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Statesman at 150: Who was D.E. Kissman, and how did she land so many letters in the Austin newspaper?

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Phyllis Fletcher poses Oct. 21 with a collection of newspaper tear sheets containing writings by her late mother, Dorothy Turner Kissman,  known as "D.E. Kissman," at Dorothy's home in North Austin. The leather bag holds the collection from decades of writings by Kissman to the Austin American-Statesman.

She chose the pen name D.E. Kissman.

And she wrote every day.

Sometimes she contributed poetry or commentary to her hometown newspaper, the Quanah Tribune-Chief.

At other times, she landed polite yet at times outspoken letters to the editor in the American-Statesman in her adopted hometown, Austin.

In fact, between 1996 and 2019, as many as 100 of her dispatches appeared in the pages of this newspaper, which might be a record.

Dorothy "Dottie" Ellen Turner Kissman died on May 19, 2020, at age 88.

"She was a very sweet person and everybody loved her," says her daughter, Phyllis Ellen Kissman Fletcher, who has assembled her mother's writings into a privately published volume entitled "Letters." "She had such a sense of humor. She always looked great, so glamorous.

"Yes, she was strong on her politics, but not fussy. She loved FDR, Social Security and unions. She came from a union family. Before cell phones and emails, she would sit down and type a letter on her typewriter, send it to the Statesman, then wait to hear back."

Kissman was surely one of the American-Statesman's most dedicated readers. As this newspaper continues to mark its 150th anniversary — it was first published as the Democratic Statesman on July 26, 1871 — it makes sense to celebrate the kind of engaged reader without whom local journalism would not exist.

"Some people say I have a way with words," Kissman wrote on March 25, 2019, "which helps me have confidence in my writings. Those letters were my opinion and how I felt. I was pleased when each one of my letters was published. Thank you, American-Statesman, for decades of printing my letters."

Dorothy "Dottie" Ellen Turner Kissman married William “Bill” Herman Kissman on June 30, 1949. She was a prolific writer, contributing letters to the American-Statesman and poetry and commentary to the newspaper in her hometown of Quanah, Texas.

A lively mind and spirit

I know about Kissman's writings because Fletcher has preserved her mother's legacy. She kept versions of her mother's cookbook, which includes histories alongside recipes, and her published poetry. She also put together a selection of her newspaper letters in a volume of facsimiles. 

Fletcher could do so because Dottie kept her public correspondence, including notes from U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and other dignitaries, like trophies inside a weathered brown leather satchel.

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The bound volume includes the full editorial pages from the dates of publication, but also enlarged versions of Kissman's short notes.

Time and again, her letters to the editor grew out of her personal experiences with history. This one ran Aug. 7, 2010:

"Where has our country gone wrong with feelings only for ourselves and no regard or sympathy for others less fortunate? Where is the feeling of compassion that was visible after the Depression era of the 1930s, when we shared and helped each other?

"Apparently (another letter writer) was unaware of the security of health care until she had to pay for it herself. We see people on Austin street corners with signs of despair. Emergency rooms are filled with lines — mostly those without health care coverage. Some cannot afford medications and food. Jobs are needed by lots of unemployed workers.

"Have we become a nation so desensitized that we close our eyes to the needs of others? Something is lacking, and we need to work on it and fix it."

Dorothy Turner Kissman holds a photograph of her brother, John Turner, who died when he was 18 years old.  The photograph shows John Turner in his junior high school football uniform.

A Texas life of joys and tragedy

Dottie was born on June 30, 1931, in the North Texas town of Quanah, to Pauline and John Turner. Her father was a union ironworker whose sons became union ironworkers and daughters married union ironworkers. 

On Sept. 23, 2007, she contributed a long memory to our former "Tales of the City" series about roaming around Austin in her youth:

"My family moved from Quanah to Austin in 1936. Dad was an ironworker and came here to work on the Marshall Ford Dam; later, he worked on various construction projects around town. I was a preschooler and fell in love with everything about the city,  from the famous streetcars that were soon abandoned to the palm trees surrounding Palm School on East Avenue (now Interstate 35), where my brother John had started school."

Kissman writes that she explored the city with her best friend and brother, John Turner Jr., but he died in a construction accident in February 1948, when he was 18. She wrote about it touchingly:

"As I got out of the car, I saw Dad walking to meet me. He was crying, and I knew John had died. We hugged and cried and then went in to see Mother. She was crying, too, and we tried to comfort her.

"In her grief, she said she was glad at least (that) John had eaten a good lunch. Of all the things to say ... I've often thought about that. Was it a mother's instinct to ask if he had eaten? But it wasn't that long after the Depression, and it was a logical thing to think about."

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Kissman graduated from Austin High School the next year, in 1949, and then married William "Bill" Herman Kissman Sr. on June 30, 1949, at St. Paul Lutheran Church.

Two children, W.H. "Sonny" Kissman Jr. and Phyllis Ellen Kissman Fletcher, were born over the next several years.

The elder Kissmans shared 69 years of marriage until Bill's death in 2018. His wife had worked for the Texas Department of Public Safety for several years after their wedding, but left DPS to focus on raising her children.

"All my friends fell in love with her," Fletcher says. "She was a great cook and wrote a cookbook with histories in it. She stayed busy all the time and she loved to travel. She'd go to casinos and head straight for the slot machines."

One day, Fletcher took her mother shopping at Best Buy.

"I told her 'This is what a computer is, and this is a mouse,' and so forth," Fletcher remembers. "As soon as we got out to the car she said, 'I want one!' That's when she started writing by email."

Kissman wrote a lot about politics. Yet she was particularly good at finding joy in everyday life. This ran Dec. 25, 2011:

"Years ago, shortly after Christmas, I couldn't find my wedding and engagement rings. Each had a diamond in the middle with ruby hearts on each side. Later, I gave my husband hints that I needed a new set of rings, but he kept saying I needed to find mine. I had never given up looking but now was doubtful.

"Finally, the holidays were looming again and I decided one weekend it was time to buy our Christmas tree and get it decorated. I dug out the decorations, and as I was pulling out the lights, to my surprise, there were my beautiful rings intact and hanging on one of the hooks of the lights. I probably had taken them off and laid the lights on top of them as I dismantled the tree."

Readers of the American-Statesman wondered who was this "D.E. Kissman," whose letters to the editor often appeared in the newspaper. Dorothy Turner "Dottie" Kissman liked it that way.

'I am a Democrat'

Kissman's second published letter to the editor, published Sept. 1, 1997, established her political point of view quite clearly.

"In response to (another reader's) letter stating discontent with labor unions and their officials, calling them dunderheads and needing a quick lesson in economics. I think she needs to brush up on life in these United States for the working class.

"Labor unions and strikes have helped make our country a better place in which to live and work. Had it not been for organized labor, workers would still be working for peanuts.

"Most union workers give a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. Can anyone blame them for wanting benefits like retirement?

"She states that lily-livered malcontents make up the labor unions, and shoot themselves in the foot. (She) should be glad that they try to better the working conditions.

"If it takes a strike, so what? I just hope we never have to revert to deplorable working conditions like those before we had unions to stand up for and help the working people."

Kissman was not shy about her loyalty to the Democratic Party and led one letter with the statement: "I am a Democrat."

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Part of that was generational. She had lived through the Great Depression and the New Deal; World War II and the Cold War; the modern civil rights movement and the rise of the middle class — the success of which she partly attributed to the labor movement.

Kissman strongly supported women in positions of power and she scolded Republicans in Congress for its long prosecution of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over emails and the Benghazi affair. Secretary Clinton reciprocated by sending Kissman grateful notes.

"People thought she was a guy," Fletcher says of her mother. "She'd get nasty letters, but she didn't cuss them out. She'd write back: 'Isn't it great to live in a country where we can have our say? Have a great day.'"

Phyllis Fletcher digs through a collection of newspaper tear sheets containing writings by her late mother, Dorothy "Dottie" Ellen Turner Kissman, known as "D.E. Kisssman."

One of her favorite jumping-off points was the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Ben Sargent. Once launched, Kissman did not mince words:

"Ben Sargent still has his magical pen, as shown in this cartoon, basically saying that Americans do not have decent role models in keeping us out of debt — and he is right.

"The Bush administration has managed to get America so far in debt it will take other generations to pay the debt in full, if ever. What a shame that we have a president with no talent for working with anyone other than a chosen few, who have proven to be inadequate, and who lack of sense of direction when it comes to leadership."

Phyllis Fletcher holds a poetry book containing writings by her late mother Dorothy Turner Kissman.

Why so many published?

Editorial page editors avoid publishing letters from the same correspondents repeatedly. When Kissman was writing, Arnold García, who helmed the opinion page for 22 years, clearly liked her words. 

García died Aug. 12, 2021, so I couldn't ask him why.

Juan Castillo, the current editorial page editor, laid out his criteria for accepting a letter for publication. "A few factors: A cogent argument, not just a rant or hot take-opinion, can go a long way," Castillo says. "The best letters advance the conversation and don't just repeat what others have said. Even better is when a letter writer proposes a reasonable or well thought-out solution to whatever it is they're writing about." 

That fits Kissman's profile.

"A well-written or creative or clever take is a plus, but it's not necessary," Castillo adds. "Some of the best letters we get are pithy yet expressive. In their emotion or through the use of fact-based analysis, they force you to consider something you might not have thought about. And that's what the mission of the Opinion section is all about — to present a diversity of opinion.

D.E. Kissman's last letter to the editor ran Sept. 2, 2019. It reminded readers of the value of Labor Day. It does not appear in the privately published book, "Letters," put together by her daughter, Phyllis Fletcher.

"Some things we don't want — and there are many — include: snark, personal attacks, name-calling, letters that try too hard to make a snarky joke. I could go on, but I digress."

Actually, Castillo has hit on one of Kissman's chief assets: Although her opinions were strong, they were never mean, personal or snarky. More often they were reflective, such as this one about Austin High and friends that ran Nov. 27, 2014:

"I spent time with friends at Treaty Oak, planning what we would do after graduation. Our dreams didn't all come true, but we were 'Loyal Forever to the Maroon and White.'

"Senior Day found most of us at Barton Springs where we ate catered chicken dinners and spent the afternoon swimming. We thought it would be strange not going to classes every day at Austin High with friends who were going in different directions — some off to college and others looking for work.

"Our lives before graduation found some of us climbing Mount Bonnell to look out over the city, a ritual we enjoyed. Oh, there were celebrations where we spent our mornings watching the local parades and nights sometimes at Zilker Park enjoying the plays and sing-alongs. Seems we always had something to do.

"We went to Maroon and Longhorn football and basketball games and cheered them on. Later, there were marriages, jobs, babies, and our lives got settled in. Life happens, and we make it so. 

"I'm thankful for living in Austin and enjoying the beautiful Capitol and other landmarks. Life is good! We give thanks!"

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.