Ambling along the backroads of Texas for 60 years, an unassuming, likable Houstonian named Leon Hale wrote about life off the beaten track. On a crisp January afternoon in 2020, this retired master of thousands of whimsical and wise daily 800-word newspaper columns smiled a tad self-consciously.
After all, during his lengthy career, Leon Hale had done a great deal more listening than talking.
Leon pulled up a chair next to his writer wife, Babette Fraser Hale, at the Winedale Historical Center west of Houston and gazed around the room. Notes made him nervous, he said, as he started to speak to an audience that gave him its full attention
Leon’s columns first appeared in The Houston Post in 1954. Following that newspaper’s demise, he wrote for The Houston Chronicle until his retirement in 2014. He is now closing in on his 99th birthday.
This is the newspaperman who immortalized an annual trek to the South Texas brush country. Every March for more than 20 years, he and Old Friend Morgan set out on a road trip seeking Primavera, which translates to spring in Spanish. He would faithfully send word back about where and when they’d spotted the approaching change in the seasons.
Leon is the same fellow, who, in his later years, shared the outcome of his annual driving test of maneuvering the entire 38-mile 610 loop, one of Houston’s busiest freeways.
Leon often reported the highlights of his visits to Madame Z, his Brazos-bottom fortuneteller friend. She still swept the hard-packed red clay and sand in her front yard with a broom. Then there was Leon’s description of the good times and good stories he enjoyed with Friend Mel, whom he affectionately labeled “a city boy.”
Perhaps Leon’s most beloved subject, though, was the talking mule that seemed to have more sense than many people did. Among Leon’s columns was a 1972 Houston Post article entitled “Wagon Grease and Experience Shaped Old Cowboy’s Hat.” He interviewed Jack McLaughlin, who was born in 1894 in a log cabin at Rutersville, Texas.
This maker of rawhide lariats and bois d’arc wood ox yokes told Leon (center in photo) about his years as a ranch hand and his Native American heritage. While seated on an old wagon in the picture, the elderly man also described his seven months in a World War I German prison camp. Listening to the conversation (at right) was A.V. Smith.
Leon is the author of 11 books; some are collections of his columns, two are novels and one is a memoir. (www.leonhale.com) A member of The Texas Institute of Letters, he has been recognized for excellence sustained throughout a career.
Babette credits much of her husband’s writing skill to his unique slant, his innate ability to see what others don’t. Peppering his popular columns with typical Texas lingo, Leon delivered humble, deceptively simple observations in a warm, witty style. His written voice connected deeply with readers, many of whom shared his rural roots.
Although the couple speaks tongue-in-cheek about their differences, it’s apparent their union of nearly 40 years is built on rock solid mutual respect. Their comments were laced with warmth and humor, even Leon’s frustrations associated with aging.
Leon claims to spend a lot of time “word chasing” now because they sometimes won’t come out willingly when he goes to speak. He leans a little on a walking cane. He adds that he lives in a world full of nameless people because it’s harder for him to put a face with a name these days. Babette smiles at his quips.
Babette has always thought her husband’s work is like music that begs to be heard. He admires her talent and their collaboration. He dedicated his book entitled Home Spun to her with the words, “To Babette, who saved me.”
An award-winning fiction author, writer and columnist, (www.babettefraserhale.com), Babette outlined some guidelines the two wordsmiths have established during their peaceful, pastoral existence at their old house at Winedale, Texas.
Tapping on keyboards 30 feet apart in the same room, the two writers treat one another as partners, not competitors. They read some of the same books to stimulate fun, thoughtful discussions. They agree it’s important to speak up, but not to be critical.
As a practical matter, they both pitch in to handle the more mundane parts of life. Babette is grateful that Leon willingly volunteers for more than a few household tasks.
He replies that it’s not a big deal. But it is to her.
At the conclusion of the presentation, K approached Leon to shake his hand. When he began asking her questions, she realized that at heart Leon still is a curious reporter.
“In the late 1970s, one of my journalism professors at Stephen F. Austin State University challenged us to pick a columnist and read their work faithfully, looking for ways to make our own writing better. I didn’t have to think twice; I picked Leon Hale.
“His gift was as evident to me even as a young writer more than four decades ago as it was in the Winedale lecture hall today,” K adds.
“When I read his columns, Leon made me feel as if I was riding shotgun beside him. It was evident from the questions from this audience that I wasn’t the only one,” K says. “I guess none of us realized just how crowded the front seat of Leon’s vehicle actually was!”
When an audience member said what a joy it had been to read Leon’s work over the years, a tide of applause erupted. When the same fan added that he missed Leon, the aged columnist smiled.
In a soft voice, Leon replied, “I miss you, too.”
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