Leadership Style of Oveta Culp Hobby

Born in Killeen in 1905, Oveta Culp’s small Texas town beginnings belied what would be her legacy: to become the first woman appointed a colonel in the United States Army, the second woman appointed to a U.S. presidential cabinet and a mover-and-shaker who helped make Houston great. 

The Power of One’s Word
In 1910, when the Women’s Christian Temperance League came to her Sunday school classroom asking the children to sign a pledge for temperance in exchange for a white ribbon, Oveta refused. When word got back to her grandmother, Oveta received a whipping. Her grandmother then asked why she didn’t sign the pledge. 
“Because I didn’t know what temperance meant, and I didn’t want to give my word on something for which I didn’t know what I was promising,” the five-year-old told her grandmother. 
 
Years later, Oveta told a slightly different version of the story. “While it’s true I didn’t know what temperance meant at the time, I wasn’t sure it  wasn’t something I might not want to do when I grew up.”
 
She was so noted for her integrity that when then U.S. Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson introduced her to the Congress at the hearing to approve her cabinet appointment as Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, he said, “Texans 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…or the trustee of your estate.” 
 
Giving Women a Chance
In 1942, Oveta was appointed the Director of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and made a US Army Colonel. “As a staunch supporter of civil rights, Oveta campaigned to make sure that not only were black women represented in the WAAC, but that they were also invited to be part of the first class of Corps officers. She wanted to be sure that even though the women were segregated according to race (something over which she had no control due to Army regulations), the black women would have qualified officers of their own race as leaders.” 
 
Congress wanted to give pregnant female soldiers dishonorable discharges for “pregnancy without permission” (being unmarried). Oveta went before the august body and said, “If you’re going to give pregnant female soldiers dishonorable discharges, you also have to give the male soldiers who fathered illegitimate children dishonorable discharges with the same loss of rights and pay.” Congress changed their tune, and the women received medical treatment and honorable discharges, instead. 
 
When Kay Bailey graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1963, no Houston firm would hire a woman lawyer. On a whim, Kay Bailey stopped by KPRC-TV, owned at the time by The Houston Post, which was in turn owned by Oveta and her husband, the former Governor William P. Hobby. Even though Kay Bailey had no journalism experience, and there wasn’t a job opening at the time, the station manager called Oveta because “no one with a law degree had ever applied for a job at KPRC before.” 
 
Oveta told the station manager to hire Kay Bailey because “having her television station put the first woman on broadcast news was right up her alley.”  
 
Thirty years later, in 1993, Kay Bailey Hutchison became the first female U.S. Senator elected from Texas.
 
Oveta applied the lessons she learned in the Army to her civilian life, keeping a rigid, structured schedule as she attended to both business and domestic duties. A 1953 Time magazine article, Lady in Command, described her in part:
 
“…she moved with the poise and confidence of a successful business executive...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.”
 
Debra L. Winegarten is the author of “Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist.” She resides in Austin and is available for presentations on Oveta Culp Hobby. (www.sociosights.com)
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