Driving and Biking in the Big City

Denise Bray Hensley

with 8 comments


ProfileThe story of my life and career are inescapably intertwined. The only job besides being a writer that I ever aspired to was president of the United States, a desire that faded shortly after I repeated it as a first-grader on a local television show.

My first writing job I created for myself. My junior high didn’t have a newspaper, so I got some friends together and started one. By the time I was editor of my high school newspaper, I was working at my hometown bi-weekly. While at my local university, I started writing obits at the daily Beaumont Enterprise-Journal where I got the best part of my education from a hard-driving city editor who could have been the role model for the editor in the classic newspaper movie, “Front Page.”

Soon, I was covering nighttime police in one of the toughest areas of the Texas Gulf Coast. I saw murder, watched an old-fashioned bordello be shut down and interviewed my first condemned murderer – all before I finished college.

I am still haunted by a visit to the local police station at the time a murder was taking place only blocks away. While I was standing in the lobby beside the police dispatcher, the murderer walked through the glass entryway – pistol at his side and a wild look in his eyes. I froze as we made eye contact for an interminable minute. Fortunately, he never raised the gun but walked passed me to the desk, laid down the weapon and confessed.

That first daily is also where I learned attention to detail as one of my most important lessons. Every day I was assigned to go through a pile of police reports at a time when records were open to the public, based on the department’s policy. At the bottom of a foot-thick stack, I found a condemnation notice with a familiar name on it. I wrote a quick, five-inch news story that was picked up by all the national newspapers and “Rolling Stone” magazine, and Janis Joplin’s childhood home was turned into a museum instead of being leveled.

My experiences won me jobs at the Dallas Morning News and Times-Herald where I rose to second in command of a 60-person newsroom. However, I enjoyed my time at the underdog Fort Worth Star-Telegram the most. While at the Star-Telegram, I interviewed presidents and would-be presidents, history-makers like Marina Oswald Porter, movie stars and has-beens. While at the Pulitzer-winning Star-Telegram, my varied stories and scoops led me to be nominated as reporter of the year.

I continued to freelance for newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle where I was a Sunday columnist before moving to Michigan where I freelanced for the Detroit Free Press, a local magazine and proceeded to write my first novel, “Poison of a Smile,” based on my experiences as a young police reporter, which is still unpublished. I also finished two children’s books there — also still in the bottom of my desk drawer — but performed in classrooms and to librarians all over Michigan.

As the newspaper business changed, I became a more of spin doctor, crisis communicator and corporate journalist.  I am most proud of a 150th anniversary campaign for Conoco where I wrote a history of the oil company combined with the history of the oil business. I hired students and teachers from University of Houston to outfit Conoco executives in period costumes to illustrate the 150 facts I had written. Photos were taken and life-sized cutouts of the characters created to adorn the halls of Conoco during the celebration.

I will always consider myself a hard-nosed news reporter, but I saw the industry changing and allowed myself to change with it. I have always loved my work and believe it shows in my can-do attitude.  I’ve taught journalism at the University of Houston and essay writing at a prison boot camp for first-time felons, many of whom were inner city Houston gang members – both men and women. One student left my class to become the triggerman in a robbery and murder that landed him the death penalty. I saw the video of him committing murder on television. Another was killed by police nine days after he graduated from my class, his last essay still in my briefcase– an experience that is a chapter in the recurring textbook, “Corrections.”

While I will always consider myself a writer, it is as a teacher at the boot camp where I learned I can’t always change the world. I still try, however, to make a small difference to my part of it.


Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

March 14, 2012 at 9:02 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Denise,
    I really enjoyed reading this story so much; never known anyone who covered writing about murders, and saw murders. I should have been an investigator because my interest in TV and reading always involves those subjects. My career was far from writing. Working in the Oil Business as a secretary to Managers, Vice-Presidents and Sr. Vice Presidents. It was a road that I never dreamed of; learning so many things in Marketing and Manufacturing at Pennzoil Products Company, now owned by Shell Lubricants for quite a number of years. So happy to say, I enjoyed some of it, but so happy I didn’t have to work there till I officially retired, as I am now.

    Thanks again for your story. Also need to say, I met you at the Indianette Reunion in 2005 in Port Neches, which was a fabulous time in my life.

    Colleen Zorn Bivens
    PNG 1970

    Colleen Zorn Bivens

    April 2, 2013 at 8:06 pm

    • P.S. I also remember the smell of buttercups, clover and freshly cut grass. I loved riding my bicycle, but only a couple blocks from my home on 9th Street in Port Neches, TX. My Mom was over protective, and I’m glad she was. We played volleyball, softball and croquet (sp?) in our back yard with my parents always there with many friends from the block. Fun times to remember. You helped me “remember when……!

      Colleen Zorn Bivens

      April 2, 2013 at 8:11 pm

      • Biking and running the roads in Port Neches seems so eventful in retrospect. I know we must have gotten bored but I can’t remember when. I remember when one of the kids on the block would go see a movie and then retell the entire story and dialog when he or she got back. We’d sit in the grass and relive the movie together. I think that’s another part of my past that taught me to be a story-teller.


        April 3, 2013 at 7:44 am

    • Thanks for reading, Colleen, and, of course, I remember meeting you at the Indianette reunion. I love following your Facebook posts, too. Too bad these old reporter days don’t quite exist any more. Back then, a reporter was truly an objective observer and was treated as such. You earned respect and you got respect. I always loved covering the cops, riding on patrol, hiding in dumpsters, the whole nine yards. I even did a piece on the obstacle course when Port Arthur police was trying to get more female officers. Pretty fun.


      April 3, 2013 at 7:42 am

  2. Hi, Denise

    I read your article (Sept. 4, 2012) regarding Arlington and the Cheryl Calloway case. I grew up there and graduated from AHS. I worked for the Arlington
    PD in detective division when the Calloway murder took place. I later moved to Houston and attended UH-Clear Lake where I graduated with a BA and Masters. Did you ever teach there or was it at another campus? I would like to touch bases with you since it seems we have both places and cases in common. I do not Facebook or Twitter, just email.


    Donna Cariker

    April 16, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    • Hey, Donna. I was an adjunct at the main UH campus, teaching reporting, news writing and editing. That was after Fort Worth and Dallas and in between going to Detroit. I’ve been commuting to the medical center for about 12 years. Did you know Cheryl? I met her friends and folks. Her dad looked a lot like her photos. It would be interesting to hear what you know.


      April 16, 2013 at 5:34 pm

      • Hi, again

        I took photo-journalism, television production, writing for the media and many other communications classes at UH-Clear Lake for my BA. I wrote for the Bay Runner Magazine in Houston/Galveston and edited monthly newsletters for the British Petroleum (BP) Co. in Texas City while working at an ad agency. Later, I became a graphic designer for the several of the Moody Corporations in Galveston. Ejoyed the work wherever I went, but nothing was as exciting as working for the police dept.

        No, I didn’t know Cheryl personally, but saw her dad many times at the PD asking about the case. I was assigned taking “tip info” about cases in addition to my other work in detective division. The evening she was murdered, all of us were called back to the dept. where we stayed all night taking calls, depositions, etc.
        Capt. Wiggins was at the morgue counting ice pick injuries, getting pictures, finding out more info. It was a sad case, and as far as I know, never solved.

        That’s one reason I found your blog, since it mentioned the case. I was trying to find Deputy Chief Ed Watson (who was a Capt.) when I worked there. We are going to Arlington for our 50th class reunion and I had hoped to see if he was still living, so I could find out about some of the cases we worked on and see what happened to some of the people in the division.

        Which medical center have you been going to for 12 years? We are in the Tyler area now (we moved away from the coast about 9 years ago). Love it here – great medical center here, too.

        Donna Cariker

        April 22, 2013 at 5:11 pm

  3. Hi, Denise

    I have another case I’d like to discuss with you. We made the arrest in 1974 and he got 50 years in Huntsville. Were you at the Ft. Worth Star Telegram at that time? (1973 and 1974?) If so, let me know. Maybe we could chat at my email address instead of your blog. Thanks, Donna

    Donna Cariker

    May 8, 2013 at 9:41 pm

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