Renowned newsman Jim Lehrer visits Victoria, his old stomping grounds
June 25, 2010 at 1:25 a.m.
A conversation with Jim Lehrer is like a winding bus route of stories, chuckles and laser-sharp insight.
He'd be a horrible interview on his own news show, he jokes, because of his meandering tangents and quirky recollections.
"I should have warned you that my answers are kind of long," Lehrer said, laughing.
Lehrer, 76, is in Victoria as the keynote speaker for the Korean War Conference. He is best known as the no-nonsense PBS "NewsHour" executive producer and anchor, and as a prolific fiction writer.
His connection to Victoria, a small blip among a jam-packed bio of presidential awards and journalistic honors, still makes his eyes water.
"The world seemed limitless," Lehrer said. "And it was, but that's when I realized it."
Lehrer moved from San Antonio - where his father managed a bus station - to Victoria during the 1950s. He spent two years hawking bus calls and as a one-man-band editor of the Jolly Roger at Victoria College.
"The Victoria College experience solidified forever that I was going to spend my life as a writer and as a journalist," he said.
While working full time at the bus station on Goodwin and Main streets, he wrote and edited stories for the paper, marched them down to the Victoria Advocate for printing and distributed them by hand on campus between classes.
"I was the one man everything," he said.
Despite his self-motivation, the jump from Victoria College to the University of Missouri School of Journalism required the riot-raising of John Stormont, then the college's dean and vice president.
"He said, 'You ready to roll some dice with me?' I said 'What do you mean?'" Lehrer said.
The University of Missouri did not want to recognize Lehrer as a junior, although he'd already completed the credits.
"That made him mad because he felt like Victoria College courses could compare with any other school," said Janet Stormont Miller, Stormont's daughter.
Lehrer remembers vividly Stormont's reaction.
"He said 'I'm going to write these blankedy blanks a letter and I'm going to tell them this kid can do the work,'" he said.
The Missouri school sent a handful of tests, and Lehrer aced them all. He graduated from the university in 1956 and afterward served in the U.S. Marine Corps for seven years. Stormont's act of faith moved Lehrer.
"I could see who I was and who I might be and I could see a way to go from there," he said. "Up to that point, you were just kind of fooling around and I went, 'My God, I'm going.'"
Lehrer's mind is filled with memories of his rooming house on Forrest Street where he slept on a screened porch, and the bus station that served as a magic carpet into other worlds.
"It was kind of the magic vehicle. It was going to take you wherever you wanted to go," he said.
His romantic view of travel - especially anything that moves with wheels - trickled into many of his 20 fiction novels.
Victoria's racially separated water fountains, chained immigrants in transit and military families from Foster Field were raw material for future works. His novel "White Widow," the story of a Trailways bus driver en route from Houston to Corpus Christi, draws from colorful characters and South Texas scenes.
His bus call, which he labels his "good luck" charm, comes naturally from him in Victoria, where there's no need to explain town names or its origin.
"It's my little conceit," Lehrer, who never gives a speech without it, said.
Just like his charisma, strong journalism has become a habit for Lehrer, whose nightly show garners millions of viewers.
"He's got such a wit about him. It's just missing in stuff you see today in terms of TV journalists or just journalists in general," said Doug Kubicek, chairman of the Lavaca County Historical Commission. "When he's on I just stop whatever I'm doing and listen to him."
Lehrer is fearful of what's happening in his industry, as veterans like himself are cut from newsrooms when budgets shrink. He hopes the next generation of journalists will learn to dig deep.
"Sure, it's fine to have young people who know all about the iPod and whatever and digital this and digital that, but they've got to also be really bright," he said. "You have to put a huge premium on brains and thinking capability."
Even with five shows a week, Lehrer still makes time to churn out a novel once a year. He does so by writing at least a page before starting his day.
"No book I'm working on ever get's cold because I never stop," he said. "It's kind of like a low-grade fever. It's with me all the time."
The success he's experienced - in novel writing and journalism - boils down to a simple concept.
"This is all passion work," he said. "The possibility of making an ass of myself on national television is always there, so I'm very conscious of that. It makes the blood run to the brain."