Newsroom

Excerpt:
The following is from the April 10, 2008, edition of The New York Times. SMU alumnus Bob Phillips, the Texas Country Reporter, is the focus of this story.


If it’s in Texas, Texas Country Reporter has seen it

By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
The New York Times

WHARTON, Tex. — The Tee Pee Motel here with its 10 adobe wigwams was up and running again after being closed for 23 years, and Bob Phillips, the Texas Country Reporter, was on it, barreling in with his television crew in his Ford Explorer daubed in the billowing red, white and blue of the Texas flag.

There were pressing questions. Who would buy a rundown 1942 motor court for $60,000 and put $1.6 million into renovating it? And did Geronimo’s great-grandson really show up recently in this old Jewish settlement town, birthplace of Dan Rather and Horton Foote, to stay there?

Not much escapes Mr. Phillips, 56, a Lone Star Charles Kuralt, who has logged more than 35 years on the state’s back roads and may be the most-traveled man in Texas, starting off as a gofer for a Dallas television station while he was a college freshman.

There are, by one gazetteer’s count, 8,438 populated places in Texas — many more than in California or New York — and the burly and affable Mr. Phillips knows them like few others. "We cannot find a town that we have not been in," he said. "We have not produced a story in every one, but we have traveled through every one and been on every paved road in the state of Texas."

Mr. Phillips’s half-hour programs already total more than 2,000 — about four times as many as his idol, Mr. Kuralt, produced for his CBS News segment "On the Road" from 1967 to 1980. They are broadcast weekly on 25 stations in Texas and afterward are beamed eight times a week on the rural satellite and cable network RFD-TV. The network, which started in 2000 and began carrying the revived "Imus in the Morning" show last December, reaches some 30 million households nationally.

The programs, usually composed of three stories each, include seven minutes of commercial time, which the Texas stations and Mr. Phillips split for sale to sponsors — in his case, companies like a farmers credit cooperative, a metal roofer and a sausage-maker.

The Texas Country Reporter plans to go fully national in January with a second show called "On the Road with Bob Phillips." Shooting starts next month. One of his first stories? "The person whose sole job is to fill the cracks in Mount Rushmore."

It will not be an entirely new challenge. For the show’s 25th anniversary in 1998, Mr. Phillips filmed a series called "The Texas Country Reporter Discovers America" — 60 stories in 35 states. (A more respectful treatment, to be sure, than in the popular paperback, "Everything Texans Need to Know About the Other 49 States," whose pages, are, of course, blank.)

He has long been an institution in Texas, where he spent a dozen years as the spokesman for Dairy Queen and now shuttles between his television studio in Dallas and Beaumont, where he lives with his second wife, a television anchor.

Meanwhile, Texas Country Reporter has become a popular brand, with guidebooks, cookbooks, T-shirts and an annual October festival in Waxahachie, near Dallas, where more than 50,000 fans come to meet subjects from the shows. Mr. Phillips also has a tour company, Texas Country Tours, and a resort, Escondida, in Medina in the hill country.

"For many of us who grew up here, Bob tells us about the Texas we remember and that is probably vanishing," said Tony Pederson, professor and Belo Distinguished Chair in Journalism at Southern Methodist University, Mr. Phillips’s alma mater. "His is a stop-and-smell-the-roses style of reporting that is so deceptively simple and yet so effective in terms of the quality of storytelling he produces. There’s a pretty good journalism lesson in that."

Among his in-state stories is that of Rob Sellers, "the Bat Man from Robinson," near Waco. Pharmacy manager at Wal-Mart by day, Mr. Sellers spends his off-hours in his wood shop turning out custom baseball bats, "making every day a home run," in Mr. Phillips’s words.

He has also profiled the City Café in Sterling City in West Texas, where only a 10-year-old boy and a 90-year-old woman are said to have ever been able to eat more than one of its pancakes the size of auto hubcaps. And little St. Mary’s Church in Allen, north of Dallas, whose entire congregation consists of George and Hazel Anderson, who met there half a century ago when it was a larger church.

He gets his ideas from viewer e-mail messages — at least 100 a day — and, Mr. Phillips said, "from driving around." Sometimes he trips over himself. In December he was interviewing a saddle-maker, Wendy Allen, in Dublin, Tex., before realizing it all sounded familiar; he had done her story 20 years before.

He finds material everywhere. Last month, he won the YouTube award for most inspirational video for his report on John Bramblitt, a blind student and acclaimed artist at the University of North Texas who feels his way around his canvases and touches the textures of his paints to distinguish colors. His shows have also won several Emmy awards.

The Tee Pee story that drew Mr. Phillips to Wharton southwest of Houston in March grew out of a drive-by years ago and a viewer’s tip that the place, shuttered in 1985, had reopened. And, he said, an intriguing rumor about the new owner.

So with his producer, Ryan Britt, scoping out the shots and his cameraman, Dan Stricklin, lining them up, the Texas Country Reporter faced the owner, Bryon Woods, and began teasing out the tale.

How did Mr. Woods, a 43-year-old diesel technician from nearby Eagle Lake, come to buy the property?

"My wife wanted it," Mr. Woods said.

Mr. Phillips tried again. "I heard of a honey-do list," he said, but "how does one go from diesel technician to real estate?"

Mr. Woods said, "I won the lottery."

And then Mr. Phillips heard the story he had come for, how Mr. Woods one day in 2003 had gone into J & K’s Corner, the little Eagle Lake grocery where his wife, Barbara, worked as cashier, and asked for five Quick Picks tickets. She tried to talk him out of it, complaining he had thrown away enough money. But he insisted. One of the tickets won $47 million.

With the money, they bought a ranch, other real estate and the Tee Pee Motel. "I feel good giving something back to the state of Texas," Mr. Woods said.

The units, which rent for $52.50 a night, are decorated with Indian accessories. One of his guests, Mr. Woods said, pointed to a photo of Geronimo and said that was his great-grandfather.

"You’re sure?" asked Mr. Phillips.

Mr. Woods shrugged. "I think it was Geronimo," he said. "Some well-known Indian chief."

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