AUSTIN — Four news professionals — H. Deskins “Deck” Wells, George McElroy, Cyndy Slovak-Barton and Bob Dillard — will be inducted into the Texas Newspaper Foundation Hall of Fame on Jan. 17.
The induction ceremony will take place during the Texas Press Association 2020 Convention and Trade Show at Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa & Convention Center in Galveston.
A selection committee met Nov. 1 and chose the inductees. Members of the selection committee included Mary Henkel Judson, publisher of The South Jetty, Port Aransas; Greg Shrader of Kerrville, former publisher of The Lufkin Daily News; Larry Jackson, former publisher of the Fayette County News, La Grange; Pat Canty, publisher of the Odessa American; and Randy Keck, publisher of The Community News, Aledo.
The Austin-based Texas Newspaper Foundation created the hall of fame in 2006 to induct up to four individuals annually. Inductees have been credited with outstanding achievements and contributions to the newspaper industry and to their communities. The following are short biographies of the inductees for 2020:
H. DESKINS ‘DECK’ WELLS
As the Great Depression drew to a close and Texas Panhandle communities recovered from the Dust Bowl, H. Deskins “Deck” Wells managed Texas Press Association’s business and publications almost single-handedly. He served as president of the association in 1938-39 and as executive director from 1941 to 1947.
Wells guided the association through fuel and paper shortages, working from his newspaper office in the Texas Panhandle city of Wellington, some 280 miles from Dallas, 400 miles from Austin and more than 500 miles from Houston.
Wells was born near Wellington in Collingsworth County in 1902. He attended Canyon Normal College, now West Texas A&M University at Canyon, from 1919 to 1921. He went on to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin and graduate in 1923 with a bachelor’s degree. He extended his education at UT, serving on the editorial staff of The Daily Texan and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1924.
After graduation, he returned to Wellington and was hired by his cousin, J. Claude Wells, owner of The Wellington Leader. J. Claude Wells sold a half interest in the newspaper to Wells and together, the two expanded their holdings, acquiring a nearby newspaper, the Memphis Democrat, in 1925. In 1929 he sold J. Claude Wells his half interest in the Memphis Democrat and in 1931 he acquired full ownership of the Wellington Leader.
His popular column “Deck’s Didactics” covered topics from international politics to the day-to-day activities of people in his county. Wildlife, geography, the changing seasons, the sky and the stars inspired some of his best writing. The column won many awards, drawing accolades from daily and weekly newspapers across the state. The Leader also won notice as the first newspaper in Texas to publish a history of its hometown.
“Biggest mistake made by journalism school graduates is that of choosing country newspaper work because they think it will give them plenty of time to hunt and fish,” Wells once said. “I haven’t had time to do either — nor to raise chickens — for the 15 years I have been working on and publishing the Leader.”
Wells published the newspaper for more than 50 years before his death in 1976. During those years, Wells also rose in service to his community and to the region, serving first as a Wellington alderman, as mayor from 1933 to 1937 and as a president of the Panhandle Press Association.
From the beginning of his work as editor, his obituary states, Wells supported better roads when there was no pavement and better schools because he believed the county’s children were its greatest resources. Wells’ leadership extended into many other fields: hospital and health care, strengthening the country’s agricultural base, development of recreation and preservation of the county’s heritage.
GEORGE A. McELROY
While those who remember George Albert McElroy may describe him as quiet, unassuming and unpretentious, “Mr. Mac” — the publisher of the Houston Informer and Texas Freeman — was an impactful journalist, teacher and community leader.
McElroy died in 2006 at age 84, a warrior against racial discrimination and a mentor and inspiration to generations of young journalists.
In 1938, at age 16, McElroy got his start in the newspaper business, writing a youth column for the Houston Informer, the first African-American newspaper published west of the Mississippi River. From 1940 to 1948, he served in the U.S. Navy, stationed primarily in Asia, during World War II. He served as a U.S. Air Force information specialist at Ellington Field near Houston from 1950 to 1952. He went on to serve in veterans’ organizations, including the Burma-China-India group, and in 1973 was honored by Gov. Dolph Briscoe as an admiral in the Texas Navy.
Having been denied enrollment by the University of Texas at Austin, McElroy enrolled at Texas State University for Negroes, now Texas Southern University, and majored in journalism, graduating in 1956. He taught journalism at Houston’s Yates High School from 1957 to 1969, leading his students to unprecedented awards in journalism for an African-American school. McElroy was the first African-American with a journalism degree to teach that subject in Houston Independent School District. In 1970 he became the first African-American student to earn a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.
In 1954, McElroy became the Houston Post’s first African-American sports writer and in 1956, he became the newspaper’s first African-American columnist. He served as head of Texas Southern University’s journalism department, retiring in 1989 but remaining a familiar figure on campus for the ensuing 10 years. He also was a journalism instructor for the University of Houston in the early 1970s. Many of his students at both universities went on to successful careers.
One of McElroy’s five daughters, Dr. Kathleen McElroy, was an editor for The New York Times and is director of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism.
In the 1970s, Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz proclaimed a week in McElroy’s honor. McElroy received a lifetime achievement award from the Houston Association of Black Journalists while still running The Informer. He was the first African-American to be a member of the Houston Press Club and went on to serve as the organization’s president. He was the first African-American to win first place for his Houston Informer editorials from the Texas Gulf Coast Press Association.
As editor of the Houston Informer, McElroy was a major voice of the African-American community, and during Texas Southern University student demonstrations in the early 1960s, when major news media refused to publicize civil rights news events. He was active at St. Mary of the Purification Catholic Church.
In 1961, Fort Worth Elks Lodge #124 named Bob Dillard “newspaper boy of the year.” He would later become known as the cornerstone of his community and his weekly newspaper, “the water cooler everybody gathered ‘round on Thursday mornings.”
A Tyler native, Bob Dillard moved with his family to Corpus Christi and then to Fort Worth. From there, He worked on the Eastern Hills High School student newspaper until he graduated in 1963. After graduation Dillard worked for T&P Railroad in Fort Worth and left after enrolling at Baylor University in Waco, where he worked as a plumber’s assistant. Dillard continued his education at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he served as sports editor and later as managing editor of The Shorthorn. In 1973 Dillard met and married Christi Miles.
In 1976, after graduation from UT-Arlington, the Dillards bought a share of the Alpine Avalanche and settled in Fort Davis. Dillard operated and co-edited the Avalanche until 1990. In 1982, the Dillards purchased the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa and owned the newspaper for a decade. In 1983, the Dillards founded the Jeff Davis County News in Fort Davis and in 1993 changed the newspaper’s name to the Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch. In 1995, the Dillards bought the Stanton News in Martin County and changed the newspaper’s name to the Martin County Messenger. In 1996, the Dillards founded the Greenwood Ranger, a newspaper serving a Midland suburban community.
While publishing five newspapers, Dillard served a term as county judge for Jeff Davis County. Beyond his love for the news, Dillard was a relentless advocate for the children of Fort Davis and other Far West Texas communities. He was active in 4-H and Future Farmers of America, making trips to New Mexico, Iowa, Kansas and other states to pick up show pigs and deliver them directly to families all over West Texas. He was often found on weekends and holidays barbecuing beef brisket for community events.
Dillard served on the Big Bend Livestock Association, the Jeff Davis County Livestock Association, the Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Davis Independent School District, Friends of Fort Davis National Historic Site and Friends of the Jeff Davis County Library.
Dillard edited the Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch and the Martin County Messenger until he died July 20, 2019, in a Lubbock hospital. He was 74.
If asked to name a Texas newspaper publisher who has soared to heights not achieved by any other, there is only one who fits that description: Cyndy Slovak-Barton, the award-winning publisher of the Hays Free Press in Kyle and the Dripping Springs News-Dispatch.
Slovak-Barton, who mixes newspaper publishing with athletic competition, was the gold medalist in women’s pole vault competition at the Texas Senior Games in both 2018 and 2019 and the silver medalist in women’s at the National Senior Games in 2019. Her drive to excel at pole-vaulting parallels the dedication and effort she has shown in producing high-quality community newspapers over a long period of time.
Slovak-Barton, who hails from West, Texas, was the first in her extended family to attend college. She began her work life as a truck stop waitress and went on to graduate from the University of Texas School of Communications. Her work as publisher of the award-winning Hays Free Press, HaysFreePress.com and the Dripping Springs News-Dispatch blend with her roles as a business owner and entrepreneur. She is co-owner of Gap Strategies, a business in which she assists with media strategy and manages business operations.
Developing and sharpening professional skills as a social services/agricultural policy analyst for the legendary U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle in Washington, D.C. from 1981 to 1983, Slovak-Barton’s work grew to include retail and property management. With her husband, Jeff Barton, and other partners, she has completed several successful real estate redevelopment ventures. She supervised the planning and construction of a two-story, mixed-use brownstone redevelopment that now houses both apartment flats and the Hays Free Press in downtown Kyle. This building won the 2012 Stewardship Award from Envision Central Texas.
Slovak-Barton attended Baylor University before transferring as a senior to the University of Texas at Austin. While news editor at Baylor’s student newspaper, The Lariat, a fight erupted between The Lariat and the administration over the newspaper’s editorial stand when Playboy scouted female students to appear in the magazine. Slovak-Barton, her future husband and others were fired in a public meeting, igniting protests and drawing widespread attention. The prestigious Ralph McGill Award, given to Cyndy Slovak and Jeff Barton for their editorial work, was sent to the University of Texas and remains there.
Slovak-Barton is a past president of South Texas Press Association, a current board member of the Texas Press Association, a member of the Texas Press Association Legislative Advisory Committee, many times a winner of the association’s Community Service Award and Sweepstakes Award, a winner of the Jim Lehrer Award for Investigative Journalism and winner of Envision Central Texas 2012 Stewardship Award for Redevelopment of the Barton Word Building in Kyle.
She served on the boards of the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center, Hays Foundation, Buda Chamber of Commerce and Budafest Committee.