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From the files: Regard for ‘a couple of locals’

Most publishers love attending statewide press conventions. There, we learn best practices, we rekindle friendships and we share a lot of laughs.

My most recent trip to the 140th Texas Press Association Convention and Trade Show in Galveston gave me a special treat. It was a 1971 copy of the Texas Press Messenger, our organization’s monthly publication detailing the issues important to our industry.

The 1971 Messenger had some locals in it. On the cover were President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird, who were that year’s Distinguished Service Award honorees at the organization’s annual convention, held Jan. 23 at the Palacio del Rio Hotel in San Antonio.

And I just bet they had been nominated by the late Fredericksburg Standard Publisher Art Kowert, who is also featured in that publication from nearly five decades ago.

In accepting his award, the 36th president quipped, “I now understand what the country preacher meant when he was presented a Cadillac by his congregation. He said, ‘I really don’t deserve this, but then I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.’”

Art Kowert, who led this newspaper from 1940 until his death in 2003, was magnanimous in his praise for the Johnsons, who had been friends long before his White House days.

“We honor President and Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson for what they have meant to Texas, for being friends and neighbors whom we admire and love for what they are, for what they have done and are continuing to do to make our particular niche of this state, Texas as a whole, and our entire nation a greater, better and more beautiful place in which to live, to work and to enjoy ourselves.”

The Johnsons, of course, had a hand in starting many things around town, including St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. And Lady Bird’s legacy, of course, can be seen along the nation’s roadways each spring as she encouraged the seeding of wildflowers.

President Johnson also joked that he would place the plaque on the wall at the ranch and every time he looked at it would think, “that here in Texas at least, I have bridged the credibility gap … at last!”

He also joked that he finds it much more comforting to begin a day with Art Kowert and the Fredericksburg Standard instead of Walter Lippman and the Washington Post.

Some longtime staffers here remember when Mr. Kowert was asked to move to Washington, D.C. to become President Johnson’s press secretary. They recall Mr. Kowert’s reaction as, “Now why in the hell would I want to do that?”

They also remember Mr. Kowert being frequently summoned to come take photos for and of the president. What are you going to do when the president calls and asks you to bring a camera?

When the press corps came to town to follow the president around — the big guys like The New York Times and the Washington Post — they would sometimes complain about the Fredericksburg publisher’s special access to the world’s most powerful person. They would worry about getting “scooped” on big stories, but they were reminded that Mr. Kowert ran a weekly newspaper and, yes, news generally traveled a lot slower.

I looked through the editions surrounding the 1971 convention date in the Standard to see if Mr. Kowert opined about his time at the convention or with the Johnsons. While they had a story about recognizing the First Family, he didn’t delve into spending time with them. As humble as I have heard he was, he probably didn’t wish to be seen as bragging about hobnobbing, though he certainly could have more than anyone.

Kowert was well-respected around the state, as was his successor, Terry Collier. It’s fascinating to look back and see their work and their relationships and how they shared them with Texas.

And it’s an honor to follow in their footsteps.

ken@fredericksburgstandard.com