Bridges: Oveta Hobby devoted life to service, breaking barriers
Oveta Culp Hobby was a woman of drive and determination. From newspaper editor to presidential cabinet secretary and more, Hobby lived a life of service and breaking barriers for women.
She was born Oveta Culp in 1905 in Killeen to lawyer Ike Culp and his wife, Elizabeth. She was one of seven children. She was very intelligent and studious as a child. When her father was elected to the state legislature in 1918, she accompanied him to the Capitol on many occasions to witness the legislature in action.
After graduating from Temple High School, she took classes at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and the University of Texas. Along the way, she briefly served as a teacher and as a reporter for the Austin Statesman. In 1925, she was hired as the first woman parliamentarian for the Texas House of Representatives. Through this position, she made rulings on procedural questions and debates occurring in the legislature. She served for six years until her already adventurous life took yet another turn.
In 1931, she married William P. Hobby, who had served as Texas governor from 1917 to 1921 and publisher of the Houston Post. The two would eventually have two children together. Their son, William P. Hobby Jr., would serve as lieutenant governor from 1973 to 1991.
Completely devoted to her husband, Oveta Hobby served as a research editor for the Post before becoming executive vice-president in 1938. She also served on a variety of local cultural boards in Houston as well as president of the Texas League of Women Voters.
In 1943, she was asked by Gen. George Marshall to organize and lead the Women’s Army Corps. This was the first American military organization designed specifically for women. The WAC trained women to fill vital service roles from drivers to telephone operators to clerks but would not serve in combat. Hobby led tens of thousands of women volunteers, eventually earning the rank of colonel and becoming the first woman to earn the Distinguished Service Cross for her service.
After she stepped down from her duties as WAC Director in 1945, she resumed her work with Houston civic organizations and the newspaper. In 1949, she became the first woman to serve as president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.
In 1953, Hobby was named by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be the first Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She was only the second woman in American History to serve as a presidential cabinet secretary, following Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The new department oversaw federal pensions, Social Security, hospitals, medical research, and aid to universities. During her tenure as secretary, she approved the new polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk for use, a vaccine that effectively ended the polio epidemic in the United States.
As her husband’s health began to falter, she resigned her position in 1955 and returned to Houston where she became president and editor of the Post. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was separated into the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services in 1979.
Oveta Hobby earned many honors in her later years, including having the Central Texas College Library in Killeen named after her as well as an elementary school in Killeen. In 1984, she was inducted into the Texas Woman’s Hall of Fame. In April 1995, the Houston Post ceased publication after years of falling profits and increased competition from the Houston Chronicle. Hobby died four months later in Houston at the age of 90.
Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.