This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for April 15, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
My wife and I have been Leon Hale fans ever since we used to read his much-loved column in the Houston Post. Mr. Hale, whom I never met in person, wrote his newspaper column in the Texas “major leagues,” and some of us in the “minor leagues” who greatly admired him, saw him as a model, not to imitate, but to follow, and considered him fondly as one of us. Because he was down-to-earth and humble, he seemed like one of us who wrote columns in small Texas towns. Naturally I was deeply touched when I read about his death on March 27, 2021.
Over the years, I have come to know many facts about the life and writing career of Mr. Hale, and recent obituaries reminded me of those, and added some things I didn’t know. Apparently, his early jobs in the field of journalism were Editor of Texas A & M Extension Service and Farm Editor of the Houston Post. After editing a magazine for Humble Oil, he returned to the Houston Post as the columnist we came to love. In 1985, his column started appearing in the Houston Chronicle. In his spare time, he taught feature writing at Sam Houston State, wrote articles in Texas Parade, and published numerous books, including the two I enjoyed a lot, Easy Going and Texas Out Back. As an aspiring artist, as well as writer, I especially liked those.
Easy Going, published by Shearer Publishing in 1983, contained many of his well-loved newspaper columns originally published in the Houston Post, as well as original illustrations by Ancel Nunn (disappointed that there were not more of Nunn’s drawings with such a unique style). Many of the stories he told in Easy Going my wife and I had read in the Houston Post, and it was delightful to revisit these down-to-earth presentations of salt-of-the-earth Texas folks who had simple but uniquely individualistic lives. The Texas towns he took us to were often places we knew well, and some we had never heard of before.
One of my favorite chapters in Easy Going was Chapter VI, “Cornbread, Beans, and Banana Pudding.” It just resonates in so many ways with those of us who lived in the old days in Texas, when folks would ask you to spend the night and feed you cornbread and beans for supper. Apparently from early travels with his father, Mr. Hale developed some of the love for, and responses, to, the wonderful salt-of-the-earth folks of rural Texas.
Texas Out Back, published by Madrona Press, Inc., 1973, with text by Mr. Hale and sketches by Harry Anthony DeYoung, was my favorite of his books. Growing up in Dime Box, Texas, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, I knew very well the importance of the “meditation shed,” as I called it in one of my poems published in Open Prairies. Neither my parents nor my grandparents had indoor plumbing during those years, and that was true of many of our friends and neighbors. Each family privy, whether in town or out on the farm, had a unique look to them even though constructed according to a basic design. The incredible pencil drawings by DeYoung revealed some amazing privy designs and were essential to Mr. Hale’s text.
In his many writings, not only did Mr. Hale write about such country-life necessities as outhouses, but also he wrote about Dime Box, more than once, which, having grown up there, I wrote about probably way too many times in my weekly column for the East Bernard Tribune and Express. Perhaps his writing about privies and Dime Box caused me to feel a bond with him, and no doubt inspired me. It seemed fitting for him to buy a country home in tiny Winedale, far away from city traffic and noises, and still well supplied with the charm of rural Texas at its best. My paternal great grandfather once worked in Winedale, and later owned a farm in nearby Carmine.
I’m sorry I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Hale in person, yet I feel like I knew him very well. For rural newspaper columnists like me, he represents an ideal and a model that cannot be replaced, he is our legacy. The simple things he wrote about with his extraordinary wit and kindness will live on in the minds of his followers.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and the author of two books, Open Prairies and It Must Be the Noodles.