Last Monday, San Antonio lost a quiet leader who helped others in multiple industries succeed.
Early Sept. 16, media executive, philanthropist, and amateur pilot Houston Harriman Harte died in his sleep of complications from Parkinson’s disease. Harte was 92.
Starting in 1962, Harte helped lead Harte-Hanks Newspapers from a small-market newspaper conglomerate co-founded in 1923 by his father, Houston Harte, to an international marketing services company based in San Antonio with 10,000 employees.
“He had a keen sense of concern about the employees of the company,” said Larry Franklin, former chairman of the board, president, and chief executive officer for Harte Hanks. Franklin joined the company in 1972 and became CEO of the rebranded Harte-Hanks Communications in 1991.
Even as the company grew, investing in new media companies and divesting others including the San Antonio Express-News in 1973 and KENS-TV in 1997, Harte maintained concern for the value and welfare of his employees, Franklin said. “Those were the people that were actually creating the products, doing the work, and so understanding the people … he cared about the people,” Franklin said. “It was a great place to work for many years, and for a wonderful man.”
One of those employees, Ann Stevens, who “cut her teeth” under Harte as a fledgling journalist after joining the company in 1973, said “Harte set a high bar of integrity and character for young journalists like myself to emulate. With his soft-spoken manner, keen intellect, and wry sense of humor, he was a delight to be around and learn from.” Stevens is now president of BioMed SA, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the health care industry.
Another former employee, Frances Menjivar, echoed what many say about Harte. As executive assistant to Franklin and Harte for 18 years, Menjivar appreciated her boss’s kindness, humility, and sense of humor, she said, but “he was a very quiet man.”
Eldest son Houston echoed Menjivar’s thoughts. “He was just a quiet leader. But when he entered a room, his presence was felt.”
His quietness could be intimidating. Once, during a stockholders meeting, Harte made a seemingly humorous comment about an employee’s work. “Everybody laughed and thought it was really funny,” said middle son David, “but it was a shot over the bow of this guy to straighten up or he was gone. And the guy knew he better shape up quick.”
Rather than standing pat with standard sayings, though, family said Harte issued “a new zinger every time.”
“I’m gonna miss being scared of him,” his granddaughter Caroline exclaimed during a family phone call Sunday evening, laughing along with other family members gathered for Harte’s memorial service.
An avid pilot, Harte flew Caroline to Connecticut when she entered Wesleyan University 20 years ago to study classics and art history. “We were past the weight capacity of that airplane,” she joked, referring to how much she brought with her for the move out of state.
Flying also figured in daughter Sarah Harte’s life with her father, but only temporarily. “I got in trouble as a teenager, and the only way I knew how to get out of it was [to tell him] ‘I want to take flying lessons,’” she laughed, saying she didn’t take to piloting like her father did. “Absolutely not. I was not safe for the skies,” she joked lightheartedly.
Son Houston recalled riding along at 8 years old in his father’s Piper Cub, as dad repeatedly practiced the “touch-and-go” technique practiced by pilots to learn takeoffs and landings at Stinson Field. Houston also recalled his father’s love for fishing, deer hunting, and bird hunting at the family’s West Texas ranch.
The elder Harte also kept his philanthropic interests private. Though he rarely spoke of his charitable efforts during his lifetime, “this week we’ve heard story after story after story of somebody losing a house or being in the hospital, but Houston was there waiting for them when they got home,” said Sarah.
But “he did not brag to his family of his deeds,” she said. “There’s so much we three children didn’t know about our dad. He was our father; he did not bring his business home.” And, regarding his philanthropy and desire for privacy, “you will not find his name on any building” through his own efforts, she said.
However, Sarah may have inherited some of her father’s qualities. “I snuck his name on a building in Alabama,” she said, “and didn’t even tell him.”
When she did finally tell her father recently that a new education center at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa had been named for him, she said he remained quiet on the subject. Harte had served on the board of the Presbyterian college for 23 years. “He was a major investor in education initiatives, and without anybody knowing. I don’t know how many students he has funded their college education,” she said.
Sarah pointed to his Presbyterian faith as a guide for not only his support of the college but in all his philanthropic and business efforts.
Born in San Angelo in 1927, Harte learned from the example of his mother and his small-town newspaperman father. “I remember he would say, ‘The most important thing in a newspaper are the obituaries, the divorce reports, the birth reports – that’s what people care about,’” Sarah said. “So he was into the weeds in his community. It meant a lot to him to understand who was related to who, how they fit into the picture, how they were doing, and did they need help.”
David added, “And if they did need help, he and his father would help, because if they didn’t, they’d move out [of town], and they lost customers,” emphasizing his father’s combination of altruism and pragmatism.
Franklin said he’d miss lunches with Harte, talking about the company and goings-on in the media industry, “and doing it all in 34 minutes.” It was common, he said, for the time-efficient Harte to end a meeting by asking, “No one wants dessert, do they?” he said, laughing, “and we all knew it was time to go home.”
Harte is survived by wife Carolyn; son Houston and daughter-in-law Anne; son David; daughter Sarah and son-in-law John Gutzler; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A memorial service for Harte, including the Stillman College Choir, will take place at 10:30 a.m. Monday at First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio. The public is welcome. The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, mourners make contributions to Mission Road Ministries.