EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series from Longview’s Dr. John Coppedge, who grew up in Cuero, where he first became aware of the remarkable life story of Ken Towery, former Japanese prisoner of war, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and adviser to politicians and presidents.
In 1950, Ken Towery was cleaning out poultry houses, certainly one of the world’s dirtiest jobs, when he heard the local newspaper, The Cuero Record, was looking for a reporter.
“My luck held,” he recalled of the opportunity to leave the packinghouse. “The publisher down there wanted somebody that could fill in and do the farm work and all that stuff.”
Having studied soil biology, Towery figured he could handle the work. He applied but was told he would have to know how to type. The problem was quickly solved by his wife, Louise, who taught Towery to type on a borrowed typewriter.
The newspaper hired him.
“So, I went on and became a reporter,” he recalled.
For his efforts, Towery was paid the princely sum of $60 a week. Having neither the education nor experience to prepare him for the job, he nonetheless dove into the work, eventually rising to the position of managing editor.
By late 1954, Towery was playing another leading role in history as he uncovered, investigated and reported a series of stories on what became known as “The Veteran’s Land Scandal.”
ROCKED TEXAS POLITICS
He started on the story after hearing about unusual meetings at the country club and started asking questions. He soon discovered white Cuero businessmen were paying black veterans to sign over loan applications to buy land under a state program, and state officials were ignoring the program’s abuse.
“They’d just buy a big ranch and subdivide it up and then go around and sell it to all these guys — and they wouldn’t sell it to them really, they’d just get their discharge papers and all that,” Towery said, noting that many veterans who signed were barely literate and had no idea they “owned” land.
The scandal rocked Texas politics and drove Texas Land Commissioner Bascom Giles from office, eventually sending him to the Texas State Penitentiary. A total of 20 people were indicted in nine counties.
In 1955, the Pulitzer Prize Board recognized Towery’s work with its award for local reporting.
Edward R. Murrow, of CBS, did a special report about Towery, the little newspaper and coverage of the scandal.
“It turned out to be an interesting program, I was told,” Towery said.
Being 80 miles from the nearest TV station, he and his wife Louise couldn’t see it.
HOSPITAL, THEN AUSTIN
Two months later, he was back in the hospital with a recurrence of tuberculosis. By then, Ken and Louise had two children. But new antibiotic treatments were being developed, and Ken benefited. This time he only spent a year in the hospital.
Ken and Louise moved to Austin, where he took a job in a pool of political reporters for several newspapers, one of which was the Austin American-Statesman. The job gave him an up close and personal look at Texas politics and the politicians of the day.
His work caught the eye of newly elected Republican U.S. Sen. John Tower who asked Towery to join his staff in Washington as his press secretary. The newspaperman told the new senator he should know he had voted for Tower’s opponent, Democrat William Blakely. Tower said that didn’t matter; so had a lot of other people.
While deciding whether to accept the offer, Towery asked the Austin American-Statesman if he could take a two year-leave of absence to go to Washington, a common practice among journalists of the day.
When he said he’d be working for Sen. Tower, the reply was “Not that guy! No way!” Towery recalled. The newspaper would not hold a job for him.
That sealed the deal. Towery went to Washington, where he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Tower’s chief of staff. The senator delegated great authority to Towery and, as he had as a journalist in Texas, Towery got an up-close-and-personal look at the political class in Washington, particularly in the U.S. Senate.
Coming Thursday: Helping build the modern Republican Party.