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Marshall, Texas Is Deep in the Heart of TV Newsman Bill Moyers—and Vice Versa

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The early morning mist is rising from the green hills of East Texas as Bill Moyers and his longtime friend Albert Agnor ride across Agnor’s 100-acre farm. Moyers leans into his horse to corral a stray cow that has escaped through the fence. “Cattle will make you humble,” Agnor says. “They don’t care if you’re an insurance salesman or a TV newsman. They just want you to feed them—and don’t mess with them.”

The lesson is not lost on Agnor’s companion. From his award-winning Bill Moyers’ Journal for public television to his current CBS summer series, Our Times, Bill Moyers has been honored as perhaps the most insightful broadcast journalist of our day, an astute interviewer to whom philosophers, novelists and inarticulate workers have revealed their deepest dreams. But this is one place where Moyers, 49, will always be known simply as the son of Ruby and Henry Moyers. Bill and his wife, Judith, have traveled from New York City to Marshall, Texas, the town (pop. 25,000) in the Piney Woods section of the state where Moyers grew up. The occasion: Ruby and Henry’s 57th wedding anniversary.

Though Moyers will host a barbecue celebration for his parents on Saturday night and has agreed to speak at a fund raiser for the local library on Friday night, he plans to spend most of his time visiting privately with his family and a few old friends. This homecoming is no media event with brass bands and public testimonials for the local boy made good. Moyers is not coming home for the first time in a decade—this is his fourth visit this year.

“Every time I do a documentary, I think about the people of Marshall,” Moyers says. “On the Road and Our Times are important because Charles Kuralt and I do not assume that people need to be foolish to be interesting. Real people—as opposed to Real People—have important stories to tell.”

After a Friday lunch of “brown pig” sandwiches (shredded pork in a pungent sauce) served on the round Formica tabletops at Neely’s restaurant, Moyers drives to the two-bedroom home in which his parents have lived for 23 years. Gardenia bushes grace the side of the white-frame dwelling. Inside, family snapshots hang alongside photos of Moyers and President Lyndon Johnson, whom Moyers served as press secretary. And on the dining-room wall there’s a poster for Bill Moyers’ Journal. “Bill usually makes me take these pictures down when he’s home,” confides Ruby.

Henry Moyers, 79, a retired soft-drink distributor, recalls that Bill got an early start in journalism as a cub reporter for the Marshall News Messenger when he was only a 15-year-old sophomore. But then globe-trotting TV journalism did not appear to be Moyers’ destination. “When Bill was a boy I used to make a tent for him and his friend Don Rives so that they could camp out in the backyard,” says Henry. “Bill would always come inside to sleep.”

While his parents prepare dinner, Moyers pays a visit to the Harrison County Historical Museum, of which Mrs. Inez Hatley Hughes, his junior high school English teacher, is the director. Inez Hughes, 80, leads a tour of the exhibits in the old courthouse, ranging from Civil War memorabilia to photo displays of Marshall’s favorite sons (Moyers, football great Y.A. Tittle) and daughter (Lady Bird Johnson). “Bill was always on the job,” says Inez. Moyers notes, “To this day, thanks to Mrs. Hughes’ grammar classes, I see sentences diagramed in my head.”

Next stop: the Allen House, an 1877 home which local historian Max Lale’s late wife, Georgiana, helped restore. On a plaque in the memorial garden is Moyers’ eulogy to Mrs. Lale, praising her as one of the “anonymous folk” who build communities. He delivered the tribute on the CBS Evening News July 20, 1982.

Moyers’ high school mentors—Selma Brotze, 82, her sister, Emma Mae Brotze, 80, and Inez Hughes—are in the audience when their former pupil gives his speech to the Friends of the Marshall Public Library on the importance of books. “Television is a wondrous medium, but it is a package for passive reception,” Moyers tells 120 listeners. “A book awakens ideas in the mind. When I was in the 10th grade, based on the books I had read, I wrote a poem called I’ve Seen Rome, even though I’d hardly been to Waskom 19 miles away.”

Being teacher’s pet does not save Moyers from one more lesson. After the speech, Mrs. Hughes leads Moyers over to the dictionary to point out how he had mispronounced “cognizant.”

On Saturday, after his horseback ride with Agnor, Moyers drops by the Marshall News Messenger with his son Cope, 24, who has joined the family from Dallas, where he is a reporter on the Dallas Times Herald. “When I was courting my wife, my ambition was to be publisher of the Messenger,” confesses Moyers, who left Marshall to go to North Texas State University in 1952. “I still dream of publishing a small-town weekly when I retire.”

On Saturday night some 115 guests gather for the Moyers’ anniversary celebration at the Agnors’ old-Texas-style home. Paper plates are heaped with barbecued ribs and fiery chili prepared by Agnor, a 1976 winner of the famed Terlingua, Texas chili cook-off. Don Rives, now a utility-company lobbyist, presents Moyers with a cap that reads “Bill Who???” Moyers toasts his parents: “With Cope and Kathleen celebrating seven months of marriage, as well as 28 years for Judith and me, and 57 years for my parents, the institution of marriage is alive in the Moyers family.”

“Politics or journalism, I knew my life would be hectic with Bill,” says Judith, 48, an educator recently appointed vice chairman of the board of trustees of the State University of New York. Judith and Bill have three children: Cope, John, 19, a sophomore at Middlebury College, and Suzanne, 21, a senior at Wake Forest University.

On Sunday the family treks 15 miles for fried catfish and hush puppies at Big Pine Lodge, overlooking the muddy waters of Caddo Lake. Judith’s eyes glisten when she says goodbye to Cope at the restaurant; the rest of the family returns to the Moyers’ home for private goodbyes.

Earlier, when Bill had stopped at the cemetery where his brother, James, who died of cancer in 1966, is buried, he had reflected: “In New York, a man can fall from a burning building, and the death leaves passersby unmoved. In Marshall, there is a continuity of relationships that brings people closer to the passions of life, from birth to death. This place is in my blood, and my blood is in this place.”