Review by Forrest Preece
With The Bark Off: A Journalist’s Memories of LBJ and a Life in the News Media by Neal Spelce
published in the March 10, 2022 issue of West Austin News My life has intersected with Neal Spelce’s for over 50 years. On Aug. 1, 1966, I stood by him in the aftermath of the shooting at UT, listening as he was broadcasting. In the late 1970s, Neal and I had become friendly competitors in the advertising business. He was also a force in the Chamber of Commerce circles, had a lot to do with recruiting some of Austin’s major high tech companies, prepped speakers like Ann Richards and John McCain for the national spotlight, and arranged major events such as the opening of the LBJ Library and the funerals for both President Lyndon Johnson and Mrs. Johnson. Now, he has written a book about it all. With The Bark Off reveals the details about many of his life’s stories.
That title is apropos, because Neal keeps it down-to-earth and highly entertaining all the way through. On another level, for those of us who have been around town for a while, this book is a history of Austin, with behind-the-scenes tales galore.
By the way, for anyone who thinks that Neal must have been the product of an upper-class upbringing and that he had an Ivy League education, uh, no. As the book relates, most of his youth, he and his brother Bennett were raised by their mother Fannie Lou -- a nurse who largely had to fend for the three of them by herself. (She later became known for her paintings, which reside in many important collections.) They moved from a small town in Arkansas to Raymondville to Tulsa to Berkeley, back to Arkansas, and then to Corpus Christi, where Neal finished high school at 16. In 1952, he came to the University of Texas, where on his first night in Austin, he walked from the campus to the State Capitol, wandered through the rotunda to marvel at the interior, and then headed out from there to admire the lights of downtown Austin.
Time and again in this riveting book, Neal harkens back to this sense of wonder and his instant ability to grasp the moment. In one telling passage, he says, “I’ve always believed that the hallmark a of a good journalist is curiosity, and moving to many new places and being exposed to many new things made me a curious person.”
That grasp of the moment is evident throughout the book – and through Neal’s words, the reader becomes the fly on the wall. And if you think the bark isn’t really off, I suggest reading what Neal heard Vice President Johnson call Nehru to another world leader in May 1961. That trip to Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Greece was exciting for a 25-year-old. Neal even got to hear Edith Piaf sing in an Athens nightclub.
When he was the news anchor for KEYE-TV in 1998, Neal was thinking that there might be a historical father/son presidency in the offing. With some of that Spelce magic working for him, Neal managed to set up an interview with the two Bushes in a boat while they were fishing.
Neal’s journey through life has had many paths. The “ascendancy” of LBJ and the attention it brought to Austin. The assassination and the Johnson presidential years. The sniper rampage at UT that brought Neal’s reporting to national attention. The 1972 Civil Rights Symposium shortly before Johnson’s death, where he famously took a nitroglycerin tablet to quell the pains in his chest. Then there are Neal’s days in the advertising and public relations business. By the way, the negotiation that Neal worked with a furious Darrell Royal for a man named Marriott is jaw-dropping.
The adventures go on and on, with fascinating details scattered all along the way, up to current times, when Neal has had a broadcast journalism studio named for him in UT’s Moody College of Communication.
He says that he has tried to shine a little light on the oft-told tales about President Johnsen and other luminaries around town. After reading his book, I agree that many corners have been brightened -- and then some. I highly recommend it for old-timers and newcomers to Austin alike.
Neal Spelce’s autobiography is an entertaining read, especially for Austinites.
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With the Bark Off is available in hard cover, ebook and audiobook at amazon.com, and at all major booksellers.
Bulk orders or Signed Limited First Edition copies may be ordered through nealspelce.com
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About Forrest Preece
Forrest is a longtime Austinite who was witness to 1966 UT Tower Shooting. A renown columnist of the long-running newspaper, West Austin News Preece is a former advertising executive, an organizer for the UT Tower Memorial, as well as a board member and patron for numerous civic and community organizations.