My friend Julian Read, a gentleman of the old school and friend to many, called me in January. Just checking in, he said. Catching up. How were my wife and I doing?
Just fine, we said. And Read said he was just calling to tell us he loved us. And he was calling because he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to tell us that again. Sounded like he was checking in and catching up with lots of folks.
Like I said, a gentleman with many friends. And a life that included links to a varied and legendary cast of characters, including John F. Kennedy, John Connally, Elvis Presley, Darrell Royal, Siegfried and Roy, and many more.
We went by to visit Read on April 10, as we had in the past, at Westminster Manor. By then, he was bedridden, his body failing. But his mind was sharp and his eyes twinkled that twinkle they had when he told a story.
And, boy, did he have stories. Folks tend to be that way when they’ve led interesting, rewarding lives. Read’s ended Saturday at age 93, when he died of what his family is calling natural causes, the causes he knew were bringing his life to an end back when he called us in January.
He died at Westminster Manor, about a mile from his beloved mid-century modern home of 53 years in West Austin. At Westminster, Read, by nature, was a self-appointed activity director, organizing events and outings.
He couldn’t help himself. People persons often can’t.
Julian Otis Read was born near Fort Worth to parents James Otis Read and Tillie Naomi Swaim, early Texas farming settlers who moved the family to Fort Worth so their kids could get the education they never had. He attended Fort Worth Paschal High School, coincidentally with my late mother-in-law, who never forgot Read or that he was very tall.
In 1945, at age 18, Read worked as a cub sportswriter and copy boy at the now-defunct and legendary-to-many Fort Worth Press newspaper. Fifteen bucks a week, but worth so much more via exposure to for-the-ages sportswriters Blackie Sherrod, Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake.
Read covered golf for the paper and showed his moxie early on when he called Ben Hogan in his hospital room after the famed golfer’s near-fatal 1949 car wreck.
Freelancing on the side to supplement his less-than-magnificent newspaper income, Read once did publicity for an up-and-coming singer who at the time was thrilled to get $500 for a show. Elvis later commanded higher paychecks.
In 1951, Read left the newspaper and, in a one room office-apartment, set up shop in the emerging world of public relations. Compressing many years here, that successful venture grew into Read-Poland Associates with offices around the state and in D.C. Clients were varied and impressive, including HemisFair ’68, the official 1968 World’s Fair held in San Antonio, DFW Airport, Southwest Airlines, illusionists Siegfried and Roy, Disney’s World on Ice, and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
We all have our thoughts about that last one. But, just for this moment, can we please look at it through the lens of Read’s time? He loved the circus and the joy it brought to people, especially little ones.
As the obit prepared by his family says, “Read experienced a wide range of adventures, including being bitten on the leg by one of Siegfried and Roy’s royal white tigers following a television photo shoot and being robbed at gun point outside a Denver motel.”
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Read’s imprint on the political world began when he helped Don Kennard win election to the Texas House in 1952. In 1954, Read helped a Weatherford mayor to an upset win against a three-term U.S. House incumbent. That mayor, Jim Wright, then went on to a pretty solid D.C. career, including as House Majority Leader and Speaker.
Read also did presidential campaign work for Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, George Ford, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — a varied roster, indeed.
Little chance consultants of today or tomorrow could back such a diverse lot.
But it was Read’s ties to John Connally that perhaps were the closest. In late 1961, Connally recruited Read over a cup of coffee at Fort Worth’s Hotel Texas. (Yes, the hotel where Kennedy would spend his last night in 1963, prior to the Dallas assassination at which Connally also was shot.)
Connally, then a Democrat, won the 1962 gubernatorial race, helped in no small part by Read’s production of five-minute TV spots to introduce Connally to voters. They were called “Coffee with Connally” and were an early, innovative use of TV by political candidates.
On Nov. 22, 1963, when Connally hosted JFK’s ill-fated Texas visit, Read, as gubernatorial press secretary, was Connally’s liaison to the White House press corps traveling with the president.
Read’s obit recalls the day: “Riding in the White House press bus just a few vehicles behind the presidential limousine in the motorcade, Read witnessed the assassination unfolding a few hundred feet away. He subsequently commandeered a car and rushed to Parkland Hospital, where he gave support to Texas First Lady Nellie Connally. Based on her account of the event to him, Read presented the first briefing to international media on what had occurred inside the presidential limousine.”
A famous photo shows Read, at a chalkboard and using X’s and O’s, detailing for reporters where the occupants of the presidential limousine were sitting when the shots were fired.
In 2013, Read published “JFK’s Final Hours in Texas,” a book about the young president’s successful stops in San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth prior to the horror that unfolded in Dealey Plaza.
In 1980, Read was communications director for Connally’s ill-fated bid for the GOP presidential nomination. Connally spent $12 million (a whopping sum at the time) and got one delegate — Ada Mills of Clarksville, Ark. — at the GOP national convention. Read always referred to that campaign as his biggest professional disappointment.
I’m not sure if Connally would’ve been a good president, but Read would have been a helluva presidential press secretary. The two men remained close until Connally’s 1993 death. And Read remained close with Nellie Connally until her 2006 death.
The Read-Poland firm merged into a successor company in which Read remained active, including as chairman of what became Burson Cohn & Wolfe Texas in 2001, the 50th anniversary of Read-Poland.
Read also left a lasting imprint on college football by transforming University of Texas Coach Darrell Royal’s TV show into what became a national model for that kind of show.
Read and future wife Mary Anice Barber met when he was writing a golf story about her while she was in high school. They married in April 1952. She earned prominence in historical preservation, including as founder of the Texas Main Street Program at the Texas Historical Commission. Read shared her dedication to historic preservation, perhaps because he helped shape history. His archives, a treasure trove for researchers, are held by UT’s Briscoe Center for American History.
Mary Anice Barber Read died in 1999 and is buried in the Texas State Cemetery. The Reads were married for 47 years. He is survived by daughters Ellen Hardin Read and Courtney Anice Read Hoffman and her husband R. Clark Hoffman, as well as three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Services are being arranged by Weed Corley Fish Funeral Home and will be announced.
True to form, on that last day we visited with him, Read’s eyes twinkled when he recounted tales of Texas history. But, in his fading days, in a reminder of what’s really important, those eyes twinkled even brighter when recounting accomplishments of his offspring.
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