Welcome Wilson :, Sr.

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Interview with: Welcome Wilson :, Sr.
Interviewed by: Mike Vance
Date: August 5, 2015
Archive Number:


Welcome Wilson :
00:00:02 I met Hofheinz in 1952 when he was running for mayor of Houston, and I forget who he was running against. Oscar Holcombe, the long-time mayor, was not running for reelection, and Hofheinz was running. Hofheinz was a good friend of my friend, Jack Valenti. Jack Valenti was later president of the Motion Picture Association of America for forty years. But I knew him because he was my partner in Jamaica Beach in Galveston, and so that’s how I met Hofheinz the first time.

Interviewer :
What was your impression of Roy Hofheinz? What kind of man was he?

Welcome Wilson :
Well, he was one of the most dynamic men I ever met, no question about that. His ability to stand up and make a pitch was incredible. Whether it was to a board of directors of some organization or whether it was on television, he could stand up and make the damndest pitch you ever heard. How Hofheinz got started—he was kind of a boy wonder in that he was elected to the state legislature when he was too young to serve. But by the time it came time to be sworn in, he was old enough to serve. And then he came back, ran for county judge, was elected, and was county judge for a number of years. And then he applied for a license for the fourth radio station in Houston. In those days, the FCC—the Federal Communication Commission—was very parsimonious in passing out licenses. Now, there are what—fifty stations in Houston? In those days, there were three: one was controlled by Jesse Jones; one was controlled by the Hobby family, who owned the Houston Post; and the third one, KXYZ—I forget who controlled that. So those three stations opposed Hofheinz getting this fourth station, the 790 on your dial today. And somehow, Hofheinz was able to persuade the FCC to give him the license. Then he went out and got the money to build the station, and that’s where he became rich, was in that station.

And then later on, when he was actually mayor, the opportunity for a fourth TV license came up. This was years later. So the Jones’ interest had applied. Various people had applied. Billy Goldberg, I remember, had applied. So Hofheinz went to everybody who had applied and said, "Look, if we compromise and all join together, we’ll get this license in a week; whereas, if we fight it out, it’ll be two years. So whoever gets the license will have to struggle and struggle and struggle to make up the money we’ve lost by the delay." So he gave 35 percent to the Jones interest, since they had the most clout, and he took, I think, 25 percent, and somebody else got twelve. So they divided it up and got the license the next week. (laughs) That was KHOU, Channel 13. I guess it was the third TV station, not the fourth.

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Interviewer :
00:04:10 Hofheinz—it seems like he had a genuine interest in baseball. I know he had season tickets to the Buffs for a long time. How did his interest in baseball really come up? He started like you said. He joined a—got a coalition together more or less?

Welcome Wilson :
Well, there was a guy named George Kirksey, who was an advertising agency man and who was always trying to bring major league baseball to Houston. This was during the ’50s and ’60s —early ’60s. And so, Kirksey finally got some traction when he hooked up with a guy named Craig Cullinan. Craig Cullinan was a rich guy whose grandfather was the founder of Texaco. So Craig bought into it, and so they brought in other people to invest modest amounts. There were ten of them total, and so they went to R. E. (Bob) Smith along the way trying to get Bob Smith involved, because Bob Smith was one of the wealthiest people in Houston. Bob Smith was a civic leader in every way. He was chairman of everything at one time or another and a great guy, my best friend, by the way. When he was 65 and I was 25, he was my best friend, and we spent two hours a day together every day.

But Hofheinz—the way Hofheinz got involved was the ten guys went to see Bob Smith, and Bob Smith said, "Well, I’m interested, but you need to talk to Hofheinz." Now, what had happened was Bob Smith and I had backed Hofheinz for a third term as mayor of Houston. I won’t get into all the details, but not only did we not win but we got thrown out of office by a huge majority—two and a half to one—because the people couldn’t believe that Hofheinz was right and eight city councilmen were wrong, because they were always fighting—always fighting. So we changed. We ran a petition, which I ran, that changed the way mayors are elected. We moved the election from even-number years to odd number of years, which is still today. For example, this year is the mayor’s election. And so I collected 25,000 signatures on the street and got proposition nineteen passed, which was simply it terminated all of the elected officials in Houston and made them stand for the election in odd number of years. But it terminated their terms in midterm, and it did a lot of other things, but amendment number nineteen—I’ll never forget it.

And so Hofheinz had been dis-elected, if that’s the right word—if that is a word—and he had moved his office to an old house that he had bought on the path of the new Southwest Freeway, right near downtown. He was kind of looking for something to do, and so when they came to Bob Smith to promote bring major league baseball to Houston, Smith referred them to Hofheinz and said, "Go talk to Hofheinz and see what he thinks about it." Hofheinz saw the opportunity, came back to Bob and said we ought to do it, and the way they did it, they split it up that the ten people who had been working on it for years would get 10 percent, 1 percent each. And then Hofheinz and Smith would put up 100 percent of the money to bring in a major league ball club, and they would go to the public for a bond issue to have money to build a stadium. So everybody agreed to that. Bob Smith agreed to put up, I think, 70 percent of the money, and Hofheinz agreed to put up 30 percent of the money. Then Hofheinz requested an option to buy Smith down so it would be 50/50, so he had a six-month’s option to buy Smith down to 50/50 after they got the charter. It’s not called a charter. What is it called? Franchise—a franchise for major league baseball.

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Interviewer :
00:10:05 Let’s do some followups on that. First, give a little more on how Smith and you hooked up with Hofheinz, because after the election you’re talking about—that was when Holcombe came back to office.

Welcome Wilson :
Correct.

Interviewer :
First of all, tell me a little bit about Oscar Holcombe.

Welcome Wilson :
Oscar Holcombe was one of the most dignified guys I knew. I served under Oscar Holcombe briefly—maybe for four or five months—as a department head. After Hofheinz was elected mayor, the first thing he did was appoint R. E. (Bob) Smith as the dollar-a-year director of civil defense. Now, this was in the middle of the Cold War. This was at a time when we knew that Russia had the hydrogen bomb—not the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb. They were building missiles. Khrushchev was going before the United Nations and banging his shoe on the table and saying, "America, we will bury you!" Khrushchev was the premiere of Russia at the time, so civil defense was on everybody’s mind and, of course, not only did we have the responsibility for civil defense but also natural disasters. So I was working for Bob Smith, and he sent me to city hall to sit in the department head’s desk and run the department, because he was a dollar-a-year man. But I was on his payroll, so for three years, I, on the eighth floor of city hall, sat there and we organized the civil defense movement in Houston. It did all kinds of interesting things. For example, we used to shut down the downtown once a year for operation alert. The cost to the merchants must have been millions and billions, but nobody complained because everybody knew how serious the threat was. But in my service at city hall, I became very close to Hofheinz, and he also named me as an assistant to the mayor. Why? So when he couldn’t go make a speech some place, he could send me. And if I showed up as an assistant to the mayor, I was better received than just as my regular title.

Interviewer :
00:12:55 Tell me about Bob Smith—what kind of a man he was and a little about his background.

Welcome Wilson :
Well, first of all, Bob Smith never drank, never smoked. He used to workout long before it was popular. He was a boxer when he was younger, and so he and I used to do what we called roadwork. Today you would call it jogging, but we’d go out in River Oaks, run up and down in the gutters of the streets, and do roadwork for about half an hour, forty-five minutes, in the afternoon. When the first health club in Houston was opened, it was called the President’s Health Club—it was on Main Street at West Gray, in the Century Bank building, built by Kenneth Schnitzer—and we were the first members. And every day at eleven o’clock, Bob Smith would call me and say, "Mr. Welcome." That’s what he’d call me. "Mr. Welcome, it’s time to go," and so I’d meet him at the health club. We’d work out for a couple of hours and then talk and then he would—I’d go back to the office, and he’d go home.

His income from one field was a half a million a month. And let me tell you, sixty-five years ago, a half a million a month was serious money. He went to Scurry County and dug ninety oil wells without hitting a dry hole. He hit dry holes after that, but he drilled ninety wells without hitting a dry hole, an unprecedented record. So everybody said he must be a genius because he was the only one drilling in Scurry County. And so I asked him. I said, "Well, how did you figure it out—Scurry County?" He says, "I bought those leases because they were cheap." (laughs) He says, "I didn’t know anything more about it than you know, but they were cheap leases and I bought them. And then when we finally drilled something out there, we discovered oil." Scurry County is still producing mammoth amounts of oil.

Interviewer :
And I understand—I think I read you saying before that he kind of dissuaded you from going into oil and pushed you towards real estate.

Welcome Wilson :
Well, yes. When I went to work for him with the idea I was going to learn the oil business and become an oil baron or something. So the first week he sent me to city hall. I was going to go to Scurry County and be a roughneck to learn the oil business. Instead, he sent me to city hall. And then he said, "Look, the oil business is over for the independent because these wells have cost thirty-five, forty thousand dollars each to drill. And independents are just not going to be able to raise that kind of money." Well, he was wrong, as Boone Pickens will attest and others, and that is that that’s before we had master limited partnerships and all the other things—equity funds that provide drilling money and so forth. But I don’t regret it. I remember people generally think of oil people as being rich, and I remember a comment he made to me. He said, "For every rich oil man there are fifty with a ragged deal in their pocket going around town trying to sell it to somebody. So I promise you that there are very few people who are rich, and there are a lot of people in the oil business that are broke."

Interviewer :
Am I correct that Bob Smith played semi-pro baseball as well when he was younger?

Welcome Wilson :
00:17:32 He did something like that. It was when he worked in the oilfields in West Columbia, and he played semi-pro ball.

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Interviewer :
Tell me about the HSA—Houston Sports Association—came to be.

Welcome Wilson :
After Hofheinz and the ten originators got together and whatever, they formed the Houston Sports Association, which is a privately-held corporation—later owned 10 percent of it. The idea was we were going to bring major league baseball to Houston and get a bond issue passed to build a stadium and all the rest of it. So Hofheinz decided that we ought to go for a stadium with a roof—unprecedented. And by the way, based on a poll, 50 percent of Houstonians were absolutely confident that the roof would collapse when construction was complete and they took down the infrastructure—50 percent—because nobody had ever heard of a stadium that had a roof. But anyway, so that was another ingredient that added to the excitement in the mix of the thing.

Interviewer :
Let’s talk about—for a second, before we get to the Astrodome itself—what did major league baseball coming to Houston—what did that mean to the city? Tell me about the desire to make this a top-level American city at that point.

Welcome Wilson :
Houston had long had a farm league for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Houston Buffs was the name of the team, and they played baseball out at what now is Cullen Boulevard and the Southwest Freeway. I mean the Gulf Freeway, and Finger Furniture occupied that space later. But the Buffs had been around a long time. I had maybe attended one Buff game. It was not a very popular franchise—outdoor stands and a very small seating capacity. So bringing major league ball was of great importance to Houston, and Houston was just beginning to see itself as a major player in America. See, now we’re the fourth-largest city in America with six and a half million people in the metropolitan area. In those days, we had maybe 700,000. So we began to—Houston began to visualize itself as a major player and bringing major league baseball.

00:21:15 So Hofheinz chose the name for the team as the Colt .45 Western Texas—all the rest of it. He thought that was great. So he named us the Colt .45’s, and we started playing ball and all the rest of it. Then the Colt 45 Company sued us and said, "We don’t want a baseball team named Colt 45." So it became obvious that they were going to win because they had the name. See, we thought they’d be pleased. You’d have thought that Hofheinz would have talked to them first, (laughs) but he didn’t. So that’s when Hofheinz decided to give up and go ahead and find a new name. Hofheinz wanted to name the team the Houston Stars because the new astronaut program had—the Manned Spacecraft Center had just moved to Houston—and Bob Smith was absolutely opposed to the name Houston Stars because he felt like that was braggadocios, and Bob Smith was not that kind of guy, so he said absolutely he rejected the idea of the Houston Stars. And that’s when Hofheinz came up with the name the Houston Astros, which I think is a great name.

Interviewer :
How do you think—I know Deannie has the story about her suggesting it’s too hot. Why don’t we play indoors? Is that your perception of how the idea of the indoor stadium came to be?

Welcome Wilson :
I can’t provide any details except that the idea of an enclosed stadium had been around a long time. There were people that were promoting it, and then when this enterprise got going, engineers and others came and said, "We can do this," and so forth. It could have been Deannie who triggered it all. Deannie’s a lovely lady, by the way. I’ve known her since she was a little girl.

Interviewer :
Tell me about how Judge Hofheinz and the rest of the HSA people sold that idea of, number one, the bond issue and, number two, of the indoor stadium.

Welcome Wilson :
First, the bond issue. As far as I know, it was the first time ever that a public bond issue had been built for a facility that was going to be used by a private corporation. I don’t think it had ever been done before. There were a lot of people that were against bond issues period, of any kind, and so that—because it was going to benefit two billionaires—also made it even harder. But Houston wanted major league baseball. Hofheinz was a hell of a salesman. R.E. (Bob) Smith was absolutely the most respected businessman in Houston—the most respected businessman—so although Hofheinz was still recovering from being thrown out of office, by Bob Smith’s prestige and one thing or another, together they were able to sell it. Now, my recollection is—and I could be wrong, and I don’t have time to do the research—but my recollection is that when it began, it was to be a revenue bond, meaning that the bond holders would look only to the revenue that came from the lease for repayment. But nobody would buy the bonds, so then they had to add the full faith and credit of Harris County to the bond issue. I believe that’s the case. But that made it even harder to sell, and it was weeks and weeks of campaigning that finally—and there was a vote. The voters voted in Harris County to approve the bond issue, and it was finally approved.

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Interviewer :
00:26:26 There was—I’ve read a lot about Quinton Mease and about the African American community being promised jobs at the new stadium. Do you have any recollection of that as part of the campaign?

Welcome Wilson :
Well, let me just make this general comment. I don’t remember that as being part of the campaign, but in the first place, black people love baseball. They absolutely love baseball, and at that time, we had Jackie Robinson playing baseball for the first time. That’s number one. Number two, both Hofheinz and Smith were way ahead of the curve when it came to civil rights. For example, I mentioned that I was an assistant to the mayor when Hofheinz was mayor. When he would send me to make a speech at a church, which was frequently—a black church, for example—he would have me say something to the effect that, one, we recognize that there are injustices, so don’t think we’re unmindful of it, and we’re working on them. See, this was long before segregation ended, etc.—and that we were working on them and have faith in that we recognize it and so forth. Bob Smith was on the board of the Eliza Johnson Home for Aged Negroes—unprecedented for a white man to be on a black organization’s board. But I remember him in the earliest days when we’d talk about civil rights, he would say, "Blacks deserve every single right that any American has—every right but not one more right than anybody else has." I grew to disagree with that later because in order to catch up, in order to offset the wrongs of the past, we’ve got to give minorities an edge on the jobs and things like that. But one thing for sure—so I’m not surprised at all with the notion that jobs were promised to black people.

Interviewer :
Let’s talk about the location. How did—well, first of all, the county commissioners at the time obviously had to buy into this whole idea. What were the negotiations like with them? Were there any—what was the opposition? What were the promises made to work with them?

Welcome Wilson :
Well, as far as I know, there was no opposition. Bill Elliott, a graduate of the University of Houston, was the county judge and a friend of mine. "Squatty" Lyons was the commissioner. Red What’s-His-Name was a commissioner. Although it may have taken a while, they unanimously supported the idea of it being a county enterprise, because in those days, there was a lot of competition between the city and the county. So the idea of this being a county enterprise as supposed to a city of Houston enterprise was important to the county. But as far as I know, they supported it.

Interviewer :
00:30:30 How did they arrive at the location for the Astrodome?

Welcome Wilson :
Bob Smith and Hofheinz kind of selected the location. The mayor of Houston was Louis Cutrer, a good friend of mine, and he wanted to build the Astrodome down in the—I believe it’s called the Sixth Ward, which is that area where the police station is now. But his idea was that they go in there and buy up all those old houses and build the Astrodome downtown. Well, in retrospect, that may have been a good idea. I know that Kenneth Schnitzer talked the city into passing bonds to build The Summit out next to his project in Greenway Plaza on the Southwest Freeway. Well, in retrospect, that turned out to be wrong. I remember George R Brown going before city council in those days and saying, "Guys, if you abandon downtown, you’ll regret it. You’ll regret it." And so he campaigned against the idea of a facility on the edge of town. And of course now, all the facilities have been moved back downtown except for the football stadium, but basketball is downtown. Baseball is downtown. Most of the venues—Wortham Center, etc., etc.—are all downtown, and that came later under Mayor Bob Lanier. He was the one who absolutely said we’ve got to revitalize downtown and keep it vital and so forth, which it is in Houston.

Interviewer :
What are your memories of the construction of the Astrodome?

Welcome Wilson :
Let me just mix in a couple of things. First of all, in order to show progress, Hofheinz convinced the county to go ahead and dig the foundation. So they went out there and dug a big hole. Well, it immediately filled up with rainwater, and the press called it Lake Elliott after Judge Elliott. It sat there for a year or so while they were trying to pull everything together to build the Astrodome. And by the way, the Astrodome was built for, I believe, $35 million. It was only three or four years later that the Super Bowl was built in New Orleans—$250 million compared to $35 million. But Hofheinz told every contractor, every subcontractor, "Look, if you’re going to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime project, then your business is going to boom if you’re a contractor or subcontractor on the Astrodome." So he got everybody to bid low, and it succeeded. But anyway, bringing it in on budget was not easy.

Interviewer :
When they had the supports under that roof, how convinced were those of you involved in it that it was going to work?

Welcome Wilson :
00:34:34 The last comment I’d like to make about the construction was that when the dome was about to be completed, 50 percent of the people in Houston, Texas, by poll, were convinced that the roof would collapse because the idea of putting a roof over a stadium had never happened. So I wasn’t paying that much attention to it myself until we got ready to take down the superstructure underneath. We were all out there, and we moved the superstructure down one foot. The roof came with it. Two feet, three feet, five feet—the roof is still coming down as we take the superstructure down. Finally, at eleven feet, the roof stopped coming down, we took the superstructure out, and it stood. But we were sweating bullets that afternoon.

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Interviewer :
Tell me about the innovations that were in the dome—that scoreboard that we all remember, the luxury boxes.

Welcome Wilson :
First of all, the scoreboard. Hofheinz and Smith paid for that scoreboard themselves. That was not part of the bond issue. It was about $2 million, as I recall. Hofheinz was the great huckster. He had a beach house in La Porte called the "Huckster House," and it was the most unusual place you’ve ever been to in your life. I was there many times. But he believed in pizazz. He believed in making a mark. He could be compared to Donald Trump of today in terms of being able to bring attention. So he designed that scoreboard and the other thing. The other thing Hofheinz thought of and invented was the stadium suite. There was not a stadium suite in all of America anywhere. Now today, you can’t build a stadium that doesn’t have adequate stadium suites because that’s part of the financing. Hofheinz invented the stadium suite because on the seventh level of the Astrodome, there was some vacant space up there above the roost—the worst seats in the house, the cheapest seats in the house. Above that was a little level around the entire dome. So Hofheinz came up with the idea of putting in luxury suites, and he called them skyboxes. The worst seats in the house, the worst view of the field, and he got premium prices. He made me buy a skybox. I had skybox number one. It had thirty seats in it, and what he did was he had a butler in a tuxedo in each suite, and then you bought the food and your drinks from the Astrodome, and the butler served them. And, well, that was high class and social at the time so—by the way, it took us two or three years to sell out all the suites. We started off with about half sold and gradually over time we sold them all.

Interviewer :
Tell me about opening night.
Welcome Wilson :
Well, by the time we opened, we had changed the name to the Astros and changed the name of the stadium to the Astrodome—all from the Colt .45’s, where we’d built on this land a small stadium that held 25,000 people or something, which we tore down later. But opening night was against the New York Yankees—very exciting game. Here it is a historic moment. The Astrodome is packed with people, and I’m in the Hofheinz suite. The Houston Post took a photograph with a telescopic camera from the other side of the dome of Hofheinz’s box, and in the box was President Johnson; Lady Bird Johnson; a secret service agent; me; Hofheinz; my partner Johnny Goyen, who was later mayor pro temp of Houston for twenty-two years. He was my partner in Jamaica Beach—and my sister’s husband, Archie Bennett, Jr. So on the front page of the Houston Post in a big photograph, there were all of us at the opening game. But it was exciting, and we won the game miraculously. To this day, I wonder if they took a dive for us. (laughs)

Interviewer :
00:40:38 Just as an aside, you had connections with both LBJ and JFK prior to that.

Welcome Wilson :
Yes.

Interviewer :
Tell me a little bit about that.

Welcome Wilson :
I met JFK in 1960 when he came to my hotel room. In 1960, he was running for president, came to my hotel room. Now, that sounds a lot more impressive than it really is. (laughs) What happened was I was serving in the Eisenhower administration as a federal official as part of the executive office of the president. My responsibility at the time was the five southwestern states, which included New Mexico. So my title was Director of Defense Mobilization for the federal government, a division of the White House like the Bureau of the Budget and the Council of Economic Advisors. And in New Mexico, there was a guy by the name of Adair Gossett, who used to be the mayor of Carlsbad, New Mexico, who was director of civil defense. So after the Democratic nomination where LBJ was beat out by JFK and JFK asked LBJ to become his vice president candidate, about a month later Gossett and I are in Washington, D.C. in a suite in the Congressional Hotel, near the Capitol. And so we decided that we would invite the New Mexico congressional delegation over for a drink, and there were only four of them—two senators, two congressmen—in all of New Mexico. So then, Gossett gets the idea. Why don’t we call JFK and see if we can’t get him to stop by? Well, so we did, he did stop by and stayed about an hour, and so that’s the first time I met him.

But after Eisenhower left office and JFK became president, I served for nine months under JFK in the same position as I served under Eisenhower, and that’s when I decided to return to Houston and go in the real estate business.

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Interviewer :

00:43:13 So you knew President Johnson already when you were in that suite.

Welcome Wilson :
Yes. Johnson was majority leader of the Senate, and the first time I ran across Johnson was when I was an enlisted man in the Navy in 1950. I had graduated from college the year before from the University of Houston. I had married. My wife was pregnant and whatever, and I got called into the Naval Reserve to active duty as a seaman recruit. Well, I had applied to become an officer because I had a degree, and I was turned down. So now, I’m shipped off to boot camp, which is another story, and I’m serving Bainbridge Island, Washington state as an enlisted man. My father went to LBJ. My father knew LBJ when he was an administrative assistant to Congressman Dick Kleberg in Corpus Christi during the Depression. My father owned the radio station in Corpus Christi, and so he knew Johnson. In those days, a congressman had three employees. Now they have fifty. But one was an administrative assistant, and another one was the secretary. Anyway, LBJ had served Kleberg, and so my father wrote Johnson and talked to him about this injustice of this college educated guy—me—that was serving as an enlisted man. And so then about between Christmas and New Year’s, I think it was, I was the chief clerk of a communications school as a seaman apprentice. So I walked out of my headquarters, and I walk out on the porch, and there’s a sailor there saluting like this. And I said, "What’s going on?" And he said, "I just got this telegram." So I looked at the telegram and it says, "Dear Welcome, Congratulations on being appointed an ensign in the Unites States Navy," and it’s from LBJ. And the tradition in the Navy is that whoever salutes the guys first gets a dollar bill. (laughs) So I gave him a dollar bill. The dollar bill was worth a lot more then than it is today. And that’s how I learned I’d been commissioned an officer.

But then on to LBJ, when I was a federal official under Eisenhower, I dealt with LBJ and his office as majority leader constantly about natural disasters, because I ran for five states what’s now called FEMA. That was just one division of my headquarters that dealt mainly with natural—with war and things like that. And so there’s always some county judge or somebody that wasn’t getting as much money as he thought he ought to get from FEMA, and they’d contact their congressman or their senator. So that’s how it was a great opportunity for me, because I got to know forty congressmen and senators from my five states. I knew them all very well because I had the checkbook. (laughs) So it was—so I knew LBJ that way. Then one of my closest friends, Jack Valenti, had married Johnson’s executive assistant. Her name was Mary Margaret Wiley—cute, cute, cute girl. Valenti was only five-two. She was even shorter. I’ll never forget going to the majority leader’s office in Washington when I was a federal official. Johnson had moved his office from a modest majority leader’s office to the Senate library. So he had this huge room. The Senate library had been closed for years. You had this huge decorated room with Johnson’s desk in the middle and then over to the side a little bit behind was Mary Margaret’s desk. So anyway, I was very familiar with Johnson.

00:48:36 When he was campaigning for president, he came to my headquarters in Dallas several times. I’ll never forget he came one time with Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House. So I said, "Gentlemen, I would like to call a staff meeting together." I had about a hundred employees in the headquarters. I said, "I’d like to call a staff meeting and for you to say a few words to them." They said fine and so Johnson—they introduced Johnson and he got up and made a nice speech. Then they introduced Sam Rayburn, and he got up and said, "I don’t know what you do, but I’m sure you do it very well," and he sat down. (laughs) But I have a photograph of Sam Rayburn sitting in my office that’s on my office wall. But I was so honored when the Speaker of the House, the legendary Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, of course, came to my office.

Interviewer :
What was the atmosphere that opening night with the president there? What was the atmosphere in Hofheinz’s suite?

Welcome Wilson :
Excitement was high. First of all, we couldn’t believe that it had been done. We couldn’t believe that we got a franchise for a major league baseball club. We built the Astrodome. We got the bond issue passed, and here we are playing the New York Yankees. It was—so it was very exciting.

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Interviewer :
Tell me about the ultimate rift that came between Smith and Hofheinz.

Welcome Wilson :
When Smith and Hofheinz made their original deal, Bob Smith furnished, I believe, 70 percent of the money and Hofheinz 30 percent. And then the 10 percent people—1 percent to each of the ten people—got a carrot interest. No more money invested. So Hofheinz asked and got from Bob Smith an option to be able to pay him a certain amount of money without interest within six months and buy Bob Smith down to 50/50 so they would own 50 percent each. So this was going back from the time before the dome was built etc. because all the money had to be spent early on. So after the dome opened, Hofheinz’s six months has passed. Hofheinz has never mentioned the option again. Now, it’s a year later—maybe eighteen months later. But two years after the deal was made and he was given a six-month option, one day at a HSA board meeting, Hofheinz said, "By the way, Bob. I’m sending over the papers to exercise that option." That’s all he said. Bob Smith didn’t respond. So the next day the papers came over, and that is Hofheinz would give Bob Smith—this is two years later—that Hofheinz would give Bob Smith the pro rata amount to buy Bob Smith down to 50 percent without interest.

00:52:40 So Bob Smith’s lawyer, Judge Suhr—S-U-H-R—and all of his advisors said, "Don’t do it!" The point is when the enterprise started, no one had any idea whether or not it would be successful. Would it work? Would people come to the game? Would we be able to make the payments on the lease of the Astrodome? So now, it has worked and we’re making money. The one thing I learned—I later owned 10 percent of the Astros and I learned that if we can win 50 percent of our games, we can make big money. You don’t have to have a winning team. You just have to have a break-even team and you can make money. So long after all the risk was gone, Hofheinz is now exercising his option, which had expired eighteen months before.

So Judge Suhr, everybody tells him not to do it. And I remember every day Bob Smith and I would go to the President’s Health Club and work out. And afterward, we would go to the little snack bar and have a Vita-C Cool. That’s a health drink that’s sort of like a health shake today. Every day he would pull out this check that had come over with the option papers, and he’d look at it and try to decide what to do. Because all of his advisors had said don’t do it. His instinct was to cooperate because that’s the kind of guy he was. And so we’d look at that check and discuss it. I didn’t take a strong position one way or the other. Hofheinz was my friend. But let me tell you something that I absolutely know in my heart. If Hofheinz had reached out to Bob Smith, if Hofheinz had said, "I know the option is over. You’d be doing me a favor if you were to let me go ahead and exercise it, and I know that you have not gotten adequate credit for what you did here—" see, by this time, Hofheinz’s picture had been on the cover of Time magazine. Hofheinz was the genius behind the Astrodome. Now, Bob Smith, who provided 70 percent of the money, was never mentioned. In all the news releases—whatever—it’s all about Hofheinz, Hofheinz, Hofheinz, which causes Mrs. Smith to be resentful of Hofheinz—and Bob Smith’s advisors and friends and staff members and so forth—because they felt like Bob Smith was not given adequate credit because the bond issue got passed because of his reputation, because of his stability and leadership in the community and so forth. He furnished 70 percent of the money and all the rest of it, and so I know absolutely that Hofheinz—if he had done it right—could have got Bob Smith to agree.

But Hofheinz was overbearing. I love the guy, by the way—one of the great pitchmen of all time. So at the next board meeting, Bob Smith is there. Bob Smith is chairman of the board. Hofheinz is president. So after the meeting, Hofheinz said, "By the way, what happened to those option papers?" And Bob Smith said, "Well, the option expired eighteen months ago, and Judge Suhr thinks that I shouldn’t sign it." And so Hofheinz says, "Bob, are you going to welch on this deal?" Well, that did it. (snaps fingers) That did it. Bob Smith said, "Hofheinz, I’ll buy you out or you buy me out," and he stormed out of the room. It was such a stupid act on Hofheinz’s part, and he recognized it. (laughs) He recognized it.
So Bob Smith—he was serious. He wanted either Hofheinz out or he wanted to be bought out. So about two weeks later, Hofheinz sends over a proposal that says that Bob Smith will give him six months, and in six months Hofheinz will have the option of giving Bob Smith back all of his money—not just to buy it down but 100 percent of his money that he had paid in without interest—and then Bob Smith would retain a carried interest of 10 percent of the Astros. So Hofheinz would own 80 percent, Bob Smith would own 10 percent, the ten people would own 10 percent; but by that time, by the way, Smith and Hofheinz had bought out eight of them, so there were only two remaining. Joyce Kirksey and Craig Cullinan had 2 percent. Well, Bob Smith thought he’d never be able to do it, so he agreed to it. Later on—a year later or so, I said, "Bob, who in the world did you have in mind to run the Astrodome if Hofheinz left if you were successful in buying him out?" And he said, "Well, you, of course!" (laughs) Scared me to death. I was totally unqualified to take over the baseball team, the Astrodome, or anybody else. But anyway, that’s who Bob Smith had in mind to run the club.

00:59:49 So on the last day of six months, Hofheinz showed up with the money—the very last day—and he got it from Houston Bank & Trust. Charles Bybee was chairman of the board. Houston Bank & Trust was in the big black building on Main Street at Jefferson. He put up all of his stock and got the money to buy Bob Smith out. Bob Smith ended up owning 10 percent carried interest, which he later sold to me. So that’s how I ended up.


cue point
Interviewer :

Tell me about what happened—two last followup questions and then one general last question. The 10 percent that you end up with—that ultimately got transferred back to Judge Hofheinz, right? Tell me about how that happened.

Welcome Wilson :
So I bought 10 percent and began to attend the board meetings myself. I was on the board of directors. I immediately tried to get Hofheinz and Smith back together. So I’d talk to Hofheinz and I’d say, "You know you messed up that deal," and he said, "Welcome, I know it. I know it. I know it." I said, "All he was looking for was a little recognition and an acknowledgement that he had been a key player in this thing." And he says, "I realize that." And by the way, since that time, Hofheinz had had a stroke, so now we’re dealing with Hofheinz in a wheelchair with a stroke and the stroke whine because he didn’t have the big bucks that Bob Smith had. And so everything was a strain, and he had to make note payments now and all the rest of it. So then I talked to Bob Smith, and I’d say, "Hofheinz is sorry for the way the thing went down. He recognizes your contribution," so I began to work on both of them with the idea that I was going to get them back together. Then Bob Smith had a stroke, and it was over. He lived on for several years after that, but once he had a stroke, I was—he was unable to talk, and so trying to patch up something like that would not work.

Interviewer :
So Judge Hofheinz, I guess, Ford Motor Credit—is that who ended up with—?

Welcome Wilson :
01:03:00 What happened was the bank began to put pressure on Hofheinz to pay the note, and the bank examiners classified the note and so forth. So Hofheinz went to Ford Motor Credit Corporation and made a deal to borrow the money to pay off the bank. Ford Motor Credit Corporation was going to make the loan at 15 percent interest—15 percent interest—so that shows you how desperate Hofheinz was. And Joe Allbritton, my friend, was chairman of the board of Houston Bank & Trust at the time—now called Houston Citizen’s Bank—because Joe’s Citizen’s Bank had bought—had merged with Houston Bank & Trust. So Hofheinz came to me and he says, "Ford Motor Credit Corporation has said that if we don’t get you to—you have to subordinate your stock to their loan." And I said, "Roy, I’m not going to do that. That makes no sense," and he says, "If you don’t do it, then they’re not going to make the loan, and I’m going to lose the company and all the rest of it." So he said, "Or I could buy you out." And I said, "Well, I don’t want to sell, but on the other hand I don’t want you to go broke. But I’m not going to pledge my stock to your loan that I have nothing to do with."

So Bob Smith had had a stroke, so I went to his number-one guy, a guy named Bill Finnegan, and told him the dilemma. And I said, "Would Bob Smith be interested in getting back involved and taking back my stock and fighting it out with Hofheinz or whatever?" And he said, "No, no, no, no, no. Mrs. Smith hates Hofheinz and she doesn’t want to—she wouldn’t want to be involved in the company," and so forth. So I kept getting pressure from Hofheinz to do something, and I kept trying to think of alternatives. So then I went back to a second lawyer at Bob Smith’s, a woman named Helen Johnson, and I said—made the same thing. And she says, "Bill is right." At that time, Mrs. Smith was kind of calling all the shots because of the stroke. Mrs. Smith wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it. So I agreed to sell out to Hofheinz and he bought me out. Then later on, Ford Motor Credit Corporation foreclosed on Hofheinz and took over the company.

Interviewer :
Just as a little aside before we get to one final question. Tell me about how the statue of Mrs. Vivian Smith ended up outside the dome.

Welcome Wilson :
I’m not sure.

Interviewer :
I’m just wondering because you mentioned her name, and I saw it a couple of months ago when we were out there.
Welcome Wilson :
The statue—where is it?

Interviewer :
I’m not sure if it’s—is it still there? I think it’s still there. It was outside one of the entrances, and there’s a statue of Vivian.

Welcome Wilson :
01:07:07 No kidding. No kidding. Interesting. I didn’t know that. By the way, she was a major fan of baseball. Hofheinz had that elaborate suite. Bob Smith had two seats behind the first base—I mean behind the catcher on the third row or something like that. And he was at every game. He and Mrs. Smith went to every game. They were emotionally involved in every game, and she was a big, big supporter of the team.


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Interviewer :

Last thing. What did the Astrodome mean to the image of Houston? I mean you have people coming from all over the world.

Welcome Wilson :
Well, when Hofheinz proposed that we were going to have tours of the Astrodome for three dollars each, I said to myself, "Nobody’s going to pay three dollars." Well, I was wrong. Thousands and tens of thousands of people took that tour of the Astrodome. And by the way, it was a Spartan deal. We built it for $35 million. By that I mean in the bathroom there were painted walls. There’s no marble. There’s no—but it was a very, very effective and efficient building. I think it gave a tremendous sense of pride to the city of Houston, and that’s why I am absolutely unalterably opposed to the idea of tearing it down. My God! What if—I was in the south of France last week, and I’d go over and look at some ruins and what happened. Would this magnificent building—a hundred years later somebody comes in and tears it down and now there’s only 10 percent of it left because somebody came in and tore it down because it was old fashioned. Well, that’s what the people who want to tear down the Astrodome—they’re just not looking at history. But it is unique. It is known all over the world. It would be a tourist attraction, I promise you that. There’s got to be a way. I have no magic wand or magic solution, although I’ve been approached by a number of people that—but we’ve got to save the Astrodome.

But to answer your question, the Astrodome, in my view, was one of the things that made the city of Houston mature and think of itself as a world-class city. About that same time, we got the Manned Spacecraft Center. JFK came to Rice Stadium to announce it. I was the chairman of the event. And by the way, because I was in charge of seating, I placed myself where—when the television cameras were pointed at JFK, right on top of his shoulder, you could see a guy with black hair. That was me. I didn’t admit that for fifty years. But anyway, today, every once in a while they’ll show that clip, and I’m still sitting there on his shoulder. But it made a contribution, in my view, of making Houston think of itself as an important city.

01:11:04 And let me make a final comment about Hofheinz. I don’t want my remarks to sound like I’m critical of Hofheinz. I think he messed up in dealing with Bob Smith, but he was one of the most imaginative guys I ever knew in my life. He was always the smartest man in the room, without question about that. His ability to make a pitch was great. And by the way, he lost the election, as I mentioned, because of the fight with the city council. The city kept saying, "How can eight people be wrong and one man right?" Well, guess what. Later, two of those city councilmen were indicted and sent to jail. All of the others were defeated over time. Hofheinz was right and the city council was wrong. But he just—he was such a powerful, strong personality that people kind of resented him because there wasn’t a humble bone in his body. But I think Hofheinz was a genius. I think he was an extremely effective pitchman, and he could have done the Astrodome without Bob Smith. Bob Smith certainly couldn’t have done it without Hofheinz.

01:12:36 (end of audio)