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Some of Texas' greatest heroes remain unsung. Occasional contributor John Coppedge makes sure a new generation discovers Ken Towery

Texas, December 30, 2013

Editor's note: John Coppedge is best known in political circles for his passion about Texas courts and the people who populate them. He is as responsible as any other non-professional for electing the people who populate Texas' courts. Coppedge's often thought provoking writings on Texas judicial elections have graced these pages in previous years. I thought I knew Ken Towery but found Coppedge's story riveting. We are pleased to share this with our readers....HK

Huddled in the filthy, cramped and frigid huts of a Japanese POW camp in Manchuria, American GIs lived for the time the guard would deliver the buckets of slop that passed as their meal for the day. The prisoners were expected to divide it among themselves, and these starved men were understandably anxious to get as much of the meager ration for themselves as they could. One prisoner would be selected as the “chow dipper” to dole out the meal into each man’s cup as he passed through the line. Fights would break out among the desperate men over the amounts of their servings. 

Chow dippers usually didn’t last long in the job. 

That changed the day a quiet Texan was chosen to dole out the slop and exhibited in that duty the character, wisdom and fairness that earned him the respect he has been accorded throughout his life. As the chow dipper, Ken Towery filled his own cup first and placed it next to the serving bucket. Then, as each man came through the line he would fill their cup.  If any man complained he was being shorted, Towery would invite them to take his cup and replace it with theirs.  None ever took him up on his offer.  He remained chow dipper for the rest of the war.

“Nothing in the secular world, the world apart from my family, has approached the honor of being chosen as chow dipper for starving men,” Towery wrote later. He also said he later realized the honor brought both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was reinforcement of his parents’ teaching that we should “do unto others.” “The curse,” he said, “was that it has caused me to judge others, to form opinions about them on the basis of how I think they would have acted in a similar situation.”

Few have measured up. “The curse of the chow dipper, I suppose, is still with me,” he wrote.

From the Austin home where Towery lives with his bride Louise, he looks back on a life filled with accomplishments and adventures that make most other lives seem mundane by comparison. From the great war to American journalism’s highest prize and on to positions of great influence in government, he has painted broad strokes across America’s canvas as he moved through his life. And while his steps these days are deliberate and tentative, Towery strode through the American landscape with giant steps for much of the past century.

After growing up on a hardscrabble tenant farm in South Texas, life changed quickly after Towery turned 18 in January 1941 and joined the U.S. Army. He was soon shipping out to Corregidor in the Philippine Islands.   He manned an anti-aircraft gun and fought gallantly, suffering wounds for which he received the Purple Heart.  But after a heroic-but-doomed defense of the island that lasted six months, he and his comrades were captured in May 1942.

For the remaining three and a half years of the war, Towerywas confined in Japanese POW camps. Through a procession of camps, he watched as many of his fellow captives starved to death and were tortured and killed by their captors. Malnutrition and disease were the norm.  A relative handful survived, and Towery was among those who beat the deadly odds. But his victory came at great cost.

He returned to the United States emaciated and suffering many of the parasitic diseases endemic to the camps. Worse, he came home with a serious case of tuberculosis, and spent five of the next 10 years in and out of isolation wards of TB sanitariums. In those days before effective antibiotic treatment for tuberculosis, the only treatments medicine had to offer were bed rest, isolation and a nutritious diet.

But Towery did not let the hospitalizations stop him. During the time between stays in the hospital, he managed to be a member of the first-ever class of Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde, and was admitted to Texas A&M, where he planned to study soil biology. He also found time to meet, woo and wed Louise Ida Cook, from Knippa, Texas. 

The new Mr. and Mrs. Towery lived in “Vet Village,” a jumble of plywood shacks near where Kyle Field is now on the A&M campus.  But he had to drop out of school and re-enter the hospital when the tuberculosis recurred. “Thus ended my formal education,” he said later. “All in all, it was a useful exercise.” His widowed mother had moved to Cuero, in DeWitt County, and Louise went there to be with her, and was joined by her husband when his tuberculosis went into remission again. 

In 1950, Ken was cleaning out poultry houses, certainly one of the world’s dirtiest jobs, when he heard the local newspaper,The Cuero Record, was looking for a reporter. “My luck held,” he recalled of the opportunity to leave behind the packinghouse. He applied but was told he would have to know how to type. The problem was quickly solved by Louise, who taught him to type on a borrowed typewriter.

The newspaper hired him.

For his efforts, Towery was paid the princely sum of $60 a week. Having neither the education nor experience to prepare him for the job, he nonetheless dove into the work. And it seemed history had again chosen Towery to rise to the top when he uncovered, investigated and reported a series of stories on what became known as “The Veteran’s Land Scandal.”  Towery had discovered white Cuero businessmen were paying black veterans to sign over loan applications to buy land under a state program, and state officials were ignoring the program’s abuse.

The scandal rocked Texas politics and drove Texas Land Commissioner Bascom Giles from office, eventually sending him to the Texas State Penitentiary. A total of 20 people were indicted in nine counties. In 1955 the Pulitzer Committeerecognized Towery’s work with its award for local reporting.  Edward R. Murrow of CBS did a special report about Towery, the newspaper, and coverage of the scandal. “It turned out to be an interesting program, I was told,” Towery said. Being 80 miles from the nearest TV station, he and Louise couldn’t see it.

Two months later, he was back in the hospital with a recurrence of the tuberculosis. By that time Ken and Louise had two children. But new antibiotic treatments were being developed and Ken benefited. This time he only spent a year in the hospital.

Ken and Louise moved to Austin, where he took a job in a pool of political reporters for several newspapers, one of which was the Austin American Statesman. The job gave him an up close and personal look at Texas politics and the politicians of the day. To say he was less than impressed with many of them is an understatement.  

His work caught the eye of newly elected Republican U.S. Sen. John Tower who asked Ken to join his staff in Washington as his press secretary. In typical fashion, Towery told the new Senator he should know he had voted for Tower’s opponent, Democrat William Blakely. Tower said that didn’t matter; so had a lot of people!

While deciding whether to accept the offer, Towery asked the Austin American Statesman if he could take a two year-leave of absence to go to Washington, a common practice among journalists of the day. When he said he’d be working for Sen. Tower, the reply was “NOT THAT GUY!  NO WAY!” Towery recalled. The newspaper would not hold a job for him. That sealed the deal.  Towery went to Washington, where he rose through the ranks as he always did, eventually becoming Tower’s chief of staff.  The senator delegated great authority toTowery and, as he had in Texas, Towery got an up close and personal look at the political class in Washington, particularly in the U.S. Senate. 

Towery’s previous relationships with Texas politicians and personal skills enabled him to help the new Republican senator work effectively with the governor and other elected officials in Texas, all of whom were Democrats at the time.  He also helped facilitate a good working relationship between Sen. Tower and the other U.S. senator from Texas, Ralph Yarbrough.

Towery eventually left Tower’s staff but remained a trusted advisor and a major behind-the-scenes player in Republican politics in Texas and America over the next 20 years.  He ran Tower’s re-election campaigns, and ran Richard Nixon’s 1968 Texas campaign.  He had a ringside seat, and frequently a major role in the inner workings and dealings of both Texas and national politics; especially the formative years of the modern Republican Party in Texas.  When John Tower, Anne Armstrong, Peter O’Donnell and a few others were giving birth to the modern Republican Party in Texas, Ken Towery served as the midwife. 

He also played on an international field.

A conservative in the mold of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and John Tower, Towery’s belief is that communism is evil, and he played a major role in bringing about the demise of the old Soviet Union and ending the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Though Reagan rightly receives much of the recognition for that accomplishment, Towery was a major participant through his roles as deputy director and assistant director of the United States Information Agency.

“The years I spent at USIA were among the most gratifying ‘employed’ years of my life,” Towery wrote. “They were years I could go home at night feeling I had struck a blow for liberty, for mankind … And there was the feeling that our labors were directed toward the interests of the nation as a whole, not merely toward the interests of political parties.”

He traveled the world in his USIA job, despite lingering health issues stemming from his long-ago captivity. 

In 1976 he and Louise returned to Austin and began a successful political consulting business. Towery’s understanding of the political process and campaign strategy was exceptional. Tower and Towery were heavily involved in the Goldwater campaign in 1964.  On the eve of that election, John Tower asked Towery how he thought it was going. Reluctantly, he answered; “I think we are going to get our butts kicked.”  It was one of the biggest electoral landslides in history with Johnson demolishing Goldwater.  Towery then ran John Tower’s 1966 Senate campaign. On the eve of that election, Tower asked him how he thought it would come out. Towery replied that he thought they would win by 200,000 votes.  The margin was 198,746.

Another example of Towery’s political acumen and vision was his growing conviction that for Sen. Tower to win re-election, he needed to cultivate traditional Democrat voters. Furthermore, he said, the best place to get those votes was from Hispanics in South Texas.  Having grown up in the Texas Valley, Towery knew Hispanics to be hard working, proud, family oriented and at their core very conservative people.  He talked Tower into campaigning along the Texas border, where he astounded many locals by even being there.  Republican politicians had never before thought to campaign in the region and Democratic politicians went there only rarely, taking that vote for granted. 

John Tower went to the Valley.  He treated the people with respect and asked for their advice and support.   Much to the consternation of the local Democrat leaders, the response was positive and Tower did better there on election day than any Republican had ever done.  Today, Hispanic outreach is a major priority of the Texas Republican Party, and it’s a concept that came from Ken Towery 50 years ago. 

In 1981, Towery opened yet another new chapter in his life when he was appointed by President Reagan to the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a body of which he was twice elected chairman. He would be the first to tell you that his conservative views would be out of place in today’s “politically correct” Washington. He is supportive of Voice of America broadcasts around the world but believes the American government should not be in the domestic media business, period. 

Towery also found time to serve as assistant to University of Texas System Chancellor Charles LeMaistre, where he learned about an even more brutal type of politics- the cutthroat world of academia.

In the mid-1990s, Ken and Louise returned to Texas and he went back to the work he loved the most, in the newspaper business.  He purchased a trio of smalltown Texas newspapers, the Floyd County Hesperian and The Lockney Beacon and the Crosby County News-Chronicle.  He is now fully retired.

Fortunately, Towery has rewarded us with his memoirs – a book appropriately entitled “The Chow Dipper.”  In the book’s foreword, conservative icon William F. Buckley wrote: “Towery was an utterly committed anti-Communist and anti-socialist. … All those who were ever associated with him were elevated by the experience: and like so many others, will enjoy and profit from reading his political odyssey.”

The book is really three books in one.  The first part is about growing up in South Texas, his WWII experiences as a soldier and as one of the few survivors of the Japanese POW camps.

The second part is about learning the newspaper business and winning the Pulitzer Prize by uncovering and reporting corruption in government.

The third part is the tale of his 40-year odyssey through Texas and national politics.  He shares anecdotes about Lyndon Johnson, Paul Eggers, Ralph Yarbrough, Jack Cox, Rita (Bass) Clements, Sam Rayburn, Bill Clements, Clayton Williams, Ted Kennedy, Will Wilson, Allan Shivers, John Connally, Waggoner Carr, Ben Barnes and Price Daniel among others. Of course, he shares many insights into the man he worked for and with for so many years – John Tower. Towery spares few he feels deserve criticism but that criticism is muted except in the case of Tower’s second wife, Lilla.   He gives those with an interest in these matters a “peek behind the curtain” that answers many questions about the who, what, when, where and why surrounding campaigns and events that have shaped our state and nation.

For students of the political process the book should be required reading. 

The day after his 89th birthday, I visited Ken and Louise. Their home just south of downtown Austin is located in a quiet neighborhood.  Oak trees shade the house.  Louise tends her pepper plants on the front porch and, as always, looks out after Ken.  Ken hand feeds the doves that gather on the back patio.

As he took me along on a walk down his personal memory lane, I was struck by the fact that he, like most of his generation, downplays his part in World War II, says his actions were not particularly heroic and that he was simply doing what had to be done.  He exhibits that same self-effacing modesty when reflecting on all of his subsequent accomplishments.

Many of the things we talked about are in his book.  Some of them are mentioned above.   One that was not in the book, and according to Towery has never been published, is worth reporting. 

With a bemused chuckle, he related the story.  John Tower had won the special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Lyndon Johnson became Vice President in 1961.  Tower and his staff arrived to the vacant office that was assigned to the junior Senator from Texas.  They began the process of requisitioning desks, chairs, filing cabinets and other furnishings to set up the office.  The last filing cabinets that had been turned in to the Senate storeroom had been in Lyndon Johnson’s office.  They were the ones sent to Tower. 

Much to his surprise, Towery said, he found they still contained Johnson’s old papers and correspondence.  When he reported this to his boss, the newly minted senator replied they should send the papers back without reading them.  As Towery recalls it, Tower’s words were: “A gentleman does not read another gentleman’s mail.” 

Such honorable behavior would certainly never occur in today’s U.S. Senate. Towery sent the papers back unread. Such civility and respect for the institution was eventually cruelly rewarded when the Senate voted to reject John Tower’s nomination as Secretary of Defense.   

All Texans and all Americans owe a great debt to Ken and Louise Towery for their service to our nation. 

Towery, now 90, says he has already selected his spot in the Texas State Cemetery and the inscription for his tombstone. It will read: “THE CHOW DIPPER,” because he says that experience is the one from his long life of which he is most proud. We hope he takes his own sweet time in making use of it.

Author’s note:  Growing up in Cuero, I witnessed the stir occasioned by the “Veteran’s Land Scandal” story  and knew all the folks mentioned in that section of “The Chow Dipper.”  I knew that Ken Towery had won the Pulitzer Prize at the Cuero Record – it was a source of great pride for such a small town.  But it was only recently that I learned all the rest of his story and felt it a story worth telling.  I am grateful for editorial support and advice from my friend Rick Brack, editor of the Longview News Journal.

Published by Quorum Report on December 30, 2013.