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Old Posted Dec 14, 2008, 1:12 AM
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A Very Interesting Article

Paper came and went, leaving behind historic building
Little-known Austin Daily Tribune was birthed by rich Texan upset over snub by Texas Legislature.
By Ben Wear


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Even for a longtime Austin resident, the plaque on the elegant Colorado Street building can come as a shock.

"Austin Daily Tribune Building," it says. "Built in 1941."

Nearby, etched into purple granite, is a flowery 85-word paean to journalism and to its self-anointed exemplar, the Daily Tribune. "A free press is the protagonist and preserver of all rights," it begins, "the foe and destroyer of all tyranny."

So, as late as 1941, Austin had a daily newspaper — other than the Austin Statesman — with the financial strength to erect an 11-story art deco-style building? Well, yes. But, as it turned out, not really.

Behind the granite-and-limestone facade and droll porthole windows of what is now the Ernest O. Thompson State Office Building lies a classic Texas tale, complete with cattle, oil, timber, LBJ, NASA, the Texas Legislature, W. Lee "Pass the biscuits, Pappy" O'Daniel — and an attempt by a wealthy man named James Marion West to buy his way into the political dialogue.

The Tribune, birthed out of pique and felled in part by a badly timed cold, blazed like a meteorite across the civic sky, coming and going in a little over three years. The building left in its wake, on the other hand, has stood across the street from the Governor's Mansion for almost seven decades .

Austin lawyer Barry Bishop's dad, Curt, was the Tribune's sports editor, and Bishop was born the month before the afternoon paper expired in December 1942 . But he had no idea that his father was still working there at the end, churning out his Curt's Comments column and chronicling the exploits of the newly crowned state champion Austin High Maroons.

"My dad always said that part of the problem was that all the writers got called up into the war," said Bishop, whose father later wrote sports for the Statesman. "By 1942 almost everyone of that age group was gone."

Gaye McElwain works in the building — she's director of marketing and communication for the State Commission on the Arts — and has seen the historical marker out front. But she knew little else about the building's history.

"People will see the plaque and say, 'Hey, did you know there used to be another newspaper here?'" McElwain said. "They are always so surprised by that."

Finding a slogan

Big Jim West, according to his later telling of it, literally walked to Texas from Mississippi in 1880, when he was 9 years old, trailing behind his parents' oxen-pulled wagon. They settled on a farm a few miles southwest of Lufkin . West later quit school, going to work at 13.

Before he turned 30, West owned an East Texas sawmill, then lumberyards, then cattle and land. Lots of land after another decade or two, enough to build a $500,000 Italian Renaissance-style villa on Clear Lake, southeast of Houston, the hub of his 30,000-acre ranch. Well, one of his ranches, and one of his houses. The main West family digs were in Houston's old-money River Oaks.

Then, in 1938 , there was a big oil find on the Clear Lake ranch. West, now well into his 60s, in 1939 sold the ranch and the mineral rights below it to Humble Oil and Refining Co. for $8.5 million , along with an estimated $30 million to $40 million in future oil and gas royalties. A large chunk of that land later was sold to the federal government and became the Houston Manned Spacecraft Center, NASA's home.

West, a burly 6-footer, was said to be the richest man in Texas in the late 1930s. His estate at his death was an estimated $400 million, or about $6 billion in today's money.

West apparently decided that the Texas body politic desperately needed the benefit of his voice, amplified through the pages of a viable newspaper or two, and maybe some radio stations to boot. West, a fervent supporter of Gov. W. Lee O'Daniel, had become mightily peeved with the Texas Legislature and its pitched battle with the new country-singing, flour-pitching governor. And he had little use for the leading dailies around the state, which he considered biased against O'Daniel.

In 1939 O'Daniel had named West chairman of the Texas Highway Commission (ancestor of the Department of Transportation). But the Senate, mindful of West's support of O'Daniel and the lumber king's disdain for what he called the "collectivist" policies of Franklin Roosevelt, declined to confirm his appointment.

West pulled out the checkbook in September 1939 , buying what the Daily Tribune later called the "meagre physical assets and almost negligible circulation" of the Austin Dispatch newspaper, and an equally ragtag Dallas paper. Two months later, he decided to become in effect O'Daniel's neighbor, purchasing a lot, then occupied by a wood-frame rental house, across 10th Street from the Governor's Mansion.

West at first envisioned a three-story plant on that site for his ramped-up and renamed Austin Daily Tribune. The building conceptually spiked upward to five stories, then to 11 floors, with "Texas' Fastest Growing Newspaper" and its presses on the bottom three floors, leased office space in the middle floors, a radio station on the 10th and a penthouse taking up the top floor.

Tyler architect Shirley Simons went with an art deco design, with a rounded two-story appendage on the southeast corner, curved aluminum windows on one corner, a vertical row of portholes lining the northeast corner — allowing West and his editors to constantly keep an eye on the Capitol — and a splendid if small lobby featuring what the paper later claimed was the last marble shipped from Italy to America before World War II.

"Austin's Most Interesting Newspaper" — the editors experimented with a number of superlatives, later going with "friendliest" in the waning days of late 1942 — went Texas big with its 152-page May 25, 1941, issue celebrating the opening of the Tribune Tower.

There were full-page ads with congratulations from city and county officials and from contractors who worked on the building and, in what might have been a satisfying twist for West, fawning letters from a bevy of politicians that included such O'Daniel enemies as Rep. Lyndon Baines Johnson.

O'Daniel and Johnson at that point were locked in a U.S. Senate race that would end with a close win by the governor, a victory that some historians believe included a fair number of phantom votes for O'Daniel.

West's philosophical proclivities were obvious in subsequent issues of the paper, most of them only eight to 10 pages . O'Daniel's daughter had a column, Molly O's Pen Pals, and the paper each Monday printed the text of the governor's Sunday radio broadcast. Political columnist Paul Yates angered state Sen. Joe Hill so much with his coverage that the Rusk County Democrat gave a rare personal privilege speech on the floor of the Senate to express his distaste.

"I read several daily newspapers," Hill said. "I want to get the facts, then I want the other side. So I take the Tribune."

War was looming, causing uncertainty throughout the economy. Still, the Daily Tribune boasted that while other papers "have folded and suspended publication, the Tribune has flourished."

An illness changes everything

Then West caught a cold.

West and his son Wesley were on a business trip to Kansas City in August 1941 when West came down with the illness. He entered a hospital on a Thursday. By Sunday, the Daily Tribune's publisher was dead.

"The curtain has fallen on the life of James Marion West, pioneer citizen, capitalist, philanthropist, and Texas builder," the paper announced two days later, adding with unfortunate spelling that "the whole State morns his passing."

The newspaper lasted just 16 months more .

On a 25-degree Tuesday morning, Dec. 29, 1942 , the Daily Tribune's remaining subscribers found "an announcement" on the front page: "This is the last publication of the Austin Daily Tribune. Conservation is ever in the public interest," it said mysteriously. "Uncertainty and trial shall reign for some time, yet there are none but who with militant confidence face the future with unfailing hope. The Tribune began as an ideal which will remain."

In October 1945 , the state, on the recommendation of Railroad Commissioner Ernest O. Thompson , bought the building from West's heirs for $736,000 . The three elected commissioners established offices in the 11th floor penthouse, said to have been occupied for a while by West's sons, including his notoriously flamboyant namesake, "Silver Dollar Jim" West.

Commissioners for years had to explain the "playboy bathroom" in the penthouse, according to a railroad commission history of the building. Sadly, a recent tour of the tower (now occupied mostly by the state's Department of Licensing and Regulation) revealed that tantalizing vestige of the West family had been remodeled out of existence some time ago.

Similarly, the second floor newsroom and 10th floor radio station have been partitioned into unrecognizability. But the architectural touches — the portholes, granite, marble and curved aluminum windows — and West's staunch journalistic credo outside remain. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

One other bit of history, flush with irony, likewise endures.

The state in 1965 decided to name Jim West's old building for Thompson, who served on the commission for a stunning 32 years and retired that year. Thompson, a Texas National Guard general and former Amarillo mayor, might have had a much shorter commission tenure had his higher political ambition come to fruition. He ran for Texas governor twice, losing to the same man both times.

Thompson's vanquisher: W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel.

bwear@statesman.com, 445-3698
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