SAM ACHESON, Dallas Scholar

THE MIND of Sam Hanna Acheson was the best encyclopedia of the history of Dallas that the city has ever had. While Acheson was a newspaper nan for fifty years, he was also a biographer, historian, and dramatist. He performed all these roles with distinction; yet he was best known as “the” authority on Dallas.

Caricature Drawing of Sam Acheson

Caricature Drawing of Sam Acheson

Acheson was born in 1900 near Cadiz and Ervay streets, in a then fashionable district of Dallas known as The Cedars; in his last years he spent much of his time helping to locate Millermore and other historic Dallas houses in nearby City Park. He devoted a scholarly lifetime to the study of Dallas, and one associate marveled that “he knew every street in Dallas; he knew every alley, and he knew what had happened there.”

He was a small, thin man, with high forehead and long, hollow jaw. A dry, quick, gentle wit, which registered with a listener a few tenths of a second after it was heard, was reflected in eyes which were usually a glisten with good humor. More importantly, he was known to his associates as the complete gentleman—tactful, considerate, tolerant, never out of sorts with another person.

Acheson attended Crozier Tech when it was old Bryan High but spent his senior high school year at Austin College, where he took both academic and college freshman work. He went to the University of Texas in Austin as a freshman in 1917 and received a bachelor’s degree in English there in 1921.

After two years as a reporter with the Dallas Times Herald, he joined the Dallas News in 1925. In the next ten years he covered every news beat in the city; but he gravitated naturally toward specialized reporting, with emphasis on legislative sessions, railroad rate hearings, and ICC hearings on new railroad construction in the Southwest.

Meanwhile, Acheson had become interested in the career of Joseph Weldon Bailey, the Texan who had a tempestuous career in the United States Senate earlier in the century. His biography, Joe Bailey: The Last Democrat, was published in 1932. In 1935 he began the three year task of writing a history of the first hundred years of the Dallas News and its parent publications. Published in 1938 under the title 35,000 Days in Texas, it was more than the history of a newspaper; many reviewers called it one of the first socio-economic histories of the state, and it is still useful as a source book.

Acheson took his one flyer at the stage in 1941 with a play called We Are Besieged, a dramatization of the fall of the Alamo which Acheson turned into a pointed comment on the danger of appeasing dictators. Produced in the old Dallas Little Theater, the play was so popular that it was held over for an extra run.

A gentle man, Acheson seemed an unlikely candidate for military experience; but in 1918 he went to Camp Mabry near Austin, one of twenty University of Texas students picked by the Marine Corps that year to train as officer candidates. At the beginning of World War Il the attorney general appointed Acheson to the Enemy Alien Hearing Board for the Northern District of Texas. Then forty-three, Acheson quit this post to join the army as a captain. He served in Algiers, Italy, Southern France, and Germany, and was awarded the Bronze Star.

Following the war, Acheson returned to the Dallas News as an editorial writer. Although he retired in 1966, he continued to contribute to the editorial page articles on the history of the state, notably his weekly “Dallas Yesterday” series. The final column in this series was written the day before he died.
A fellow of the Texas Historical Association, Acheson served as secretary of the Dallas Historical Society from 1935 until the time of his death.

By Paul Crume, Dallas Morning News.  From the book, “Dallas Yesterday”