Oveta Culp Hobby, newspaper publisher who became the nation’s first secretary of health, education and welfare and was commander of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, died Wednesday at her home. She was 90.
Mrs. Hobby, whose media holdings made her one of the nation’s richest women, suffered a stroke April 17, said Saralee Tiede, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Hobby’s son, former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby.
On top of her work for the federal government in Democratic and Republican administrations, Mrs. Hobby was a key executive in the Houston Post and other family enterprises.
Forbes magazine listed her as the country’s 287th wealthiest person in 1994, estimating her worth and that of her family at $400 million. In 1988 the list ranked her 83rd with an estimated worth of $650 million.
Mrs. Hobby was helping her husband, former Texas Gov. William P. Hobby Sr., run the Post when in 1941 she was named head of the War Department’s Women’s Interest Section and moved to Washington.
She was named colonel and head of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps the following year.
Nicknamed the Little Colonel, Mrs. Hobby was tenacious in seeing that her 200,000 charges were taken as seriously as their male counterparts. She got the word Auxiliary taken out of the organization’s name, and during her tenure the number of Army jobs that Congress acknowledged that women could perform jumped from 54 to 239.
Women at war were the same as men at war, she said in 1943, adding: “They want to get out of the back areas and up to the front line. They want to see the war and fight it personally. There are a great many restless WACs overseas.”
Asked if she meant that women should be issued guns, she demurred, saying, “There is a lot more than shooting to fighting a war.”
In 1944, she became the first woman to receive the Distinguished Service Medal.
After the war, Mrs. Hobby returned to Houston and helped run her husband’s newest acquisition, television station KPRC.
But she remained active in politics. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a friend from her Army days, named her head of the Federal Security Agency. Later that year, the agency was renamed the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and its secretary was made part of the Cabinet.
She was only the second woman to serve in a President’s cabinet. The first was Frances Perkins, secretary of labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mrs. Hobby served in the post for 31 months, overseeing the annual disbursement of $4 billion in welfare funds. One of the major events of her tenure was announcement of the Salk vaccine to prevent polio, which had stricken thousands. She was praised at the time for having the patience to hold the announcement until the vaccine had been properly tested.
In 1955, Mrs. Hobby resigned her position and returned to Houston to take care of her ailing husband. He died in 1964.
She was born Jan. 19, 1905, in Killeen, Tex., and married Hobby, a family friend, in 1931, when she was 26 and he was 53. Hobby, who was then president of the Post, was on the brink of bankruptcy at the time, so the new Mrs. Hobby went to work at the paper, first as research editor.
The Hobbys had two children, William Jr. or Bill, who was Texas lieutenant governor from 1973-91, and Jessica Hobby Catto.
In 1938, Mrs. Hobby was named the Post’s executive vice president. The following year, the Hobbys bought the paper from Houston financier Jesse Jones, who also owned the rival Houston Chronicle, for about $4 million.
In 1983, Mrs. Hobby sold the Post to the Toronto Sun Publishing Co. for about $130 million. The paper changed hands again a few years later and was closed this year.
In 1992, H & C Communications Inc., another family enterprise, sold its five television stations to Young Broadcasting in New York. One estimate put the selling price at $600 million. The sale left H & C with only one broadcast outlet, KPRC-AM in Houston.
Mrs. Hobby had always loved politics. When her father was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1919, when she was 14, she went with him to Austin. After a year in college,she returned to Austin to work first for the State Banking Commission, then as clerk for the House Judiciary Committee.
In 1926, the Texas Speaker of the House named her parliamentarian. She later wrote a textbook on parliamentary law called “Mr. Chairman.”
She ran for the state House herself in 1930 but lost after her opponent, a Ku Klux Klan member, allegedly described her in horrified tones as a “parliamentarian.”