writer (same). Then, when Hobby bought the Post from Jesse Jones (who got it from Sterling during the Depression), Oveta turned to the business side. Ruthlessly and effectively she reorganized the advertising and circulation departments from top to bottom. She moved to the newspaper’s radio station, KPRC, and upended that, too. Her interest in politics, meanwhile, had never waned, and more & more her contralto became a familiar and influential voice at Texas conventions and political meetings.

With the coming of World War II, Oveta took a consultant’s job as head of the War Department’s new Women’s Interest section. General Marshall, who knows a commander when he sees one, appointed her to organize and direct the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, a crypto-military appendix of the Army. In July 1943, Oveta got the WAAC changed to WAC, an integral and openly acknowledged part of the Army’s Active Reserve. The commanding officer: Colonel Oveta Hobby.

Khaki, Not Pink. Colonel Hobby’s job was completely new in U.S. military history. There were no precedents, only makeshift regulations. Writing the rules as she went along, Oveta established and gradually built up the Corps. She had all the usual headaches of male commanders, and many that were unique: special diets (the girls got too fat on the standard quartermaster menus), the prescribed 30-in. marching pace (WACs had a hard time maintaining it), and pink underthings flapping on barracks clotheslines (Oveta ordered khaki underwear for the WAC, though the girls didn’t like it).

Her causes were legion—but she kept her wit about her. “Give me my sword!” was her standard password when she left her Pentagon office. When she learned that women were going to be dishonorably discharged for “Pregnancy without Permission” (i.e., out of wedlock), she got after the generals, reasoned that male soldiers who fathered illegitimate children should, in all fairness, get the same treatment, suffer the same loss of rights and pay. The regulations were changed, and P.W.O.P. cases were given medical treatment and honorable discharges.

When the WAAC was first organized, Congress grudgingly admitted that women could do 54 different Army jobs; under Oveta’s constant nudging, they eventually came to fill 239 types of jobs—almost the whole sweep of noncombatant military duties. When the WAC was a year old, she proudly escorted Commander in Chief Franklin Roosevelt on his first full-dress review of the Corps. By 1944, WAC headquarters had requests for 600,000 women—more than three times the authorized strength of the Corps—from commanders all over the world.

D.S.M. to G.O.P. Through it all, Oveta managed to seem both completely military and completely feminine. She was a memorable figure around the Pentagon, with her trim uniform, Pallas Athene insigne, prematurely silver hair (recently retouched maturely black) and visored “Hobby hat” (which looked fine on Oveta and terrible on most other women).

But the going was far tougher than the colonel let on. When the New York Daily News’s Columnist John O’Donnell wrote that “Contraceptives and prophylactic equipment will be furnished the WAACs,” Oveta was heartsick. There was, inevitably, other malicious gossip to buck. In July 1945, Oveta was physically exhausted from the wear & tear. She turned in her eagles, was awarded the D.S.M. (the first woman ever to win it). Will Hobby hurried up to Washington, took her to a hospital, and hovered gently over her until she recovered. Then Will and Oveta resumed their newspaper life in Houston, working together at a roomy, jointly shared desk at home, with a direct line to the Post and a fine view of the oak trees in their yard.

A conservative Democrat (but no Dixie-crat), Oveta voted, nevertheless, for Wendell Willkie and Tom Dewey. In 1952, with her old Army friend Dwight Eisenhower in the race, Oveta fought for Ike in the Post, in the Texas primaries, at the Governors’ Conference and at the G.O.P. Convention in Chicago. After he won the nomination, Candidate Eisenhower brought Oveta to his New York headquarters as head of the Democrats for Eisenhower. By December, President-elect Eisenhower knew exactly whom he wanted to handle the problems of welfare in an administration which was out to prove it believed in welfare, while abhorring the welfare state.

Cottage Cheese & Homework. When she took office as history’s second woman Cabinet member, Oveta Hobby announced that her title would be Mrs. Secretary.* Then she settled down to the massive task of learning her job. She works six days a week (with time off every Saturday afternoon for a hairdo at Elizabeth Arden’s). Her day begins at 6:30 a.m. with a thorough perusal of the newspapers, and she arrives at the office a little after 9. As a rule, work continues through lunch (invariably cottage cheese or fruit salads), with Mrs. Secretary issuing orders as she eats. It is 7:15 p.m., and often later, before her powder-blue, Government-owned Cadillac pulls up in front of the Connecticut Avenue apartment where she lives (along with such other tenants as the Alben Barkleys, Senator Eugene Millikin, Justice Tom Clark). Then, after a shower and a light supper, there is homework. Most nights, Oveta Hobby is hard at work until midnight.

Between times, she keeps tabs on two other careers. The Post is airmailed to her every day, and she reads it closely and critically. The governor, who amiably accepts his role as a Cabinet member’s husband, divides his time between Houston and Washington, and young Bill telephones twice a week. Jessica comes down every weekend. In the spare moments of nine days, Oveta and a decorator furnished her eight-room apartment luxuriously, with impeccable Chinese antiques, genuine Matisse paintings.

Beyond a few generalizations (e.g., she will bury Oscar Swing’s dream of socialized medicine, is seeking a way to broaden the base of social security), Mrs. Secretary Hobby has made no official pronouncements. Her work has been confined to cutting the budget, and routine command decisions (clearing the way for the appointment of eleven assistants of her own choosing, moving the office hours ahead half an hour). But Oveta’s friends and admirers are certain she will have some surprises once she gets the hang of her job. Said one last week: “She’ll stay in harness a long time until she learns all the bends in the road. Then I predict she’ll come out with some spectacular, original, and very important development in federal welfare.”

Whatever Oveta does, she can be depended upon to do it thoroughly. When a reporter asked Will Hobby if he didn’t think his wife was just about the smartest member of the Cabinet, the governor gave a characteristic reply: ” ‘Course she is.” he said. “But if she weren’t, she’d have them thinking she was.”

*The Children’s Bureau’s Infant Care, which is published in eight languages, has sold 8,519,000 copies (at 20¢ a copy) over the past 39 years. *Jan. 19 is also the birthday of her two children. *Last year Oveta Hobby was eleventh on the list of the world’s best-dressed women, in a tie with Mamie Eisenhower. *”Call me Madam,” said Frances Perkins, the first woman Cabinet member, on her first day in office—and gave herself a title she has regretted ever since.

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