A visit with Deke Houlgate

Written by Deke and Olga Houlgate,
edited by Richard Parks


Richard Parks

Olga Houlgate and I are a team and have been for more than half a century. She was born in Calexico, California, and grew up in Brawley, the daughter of John Katsigeanis and Mercedes Lopez Katsigeanis. She worked in her father's eating establishment, the Brawley Cafe, and many years later authored a humorous account of that experience. I was the son of a widely known football historian, Deke Houlgate and his petite wife Dottie Penry. I grew up working on their exhaustive records of college football. My dad was nationally famous by that name as a college football expert and historian. Until my father died in 1959 I was known as Deke Houlgate Jr. I was born August 8, 1930, in Los Angeles, an only child. I started a dog walking service at age 11 and at age 12 I earned my first newspaper byline in the Santa Ana Register where I also delivered papers, collected circulation bills and sold Extra editions on the invasions of Italy and France, barely into my teens. I never worked on cars. My father enlisted in the Air Corps and was assigned as a First Lieutenant graduating to the rank of Major before being honorably discharged. My dad was tapped to handle the personal PR for Sgt Gene Autry, who enlisted in the Air Corps after a deal was made to allow Autry to fulfill his radio contract with P. K. Wrigley. My dad took Autry on a tour of military bases and hospitals while he did his weekly radio show. Later my dad was assigned on temporary duty to the Pentagon and solved several PR problems while there. My father helped popularize the B-26 bomber, which was being shot down a lot in Europe. He revived interest in the WAC by glamorizing the women's uniform and getting rid of the Hobby hat. Later he handled the movie premiere for the propaganda-loaded film, "Winged Victory."
   When the war ended, the U. S. had spent five years without increasing its housing stock, and there was a severe shortage of living quarters, eventually relieved by the GI Bill. But it didn't happen overnight. I was enrolled at Canfield Avenue School in West Los Angeles until the outbreak of World War II and then followed my father's postings in the Army Air Corps as he was assigned as a public relations officer. He had a successful career as a public relations executive for the American Gas Association, where he coined the phrase, "Now you're cookin' with gas" and planted it with writers for the Bob Hope Comedy Show. I started my education at Virgil Junior High in Los Angeles and transferred to Marshall Junior High in Pasadena, when my parents were sent to the Las Vegas Army Gunnery School. When my dad was promoted to the public relations post at the Western Flying Training Command in Santa Ana, I rejoined my parents and enrolled at Willard Junior High there. Upon graduation, I moved up to Santa Ana High School but soon was uprooted due to the volatile housing situation in Southern California. The war had ended, and the Houlgates moved back to Los Angeles. I enrolled at Fairfax High School and soon afterward transferred to Montebello High. After two years I moved back to Los Angeles and enrolled at Manual Arts, where I became sports editor of the only daily high school newspaper west of Chicago, the Manual Arts Daily.
   That led to a journalism scholarship at the University of Southern California, where I attended the next two years. Entering the University of Southern California in 1948, I left school in 1950 to go into the army via the 40th Division National Guard, which was activated at Camp Cooke, California, at the military installation now known as Vandenberg AFB. While in the army I was a clerk typist, first in the G2 (intelligence) office of the 40th Division. Then I was transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy Training Center at Newport, Rhode Island. While there the center was moved to Bainbridge, Maryland, and I was transferred to Fort Meade, Maryland, after flunking the eye test for Annapolis. My first assignment at Fort Meade was with the base commander, where I did little work. The commander transferred me to the adjutant general's office, where I took notes during courtsmartial. The 5th Army PIO office sent me on temporary duty to Philadelphia, where the 25th Division National Guard was activated. For several weeks I worked out of Schuylkill Arsenal organizing a civic parade to the ship taking the 25th to Europe. All this time I was still a corporal, never getting or asking for a promotion. After Philadelphia, the officer in charge of my fate at Fort Meade decided to assign me to PIO, where I worked for the base newspaper. The biggest story I worked on was the collapse of spectator grandstands at the Sonya Henie Ice Show in Baltimore, where many servicemen and their families were hospitalized. Eventually I was declared nonessential and sent home with an honorable discharge.
   Once at home and unable to start school again till fall, I applied for a job as a copy boy at the Los Angeles Times. After a couple of weeks I was sent to the sports department, where I worked on the copy desk till graduation from the University of Southern California. My boss in sports was sports editor Paul Zimmerman, who had assigned me to cover the Dixie Classic basketball tournament while I was still at Fort Meade. I knew all the sportswriters at every Los Angeles newspaper because of my father's associations with them. I resumed my journalism scholarship at USC but with the additional aid of the Korean GI Bill and continued my education until graduation in June, 1954. On graduation I learned that I wouldn't be given a sportswriting job at the L. A. Times and began to look elsewhere for a newspaper position. I was given a trial at the Las Vegas Sun, and I earned my first reporter's job there in late June, 1954. Our publisher, Hank Greenspun, was a fabulous character, always on the verge of trouble and quite popular with ordinary people in Las Vegas. Hank wrote a page 1 column titled, "Where I Stand," in which he invariably took strong stands against public figures, particularly Senator Joe McCarthy. McCarthy was frequently referred to like this -- "Is Senator McCarthy really a secret Communist?" I also worked for United Press International, Associated Press, Time Magazine, the Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle as a correspondent on the side. As a general assignment reporter for one of the most controversial newspapers in America, I got a thorough training at the Sun. We imported Olga to Las Vegas in December 1954, and we were married in January, 1955. Meanwhile, she worked at several jobs on the Sun, including women's editor, reporter covering the county commissioners, feature writer, rewrite and director of the Mrs. America Pageant. 
   In June of 1956 I was rehired by the L. A. Times but as a general assignment reporter. Olga came back to Los Angeles with me and took a job as editor of the Jonathan Club magazine with PR responsibilities. In 1959 I was lifted from the Times city room and placed in a management training program. After one year there, I was appointed assistant director of special events by the Times Mirror Company and served in that job for three years. After leaving the Los Angeles Times in 1963, Olga and I opened a PR office as Deke Houlgate-Public Relations. Soon we were hired by Carroll Shelby, and when we declined to work for Ford Motor Company, he cut us loose in 1965 and replaced us with Max Muhleman, who would work for Ford. Max tired of that assignment shortly and was transferred by Shelby to work for Dan Gurney at All American Racers. In that job he hired us to do PR for a smaller Gurney company. We grew as a PR company and branched out into other forms of motor sports. One major account was Riverside International Raceway, where we assisted Bob Russo, the PR director until he left the raceway. We worked with Bill Dredge during his spirited campaign on behalf of Andy Granatelli's turbine car at Indianapolis and continued working for Riverside Raceway as it brought Indy cars to Riverside for the Rex Mays 300. By 1968 we became involved with off-road racing, first with the Mint 400 and later with Mickey Thompson. 
   Shelby was the first of many racing celebrities Olga and I represented over the next 50 years, including Les Richter, Rick Mears, Roger Penske, Jim Hall, Sal Fish, Eddie Hill, Jerry Titus, Frank Arciero, Johnny Rutherford, the Unser family, Mario and Michael Andretti, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Leroy Yarborough, David Pearson, Ivan Stewart, Rod Hall and Walker Evans. As the lines became blurred between PR and news coverage, I was hired in 1968 to be the motor sports reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner by sports editor Bud Furillo. If there was some form of motor sports with which I was not familiar, I became acquainted with it as a reporter again. During the PR years we were involved in Indy car racing, stock cars, drag racing, motorcycle racing. Land Speed Racing, off-road racing and every other form of motor sport. Olga stayed in other journalism employment, eventually retiring after 25 years as a tennis correspondent for the Associated Press news service. Our first son, Carroll Deke Houlgate III, was born in late 1955. He died unfortunately at the age of 41 in 2007. Our second son, John Anthony, was born in 1958. Our third son, David Frank, was born in 1961. Our fourth son, Gregory Everard, was born in 1967. Currently, since retirement, I have been engaged by a company which plans to produce a movie on the life and times of early football coach John W. Heisman, the man for whom the trophy is named. 

Gone Racin' is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM

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