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SCOTT, BESS WHITEHEAD

SCOTT, BESS WHITEHEAD (1890–1997). Bess Whitehead Scott, pioneering Texas woman journalist, was born on December 13, 1890, near Blanket, Texas, in Brown County. She was the youngest of nine children of Sarah Caroline "Carrie" (Barnett) Whitehead, who was born on a large Georgia cotton plantation, and William Tazewell "Taz" Whitehead, who was born on a Virginia tobacco plantation. Her father fought for the South in the Civil War and took part in the battle of Gettysburg. At age eighteen he was taken captive by Northern troops and forced to sign an oath of allegiance to the Union. He signed but immediately rejoined Confederate troops. Scott's parents had moved to Texas to farm in 1877. When she was two years old, her father died of pneumonia. With hard work and thrift, her mother kept the family fed and the farm running during a subsequent drought.

As a child, Bess pretended to read newspapers, magazines, and the family's few books until her older sister Elizabeth taught her to actually read at age five. This sparked in young Bess a lifelong love of the written word. A lingering childhood infection in the aftermath of measles left her partially deaf, a condition that became worse in her adult years and provided a challenge during her journalism career, when she would often follow up after press conferences with private interviews to compensate.

Bess Whitehead spent three years at Baylor Female College in Belton (now the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor) and a final year in Waco at Baylor University, where she graduated in 1912. She worked for room and board, and her brother sold two mules to fund her tuition. Bess took creative writing classes from acclaimed Texas writer Dorothy Scarborough, and her work appeared in the campus magazine Baylor Literary.

After graduation, she taught high school English and Latin in Houston for two years and for one year at Howard Payne College in Brownwood. In 1915 she returned to Houston and, with no background in journalism, talked her way into a job at the Houston Post as the first woman news reporter in Houston by convincing an editor that male reporters would soon be called to service during World War I. Until that time, most Texas newspapers had hired women only for society and club reporting. She was initially paid six dollars a week.

She spent twenty-five years with Houston newspapers. During this time she periodically also held jobs in public relations, advertising, and teaching. In 1917 she spent several months in Hollywood and wrote stories for two-reel silent movies. That same year she met Hubert Clark Scott, a U. S. Marine still recovering from a gunshot wound from a sniper during an uprising in the Dominican Republic. They married the next year, and she left her job to follow him in his career as a traveling salesman. In 1920 the couple was living in Denver, Colorado. By the early 1920s they had two children, daughter Lila Bess and son Hubert Jr., whom they called Scotty. 

Her husband’s problems with alcohol abuse led to their divorce and her return to work as a newspaper reporter, this time initially for the Houston Press, after a nine-year gap. For the Press she wrote about film and theater and befriended a young Clark Gable after he balked at her review of his acting in a local play. She later returned to the Houston Post as amusements editor. During the next fifteen years she did a wide range of reporting, including team reporting on the city's major news events. 

She interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt twice and became friends with future president Lyndon Johnson when the then twenty-two-year-old Sam Houston High School teacher sought her out in 1930 to get publicity for school debate and speech teams. She covered the 1928 Democratic Convention in Houston and was often called on to do news research for other reporters. During the Great Depression her newspaper pay was cut from a high of $37.50 a week to $27.50 a week, so she moonlighted teaching journalism and creative writing in a night school and later at Milby High School. During World War II she wrote a series of columns about women doing jobs traditionally filled by men.

Scott authored two textbooks on journalism as well as an informal history, The Way it Was, about the Whitehead family. She helped establish a publication of the Texas Federation of Business and Professional Women—Texas Woman—and served as editor for four years. Scott moved to Austin in 1977 and, except for two years in Colorado, lived there for the remainder of her life. Her memoir You Meet Such Interesting People was published by Texas A&M University Press in 1989. The following year, on her 100th birthday, the Writers League of Texas established a scholarship in her name to award to students studying journalism at select Texas universities; a second scholarship for older writing students (age forty or above) was established by the Writers League in 2000. In 1992 Baylor University named her a Distinguished Alumna eighty years after her graduation. That same year, the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor also honored her as an Outstanding Alumna. She was inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame in 1994 and was selected by the Women's Chamber of Commerce of Texas as one of 100 most influential “Texas Women of the Century” in 1999.

Bess Whitehead Scott died on December 27, 1997, in Austin, where she had spent her final years in assisted living while teaching writing courses to senior citizens. She had continued as a freelance writer; her final article appeared in Texas Highways magazine in 1994. A memorial service was held at First Baptist Church in Blanket, Texas, and she was buried in Rock Church Cemetery in Blanket.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Austin American-Statesman, September 22, 1989; December 13, 1990; December 22, 1993; December 31, 1996; December 29, 1997. Bess Whitehead Scott Scholarship Fund (http://www.bwsfund.org), accessed September 4, 2016. Dallas Morning News, November 7, 1999. Whitney Daniels, “Ground-breaking alumna celebrates 106th birthday,” Baylor Lariot, December 5, 1996 (https://www.baylor.edu/lariatarchives/news.php?action=story&story=9072), accessed September 4, 2016. Ann Gallaway, “Bess Whitehead Scott, Writer,” Texas Highways (http://www.texashighways.com/eat/item/6151-bess-whitehead-scott-writer), accessed September 4, 2016. “Groundbreaking Bear was Houston paper’s first female reporter,” Baylor Proud, Baylor University, May 9, 2106 (http://www2.baylor.edu/baylorproud/2016/05/groundbreaking-bear-was-houston-papers-first-female-reporter/), accessed September 4, 2016. Bess Whitehead Scott, You Meet Such Interesting People (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1989).

Joseph O'Connell

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Handbook of Texas Online, Joseph O'Connell, "Scott, Bess Whitehead ," accessed December 10, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fscek.

Uploaded on September 14, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.