Oveta Culp Hobby, first secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, first commanding officer of the Women's Army Corps, and chairman of the board of the Houston Post, second of seven children of Ike W. and Emma Elizabeth (Hoover) Culp, was born in Killeen, Texas, on January 19, 1905. Her father was a lawyer and state legislator. Oveta attended the public schools of Killeen and learned from her family the tradition of service to the community, to neighbors, to the state, and to the nation. Her mother, for instance, collected food, clothing, and money for the poor and sent her to deliver baskets of goods to neighbors who were going through hard times. She was only five or six when a temperance campaign swept Killeen, and at Sunday school all the small children were invited to sign the pledge and receive a Woman's Christian Temperance Union white ribbon to wear. Oveta thought it over and refused. She had no particular desire to drink liquor, she granted, but she might wish to when she grew up and thought it best not to give her word unless she was sure she was prepared to keep it. From her father she acquired an early love for the law, horses, and the intricate workings of government. She stopped in his office every afternoon on her way home from school to listen to the talk and to read books far beyond her years or vocabulary. By age ten she had read the Congressional Record. At thirteen she had read the Bible three times. In the sixth grade she won a Bible as the best speller in her class. When Culp was elected to the state legislature in 1919, he took the fourteen-year-old Oveta with him to Austin, and she became a serious and interested observer of each day's sessions. Even though she missed many school days during her father's term in Austin, she graduated from Temple High School high in her class. In this period she took up elocution and recited "Alaska, the Brave Cowgirl" so dramatically that a visiting Chautauqua manager offered her a touring contract. Disappointed when her parents refused to consider the glittering offer, she turned her surplus energies to organizing the "Jolly Entertainers," a group of half a dozen teenage musicians. They toured neighboring towns and gave benefit performances to raise money to buy church organs.
In the next two years, Oveta Culp studied at Mary Hardin Baylor College in Belton, taught elocution, put on school plays, and became a cub reporter on the Austin Statesman. At nineteen, she had her own library of 750 volumes studded with such items as Cases of Common Law Reading, Revised Civil Statutes, Jefferson and Hamilton, The Private Papers of Colonel House, and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1925, at the age of twenty, she was asked by the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives to act as legislative parliamentarian. She served in that capacity until 1931, while continuing her education with tutors and classes at the University of Texas. She became a clerk of the State Banking Commission and codified the banking laws of the state of Texas. Later she became a clerk in the legislature's judiciary committee. The National Democratic Convention was held in Houston in 1928, and Oveta Culp was released from her work as secretary of the Democratic Club to help with convention plans. When the campaign for Al Smith had gone its losing way, she was called to work in Tom (Thomas T.) Connally's campaign for United States senator against Earle B. Mayfield, the Ku Klux Klan candidate. She next worked on a Houston mayoral campaign, after which the new mayor offered her a post as assistant to the city attorney. She accepted, with the understanding that she would be released to return to Austin as parliamentarian when the next legislative session opened. At twenty-five she was persuaded to run for the state legislature from Houston, but was beaten by a candidate who whispered darkly that she was "a parliamentarian and a Unitarian." That ended her quest for elected office.
Oveta Culp knew former governor William Pettus Hobby because he was her father's friend. Hobby, after some years as publisher of the Beaumont Enterprise, had moved to Houston in 1924 as president of Ross S. Sterling's paper, the Post-Dispatch. In 1930, when Miss Culp was assistant to the city attorney, they resumed their friendship. On February 23, 1931, when she was twenty-six and Hobby fifty-three, they were married. "Everything that ever happened to me," she liked to say, "fell in my lap. And nothing in my life would have been possible without Governor." Up to this time, she had been too interested in books, politics, government, and horseback riding to give much thought to her own appearance. She used to say that when Will Hobby arrived for their wedding, her father warned his good friend, "Will, she'll embarrass you. She doesn't give a hang about clothes." But after her marriage, she added the art of dress to her studies. The couple had two children.
In 1931 Mrs. Hobby began learning newspaper publishing. She reviewed books, edited copy, wrote editorials, and thought of herself as assistant to the editor and publisher-her husband. Her official titles were book editor from 1933 to 1936, assistant editor from 1936 to 1938, and executive vice president in 1938. The Hobbys had bought the Post and were working intensely together to pay off the large debt the purchase entailed. While riding in the park one day, Mrs. Hobby was thrown from her horse and shattered her leg and a wrist. She edited the book pages from her bed and continued a research study she had begun for the Post. She returned to the office on crutches and resumed her newspaper work and her duties as president of the League of Women Voters of Texas. She retired as editor of the Sunday book page a few months after the birth of her son. She was at the same time becoming involved in community affairs-as a member of the board of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a member of the Junior League, a member of the Houston Symphony Orchestra Committee, and regional chairman of the depression-born Mobilization for Human Needs. She had a second serious accident in the summer of 1936. The Hobbys were returning from Dallas in a private plane when the pilots discovered a fire in the oil line. They landed the plane in a cotton field, and Governor Hobby was knocked unconscious. While other passengers pulled the pilots out of their flaming control room, Mrs. Hobby pulled her husband from the plane and away from the inferno. They drove the injured men into town in an old car borrowed from field workers. Mrs. Hobby helped the doctor cut charred clothing from the badly burned pilot and went with him in the ambulance to the hospital in Dallas. She was so calm throughout that it occurred neither to the doctor nor to hospital attendants that she too had been a passenger in the plane. When the fact emerged, they promptly hospitalized her. Meanwhile, she had been working on a book drawn from her experiences in the legislature. Mr. Chairman won quick acceptance as a handbook on parliamentary law. It was adopted as a textbook by the Texas public schools in 1938. In 1935 Buffalo Bayou flooded downtown Houston, and a citizens' committee was appointed to plan a flood-control program. Mrs. Hobby was the only woman on the committee. She was also Texas chairman of the advisory committee on women's participation in the New York World's Fair.
She was in Washington in June 1941 on Federal Communications Commission business. The Hobbys now owned a radio station, KPRC. She received a call from Gen. David Searles, who asked her to organize a section on women's activities for the army. The United States had just had its first peacetime draft, and the War Department was receiving up to 10,000 letters a day from women, many asking what they could do to serve their country. But Mrs. Hobby refused Searles's request, explaining that in Houston she had a husband, two children, and a job. Besides that, travel between Houston and Washington was time-consuming. The general then asked if she would draw up an organizational chart with recommendations on ways women could serve. She did so, and Searles asked her come to Washington to put the plan in operation. Again Mrs. Hobby refused, but told her husband about the request. Hobby, according to his wife, "was a patriot in the real sense of the word" who "thought you must do whatever your country asks you to do." "Any thoughtful person," he said, "knows that we are in this war, and that every one of us is going to have to do whatever we are called upon to do." Mrs. Hobby accepted the job. In her first press interview, she said she saw the task as one of telling the facts of the army in terms interesting to women. "For every one of the 1,500,000 men in the Army today," she stated, "there are four or five women-mothers, wives, sisters, sweethearts-who are closely and personally interested. Mothers are more interested in their sons' health than they are in army maneuvers. They want to know what their man or boy is doing in his recreational hours, what opportunities the men have for training and promotion, about the health of camps and the provisions made for religious life."
Mrs. Hobby was head of the Women's Interest Section, War Department Bureau of Public Relations, in 1941–42. At Gen. George Marshall's request, she studied the British and French women's armies and prepared a plan by which the United States could avoid their mistakes. She was heading home to Houston by way of Chicago, where she had a speaking engagement, when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. In her speech she made-as General Marshall always claimed afterward-this nation's first declaration of war. She called Governor Hobby from Chicago, and the two agreed that she must go back to Washington, where Secretary of War Henry Stimson and General Marshall gave her the task of finding what jobs women could do in regular army procedures with the least special training. Next, Marshall asked her to testify to Congress on the plan for a women's army. She was also asked to draw up a list of names of women who might command it. Marshall read the list, turned it face down on his desk and said, "I'd rather you took the job." Mrs. Hobby said she could not. Her husband said she could. She later stated, "It would never have crossed my mind to command an army of women. I never did learn to salute properly or master the 30-inch stride." The job she undertook was hard, often exasperating, frequently amusing, and sometimes heartbreaking. The new director had to travel constantly, speaking to large groups of men and women on the radical subject of enlisting volunteer women into the army. She traveled with an electric fan and iron, so that at each overnight stop she could wash, dry, and iron her khaki uniform-the only WAAC uniform in existence at the time.
Though she always insisted she had never had to "fight for anything," and though she was never a militant feminist, she developed an abiding awareness of the barricades some women have to surmount. Because Congress had been unwilling to make the women's corps an integral part of the army the women in the War Department found themselves in limbo. When Director Hobby sent requests to army engineers for plans for WAAC barracks, the engineers replied that they worked only for the army and that the WAAC was not army. Director Hobby and her staff were forced to draw their own barracks plans. To make the WAAC uniform attractive to large numbers of young women, Mrs. Hobby called in well-known designers. But the Army Quartermaster Corps vetoed the belt as a waste of leather and the pleat in the skirt as a waste of cloth, so the resulting WAAC uniform was a basic design of the Quartermaster Corps. Almost any army sergeant had his own jeep, but Director Hobby had to call for a car from the pool. She often worked all day and all night, went home for a shower, and returned for another day at the office. Commanding officers were horrified at the thought of women soldiers. One commandant ordered a fence built around the WAACs' barracks on the post and allowed WAACs to go to the post movie only two nights a week, while men went on other nights. The comptroller general's office decreed that it could not pay the women doctors of the WAAC because they were authorized only to pay "persons in military service." Secretary of War Stimson had to ask for a special act of Congress to enable Director Hobby to pay her physicians. She was invited as an officer in the army to use the facilities of the Army-Navy Club. But would she mind, the club official added, coming in by the back door?
The WAACs, all volunteers, proved themselves quickly. It was soon evident that one WAAC could often do the work of two men in certain tasks-from secretarial work to PBX operation to kitchen patrol to parachute folding. When the corps was first organized, Congress had reluctantly agreed that perhaps the women could do fifty-four army jobs. By the time Colonel Hobby was through, they filled 239 types of job. By 1944 WAAC headquarters had requests for 600,000 women-more than three times the total authorized strength of the corps-from commanding generals around the world. The director's hair acquired a heavy frosting of silver during those army years, and the long days robbed her-temporarily-of her youthful look. By July 1945 she was exhausted. She requested permission to resign, and upon her release her husband was waiting for her with a stretcher. He took her to the train and to a hospital in New York for complete rest. In January 1945 she received the Distinguished Service Medal for outstanding service. The citation stated, "without guidance or precedents in the United States military history to assist her, Colonel Hobby established sound policies and planned and supervised the selection and training of officers and regulations. Her contribution to the war effort of the nation has been of important significance." She also received medals from foreign countries, degrees from colleges and universities, and a welcome-home banquet in Houston.
Laying aside her colonel's uniform-the first worn by a woman in the United States Army-Mrs. Hobby resumed her career as director of KPRC radio and KPRC-TV and executive vice president of the Houston Post. The war years strengthened her conviction that all Americans deserve equal opportunity. Not long after the war, when she was cochairman of the celebration of Armed Forces Day, the other chairman came to her office with plans for a big military dinner. "Fine," she agreed, "if we understand each other. No celebration of Armed Forces Day will be held in Houston which is not open to every one who has served in our armed forces-regardless of race." The man was upset and said so in terms that drew a rebuke from Governor, who had strolled in and overheard. During the war, Governor Hobby had been a member of the Houston board for the registration of aliens, and his voice of moderation saved Houstonians of Japanese ancestry from some of the injustices that later embarrassed other communities. Later, the Hobby team offered the Houston Post as a platform to Houston's religious leaders when the Supreme Court decision on desegregation of public schools was nearing public announcement. Distinguished men of every faith were invited to state their opinions on the decision, and the consensus, published on page one of the Post, was unanimously in favor of the decision. Given such wise leadership from men of God, Houston shaped a course of courtesy and sanity.
In 1946–47, Mrs. Hobby served on boards of the Advertising Federation of America, the American Design Award Committee, the American National Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Citizens Committee for the Hoover Report, and the American Assembly. In 1948 she was a member of the United States delegation to the United Nations Conference on Freedom of Information and the Press in Geneva, Switzerland. She was invited to fly around the world on a special circumnavigation flight of Pan American World Airways, with a stop in Japan for a conference with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In 1949 she was president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. The University of Missouri School of Journalism awarded her its honor medal in 1950. In 1951 Governor and Mrs. Hobby were honored for distinguished service to the advancement of human relations by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
In 1952, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower emerged as the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president of the United States, Governor and Mrs. Hobby were immediately active on his behalf, first at the precinct level, then at the state convention. When Eisenhower was nominated at the Republican national convention, Mrs. Hobby became a key figure in the national Democrats for Eisenhower movement. After his inauguration, Eisenhower appointed her chairman of the Federal Security Agency-a noncabinet post-but invited her to sit in on cabinet meetings. On April 11, 1953, she became the first secretary of the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Again she had to organize a new branch of the federal government. The job was daunting in many ways. Mrs. Hobby began as custodian of $17.7 billion in old-age funds for sixty-seven million Americans and disburser of pensions and welfare funds amounting to $4 billion a year. In its cover story of May 4, 1953, Time magazine catalogued her duties:
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. (The Children's Bureau's InfantCare, which is published in eight languages, has sold 8,519,000 copies over the past 39 years.)
To the secretary, this massive and complex department was held together by its humanitarian "common thread of family service." During that first year, an article in a New York newspaper carried the heading, "When she learns her job, Oveta Hobby may trim her week to 70 hours."
One of the major events during her term on the cabinet was the announcement of the Salk vaccine to prevent polio. Many Americans in that era were terrified of the widespread summer polio epidemics, and the demand was immediate. To hold back the vaccine until it had been properly tested was to risk children's lives, but to release it prematurely risked infecting healthy children. Mrs. Hobby was commended by Senator Alexander Smith of New Jersey for her wise handling of the issue. "Refusing to be precipitated into a hasty program of federal regimentation," Smith said, "Mrs. Hobby and her advisors with the full cooperation of the doctors, vaccine manufacturers, and distributors, worked out a program of voluntary distribution which promises maximum effectiveness and retains our basic American principle of non-federal control of the doctor-patient relationship." Furthermore, while Mrs. Hobby was at HEW, Congress authorized $182 million for a three-year expansion of the federal-state-local hospital building program and authorized $150 million to build more chronic-disease hospitals, nursing homes, diagnostic and treatment centers, and medical rehabilitation centers. Mrs. Hobby sought grassroots opinions with the first White House Conference on Education. To prepare for the baby-boom children, she proposed a three-year emergency plan to pool local, state, and federal funds to build $7 billion worth of schools. In her thirty-one months as secretary, the department also improved the administration of food and drug laws, expanded grants for mental health, set up a nurse-training program, expanded the rehabilitation program, and designed a hospital insurance program to protect Americans against the rising cost of illness. In her last year in office, ten million people were added to the Social Security rolls. In 1955 Governor Hobby was ill, and Mrs. Hobby thought she could no longer stay away from Houston. She resigned in July. President Eisenhower called an unusual press conference-with himself and Mrs. Hobby seated at a table in the White House. He expressed his sadness and told her that "None of us will forget your wise counsel, your calm confidence in the face of every kind of difficulty, your concern for people everywhere, the warm heart you brought to your job as well as your talents." One news service wrote of the conference: "Not since hundreds of people stood in Union Station and cheered Harry S. Truman of Independence, Missouri, at the end of his term has anyone left office in Washington with such fanfare as was accorded Mrs. Hobby at the White House Wednesday." Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey called her "the best man in the Cabinet!"
In 1955 Mrs. Hobby resumed her position with the Houston Post as president and editor. In 1956 she became chairman of the board of directors of the newly organized Bank of Texas and the first woman in its 113-year history to be a member of Mutual of New York's board of trustees. Despite calls for her to return to public life, she spent the next years close to her husband, whom she rarely left for more than a few hours at a time. She had received honorary degrees from Baylor University, Sam Houston State Teachers College, the University of Chattanooga (1943), Colorado Women's College (1947), Bard College (1954), Ohio Wesleyan University, Bryant College (1953), Columbia University, Smith College, Middlebury College (1954), Lafayette College (1954), the University of Pennsylvania, Colby College (1954), Fairleigh-Dickinson (1954), Mary Hardin Baylor College (1956), Western College (1954), and C. W. Post College (1962). She served on the Advisory Committee for Economic Development, the Continental Oil Company Scholarship Award Committee, the National Advisory Board of the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the Committee of 75 at the University of Texas, the board of the Eisenhower Birthplace Memorial Park, the President's Commission on Employment of the Physically Handicapped, the President's Commission on Civilian National Honors, the Committee for the White House Conference on Education, the board of the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowships, the Southern Regional Committee for Marshall Scholarships, the Board of Directors of the Houston Symphony Society, the Southwest Advisory Board of the Institute of International Education, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Special Studies Project, the Crusade for Freedom, the Visiting Committee of the Graduate School for Education of Harvard University, the advisory board of the George C. Marshall Research Foundation, and the boards of the Society for Rehabilitation of the Facially Disfigured, the Texas Heart Association, the General Foods Corporation, the General Aniline and Film Corporation, and the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the National Advisory Commission on Selective Service. She flew to Vietnam as a member of the HEW Vietnam Health Education Task Force in 1966. In 1968 she was named to the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She supervised the construction of the Houston Post's new building on the Southwest Freeway at Post Oak Road. She also served on the board of Rice University and the Business Committee for the Arts. One of the honors that meant most to her was the naming of the library at Central Texas College in her hometown of Killeen in her honor. It was dedicated by President Johnson. In 1984 Mrs. Hobby was named to the Texas Women's Hall of Fame. She died on August 16, 1995, in Houston, and was buried at Glenwood Cemetery.