ORAL HISTORY OF
HARRY C. MCPHERSON, JR. – FIRST INTERVIEW
It is Thursday, January 23, 2003. We are in the office of Harry C. McPherson, Jr. I am
John Vanderstar and I am assigned by the Oral History Project of the Historical Society of the
District of Columbia Circuit to conduct an interview with Harry McPherson and talk about his
life and his work in the government, especially the Lyndon Johnson White House and then
primarily his career in the private practice of law here in Washington since those days.
Mr. Vanderstar: Harry, good afternoon. It’s a bright, sunny cold afternoon.
Let’s begin with your birth which I have here was August 22, 1929, in Tyler, Texas.
Mr. McPherson: Right, right.
Mr. Vanderstar: I want to get some family background and let’s begin with your
parents, who they were, where they came from, what their circumstances were, that sort of thing,
one at a time.
Mr. McPherson: All right, one parent at a time. Let me start with my mother
because our family-my mother, father and I, I was an only child-lived about a softball throw
from my grandfather, my mother’s father, as families often did in those days, and so I spent
much of my childhood in and out of the two houses. My mother’s name was Nan Hight and her
father was Clay Hight. He had been born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1875, had come to Tyler
when he was four, had gone through the Tyler public schools and had become a rather
significant figure in the life of the town as a businessman and a civic leader. He had three
children, of which my mother was his favorite. She, Nan Hight, born in 1900, also went through
the Tyler public schools and went to a college called Kidd Key-I have no idea how to spell it, I
think it’s K-i-d-d K-e-y, something like that-it was up in either Dennison or Paris, Texas, and
she went there for a couple of years.
My dad was born in 1894, I believe in Dallas. He for some reason gave me
several different places for his place of birth, and I filled in personnel sheets over the years,
when I was in the service and elsewhere, explaining that we were law abiding Americans even
though my father was born in Canada. Well, he wasn’t born in Canada, it turns out and neither
was he born in Wichita Falls, Texas, which he told me he was on another occasion. I think he
was born in Dallas, but I can’t swear to it. But his father lived in Dallas and my father was
raised there. His father, I was told, was an engineer, a mechanical engineer, who had a couple of
inventions to his credit having to do with the cotton gin. My father was in the service during
World War I, but not in combat. He got out in 1920 and began a series of employments that
make me realize how very stationary I have been in my life. My dad did all kinds of things. He
played professional baseball when he was 18, was a second baseman for Denver and broke his
leg sliding into second base and didn’t play again. He had a sheep ranch in the Texas Big Bend
country. He traveled the Southwest for the Pennsylvania Rubber Company. He misbehaved a
fair amount in the 1920s and did his share and a bit more of drinking. I think he swore off when
he took up with my mother, who was a teetotaler.
Tyler, Texas, at the time I was born was a town of about 28,000 people. It’s
principal industries were three: oil, roses and a railroad. A lot of people found themselves
suddenly rich because of the East Texas oil fields. Because of the geology of domes, sub-surface
domes, Tyler had no oil, but oil was in several directions, about 20 miles away, and quite a few
folks- including firemen, farmers, icemen, all kinds of people-suddenly became very wealthy.
They, or their wives, were persuaded that Tyler was a very nice town to come and live in. So
they built handsome houses and sooner or later took up membership in the local country club
and they lived a pleasant life, an ostensibly dry life. Tyler was then dry (and may still be, as far
as I know) under the county option plan of Texas. My father always said that the Baptists and
the bootleggers had conspired to keep Tyler dry; each had a reason for that.
Well, my parents got married in 1928. My father traveled around East Texas,
Arkansas, Oklahoma selling tires or establishing dealerships, helping people establish them. I
was born in ‘29 and in about ‘33 my father went to his father-in-law, my grandfather at the
Citizens National Bank, which was the premier bank in Tyler. My grandfather was, I guess, the
Chief Operating Officer; he was the vice president who ran the bank. Dad borrowed a little
money from him to buy a tobacco shop that was very near the bank. It was called “The
Smokehouse.” It carried cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, and candy, and it had a wonderfd
popcorn machine. It was a tiny place, very narrow, and it was right next door to a larger shop, I
never knew what that was, but my father acquired it and took out the wall, so that he had a nicely
sized sporting goods store. It was called “The Smokehouse”-he kept the name from the early
My dad had very good taste. He had good eye for the best, clothes and cars and,
in this case, in shotguns, rifles and fishing tackle. So he got the best stuff and it became the
favorite meeting place for the men of Tyler, particularly these men who had come by their means
through the oil business. There they met and frequently bought hunting and fishing equipment.
The store camed some very nice sport clothes, shirts and pants for hunting and fishing; and
around a potbellied stove-there literally was one in the middle of the store-would be gathered
some people who became rather famous in Texas business history-H.L. Hunt, a guy named
Pete Lakethese were enormously wealthy people, some of whom had started in Eldorado,
Arkansas. My dad made his money there. I spent a lot of time in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I
always thought I had a tie to President Clinton through these oil people who started there and
then moved to Tyler. After a while Dad began to supply the high school with football uniforms
and helmets, and that kept us reasonably prosperous.
We were never wealthy. I found that out while working in the bank, when I was
Mr. Vanderstar: In your grandfather’s bank?
Mr. McPherson: In my grandfather’s bank. I worked as a messenger, and one of
my chores, after running around to the other banks in town swapping checks and statements, was
taking the day’s delivery of checks and putting them in depositors’ little envelopes. One day I
looked at my father’s envelope which had his last bank statement in it. I was right next door to
his store, which was full of people and sales were being made and he had three guys working for
him; though he went off to play golf almost every afternoon, he worked seven days a week, kept
the store open seven days a week. Anyway, here he was at the country club and he was driving a
very nice car and my mother had a car and it was pretty nifty, and he had 3 14 dollars in the bank!
It stunned me. I wondered how on earth we managed to live such an ostensibly nice life with
such limited means.
Mr. Vanderstar: That’s a wonderful beginning. Let me go back and ask some
questions about family things. For example, how is it that your grandfather, your mother’s
father, came to Tyler at the age of four?
Mr. McPherson: I don’t know. I’ve tried to find that out and so far, thanks to the
National Archives who have done some tracking for me, all I’ve learned is that his father was
born in Tennessee in 1838, which would have made him a good candidate for the Civil War, but
why they moved from Tennessee to Tyler, I do not know.
Mr. Vanderstar: You mentioned your grandmother on your mother’s side. What
was her name?
Mr. McPherson: She was a Kennedy-Dora Kennedy. His obituary says that
they married in 1896, she from a well-known and prominent Tyler family.
My grandfather was the first city manager of Tyler, this before he went into the
bank, and then in 191 6 he formed an insurance partnership that was still going when he died in
1940. So he had an insurance business as well as the bank. But the thing I always liked hearing
about him, when he was the young city manager, this wonderfully well-dressed man with
beautiful shirts, tiny checks in the shirts, beautifid foulard ties-he was obviously very serious
about his dressing-he would go to the ballpark in a one-horse buggy. This was before my time,
but I’ve been told this by some of his friends. He would go behind the stands and change his
clothes into a baseball uniform and go out and pitch for the Tyler team. He was a fanatic about
baseball and, in fact, he used to take me often to see the Class D Tyler Trojans, and there I
developed my own passion for baseball. I was amazed to see my grandfather, this distinguished
man, on a boiling hot evening sitting there in a box right behind home plate, take off his
coat-he wore suspenders, but he kept his tie on-and he would watch the game with great
interest. Then suddenly, when a questionable call came, he would be on his feet yelling oaths, in
this town where he was a long-time member of the Marvin Methodist Church and there he was
yelling at the umpire.
Mr. Vanderstar: Great, good story. So, he married Dora Kennedy in 1896. Her
family had been in Tyler for some time?
Mr. McPherson: Yes. It says in the obituary, “from a well-known and prominent
Tyler family.” When I looked at the archives’ material and old census material, I think that both
families came, some from Tennessee and some from Alabama. So they were probably ScotsIrish people who populated both the Carolinas and Tennessee and other parts of the South.
Mr. Vanderstar: You mentioned by the way that Tyler had three principal
activities and you have spoken about the oil business. What about the other two?
Mr. McPherson: As I have said, Tyler served as the home of these well-to-do
people in the oil business. The second business was roses. Tyler was known, probably still is
know, as the world capital of roses. They have fields in every direction of gorgeous roses, which
are flown, I believe, by freight planes to all over the US., or at least were at one point. And the
third was a railroad; it was the home office of the Cotton Belt railroad-the Saint Louis and
Southwestern Railroad. Tyler had failed to become or intentionally succeeded in not becoming a
passenger terminus. I was told as a kid, that Tyler didn’t want the “rough kind of people” who
would come through and get off those trains. Therefore, if you wanted to get a train out of Tyler,
you drove either in one direction to a village called Troup and in the other to one called Mineola.
Mr. Vanderstar: You mentioned that your grandfather was a Methodist. Were
your family generally Methodist?
Mr. McPherson: My mother was. She had a beautiful voice and sang in the
Methodist church choir. My dad, like many Scots people, was originally a Presbyterian. She
died when I was 14, leaving just the two of us, my dad and me. He had become an Episcopalian,
and he suggested that I do that too and so I did and started the business of being an acolyte and
learning how to do all that stuff that you do as a young Episcopalian.
Mr. Vanderstar: When did he become an Episcopalian? While your mother was
Mr. McPherson: Yes, and I don’t know why. I’m not sure what drew him there.
There was a very appealing man, the rector, Mead Brown. He looked like a monk or an English
country clergyman. He was rather intellectual, someone I was much drawn to. I even thought
about going into the ministry because of Mead Brown. I thought if one could be like him and
spend your time studying interesting things about the meaning of life, that would be a pretty
good thing to do. In those days there was no university in Tyler. There is now a branch of the
University of Texas. So the nearest approximation to intellectual life was religious inquiry. I
think maybe Mead Brown was the attraction for my father; he certainly appealed to me.
Mr. Vanderstar: How did your father wind up in Tyler, so as to be able to marry
Mr. McPherson: I don’t know how they met.
Mr. Vanderstar: You said he was a travelingMr. McPherson: -a traveling guy. Dad was a very nice looking man and he
was very gentlemanly; I always thought he was too much so and was rather intimidated by
women. He was extremely polite and held doors open and that sort of thing. So women thought
that Mr. Mac, as he was known, was a lovely man.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you know his parents? You mentioned his father.
Mr. McPherson: No. His father died in the early ‘20s. His mother must have
been pretty tough to take. I think she was rather shrewish and was hard for him to handle. I
think it had effects on him, I don’t know what they were; I never attempted to psychoanalyze
him with any success. But I think maybe she was not an easy person to live with and she died
either when I was about to be born or shortly after, so I never met her.
Mr. Vanderstar: You said he was a mechanical engineer? Did he have a college
Mr. McPherson: I don’t know. My dad said he was a big reader and had a great
interest in business and engineering and inventions. The only thing that the census says is
“businessman” or something like that.
Mr. Vanderstar: How about your father. Did he go to college?
Mr. McPherson: He went to Austin College in Sherman, Texas, very briefly on a
baseball scholarship but soon left it; when World War I came along he went into the service.
Mr. Vanderstar: Do you know what he did in the service?
Mr. McPherson: He was a machine gun instructor. He became a lieutenant and
he went to Alaska for some reason, I’m not sure what the military purpose was, but he was up
there for a year or so.
Mr. Vanderstar: And you said he was in the military until 1920?
Mr. McPherson: 1919 or 1920, I think he stayed a year or so after the Armistice.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. Then he went on to these various adventures.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, these various adventures. One of the few he ever told me
about was this: He and a bunch of his friends went to Galveston, to greet a vessel that was
arriving from England carrying a friend of theirs. They drove to Galveston to meet this person
in an old Pierce-Arrow.
When they were driving back they went through the town of Ranger, Texas,
which I think is the town that the novel and movie “Boomtown” was about, the old Clark Gable
film. If you remember that film, they did a pretty good job of picturing the town as a kind of a
Potemkin Village, fronts of stores and saloons and things, where the streets are just mud with
wagons pulling in and out going out to the oil fields. My father and his friends were in a saloon,
and I think my father must have been at least one sheet to the wind when he said, “Well, this is
the damnest town I’ve ever seen. I could be making five thousand dollars a month in this town,
it would take me less than a year do that.” His friends bet him, I don’t know, something, a
thousand dollars, something pretty big at the time, that he couldn’t. And he stayed.
They left and went out and got in the car and my father stayed. He looked around
for a day or two to figure out what to do and he decided that there was a market for an auction.
People had all kinds of things to sell to raise money to buy oil field equipment. So he managed
to rent some space outside and to get a huge blackboard and he would write on the blackboard,
“Vanderstar, seller – wristwatch – asking 40 dollars.” Then he would write out to the side the
various bids as they would come in. He would just write them there. And he would take a
percentage of the winning bid. He made enough money to buy a filling station on that main
drag. He soon saw that, given the condition of the street, normally just a mud puddle, that cars
could not get up and down the street on their own. He got someone to sell him a capstan, like a
winch, with a chain with a hook on the end of it, and for a few bucks he and his guys would go
out and hook this chain onto your car which was stuck in the mud and drag it up the street into
his filling station, fill it up and clean up the car and you would pay him a certain amount of
money. Within a few months he was making well over five thousand dollars a month.
He sold out and left, and I think that was when he went down near the Mexican
border and bought or co-bought a sheep ranch. By this time he was drinking pretty heavily. It
was Prohibition, of course, and guys would come across the Rio Grande with mule trains loaded
with tequila and booze of various sorts; my father arranged to have them store it with him until
their contacts would come and get it and take it away. His fee was some of the booze, he
wouldn’t take money for it.
Anyway, he did a number of things like this.
Mr. Vanderstar: One of the many things you’ve said that caught my attention
was the fact that the Smokehouse that he created was open seven days a week. And I guess,
being an easterner, I have this image of that part of the country where being open on the Sabbath,
namely, Sunday, would just never happen except perhaps restaurants. Can you talk about the
religious atmosphere of the town?
Mr. McPherson: When I was in high school, Tyler had one Catholic church, a
synagogue, I would guess a half dozen Methodist churches, one Episcopal church, a couple of
Presbyterian churches, and either 29 or 49 Baptist churches. It was dominated by the Baptist
Your question about Sundays is a good one. Clearly there was not a law against
opening on Sundays. I think my dad opened up every Sunday morning, and then I think he
would close it in mid-afternoon and go out and play golf, and it would be closed for the day.
Mr. Vanderstar: You think it was open on Sunday morning?
Mr. McPherson: He went down there at ten in the morning, something like that;
maybe that was only before he became an Episcopalian, because he did attend the eleven o’clock
Episcopal service. I don’t know, you wonder when you look at the behavior of people,
especially your parents, you wonder what was going on there. Why am I the only child? They
seemed to be very fond of one another, my father and mother. He spoke in worshipful terms of
her, and she was a marvelous, beautiful woman. Yet he was at the store or the country club a lot
of the time. For some reason, he was out when you would have thought he would be at home.
Mr. Vanderstar: So, your growing up years were in Tyler.
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you go to public school in Tyler?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, I did.
Mr. Vanderstar: You were born in 1929, so that’s the Depression Era, and in
many parts of the country the economic situation was kind of bad for a couple of years. How
was it in Tyler? You wouldn’t be able to remember, but just from what was told to you.
Mr. McPherson: It was a mix. One of the things that kept it going pretty well
was the oil discoveries all around the town. I wrote a piece in the Atlantic one time about this.
They did an issue on Texas and asked me to write some recollection.
Mr. Vanderstar: The Atlantic Monthly?
Mr. McPherson: The Atlantic Monthly, back in the ‘70s some time. And I wrote
about seeing one of these fellows-nouveau riche I guess you could call them-a big, robust
fellow, watching him take the wall telephone in the back of the Smokehouse and just get furious
with somebody, it must have been his leaseman in Hawkins, “Godamnit! I told you to offer the
sumbitch a one-eighth override on top of it all. I said we’d offer him that. Damn!” He slammed
the phone down and went out and got in this mud-caked Cadillac and roared off to Hawkins or
Van or whatever it was, one of these towns that had become the hot oil spot of the day. You’d
see a lot of that kind of thing.
So Tyler had that, and it had the railroad, that employed a lot a people, colored
people as well. It had yards and offices, it was a freight railroad, not a passenger one. So you
had those as the a basis for an economy that survived fairly well.
My grandfather as well as my father were profound Democrats. Over the vault in
the Citizens National Bank, over the vault door, a huge, round, gleaming chrome door, was a
photograph, I guess maybe five by eight feet, of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The message was clear:
FDR was with us and our money. I once wrote a review of a book by Geoffrey Ward about
– 1 1-
FDR. It covered the period between about 191 0 and 1928. Ward describes Roosevelt driving
around Warm Springs, Georgia. He used to go out and drive around that part of Georgia in a car
that he had outfitted so that he could manage it. At the end of the book, a farmer was saying that
Roosevelt would pull his car up in the farmer’s front yard so he could talk with him. He could
talk about whiskey, he could talk about cotton prices, about fishing, “he could talk about
anything,” the farmer said. My grandfather was a lot like that, and so that photograph meant a
lot to him.
One day I was lying across the desk in his office, which like many bank officer’s
offices was out in the general area of the lobby, behind a barrier but open so you could see Mr.
Hight back there. I was lying across the desk, I was about 8 years old, and this farmer was
sitting there. They were talking about the farmer’s daughter, she was pregnant. I didn’t know
what that meant. My grandfather was sitting there giving him counsel on how to handle it. I
asked later what “pregnant” meant and he gave me a very gentle description of it. It never did
occur to me that the girl was not married and had gotten pregnant. It just struck me, here’s a
bank, upstairs there was a very good law firm, Ramey Calhoun & Marsh, that did all the big
work in Tyler, extremely fine law firm, very competent men, and here in the bank that was
lending money to oil guys, guys going out to wildcat, here was my grandfather sitting there
talking with a farmer about his pregnant daughter. That’s the way it ought to be in life, you
know, there ought to be a mix of things that makes life vastly more interesting for everybody.
Mr. Vanderstar: You mentioned that they were all DemocratsMr. McPherson: My dad was a passionate Democrat.
Mr. Vanderstar: -but you described your grandfather as a successful
businessman, indeed a banker, and your father was a true entrepreneurial spirit, and yet they
Mr. McPherson: Absolutely.
Mr. Vanderstar: What’s the explanation?
Mr. McPherson: I’vejust delivered a talk to my new partners at Piper Rudnick.
They have a thing called the Marbury Institute, and I was the speaker last week. I talked about
Texas politicians in Washington for the most part, and I began talking about Edward House.
Colonel House was Wilson’s great advisor and friend. What I didn’t know is that House, a very
suave banker-rancher from central Texas who went to Yale and came back to Texas, loved
politics and fashioned, through his contacts and his counsel and his hndraising, a centrist
Democratic Party for Texas, one that would have good relations with business people but would
also be a progressive party. House was the campaign manager of Jim Hogg, the great
progressive attorney general and governor of Texas, who was very close to Glover Cleveland
and was one of the early connectors between Texas and the national government. Then House
got to know the president of Princeton, Wilson. Both he and Wilson were Democrats, both had
an interest in books and learning. They took to each other. And he delivered Texas to Wilson in
1912 and in doing so brought along several southern states who voted for Wilson. Thereafter, he
became a close advisor to Wilson. Wilson sent him to Europe in 1914 to see if he could head off
World War I, in the month after the Archduke’s assassination. House went to Russia after the
communist takeover after the assassination of the royal family; he was everywhere.
Anyway, I tell that tale because the Texas Democratic party that I was born into
in the ‘30s contained not only a bunch of wild populists like Ma and Pa Ferguson and Pappy
O’Daniel, people like that, but also people like James Allred, who was a centrist in the Colonel
House mode, and Sam Rayburn, and this big-eared young congressman from Johnson City,
Texas, who came along and tied himself to FDR. It was never a slam dunk; Texas was not the
strongest state for Roosevelt.
But the better answer to your question is that power lay with the Democratic
party. Lloyd Bentsen’s father, who lived to be 95 himself, went to see the chairman of the
Republican party of Texas when he was a young man, and he said, “I’m from North Dakota
originally, a Dane from North Dakota, and my family was Republican, so I’d like to join the
Republican party.” And the chairman said, “Young man, do you want to help Texas?” Bentsen
said, “Well, I certainly do.” He said, “Let me just suggest something to you, that you go right
back home to Mission (which was down in the Rio Grande Valley) and you go see the
Democratic chairman down there and you sign up with him, because this is a one-party state and
if you want to exercise any influence in this state and do anything for the people of Texas, then
you’ve got to do it as a Democrat.”
When Wilson was president, the Texans were beginning to occupy
chairmanships. By the time Roosevelt became president, five or six Texans chaired committees
in the House, including probably the most significant member of Congress, Sam Rayburn, who
put through the Securities Act, the Public Utilities Holding Companies Act, all of that, before he
was Speaker when he was chairman of the Commerce Committee. Texans in power were all
over the place.
When I came up, it was still true. There were five major committees in the House
chaired by Texans in the mid-‘50s. So Texas was Democratic because that is where the power
was and the money followed the power.
Mr. Vanderstar: Let’s go back to your childhood. You told me that when you
were 13 you were a messenger in your granddad’s bank and when you were 8 you were draped
on his desk and learned a little bit about unmarried pregnancy in someone. You went through
public schools in Tyler, the grammar school and the high school?
Mr. McPherson: Yes. My mother taught me to read when I was about 5. She
used a device that I have been trying unsuccessfully to recall to mind or anybody else’s mind
that I tell about it. She used a box about the size of a large cigar box, made of mahogany. Out of
it came a tape, like a measuring tape or the stock market tape, and it had letters and probably
diphthongs and things like that, and maybe, after a letter and a diphthong, a word that would
employ it, illustrate it. I was fascinated by it, and so I learned to read. My birthday is in late
August and I never went to kindergarten, I went to first grade on the first day of September 1935.
There was a county fair that summer, and somebody knew that I knew how to read and that my
mother was using this method, which must have been urged upon families. I was asked to go to
the county fair and sit in a booth. As I remember it, it’s probably not true, but I think I
remember that there were cows in the same building where I was, there were cows in stalls and
there I was, in a stall. (laughter) I was asked to read, so these farmers and people, their wives,
would lean over and look at this little boy sitting there reading. It was an extraordinary
Mr. Vanderstar: That’s not what you think of when you think of county fairs.
Mr. McPherson: In Texas or anywhere else.
Mr. Vanderstar: Was your mother an educated woman?
Mr. McPherson: She read a lot although I thinkMr. Vanderstar: Oh, you said she went to Kidd Key College.
Mr. McPherson: Kidd Key College and she read. She was a member of the
Book-of-the-Month Club and she read that book religiously, so she read at least a dozen books a
year, whatever they sent she read. My father was passionately interested in current events. I
don’t think he ever read a book in his life that I can remember. But he certainly read Time and
Newsweek and Life and Look and the Saturday Evening Post. In fact, he sold them, that was one
of the many things he sold at the store, and he always brought them home.
So I read them all. I got a real dose of politics and world events because of the
Depression, and then the great tumult in Europe, FDR and Churchill. You’re not as old as I, but
at my ag-the war began in 1939 when I was ten-and like most boys, I loved to draw pictures
of airplanes and tanks and such. I could draw a pretty decent Spitfire and Hurricane and FockeWulf. It was a powerful teacher, that war. It really brought home what was happening at the
same time: you were learning history, about geography, about people, about what people did in
extreme situations, bravery, cowardice, all the things that war and emergency bring to the fore.
It was a hell of an education.
In 1943, when I was about 13 or 14, I could draw you a pretty good map of the
front in Russia. I could draw the Volga, the Dneiper, the Don, and I could show you where
Rostov and Kiev and Stalingrad were. And I could do the same in North Africa. I was
fascinated when the British stopped Rommel down there, fascinated by the war.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did your mother ever teach school or anything of that sort?
Mr. McPherson: No, she didn’t. She devoted her energies to her son and her
husband and her home, and that’s really it, besides mahjong and bridge.
Mr. Vanderstar: Was she athletic, did she play tennis or swim or anything of that
Mr. McPherson: No, no, she didn’t. She died very young, she was 43.
Mr. Vanderstar: Let me go back to your comments about the war. It took the
United States quite a while to get into the war and we were sort of dragged into it, I guess some
would say. What was the attitude in your home and in your town about the war and about our
not being in it before Pearl Harbor. Can you remember?
Mr. McPherson: I remember strong pro-British feelings, probably because I was
listening to Edward R. Murrow. That was an incredible experience, to be sitting in your home in
an east Texas town listening to Edward R. Murrow talk about the Blitz, and you could hear the
planes, the bombs, behind him. It was a dose of reality.
Whether or not many Tyler people were eager to go in, I don’t remember.
I knew a couple of guys who had been at sea, in the Merchant Marine, going in
convoys to Britain. In fact one guy who had worked for my dad was torpedoed, he was in the
ocean surrounded by fire, and he managed to get to a lifeboat and out. He came back and told
everybody in town about this.
There was no question ofwhere one’s emotions were, people were passionate
about Churchill and they felt extremely warmly toward the British. Whether that meant they
were ready to go to war, I don’t know.
Mr. Vanderstar: Do you know if, just from your own research and your own
experience, do you know if those powerful Texas committee chairmen in Congress were part of
the isolationist philosophy or were part of the FDR philosophy that we needed to be in the war?
Mr. McPherson: I think the latter. I think they voted with FDR at most every
opportunity. I know the local congressman did. He was a populist, a constituent-server type, the
kind of fellow who, I think, probably slept in his office to save money. Lindley Beckworth was
his name, and he voted consistently with FDR on everything. Johnson, of course, did too, and
Johnson worked very hard to be useful to Roosevelt. He was a kind of a young whip in the
Mr. Vanderstar: Do you remember Pearl Harbor?
Mr. McPherson: Distinctly.
Mr. Vanderstar: What do you remember about it?
Mr. McPherson: I remember walking in front of the Liberty Theater headed
toward a YMCA health club, I was going to work out; somebody told me what had happened,
and I turned around and went home and turned on the radio. I remember it very vividly as well
as the next day when Roosevelt went to the Congress.
Mr. Vanderstar: A famous speech.
Let’s see, you were born in August of ‘29 and you started first grade in September
ofMr. McPherson: ‘35. I think so. I started a week after I turned six.
Mr. Vanderstar: Right, okay. And then, and so by the time of Pearl Harbor, that
was six years later, so you were 12?
Mr. McPherson: Right, I was 12.
Mr. Vanderstar: So you were still a little boy?
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you have any memory of people rushing out to enlist in the
Army and things like that after Pearl Harbor?
Mr. McPherson: Yes. Men who were working for the railroad, refinery workers,
mechanics, blue collar guys. College fellows also went, they kind of took their time to find the
service that they wanted, but they went. I don’t recall a lot of talk about people who were
ducking the draft or ducking service.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you have any cousins?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, I did.
Mr. Vanderstar: Where did they live?
Mr. McPherson: Two lived in Tyler, a brother and sister. They were the
children of my mother’s sister who had married into a German family, maybe one and a half
generations removed from the Old Country. They were quite well-to-do. They had canning
factories in east Texas. The family name was Woldert. My aunt, my mother’s sister, was a
lovely vivacious woman, played the piano. Her name was Mamie Woldert. She died in a fire of
her home, an alcoholic.
My grandfather also had a son who was a very attractive, very suave fellow who
had no character to speak of (laughter) and led a rascal’s life. I think that must have just crushed
my grandfather. No one ever said that to me but I think that was true.
I know everyone is inclined to think well of their mother, but my mother was
really a wonderful woman and much loved by everyone in the city. She was the one of the three
children who measured up to my grandfather.
Mr. Vanderstar: But your cousinsMr. McPherson: The rascal son had a son named Jack Hight, and Jack, my
cousin, is responsible for my sitting here with you. He was working for Lyndon B. Johnson as
an administrative staffer in 1956. He had graduated from William & Mary and decided he
wanted to work in Washington. So he came up here and he got a job with LBJ. He didn’t know
him, he just managed to connect with him. He called me when I was a senior at the University
of Texas Law School and was doing job interviews. He said, “Senator Johnson is looking for a
young Texas lawyer. He is working his counsel to the bone, a nifty man named Gerald Siegel,
who was the counsel on the Democratic Policy Committee.” And poor Gerry was withering.
Johnson said, “Well you can have an assistant but he’s got to come from Texas.” And Jack said
to me, “Would you be interested?” So I applied and came up.
My cousin Jack remained here only about six months while I was here. He went
off, decided to be an IBM salesman, went to Poughkeepsie, and got into training. He was very
good at it, and they kept him on for a year or so as a teacher. Then he was assigned to Dallas to
sell IBM equipment. Another of his IBM colleagues there in Dallas, a little guy with great big
ears, said (accent), “You know, I’m just getting a little tired of doing all this. I’m just as wore
out as I can possibly be. I might as well be a duck on a June bug or whatever (laughter). And I
want to start a company.” That was, of course, Ross Perot. So they started EDS.
Jack became vice president for relations with the government. He organized the
deals for covering Medicaid and Medicare, which was, of course, the big plum for EDS. Jack
got out of EDS about a day after his options matured; he had had enough of Ross Perot. He had
become a wealthy man, and he has lived ever since then in Palm Beach, starting small
companies-he’s had a number of them and they’ve all done well. He’s a marvelous fellow who
made the connection for me with Lyndon Johnson.
Mr. Vanderstar: What about your two cousins that you spoke about?
Mr. McPherson: One is still living. She’s is a great-spirited woman who went
through a long period of being hard-over right-wing in Dallas. She was a supporter of the
congressman then, Bruce Alger, who waved his sign at Lady Bird in 1960 and by mistake hit her
with it during the campaign; Senator Richard Russell, who had stayed out of the campaign in the
‘60 election, called that night and said, “I’ll be there tomorrow morning.” He spent the next
seven or eight days traveling around Texas campaigning for John F. Kennedy because this
fellow had hit Lady Bird with his sign. He had a huge effect on Texas. Wonderful the way these
Mr. Vanderstar: Wow! That’s a story. But how did your cousin get into this?
Mr. McPherson: She had married a very nice guy in the insurance business and
they just joined these groups in Dallas who were hard over to the political right. For a long time,
of course, they were still, in the O OS, trying to break up the Democratic Party and deny Roosevelt
a fourth term and deny Truman election in 1948. Finally, Ike carried Texas and so, while they
much preferred someone to the right of Eisenhower, they became Republicans.
Mr. Vanderstar: What was her name?
Mr. McPherson: Her name is Sally McClung. Her brother, Alex Woldert, is
Mr. Vanderstar: What were their ages compared to yours?
Mr. McPherson: They’re a little older,
Mr. Vanderstar: Contemporaries?
Mr. McPherson: A little older. She’s about maybe four or five years older than
1. Alex was a couple of years older.
Mr. Vanderstar: So did you associate with them when you were a child-when
you were ten years old?
Mr. McPherson: I did. The Wolderts had a wonderful lake house on a small east
Texas lake. What is it about water and lakes and things like that? It’s just in your memory
forever. No wonder that poets write so much about it. My large, rather bullish, bullying uncle,
their father, would get up at 5:30 on summer mornings. My mother and I would be spending a
couple of weeks out at the lake house, sleeping on screened porches, and at 5:30 in the morning
you could hear his outboard motor starting. He would be going out across the lake to check the
trap lines that he had put out the night before, to take off the catfish and bream that he had found
out there. We spent a lot of time at the lake.
I caught my first fish out there. I was about eight, nine, and one hot afternoon I
yelled and yelled. I had this fish and I didn’t know what to do with it. (laughter) It was a
catfish. The Wolderts had a wonderful cook nanied Belle and a very nice chauffeur-both
Negroes. He came running out and helped me get the fish off, and he ran in with me to the
kitchen to say, “Hany just caught a fish!” And Belle said, “Look at that fish!” and my Aunt
Mamie came in and said, “Oh, honey, that’s a nigger fish, that’s a catfish.” You know, I think
that even then I knew that that wouldn’t do, that must be hurting, had to be.
Race relations in those times were extraordinary. We had, in my family, a
woman who began at about age 17 to be our cook and cleaning person. Her name was Ela Clark.
She was wonderful to me, treated me with the greatest affection and kindness, even though she’d
get irritated with me, doing the things boys do.
Mr. Vanderstar: Were you a little boy when she started?
Mr. McPherson: Yes. And she continued working for my dad until he was in his
70s. She was connected with us for 40 years. She was paid a pittance.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did she live in your home?
Mr. McPherson: No, she didn’t. She caught the town bus and went home every
Mr. Vanderstar: I want to ask you about school and friends and what your
activities were, you’ve already mentioned catching your first fish, and so on, but one of the
things I wanted to you ask about was race, so we’re there, why don’t we talk about it?
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: Make it part of your talking about going to school and what you
did, how you lived your life at the time.
Mr. McPherson: All the schools, every one of them, were segregated.
Mr. Vanderstar: Sure.
Mr. McPherson: Tyler had a Nego college, Texas College, and about 60 miles
away was Marshall, Texas, were there were two Negro colleges, Wiley and Bishop. In between
those two towns was the town of Camack where Claudia, known as Lady Bird, Johnson was
growing up, 20 years older than I.
I am beginning to wonder how much I how, really, about race in those days. My
wife and son and I went down last spring vacation on a trip I’ve wanted to make for a long time.
We went to Nashville and drove down to see Shiloh, and then we drove on down to a place on
the Delta where we stayed with a marvelous couple that I’ve come to know. The guy was a
cotton planter. I said, “How long did you do it?” and Frank Mitchener said (accent), “I did 44
crops.” For 44 years he did it. His father did 66 crops and his grandfather, after being wounded
four times in the Civil War, went back to Oxford, got his free Negroes and took them down to
this little town in Mississippi where they started farming cotton. They are a 1 SO-year success
story as cotton farmers and very sophisticated people, cultivated, decent people.
But the tiny town they live in is Sumner; I was just watching the Emmett Till
story the other night, and that’s where the trial was-Sumner, Mississippi. Near Clarksville.
Anyway, I just wondered, after watching that, how much do I know, how much did I know. I
remember some nice things in my childhood. I remember the kindness of Black servants toward
me, but I also remember there were lynchings around Tyler. My father said that when he was
growing up in Dallas, I think it was on Elm Street where the Aldolphus Hotel is, there were
arches in which there were walkways between buildings several stones above the street, and he
recalled walking out of the dentist’s office one time having had a tooth pulled and feeling pretty
woozy with the ether, and looking up and seeing a Negro hanging from the arch. He fainted, my
father fainted. He was just a young boy, a teenager.
I just don’t remember enough about it. I know that Tyler was quite divided.
There were families who were much more, what should I say, humane, much more sensitive to
these racial issues than others. The term “nigger” was used around town as frequently as horse
or car or anything; people just used it all the time. I don’t really remember the expression that
Johnson used when he was talked to southerners, which was “Nigra,” I don’t remember that
being used. And certainly, some people would use the term “colored people.”
A guy working for my father cleaned up the store one Sunday afternoon after my
father had gone off to play golf. He went home, I think on the bus, went up on his front porch
and looked through the screen and saw his wife and another man inflagrante delicto. He went
back downtown-I can’t believe he waited for a bus, he must have had a car-he went back
downtown, opened up the store, got a 20-gauge shotgun, put a couple of rounds in it, took it back
home and fired from the porch. It didn’t kill the lover; he just peppered the hell out of him.
Took it back down, cleaned it and called my father and told him what he had done. My father
got him a lawyer. Of course he was exonerated in a minute, it didn’t take the jury any time to let
Mr. Vanderstar: Was there such a think as the Ku Klux Klan to your knowledge?
Mr. McPherson: Yes, and I remember that I played with some kids in my
neighborhood, Buddy Ledbetter, Jimmy Kennedy, Sam Gladden, and I remember my dad saying
about Jimmy Kennedy’s father, who was related vaguely to my grandmother Kennedy, I
remember him saying, “I don’t know about him. He was, I think he was a member of the Ku
Klux Klan.” I guess that would have been back in the ‘20s.
This is a town where one night, one hot night, I was downtown, as I remember
listening to Doc Witte play his comet, he was the band leader and gave instruction in music. He
had a studio facing the courthouse, and you could hear his beautiful trumpet playing. You went
around the comer and there, with a big crowd of people around him, was the car that Bonnie and
Clyde had been in when they were killed. The FBI or somebody was showing it off and
everybody was oohing and aahing and “isn’t it wonderful that we can see the car where Bonnie
and Clyde were killed.” (laughter)
I think about my childhood and how I learned about life. My 16-year-old son is
not a vulgar kid at all but I’m sure he’s seen things on television that would curl my hair. What I
saw and what I was taking in from around the world, through radio and magazines and
conversation, makes you realize that, as you think of your education, that you’ve got to take all
of that into account, that it’s not just what you learned in school.
So I was hearing a lot about race relations and about lynching and about how we
had to find some way to make it better pretty early, and there were a lot of influences that were
emphasizing that. At the country club there was a man named Eddie Finell who was a waiter,
maybe in his fifties. Eddie Finell had been the leader of the Hotel Tyler orchestra. The
orchestra had in it as one of its trumpet players Hot Lips Page, who was a star with Artie Shaw.
I was so hooked on jazz, on New Orleans jazz, I used to lie in bed and listen to a
Dallas, Texas, radio program at night. It came on about ten, my bedtime, and I would lie there
and listen to an hour of Kid Ory and Bunk Johnson and, you know, just the mystery of this stuff.
And then Louis Armstrong, for God’s sake.
And I said to Eddie Finell, “Could I drive you home and would you tell me about
the Hotel Tyler orchestra?” So for several nights, I waited for him until he had finished serving
dinner in the country club dining room, and then I drove him home and he would talk about the
orchestra, what they played and where they’d gone.
So all this stuff is feeding into your ideas about race, about poverty, whatever.
And then you have your own instinctive acquisitions. I read in Time magazine about this
extraordinary movie, Citizen Kune, and I saw it five times in the Liberty Theater. I just kept
going back to see it. I was absolutely mesmerized by it. Still am, we all are.
Mr. Vanderstar: Sure.
Mr. McPherson: But even at the age of about 1 1, I was just astounded by this
film, the use of the camera, the way there would be sudden silhouettes, or profiles, the way that
incredible cameraman, I can’t think of his name, would just set it up. And so here, at the age of
1 1, by myself going to movies.
My dad was a nut for sports and we went on a lot of Saturdays to Dallas, Waco,
Austin. We would drive to see SMU, TCU, Baylor, UT play football. I played a lot of baseball
and my dad was a golfer. Being tall and rangy, I could hit a golf ball, as kids can, a long way,
and he was very proud, and that was just exactly what I didn’t need. It’s very embarrassing to
have your father call his friends over, “I want you to watch Harry hit the ball.”
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you hunt and fish?
Mr. McPherson: Fished. I loved it; I never did learn to fly fish or even to cast. I
just did hook, line and sinker fishing.
Mr. Vanderstar: On the lake.
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: What about hunting?
Mr. McPherson: Very little. I was taken a few times, especially when my
mother died, by men who wanted to be supportive.
Mr. Vanderstar: Sure.
Mr. McPherson: The high school principal and others. They would show up
with the guns and dogs and we’d go off quail hunting and occasionally duck hunting. I enjoyed
it, but I didn’t do a hell of a lot of it.
I was very young for my grade. I got double promoted when I was in the second
grade and then, to make it up or to get even, I went to summer school one summer, and that took
me up further. So I graduated from high school at 15. There were only 1 1 grades in Texas in
those days, why I don’t know. They were saving money or something. So I was too skinny and
light to be on the Tyler High School football team.
Mr. Vanderstar: We’ve been at this a long time. I’ve got a number of notes that
I’d like to come back to. For example, on the race question, you said there were Black colleges
Mr. McPherson: Yes.
Mr. Vanderstar: That’s a fact that caught my attention.
Mr. McPherson: Right.
Mr. Vanderstar: I’d love to explore the significance of that both to you as a
youngster and also to the community, and talk more about your schooling, grade school, high
school, how many grades-you already said through 1 1 grades, so we know that much and
double promoted, but I want to have you talk more about that when we meet next.
ORAL HISTORY OF