My education was doubly blessed. I’ve always made it a rule to pay attention to all people around me. After all, studying the human condition firsthand is extremely useful, no matter your vocation.
After growing up in Teague, attending Sam Houston State Teachers College for two years, I worked at my hometown Teague Chronicle for a year. Then, I opted to broaden my horizons and enrolled at the University of Houston.
UH was a private college and tuition reflected that. Where I’d been able to attend state-supported Sam Houston for a $50 per semester, the freight at UH was $15 per semester hour ($45 per regular course). In my final year, the bill went to $20 per hour.
For someone “working their way through college,” the freight was pretty heavy. So, I availed myself of an invitation from Aunt Olga (Mother’s sister) and Uncle Harvey. Their working-class family included four children. They said I could share a bedroom and double bed with their oldest child, and only son, Lowery. Room and board was $50 a month. That scarcely covered their expense and it was a hardship for their family. And, it was more appreciated than I could ever express.
This undertaking included an hour and a half ride, each way, every day on two buses. One was a private line that ended a mile away from their far northeast Houston home. Pioneer Bus Lines took me downtown where I caught a city bus to the UH campus.
Significant income was an absolute requirement. Earning it began with a $1 an hour morning job as a secretary-receptionist in the UH journalism and Graphic Arts department. Then I quickly added a student newspaper copy-editing job two afternoons per week for $5. In semester two, I stacked a commissioned ad sales job on a suburban paper onto that mishmash schedule. Desperate to finance my education, I also took on an occasional commissioned foray into the Saturday sale of men’s clothing.
ULTIMATELY, I became the full-time general manager of the newspaper, and finished my senior year in that post at a princely $300 a month.
Life proved interesting in every aspect.
Aunt Olga’s family attended a Missionary Baptist Church in East Houston. Uncle Harvey was the church song leader, an unpaid position, but it led to more than a few free meals for the family.Harvey and Olga had a friend (we’ll use his first name, Travis), who was actually an itinerant musician who grew up in a small rural community where my mother and her sister’s family lived. They’d known him all his life.
Travis played piano — a rousing Southern Gospel or, if the occasion required, a mean boogie-woogie. He went to small Baptist churches around the South, conducting Gospel “sangin’ schools,” and made “appearances” at various congregations in need of “special music.” Especially when Travis was in need of money or a few meals.
Whenever Travis came to a church for a school or special service, he usually found a single, middle-aged woman member of the congregation with whom to gain room and board. My cowboy daddy smilingly referred to Travis’ women as “grass widders.”
INEVITABLY, Travis’ visits to our particular area of Houston included one supper at Harvey and Olga’s house.
On one occasion, Uncle Harvey explained my presence to Travis. While he looked at me, Travis asked: “Whut’s thet boy gonna make, Hahvay? A lieyur?”
Of course, Harvey explained my choice of study to Travis, which never registered. He figured anybody who went to college was going to “make a lawyer.” Why else would you want to go to school? You could make a pretty decent living traveling around and conducting “sangin’ schools.”
Harvey made the most of Travis’ pronunciation with me after the nasal-twangy sangin’ school conductor left on his ongoing tour.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.