Longtime Jewish Outlook Editor Donates Collection to UT’s Briscoe Center
By Tonyia Cone
Gaylon Finklea Hecker, editor of The Jewish Outlook from 1989 until late 1998, recently donated a piece of Texas Jewish history to The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin.
In the early 1980s, it occurred to Finklea Hecker and Marianne Odom, a colleague at the San Antonio Express-News, that childhood stories told by famous Texans would make a great book, since the worldwide obsession with everything Texas was soaring. So they started interviewing people—oral history style—about growing up in the Lone Star State and their childhood influences.
“Good, bad or indifferent, whatever your environment was as a kid molded you into the adult you become,” Finklea Hecker said. “And the hook was Texas.”
Before life got in the way, the dynamic duo put together 28 chapters of stories from native Texans including Lady Bird Johnson, Dan Rather, Aaron Spelling, Bob Schieffer, Debbie Reynolds, Mary Kay Ash, Dr. Denton Cooley, Rex Reed, and Samuel Lewis, U.S. ambassador to Israel. But when Finklea Hecker moved to Austin and Odom began teaching journalism at San Antonio College, the project was put away in a dusty file cabinet for the next 30 years. It never was forgotten but just not progressing except for the occasional guilt-ridden, “Shouldn’t we do something with those old interviews?”
The friends stayed in touch and because childhood stories stay the same over time, in the last handful of years they finally dusted off the original chapters, added more famous Texans, and last fall completed their book tentatively titled, “A Stronger Sense of Place: Famous Native Texans Remember Their Childhood.” It now has 48 chapters, with the last set of face-to-face interviews including the likes of Rex Tillerson, A.J. Foyt, Nolan Ryan, Jaclyn Smith, Justice Rose Spector and Jerry LeVias, Southern Methodist University’s football great who broke the color barrier in the Southwest Conference.
The Briscoe Center is publishing the book this fall, and as part of the agreement, Finklea Hecker and Odom signed a deed of gift. The day they turned in their manuscript, Sept. 30, 2018, Finklea Hecker donated to the research facility her entire collection of notes, photos, clippings, drafts and other material from her time working as a newspaper and magazine journalist and author since 1970, when she started at The Daily Texan, until recently.
Her 49-year archive collection includes a decade’s worth of hard copies of The Jewish Outlook published when she was editor. She previously also gifted many copies to the Jewish Studies Library housed at the Perry-Casteñeda Library at UT.
When the Briscoe Center became her book’s publisher, the old Jewish Outlook collection languishing under her bed found a permanent home, taking its proper place in the state’s broad-ranging, unique history.
The Briscoe Center is also home to the Texas Jewish Historical Society’s files, so when researchers visit the center to study Texas Jewish history, they now can access TJHS materials as well as almost a decade of month-to-month documentation of Jewish life in Austin.
“That’s your contemporary community news first, then it becomes your history,” said Finklea Hecker, who for two years also served as editor of The Jewish Journal of San Antonio. “I don’t know where else that history is, other than The Outlook.”
Rummaging through all her old notes and letters not only cleaned out her closets, it took her on a trip down memory lane.
When Finklea Hecker started working at The Jewish Outlook, it was basically a newsletter, printed on letter-size paper. Over the years she, Diane Dusek, who sold advertising, and Jeri Saper, Mary Jo Osgood and Jeanine and Earl Baker, who managed production at various periods, built the publication into an award-winning newspaper with original, localized content.
Twice it won the top Gold Award for newspapers from small Jewish cities from the Council of Jewish Federations, a national organization, and she judged the contest for some time.
“Nobody can sell ads like Diane. Nobody can tell her no. As she sold more ads, I had more editorial space. As the ads grew, the paper got bigger and better and more professional. It was just hand in hand. There was no Internet to access world news, so even with a monthly we provided Jewish news from around the world in what was then a timely manner,” Finklea Hecker said.
Meanwhile, Finklea Hecker also worked a full-time job at Motorola and was the single mother of a teenager. Combined, she was working three 80-hour weeks each month.
“I was the poster child for efficient use of time. Every morning I blow dried my hair while proofing the paper,” she said, adding that not a minute of the day was wasted during that period.
In the beginning, Saper worked on a Macintosh SE. Cutting-edge technology, it took 30 minutes to print each page. Finklea Hecker remembers editing the paper, then rocking Saper’s boys to sleep while Saper printed it out for proofing.
Finklea Hecker explained that while busy, her position at The Jewish Outlook was personally rewarding. It gave her the opportunity to get to know people in the community. She always loved working on feature stories, like the Yom Ha’Atzmaut profile she wrote about Walter Cohen, a Congregation Beth Israel member who fought in Israel’s War of Independence.
“I was good on personality profiles. To sit with you for an hour, pretty much sum you up, then thousands of people would read about you. Austin’s Jewish community had never been treated like that. Localizing Jewish holidays and Jewish U.S. and world news made the readers feel like our town was part of the bigger picture,” she said.
Executive directors of what was then called the Jewish Federation of Austin, Wayne Silverman and Barry Silverberg, shaped the paper, too. Finklea Hecker explained that Silverman wanted Austin’s broader community to know what the city’s Jewish community was doing and he was always thinking of the next thing the team could do with the paper. Silverberg’s unique opinions were also a fun part of the creative process, she remembers.
“We were trying to be a newspaper—we offered varying opinions,” she said.
Silverman, who served as executive director from 1989 to 1995, explained that Finklea Hecker planted in his mind the idea of what The Jewish Outlook could be within his first week on the job.
“Right up front she said we needed to have a high-quality Jewish newspaper in Austin. Of course, the newspaper needed to be the place where people learn about what’s going on, the activities of the Federation-associated organizations and congregations, but it also needed to be a place to highlight Jewish thought and ideas,” Silverman said. “We also needed to figure out a way to have it be a profit center,” he added.
As the paper grew, Finklea Hecker began including an editorial page with local and national columnists and a place for letters to the editor. All the rabbis in town took turns writing commentary, and retiree Gutman Cranow wrote a “Good News” column that included accomplishments, honors, weddings and births of Jews he found by scouring the local newspaper. Cranow called people with names that sounded Jewish, then featured them in hopes that they would become engaged with the Federation. Silverberg good-humoredly called him the “director of hidden Yidden.”
Silverman, now the director of development at the Emory University Center for Ethics, said, “It was a pleasure to work with a team who was forward thinking and self-starters. Having a team like that, having very interesting, intellectually stimulating wild suggestions about what we could do, and saying ‘why not’ and going for it, presented a very fun time.
“In the background of all that, we had this stellar newspaper, and no city of our size had anything close to it,” he said. “Austin has been lucky through the years to have such a comprehensive, thought-provoking publication.”
Silverberg, executive director from 1995 until 1998 also remembers Finklea Hecker walking into his office when he was new to the job.
"She is a very strong minded, passionate person. Initially we didn’t get along very well but when I realized what she was trying to achieve, we became good colleagues and friends," Silverberg said. "In those days we were starting to do some heavy advertising. Advertising really allows the paper to grow. The newspaper became more news about the Jewish world and the Jewish community and less just Federation focused, which I think a lot of Jewish papers were, and maybe still are. At a time when the community was growing and the campus was still a dream, at that point the newspaper became a way both of communication and bringing the community together, getting people a common source of information, and community strength. I think Gaylon's persistence and assertiveness was a major force in making that happen."
Finklea Hecker’s time at The Jewish Outlook included the period leading up to the Dell Jewish Community Campus and the January 1997 issue, which covered its groundbreaking. Within the next couple of years, she left her job at Motorola to work in corporate communications at the Lower Colorado River Authority and in September 1998 also moved on from The Jewish Outlook. Since then, she has published four books on varying subjects of Texas history.
But that busy time when Austin’s Jewish community grew by leaps and bounds, and her time was filled with Jewish news and activities is a highlight of her personal and professional life.
“I feel really proud to give our history to The Briscoe Center for perpetuity. I was proud when I was editing the paper. It grew because the community was worthy of it,” she said. ■