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Herman: Recalling Ken Towery, a true Texas hero

May 6, 2016 at 10:31 p.m.


I'm sorry to have to tell you about Ken Towery's death. But I'm honored to be able to tell you about his life.

Towery died Wednesday in Austin at age 93, years he honorably filled as a public servant, a war hero and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter whose work benefited veterans.

He grew up on a South Texas farm and enlisted in the Army in World War II. He was captured by Japanese forces after the fall of Corregidor and spent 3 1/2 years as a prisoner of war. Towery's nation honored him with a Purple Heart and other decorations.

His postwar journalism career was highlighted by a 1955 Pulitzer Prize for his Cuero Record reports on fraud in the state's Veterans Land Program. The Pulitzer citation said Towery was honored for "exposing a scandal in the administration of the Veterans' Land Program in Texas. This 32-year-old World War II veteran, a former prisoner of the Japanese, made these irregularities a statewide and subsequently a national issue, and stimulated state action to rectify conditions in the land program."

The tale of the tale is a primer in public service news reporting. Towery recalled it in a 2012 interview he did for the Texas Newspaper Oral History Project. The investigation was sparked by a routine discussion during his routine news-gathering rounds at the local courthouse.

"Ken, what was going on out at the country club last night?" he recalled a secretary asking him, adding she had heard about "a big meeting out there."

His curiosity piqued, Towery nosed around and found that a fellow newspaper employee had received a mysterious letter somehow related to all of this. The letter notified the recipient he had had bought some land somewhere.

"Well," the letter's recipient told Towery, "I ain't bought no land."

From there, journalism happened, leading to Towery's exposé of a scam that reached high levels of state government. Bascom Giles, then Texas land commissioner, went to prison for his role.

It turned out local businessmen were meeting with African-American and Hispanic laborers, all of whom were largely illiterate veterans, and getting them to sign applications for veterans' land grants. The businessmen then would pocket the money.

Impressed by his work, Towery was hired by the American-Statesman, where he eventually became disillusioned.

"I got tired of that paper because it became apparent to me very quick that I would never be allowed to say anything adverse about Lyndon Johnson," he said in the oral history, adding "it wasn't a dictum, it was just an understanding."

"Good gracious, around this town, you know, (LBJ) hung the moon because he was good for business," Towery said.

He moved on to what journalists call the other side, serving as an aide to U.S. Sen. John Tower (probably causing endless confusion: Tower/Towery) and as a top official at the U.S. Information Agency. Towery also served as board chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He also did political work, including as manager of the Texas campaign for Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential race and as a deputy press secretary for Ronald Reagan's 1980 White House race.

Heady stuff, indeed. But Towery said his highest honor came during his POW stint when fellow prisoners trusted him to fairly distribute the food allotted for them in a bucket.

"Nothing in the secular world, the world apart from my family, has approached the honor of being chosen 'chow dipper' by starving men," he wrote in his memoir, "The Chow Dipper."

Towery's longtime friend John Knaggs said Towery was a "fierce competitor" in the political arena, one who had an "indomitable spirit." You have to think that was molded, in part, by his POW experience.

"People like you and me who never went through something like that would have a difficult time relating to it," Knaggs said.

Towery's 2012 oral history ended with a question about advice for young journalists. Towery went with something he'd heard years earlier when he'd asked someone for advice Towery could pass on to his own son.

"He said, 'Just go slow and watch out for the snakes.' And I think that's pretty damned good advice," Towery said.

Indeed.

Thanks for your service, Mr. Towery, in several important roles on several important fronts.

Visitation is set for 4-6 p.m. Sunday at Weed-Corley-Fish Funeral Home at 3125 N. Lamar Blvd., in Austin. The funeral will be there at 10 a.m. Monday, followed by burial in the Texas State Cemetery.

— Ken Herman writes for the Austin American-Statesman.

"The Chow Dipper"

Longview's Dr. John Coppedge grew up in Cuero, where he first became aware of the remarkable life story of Ken Towery. In 2013, Coppedge wrote a series of stories about the former prisoner of war, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and adviser to politicians and presidents.

Read the four-part series here: http://lnjtx.co/s/n/78684/

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