After he got out of Texas Tech in 1946, Leon Hale made his living listening and writing. He has written two memoirs, two novels and several compilations of his best columns for the Houston Post. But on this Wednesday afternoon in early February, he talked. Hale and his wife Babette Fraser Hale, also a writer, regaled a full house of fans at the Winedale Meadows Building as part of the Round Top Family Library AUTHOR! AUTHOR! series.
“I’m more of a listener,” Leon began. “I have a hard time even talking at home now, much less in a public place. I have trouble saying ‘please pass the beans.’”
Hale, as Babette calls him, is three months shy of 99 years old and complained his memory isn’t what it was. “I was going to memorize the notes I made for this talk, but I can’t even memorize my phone number. The last time someone asked me for a phone number, the one I could remember was 456J. That was my family’s phone number in 1937. Before that, I was at Grandma Hale’s. Her number was two longs and a short.”
“Age has done this to me,” Hale said. “Losing words.” He noted some people nodding their heads. “You need a word like airplane ... window ... and it just won’t come out.” He said he sometimes gets it, sometimes not, “so I just do without it.”
“Names? I don’t do names anymore. The world is full of nameless people.” Hale said he used to be good at names, it was part of his work. “I used to walk into the Mercantile in Round Top and call the name of everyone of those ladies that worked in there ... now I just call them all ‘Darlene.’ (Darlene Hinze is a long-time employee at the Mercantile.)
Speaking of the nature of his “curious partnership” with Babette (there is 23 years between their ages), Hale said, “The secret is, she talks and I listen.” He said there has never been a competition between them as writers. "She has helped me with my writing sometimes at the expense of her own. Some people think I taught Babette how to write. That’s a joke for you because she was an established magazine writer when we met.” She was 37 and working on a novel, Hale was 60 years old.
“Don’t ask me why she had any interest in an ugly newspaper columnist 23 years older than she was ... I don’t know.” Hale said he figured she wanted to learn things about rural Texas culture and would then go away. “Writers call that research.” He took her to things like goat ropings down in the brush country and “she made a brave effort to expose me to her culture which was River Oaks in Houston ... golf and tennis and formal balls. I didn’t flourish in that culture ... it took me about one semester to flunk golf, tennis and French too.”
“One day it struck me that she was not going away. We started acquiring things and one day before we got married, which we did, we acquired a few acres about a mile over here in the woods and found out it was a good place to live and work and be old, and I’m going to shut up and let Babette talk.”
“It’s true that Hale and I laugh a lot. That is inevitable whenever he’s around. His ability to find humor in unexpected places has never been confined to his books or newspaper columns. He is a reactive wit. He can find the most unusual things to comment on.”
She described the creative environment of two writers: “We work about thirty feet away from each other, not much going on most of the time except fingers tapping or falling silent while we look at a bird at the feeder. The daytime highlight is a delivery. Still we find plenty to talk about.”
Babette described her husband as “even tempered,” contrasting to her moodiness.
“And thank god for that. He grew up in a series of little towns in West Texas and I grew up in River Oaks. Paper Hero is the memoir he wrote about that childhood ... and really his life.”
Babette was a child of the 50s and 60s, Hale of the 30s and World War II. She explained what was similar in their experience. Her father was from the same part of West Texas and both of their grandfathers were country doctors. “There was more in common under the surface than appeared,” as she put it.
She acknowledges that she looked Hale up because she really did want to learn more about rural Texas speech patterns for a novel she was writing. “I knew I had met someone quite extraordinary.” Her recipe for a successful relationship? “Mutuality of outlook, an openness to the world.”
You have to have a major.
Hale got into journalism writing for the Texas Tech student paper, the Toreador.
"Professor Clark Schooley called me into his office my sophomore year and said, 'Look here, Hale, you can't just go to school .... you have to have a major.'
"I had just been walking around campus and couldn't get the smile off my face — all those pretty girls ..." he recalled, smiling at the memory. After an aptitude test, the Dean, Professor Gordon, suggested journalism as an 'easy major.' I said, 'put me down.' "
Nowadays, when you've written as many short personal essays (a fancy way of saying "newspaper columns") as he has, a lot of regular readers feel a kind of kinship — like they really know you. That's the celebrity part. He's reluctant about it because, first of all, he's naturally shy and always has been.
Second, some of his readers insist on looking him up and having an uninvited chat. Hale's not too crazy about that, although it's hard to imagine he's actually impolite to anyone.
"I've come home and found people sitting on the porch, with the gate locked," he said pointedly after a reporter showed up one time to pester him about an interview. "One guy was actually fishing in my tank."
When he sits down to write, who does he imagine his audience to be?
"Well, it's changed. I started out writing for the Houston Post and even though I lived in Bryan, I saw myself as sitting in Houston writing to the people in the small towns. Now it's backed up. I'm sitting in the country writing for the people in Houston."
Hale and Babette live in an "old country place" made famous in his columns, out on the western edge of Washington County. It's spittin' distance from Fayette County, even if you're not a very good spitter.
H.H. Howze © 2020
Not a boomer. H.H. Howze is a writer/photographer and disruptive political presence in deep red Round Top, Texas.
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