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FOSTER, MARCELLUS ELLIOT

FOSTER, MARCELLUS ELLIOT (1870–1942). Marcellus Elliot Foster [pseud. Mefo], newspaperman and businessman, was born at Pembroke, Christian County, Kentucky, on November 29, 1870, the son of Mariella (Fitzhugh) and Marcellus Aurelius Foster. The elder Foster had been a Confederate captain in Archer's Tennessee Brigade. The family moved to Huntsville, Texas, in 1873. After attending the public schools of Huntsville, Foster graduated from Sam Houston Normal Institute (now Sam Houston State University) in 1890. He also studied at the University of Texas in 1891–92. At the age of fifteen he began his newspaper career as an apprentice printer on the staff of the Huntsville Item. He received his first payment for a story he wrote about Sam Houston's grave. Foster moved to Houston around 1895 and joined the Houston Post. William Sydney Porter was on the Post staff at the time, and Foster's salary of twenty-four dollars a week exceeded that of Porter's by four dollars. Foster became the youngest managing editor of a Texas newspaper in 1899, when he was twenty-eight years old. His paper covered the Galveston hurricane of 1900. He ingeniously published the names of some survivors, all registered at Galveston's Tremont Hotel, instead of listing the dead.

Foster left the Post and founded the Houston Chronicle in October 1901. He invested $25,000, part of which he had received from a venture at the Spindletop oilfield near Beaumont, and initially edited a six-page afternoon daily, which reached a circulation of 7,000. By 1926 the paper reached nearly 75,000 readers each weekday and 85,000 on Sundays. Foster's Chronicle reputedly was the first Texas paper to sell for two cents a copy and to reject front-page advertising. Foster achieved great acclaim for his fight against the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. The Klan burned a cross on his lawn and tapped his telephone line. "During that time," he recalled, "I went straight from home to the office and from the office home. My life wouldn't have been worth five cents any place else." Foster, who wrote under the pen name Mefo, entitled his daily column "Our City."

Foster sold 50 percent of his ownership in the Chronicle to Jesse Holman Jones in 1908 in order to finance the construction of a new building to house the publication. Jones purchased Foster's remaining interest in the paper on June 26, 1926, when Foster retired. By that time the publication's estimated value was $2.5 million. Foster became editor of the Houston Press, a Scripps Howard newspaper, in February 1927. He maintained his reputation as a combative journalist through his column "Why." He attacked the state prison system and blamed a prisoner overcrowding crisis in 1930 on Governor Daniel J. Moody, whom he had formerly supported. He argued that Moody's refusal to grant pardons to deserving inmates caused the prison to grow beyond its capacity. Unique among Texas newspapers of the period, the Press criticized the frequently praised management of the prison system by Marshall Lee Simmons in the 1930s. Foster contended that Simmons condoned atrocities and concealed the deaths of prisoners. Because of the Press's derogatory stories, Simmons banned the publication from the prison.

Foster retired as editor of the Houston Press on January 13, 1937, but continued writing his "Why" column as editor emeritus. After a journalism career that spanned nearly fifty years, he definitively retired in March 1941. At a farewell dinner attended by former governors William Hobby and James Allred, Foster voiced his conviction that "Texas could be no great success without the work of the little men. Those who go to the factories or to the great stores of the country earn their small wages and return to their families satisfied and contented." Noting that twelve Texas governors had held office during his career, Foster remarked in a final "Why" column on March 21, 1941: "Sometimes it has occurred to you and me that we didn't pick them very carefully."

Due to his support for former governor James E. Ferguson's fight against the Ku Klux Klan, Miriam Amanda Ferguson named Foster to the University of Texas Board of Regents when she became governor in 1925. Foster, who served as president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association and the Texas Editorial Association, also owned the Journal Publishing Company of Beaumont in 1909–10. In Houston, Foster served as president of the Texas Avenue Realty Company, the University Land Company, and the M. E. Foster Properties Company and was director of the City National and Seaport National banks and the Standard Fire Insurance Company. He was an Episcopalian and a Democrat and belonged to the Elks Club, Kappa Sigma fraternity, the Yacht Club, and the Houston Riding and Polo Club. Foster published four books. The Town Tattler (1920) contained his speeches, South and Southeast Texas (1928) was a biographical reference work, Mefo Wanders and Wonders (1929) recounted his travels in Europe, and Words (1920s) included a number of his poems.

Foster married Zaidee L. Lochhead of Houston on September 6, 1905, and the couple had three children. He married Claire Collier LaBarge of Meridian, Mississippi, on March 9, 1919. He died at his home in Houston after suffering a heart attack on April 1, 1942. He was buried in Houston.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Houston Post, April 2, 1942. Huntsville Item, March 6, 1941. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Clarence R. Wharton, ed., Texas Under Many Flags (5 vols., Chicago: American Historical Society, 1930).

Paul M. Lucko

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Paul M. Lucko, "FOSTER, MARCELLUS ELLIOT," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ffo52), accessed July 24, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.