To Hell with Houston!

billhoodpix1With my wife and first born child in the car, I drove out of Houston on Highway 290 headed for Austin and a new life. Tired of the rat race that was Houston, we had decided to eliminate the weekly drives for weekend jaunts to Austin by simply packing up and moving. There would be no culture shock as we had been spending every available weekend at a friend’s house on Avenue H in Hyde Park or camping along the creek at a remote farm in Driftwood. We were in love with Austin and the laid back lifestyle and were determined to be a part of it. To hell with Houston!

We quickly found a house in what was then North Austin – off of 45th street near MoPac. Having worked in publishing for many years, but never part of the establishment, I looked for work using one of my many skills – graphic designer, artist, photographer, stat-camera operator, writer and sometimes janitor. Scanning the Austin Sun collected from a rack on the Drag I knew instantly that I wanted to be part of the Sun. I immediately headed over to their offices.

First Impressions

As I entered the “reception room” of the Sun, I was immediately struck by the discarded Thundercloud sandwich wrappings and empty paper cups that once held soft drinks. The carpeted floor held stains from far too many spilled drinks and dropped food particles. It looked like a party had been held the night before and the maid had not yet arrived to clean up. Perhaps I had entered the “employee break room” instead.

An abrupt noise startled me. Turning, my gaze fell upon a disheveled person asleep on the sofa. Unsure whether it was male or female, but positively sure that the snoring was a sign that the lump curled into a fetal position needed to remain asleep, I crept quietly through the open door into the next room.

“Can I help you?” I heard a voice ask. A beautiful young girl, well-tanned from trips to Paleface or Windy Point, looked up as if questioning my arrival.

“Sure, I’m new in town and looking for work in publishing. Are there any openings here?” The look turned to a smile and for a moment I thought the young girl was going to laugh aloud. She suppressed the urge.

“I don’t know about openings, but I’ll introduce you to the editor, Jeff Nightbyrd,” she stated and with that she headed off down a hallway, expecting me to follow, which I did. Over her shoulder she said, “My name is Deb Stall. I work in Ad Sales for the Sun.” I introduced myself.

Meeting with Nightbyrd

She entered the first door on the right without knocking, moving to the side to allow me to enter the small room after her. Every square inch of the office was cluttered with back issues of the Sun, a file cabinet was stuffed with more papers, so much so that I doubted that the drawers could have been shut. In the middle of the room was a desk piled high with papers and photographs, behind which sat Jeff Nightbyrd, obviously busy and resentful of the interruption. Deb explained that I was looking for a job at the Sun. Again with that smile on her face. I quickly became aware that there must have an inside joke that I was not privy to, as Nightbyrd duplicated the smile. Deb left us alone.

I explained that I had worked for newspapers and magazines over the past several years and had experience in paste up, graphic design, photography, stat-camera operator, writer and sometimes janitor. The smile grew larger. Nightbyrd looked around the office at the clutter, the stained carpet and finally back to me. “A janitor would be nice and you’d obviously have your work cut out for you, but what we need most is a stat camera operator, when can you start?” Thus begin my tenure at the Austin Sun. Later I found out that Margaret Moser had been hired as a writer, but was given the position of janitor.

Nightbyrd gave me the nickel tour of the offices, which took all of 15 minutes, including the introductions to the staff members present during the day. I would later learn that most staffers held full time jobs during the day to support themselves and “worked” at the Sun at night. The first introduction as to Dave Moriaty, the managing editor. When Nightbyrd explained that I would be the new “camera guy,” I remember Moriaty making the statement, “What are we going to pay him with – we’re STILL broke.”

Stock for Pay

I should have known this would be a omen of things to come. In the months that followed Nightbyrd was constantly offering stock in the company in lieu of salaries. The only problem was that the stock was printed up at the local copy shop and consisted of far more shares than the actual value of the publication. Almost immediately, I learned that I would have to find another full time job to support my small family if I was going to keep the “camera guy” job.

In the next few days, I busied myself in the cameraroom reducing and enlarging ad copy for the art department, which consisted mainly of the then art director and Carlene Brady. Relegated to working in the darkened back room, with only occasional forays into the front office, it would take me a full week to meet most of the other staffers.

Jeff Nightbyrd had been an editor at the New York underground publication Rat. He had also been an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) organizer, albeit when his name was Jeff Shero. He had came to Texas to protest the war with a presence at then-President Johnson’s ranch and fell in love with Austin. Later, he would meet up with the former Daily Texan editor, Michael Eakin and form the Austin Sun.

The Staff

I found out that most of the staff had no experience in publishing, but that never deterred us from getting the Sun out week after week. Well, okay, most weeks. Carlene in the art department, writers Big Boy Medlin, Michael Ventura, Bill Bentley, Margaret Moser, Eric “Enrique Pasa” Rosenblum, Ginger Varney, Marty McKenzie, Sara Bird and others were all backed up by a superb Ad Sales staff that paid most of the bills. Deb Stall, Ramsey Wiggins, Rhett Beard, Glen Riley, Chip Wilcox, Jan and Cynthia worked in ad sales at one time or another.

Equally important to our existence were the other creative individuals – the photographers and graphic artists who documented the era with their images. All of the Armadillo World Headquarter artists, and the “709 Artists” from Sheauxnough Studios across the street contributed to the Sun – Kerry (Kerry Awn) Fitzgerald, Jose Carlos Campos, Brian Curley, Jim (JKFLN) Franklin, Danny Garrett, Henry Gonzalez, Edd Patton, Tony Bell, D. “Guy Juke” White, Gary McElhaney, Bill Narum, Micael Priest, Sam Yeates, Andy Poyner, Ken Featherston, Jim (Jimmy Jalapeeno) Bonar, Jack (Jaxon) Jackson, Charlie (Igor) Loving, Dale Wilkins and a host of others.

Photographers were our stock in trade to attend the concerts, political happenings and news events to assure that our readers actually felt like they had attended, or to remind them of what they missed if they had attended in a self-induced state of euphoria and simply couldn’t remember being there. Ave Bonar, Scott Newton, Danny Schweers, Alan Pogue, J R Compton and others documented the era for us.

Paying the Bills

Like the other staffers I found that I enjoyed the scene and decided that while I would try to find a “day job” to pay the bills, I didn’t want to give up the job at the Sun. I continued to work at the Sun, eventually becoming art director when Carlene left for California to work in animation at Disney. I did find a job at Wallace, where I was the cameraman working on Texas Highways and Texas Monthly as well as a variety of other publications. I somehow managed to stay with the Sun after Jeff sold the paper to the establishment (Jay Stokes) and we moved to the Stokes Building across the street from the Travis County Courthouse. Although, the sale meant I was to finally get a paycheck, the “new” Sun wasn’t the same and it quickly ceased publication.

Fast Forward

Back in Austin, from one of my forays into the mountains of Northern Mexico to visit my beloved Real de Catorce and visiting with past co-worker Ed Alexander and others, I learned that the city of Austin was dedicating a day to fellow artist, Danny Garrett, who was returning to Austin from New Zealand for the event.

I was sure that there were going to be a good showing of old friends and not wanting to miss the opportunity, I made my way to Eddie Wilson’s Threadgills, where Danny would be holding court. The restaurant sits in the shadows of what had once been the Armadillo World Headquarters and is in itself a tribute to the AWHQ with Wilson’s vast collection of photos and memorabilia. The Uranium Savages were playing in the garden and everywhere I turned I was bombarded with faces of friends from the past.

As my arm grew tired of the many vigorous handshakes, I heard a voice call out, “Bill – Bill Hood?” Turning, I found myself face to face with Carol Stall – sister to Deb Stall, whom I had met that first day at the Sun. We talked for awhile and Carol mentioned that Deb was living in California. This started a host of emails flying back and forth as Deb and I discussed the old Sun days and brought each other up to speed on our separate but amazingly similar lifestyles over the past 30-plus years.

Eventually, I traveled to California for a trade show and decided to spend a few extra days in which I would travel up to Santa Barbara to visit with Deb.

To my amazement, Deb had not changed a bit, so much so that I could have picked her out of a crowd and immediately recognized her. We spent the day walking on the beach and having lunch at a wonderful restaurant in Santa Barbara. At the end of the day, just before I was to leave, we commented on how wonderful it was to have reunited and discussed the old days at the Sun.

It was as though two light bulbs went off simultaneously, one above each of our heads. Why not have a reunion of Austin Sun Staffers? In the next 15 minutes we brainstormed about how to make it happen and by the time we had said our goodbyes, we promised to be in touch in the next few days to create the website you are now reading.

To our surprise we have found that other Sun Staffers have also been wondering about their past workmates and would have loved to been in touch. So the Austin Sun Reunion happened!

– Bill Hood, March 2009

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One comment

  1. Bill,

    Thanks for this story. Entertaining writing too. I did not know until just now that I was the first person you met at the SUN!

    But I certainly do know why I was smiling…

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