Fifty-four years ago, a reporter for the old Houston Post uncovered decades of corruption in the city of Pasadena and won the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a reporter in Houston.
The honoree was Eugene F. (Gene) Goltz, a native of Iowa who had moved to Houston in 1962 with his wife and two sons to cover the suburbs for the paper.
Gene Goltz died in 2001. He left an unpublished memoir that tells the story of the struggles that took him to Pasadena and the dangers he faced there. Gene’s story should make a movie.
Goltz grew up in Depression poverty. The railroad had laid off his father in Dubuque, Iowa, and the senior Mr. Goltz never found work again. Goltz’s father killed himself with a shotgun at the age of 52. His mother had to go through town thereafter begging for food, clothing, and donations for her children.
Trigger warning: some of the conversations in this book are politically incorrect. They will shock today’s delicate college student. Few of today’s students could have persevered through Goltz’s many attempts at college.
Although valedictorian of his high school, Goltz was too poor to attend college. He joined the Army Air Force after World War II to take advantage of the G.I. Bill that then paid for a college degree.
But after Goltz enlisted, Congress abolished the GI Bill for the peacetime military. Congress restored the law by 1950, the year Goltz’s three-year enlistment ended, but the law restricted education benefits to two years.
Goltz enrolled at a Catholic women’s college. Nights he worked as an attendant at a Federal mental hospital in Leavenworth, Kansas.
But Goltz got drunk one night with a friend in his room on hospital premises while off duty, a violation of the rules. The hospital fired him. Penniless now, he had to drop out of college.
Now Goltz moved to St. Louis University, another Catholic school. When he realized he would turn 40 before graduating, he left for the University of Missouri and its cheap state tuition. His goal was to become a novelist.
For six months, Goltz hauled 500-pound blocks of ice to earn enough cash so he could study journalism full time. He even sold his 1948 Chevrolet for $35. The journalism school, however, assigned him to a news beat 31 blocks from the campus.
Goltz had to walk back and forth each day to his assigned neighborhood in search of news stories. After months of frustration, he quit going to class.
He spent the rest of the semester reading books on journalism in the school library. Before he flunked out, he studied the jobs on offer at the school’s bulletin board and found a reporting job at a small weekly in Iowa. He married, and the couple started their family.
After several years, Goltz worked his way up to the police beat at a daily in Phoenix. When that paper folded, he applied to The Houston Post, which hired him for $125 a week. He put his wife and two children in the car and drove the 1200 miles straight through to Houston.
The Post hired Goltz in 1962. He became a reporter covering three suburban cities south of the metropolis – Pasadena, Deer Park, and South Houston.
When Goltz covered his first meeting of the Pasadena City Council, a woman stood up and demanded that the city fix her broken sewer line. She said, “The money to improve that there street was approved two years ago by a vote of the people, and there ain’t been one dime spent on it to this day.”
At his second council meeting, a man in dress trousers and a string tie took him into the hall. If you want a story, the man said, look into the recent $6-million bond issue that covered roads and sewers.
One morning, Goltz walked into city hall to ask about that bond issue. The city secretary told him the money was “spent and gone.”
Goltz asked for the records, only to be sent to the mayor’s secretary, who sent him to the city treasurer. Eventually, he interviewed the city’s auditor, who declined to tell him anything.
Deer Park and South Houston, by contrast, turned over audits, bids, contracts, and all else to anyone who asked.
Goltz arranged an interview with the mayor, Jim Brammer. Brammer told him all records of the past five years were buried in the city warehouse.
Then Goltz interviewed a former mayor, who told him the city did not have a warehouse. All the records, he said, were at city hall.
Finally, Goltz pieced together enough scraps of audits and payments to convince himself that the bond money had not been spent. He demanded to see Mayor Brammer again and told him he wanted to see the records.
Brammer replied, “I’ll get you if it costs me $3,000.”
It turned out that was the price of a contract killer from Chicago that Brammer hired.
Goltz decided to write about the unavailability of public records in Pasadena. That was the only story he had. His editors were doubtful. He drove to the newspaper’s office in Houston to write his exposé.
When Goltz pasted up the typewritten sheets, they measured 23-and-a half-feet long. The Post broke the story into three parts and ran part one on the front page.
The next morning at 7:00 a.m., the telephone began to ring at the Goltz home. The first caller said, “I just wanted to tell you I’m behind you one hundred percent. By God, these people been stealing money long enough from this city.”
The phone rang again. “I’ve got 30 good men down here at the plant, and we’re with you all the way, mister.”
Seven more calls came before Goltz could dress, all offering support. Goltz left the phone to his wife and drove downtown to the newspaper. A hundred phone calls came to his house that day, all thanking him.
At the paper, however, he learned that Mayor Brammer, two lawyers, and Pasadena’s city auditor were then meeting with the publishers – Oveta Culp Hobby and her son, William P. Hobby, Jr. – and their lawyer. The city editor (to whom Goltz reported) joined the meeting.
At 5 p.m., the city editor, Frank Reed, left the meeting and took Goltz across the street to a café. He told Goltz the managing editor had ordered him not to run Parts 2 and 3 of the Pasadena story.
“The Pasadena story is dead,” Reed said. Then he said,
“By dang, I’m not going to do it.”
Reed waited until the managing editor had left for the night. Then he ran part two of the Pasadena story on Page One of the late edition, above the Post nameplate, “where nobody can miss it,”
Mayor Brammer returned to The Post the next day. After he left, The Post’s lawyer examined Goltz and his stories for libel, but found none. The lawyer cleared Goltz to go ahead with his reporting.
On November 22, 1963, the murder of President Kennedy eclipsed local news. The Pasadena story disappeared.
At last in May 1964, the Harris County District Attorney asked for a court of inquiry into the financial affairs of Pasadena, Texas.
The court of inquiry broke the scandal open. The city treasurer admitted he had been paying the mayor and city councilmen triple their official pay.
When Goltz asked one of the councilmen if he was “still taking that illicit pay?” the councilman slugged Goltz in the face and broke his nose.
Then the city’s bond underwriter, Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, admitted to overcharging the city to market Pasadena’s bonds. The underwriters said they kicked back half the exorbitant fee to an unnamed lawyer in Pasadena.
In September 1964, the Harris County grand jury handed down indictments against Mayor Brammer and several other officials in Pasadena. Then the voters of Pasadena adopted a new city charter and voted all incumbents out of office.
Yet the prosecutors failed to convict anyone in the Pasadena scandals.
Although I was Goltz’s competitor for a few months in the fall of 1964 at the Houston Chronicle, I learned little about the scandals in Pasadena. In January 1965, I quit the Chronicle and joined the staff of the Post.
In May 1965, another reporter called Goltz at home on his day off to tell him he had won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. This topped off a slew of rewards for his pursuit of the Pasadena story.
To be honest, my resignation had more to do with my thwarted love life at 23 than the Chronicle, a fine paper. And Goltz’s reporting far outdid mine.
Having nothing to rely on but my salary, I was fortunate that the Post itself picked me up two weeks later. I worked on the copy desk and then covered city hall and education. Then, in 1966, I took off for the Detroit Free Press, where I hope I improved.
Later in 1966, Goltz, too, moved to The Detroit Free Press, where he was a recognized star. There he participated in another Pulitzer Prize.
The staff of the Free Press won the prize for “general local reporting”in 1968 for its coverage of the Detroit riots of 1967. These were the largest race riots in American history.
Gene Goltz played a large part in that award, too. He was part of a team of three reporters who investigated the 43 deaths during the riots. Their reporting showed that a majority of the civilian dead died from gunfire by the police or the Michigan National Guard.
I always found Gene Goltz a genial and hardworking reporter. I remember his smiling face and the ever-present unlit cigar in his mouth. (He was to die of esophageal cancer.)
In 1969, the young man who had never managed to graduate from any college received a Nieman Fellowship for journalists at Harvard University. He deserved all the awards.
The Houston Post itself went out of business in 1995.
Goltz’s son John, born in Pasadena, came across the Pasadena manuscript after his father’s death. He turned it into a handsome hardbound book, which is printed when you order one.
This review only brushes over the Pasadena story. The book tells of the many threats against Goltz’s person and the dangers to his family into which the Pasadena story led him. The hit man from Chicago, for example, met Gene but decided not to kill him and went back to Chicago.
For me, The Pasadena Story brings back the old daily papers with their hot type and story conferences over pitchers of beer.
Gene Goltz’s memoir reads like the novel he once hoped to write. But the story is true. What a newspaperman.
THE PASADENA STORY, by Gene Goltz (Lulu Press, 301 pp., 2014, $24.60)(available at lulu.com) (digital edition $2.99 at http://www.lulu.com/shop/gene-goltz/the-pasadena-story/ebook/product-22092579.html).