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Publishing and Jewish communities say good-bye to Houston legend Joseph W. Samuels

Jewish Herald-Voice publisher Joseph W. Samuels died Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011 at the age of 95.

Joe and Jeanne with their three children: Vicki, Marc and Maurene in the 1970s.

Joe and Jeanne with their three children: Vicki, Marc and Maurene in the 1970s.

A loving patriarch. A gentle giant of a man. An icon in the community. A character. Jan. 19, 2011. The end of his era, yes, but Joe Samuels’ legacy began long ago and will live long into the future, through Jeanne, his wife of 67 years, through his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, through the newspaper and his employees to whom he devoted the last 38 years, through the Houston community he nurtured, and in the State of Israel he supported.

It is very likely that Joe never knew how deeply connected he was to the thousands of lives he touched.

“He didn’t know,” said Jeanne, his devoted wife, lover, partner, friend and co-owner of the Jewish Herald-Voice. Yet, the outpouring of grief from those close to him, and from individuals living as far away as Israel and Italy, is immeasurable.

It is an impossible task to locate every person, everywhere, who Joe impacted with his humor, with his stories, with his ability to connect those in need with those who could help. It simply would be like trying to gather feathers scattered to the wind after having been shaken from a worn pillow.

Joseph W. Samuels was the oldest of three children, born in Dallas to Tillie Marion Wiener and Morris Joseph Samuels on Dec. 10, 1915. Their father owned and operated a printing business in Dallas until he became seriously ill with nephritis (a common ailment among printers). He died at the young age of 38, before he could realize his dream of starting a Jewish newspaper.

Because of the financial hardships brought on by the coming Great Depression, Joe’s mother had no choice but to follow the advice of their San Antonio Rabbi Ephraim Frisch. She brought her three children – Joe, 13, Grace, 9, and Alvin “A. Pat,” 6 – to New Orleans, where the children were accepted in the Jewish Children’s Home. A free-thinker, and the oldest child ever to be admitted to the Home, Joe immediately became “Peck’s Bad Boy.”

Tillie returned to Houston to care for her ailing mother.

Joe’s mother once wrote a letter to the Home, saying that she would send $3 every month, with a promise that her children “will remember those other dear children with a contribution for their education.”
True to his mother’s promise, Joe did, and he continued throughout his lifetime to support what eventually became the Jewish Children’s Regional Service. In fact, for many years, Joe and Jeanne’s phone number in the white pages included the initials, XHK – “ex-Home kids” – as the couple hosted many annual XHK reunions in their home. Joe’s first email address was joexhk.
Yet, despite Joe’s impressive academic record, the Home superintendent counseled his mother to “Get rid of him. That boy’s going to end up in prison.”
“If you were a good person at the Home,” Joe had said, “you had a chance to go to Tulane University.”

Beginning a life
At 18, Joe returned to Houston, taking a job at the post office because it paid more than most companies – 65 cents an hour. He also sold Remington typewriters and began producing a series of dramas on KTRH radio, titled “Oddities in the Mail.” After one year, Joe had saved $1,000 and purchased a lovely three bedroom home in Riverside Terrace, on Rosewood Street, for his mother and his sister, Grace.

Although having been refused full admittance to Rice Institute himself – because he had been out of school already for three years – Joe lobbied the university to accept his brother Alvin, who was admitted with an athletic scholarship.

As World War II loomed, Joe took night courses in engineering, science and management defense training at Rice. He also was pursuing his undergraduate degree at the University of Houston. He attempted to enlist in the U.S. Navy, but was turned down because of poor eyesight. After memorizing the eye chart, he was admitted into the U.S. Army Air Corps, which soon became the U.S. Air Force.
One evening, by a twist of fate, neither Jeanne nor Joe had their usual transportation to UH. They stood at the same corner of Texas and Fannin streets, waiting for the bus. Joe loved to tell friends and strangers, alike, how he saw Jeanne from behind and admired her legs. He asked if he could sit beside her on the bus, and 10 months later they were married.

Cadets were not supposed to be married, but Joe’s new bride followed him from Boca Raton, Fla., to Goldsboro, N.C., and New Haven, Conn., where her husband was commissioned at Yale University. They remained together until Joe was shipped overseas to the European Theater of Operations.

The new lieutenant’s communications specialty was instrument landing systems. During his tour of duty in French West Africa, in Dakar, Joe and his crew installed a navigational system that prevented crashes. He later established similar systems at other American bases in Europe, including Naples, Italy, and Bucharest, Romania. Joe loved to tell the story how in Bucharest he resorted to holding a machine gun at the foot of the city’s tallest building, keeping spectators away from possible danger, while his crew set up a system on the roof. As there were Soviet soldiers staying in the hotel, the local newspaper reported that an American lieutenant had held them at bay. After the war, Joe remained in the reserves at Ellington Air Force Base, earning more than 22 years of military service before his retirement as a lieutenant colonel.

Heralding a family
Back in Houston, Joe and his brother opened Sam-Sounds, a record shop that also included radios, and later TVs and appliances. The brothers took turns managing the business and completing their college degrees. Soon thereafter, Jeanne and Joe began the family they had postponed during the war years.

Joe and Jeanne with their three children: Vicki, Marc and Maurene in the 1970s.
Their son, Marc, was born in 1948, closely followed by daughters, Maurene and Vicki.

During that time – in the early 1950s – W.W. Kemmerer, then president of UH and John Schwarzwalder, who headed the school’s new radio station, asked Joe to consider running for Houston Independent School District’s board of regents, in support of establishing a public broadcast station at UH – what would become KUHF. The proposal was opposed by Oveta Culp Hobby, who had purchased Channel 2.
Integration also was on the horizon, and key members of the Jewish community felt it unwise for a Jew to be on the school board. Joe relented to the Jewish community’s demands to withdraw from the race. He thought that if he “were strong enough to help end segregation, it would be a good thing.” When he knew Channel 8 was secure enough to become a reality, he made a televised withdrawal. The election drew 40,000 voters, and Joe garnered 15,000 of those votes, but he was left feeling bitter. Although he remained a Jew, he felt he did not care to be involved with the Jewish community ever again.
But, that is not what was really in his heart and soul. Joe helped found the B’nai B’rith Downtown Lodge and published its newsletter, “The Downtown Dude.” The family also were members of Temple Beth Israel, and moved to Temple Emanu El in the 1950s.

Soon after, when most of their record store customers had moved from the Riverside area to Southwest Houston, the couple closed the store. The two opened an insurance agency, where they worked side by side, and later, together in a real estate office.

In 1971, Dave White, the second owner of the Jewish Herald-Voice, died, and for one year, his widow, Ida, kept the paper going. (By coincidence, the paper’s founder, Edgar Goldberg, also was raised in the Jewish Children’s Home.) Joe learned from a neighbor that the D.H. White printing company had been sold and Joe wondered out loud if the Jewish Herald-Voice might be for sale.
He immediately called Murray White, Dave’s brother. “This is goofy,” Murray had laughed, “I called you last night to see if you’d be interested in buying the paper, but you weren’t home.”

Jeanne and Joe at the Jewish Herald-Voice in the 1970s.
Joe and Jeanne purchased the paper on April 1, 1973, and Joe told Jeanne that “our lives would never be the same.” He wanted the paper to represent all of the Jewish community and its organizations. What Joe may never have known is that the Houston community transformed over time as he brought disparate factions together, helped to mend fences, corrected injustices and brought help to those in need, both behind the scenes and through the printed word. Through the newspaper, Joe and Jeanne sustained Jewish life in Houston and many times saved lives with their pleas for blood and organ donations, or funds to help the destitute, followed by an overwhelming response from the generous local community.

Joe and Jeanne always have done everything in their power to serve the needs of the community, a calling generated from their own ideologies and values, championing the underdog and fighting injustices. Passionate Zionists, through the paper the two have been friends to all synagogues and Jewish organizations, day schools and camps, and particularly supportive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, Jewish Family Service, Seven Acres and Holocaust Museum Houston, among the many others.

Ambassador of Israel Moshe Fox presented the “Defenders of Jerusalem Award” from Israel Bonds to Joe and Jeanne Samuels in June 2002.

In the greater world, Joe and Jeanne traveled around the globe, reporting on Jews in need, subsequently garnering support from the community to save Jews in the Middle East, the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Having gone to Israel more than a dozen times, their reporting has moved the Jewish community to contribute financial resources to those in need in Israel, especially during times of crisis.

Ned Goldberg, executive director of Jewish Children’s Regional Service, the reincarnation of the Children’s Home, may have stated it best by email on Jan. 21:

“How ironic: a man who spent a part of his childhood in an institution could then, himself, become an institution, with his ideas, hard work, and love for his family and friends. To the very end, Joe’s life revolved around all that he witnessed, experienced, shared, and loved, as well as all that he believed in. What better person (or family) could have published a newspaper?
“Joe liked to remind me of one or two teachers in his very early years who did not believe in his abilities, and how their questions about his future led him to prove them wrong. It was not long after that he met Jeanne, who not only enabled and inspired him to achieve in the business world, but together, they created, first a family, and then a family-led newspaper, that has made Houston proud. There will be no one who can summarize a full life of 95 years in just a few words, but all of us have memories of Joe, and what he accomplished, for the rest of our own lives.”

His legacy
A man rich with friends and stories and surrounded by a loving and nurturing family until he died, this husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend to all will be missed.

Jeanne and Joe on top at Joe’s 90th birthday party with Lawrence S Levy, Matt Samuels, Marc Samuels, Vicki Samuels Levy, Kristy Samuels, Cameron Samuels, Maylee Samuels, Ben Samuels, Amy Duke, Jesse DeMartino, Wendy Waterman, Maurene Bencal, Michael Bencal, Naomi Duke, Caroline Samuels, Daniel Waterman, Michael Duke, Alyssa Campbell, Joseph Duke, David Duke, Lan Duke and Isabel Duke.

Joe leaves behind an extraordinary legacy: his Jeanne, his beloved wife of 67 years; his son Marc Samuels (Maylee) of Baton Rouge, La.; daughters, Maurene Bencal (Michael), Hallettsville, Tex., and Vicki Samuels Levy (Lawrence), Houston. Grandchildren: Wendy Waterman, Amy Duke (Jesse DeMartino), Michael Duke (Naomi), Matthew Samuels (Kristy), Daniel Waterman, David Duke (Lan), Benjamin Samuels, Caroline Samuels; Sam Levy, Rebekah Levy, and Kimberly Bencal. Great-grandchildren: Alyssa Campbell, Isabel Duke, Cameron Samuels, Joseph Duke, Dylan Samuels. Brother, A. Pat Samuels, numerous nieces and nephews, extended family, his Jewish Herald-Voice family and friends locally and around the world.

He also was preceded in death by his sister, Grace Wagner.

The family thanks the compassionate staff of Houston Hospice, who helped care for Joe at home during his final few days.
A memorial service was held Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011, at 2 p.m. at Emanu El Memorial Park Kagan-Rudy Chapel, followed by private burial. Donations may be made to Jewish Children’s Regional Service, PO Box 7368, Metairie, LA 70010 or charity of choice.
– Levy Funeral Directors

Much of the history of Joe’s life was extracted from “Joseph W. Samuels: Visionary – Communicator,” by Alice Adams, which was published in the Jewish Herald-Voice 100th Anniversary – Passover Edition, April 20, 2008.

Samuels family
The family of Joseph W. Samuels is greatly moved by the outpouring of love for him.
Following the memorial service for Joe on Sunday, Jan. 23, there was a private burial.
The family welcomes friends to the Samuels home, Sunday-Thursday, Jan. 30-Feb. 3, from 7-9 p.m.

Copyright 2011 Jewish Herald-Voice, reprinted with permission

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