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Tom Mulvany: A reminiscence

Posted by Ron George on October 24, 2017

A brass pica pole: Once an essential tool in newspaper composing rooms, used to measure column widths and depths.

Many thanks to former colleague Murphy Givens for his recent account of Craig v. Harney, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that exonerated Caller-Times editors and reporter Tom Mulvany for taking on an errant county judge.

I met Tom 22 years later in the newsroom of the Houston Chronicle, where he was on the rewrite desk for what was then an afternoon newspaper with six deadlines a day. He was one of three of the most experienced news writers in the vast Chronicle newsroom, the go-to guys for taking facts from reporters on the street and rewriting them into stories on hard deadlines.

I was a cub reporter, fresh out of college, whose journalism degree seemed to have fallen considerably short of what it took to work for a daily metropolitan newspaper. My first conversation with Mulvany was by telephone on Oct. 30, 1969, about five months after I joined the Chronicle staff.

I was covering what promised to be a confrontation between campus radicals and military recruiters at the University of Houston. I arrived at the student center just as a large crowd, most of them young men, began chanting, “Go to hell, SDS, go to hell,” referring to Students for Democratic Society, the radical bunch that wanted military recruiters off campus.

Three SDSers tried to push their way through the crowd but never made it to the recruiters’ table. The crowd mauled them – pounding and kicking. Two men emerged from the student center dazed and bloodied, their shirts in tatters. Police took them into protective custody; they resisted, so police arrested them.

I was near the back of the mob scene inside. The men escaped, crawling right past me. I followed them to the police cars, got their names but little else. A woman who was with them, who had been pushed around but not beaten, spouted a few lines of leftist rhetoric before police took her away.

I had to find a phone. The city editor bawled me out for not calling in before the noon home-delivery deadline. Uh, there was a riot underway? No excuses, he said before handing me off to Tom.

Calm down, he said. Tell me what happened. Back and forth we went, he asking for specific information as I replied, breathless and still shaky. Are you sure that’s how you spell his name? Yes. And so it went. I was incoherent, but Tom was not.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the field – interviews, checking in with the Chronicle’s longtime police reporter, Jack Weeks, and calling Tom with more information.

We made what was then known as the markets deadline – a street edition for folks headed home from work.

It was almost quitting time when I returned to the newsroom. Tom had put a markets edition on my typewriter – with my first page-one byline over an elegantly written story. In those days, bylines were earned – few and far between for cub reporters – bestowed by editors for work well done. It was my name on the story, but it was Tom’s skill, honed by decades of newspaper experience that took my frantic words and made them sing.

The story of a lifetime: Tom Mulvany covered it most of his professional career

We became friends; he the gray-haired mentor, I the youngest guy in the newsroom. I’d take him home from time to time, and one evening he invited me in for a drink. He regaled me with decades of newsroom gossip and news-reporting tales, most of which I’ve forgotten but which became the glue of our friendship.

Among other things, he told me about being thrown in jail in Corpus Christi for contempt of court as well as the complicated story of a monk and an heiress and the protracted legal battle over her estate. That story so intrigued me that I went into the Chronicle library to read stories Tom had written as he kept up with the case after moving to Houston.

One night, after a few rounds of his favorite whiskey, I asked him about his latest story about the estate of Sarita Kenedy East. As we talked, Tom realized that I’d done some homework.

“Someday, when I die, you’ll get my files,” he said.

Tom retired from the Chronicle in 1971. I took him home one last time. He gave me a brass pica pole so old the raised numbers had worn smooth. We drank a lot of whiskey, then said good-bye.

“You’re the only son-of-a-bitch who came for a farewell drink,” he said, failing to mention that he’d wanted no farewell party. Tom was a loner. Always had been. Kept to himself, even in jail with his publisher and managing editor.

I didn’t get his “Sarita files” when he died in 1978, but I did write a piece or two about the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Foundation long after the dust had settled over the legal battle regarding Sarita Kenedy East’s estate. And I came across Tom’s name again and again when I wrote a feature story and review in 1990 of If You Love Me, You Will Do My Will, by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth.

Now that I’m retired, I still have that brass pica pole to remind of me of the old gentleman on the Chronicle rewrite desk who made my words readable.

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