Stroll under the crape myrtles at the World’s Richest Acre Park and you’ll find a cluster of bricks engraved with the names of Kilgore women who’ve been honored through the years as First Lady of Kilgore.
One of those bricks bears the name of Olga Lapin.
A biography of Olga Herrmann Lapin lines up very nicely with a history of Kilgore.
I’ve heard and read much about Kilgore’s history. Last week, I read a biography of the late Mrs. Lapin, a biography written by her former law partner, her demonstrably adoring (and proud) son, Mart.
For the benefit of those who’ve missed the history of either Kilgore or Olga Lapin, Kilgore was at the center of the last great mineral boom in the U.S. and Olga Lapin was an attorney here to witness and help it along.
Times were hard in Galveston in the early 1900s and Olga was pressed by the times to support herself at age 16. After graduating high school she held a variety of jobs, including a stint as a math teacher. She enrolled in medical school but found it not to her liking. Eventually, while clerking at a Houston law firm, she settled on the law as a profession.
The YMCA at the time operated the Houston School of Law and Olga enrolled. In 1927 she was the first female graduate. The Houston Chronicle noted her graduation and quoted H.I. Clamp, secretary of the Board of Bar Examiners, “you are the smartest little girl... and I congratulate you as being addressed as an attorney at law in truth and in fact.”
In 1927 — even 90-odd years later, most would admit — gender equality in the workplace was still beyond the reach of women.
Unable to find challenging legal work, she accepted a position as secretary for the chamber of commerce in Grand Saline and moved to Van Zandt County. There she supplemented her salary with small legal matters.
Among those sharing office space with the C of C was an oil and gas promoter, Jack Lapin. He earned his living buying mineral rights and then either promoting the drilling of a well or selling the rights for a profit.
In 1930, the depression was on. Three years out of law school, 36 years old, holder of a law degree and still for Olga, no full-time lawyering job.
On Dec. 28, 1930 the Lou Della Crim No. 1 came in at Laird Hill, the second producing well in what would be called The Great East Texas Field. Jack was curious, so he and his office partner took a drive to Kilgore. There was lots of excitement... and there were no lawyers here.
She and Jack rented an office on the 2nd floor of a building on Kilgore Street and they rented rooms — separate rooms, son Mart notes — in the Kilgore Hotel. She was the first female lawyer in Gregg County.
She set up practice and with help from Jack learned about leases and royalties and bonuses and oil payments.
When they arrived here, Kilgore had perhaps 500 residents — depending on where one drew the boundaries. Within three weeks the population was pegged, variously, at 8,000 or even as much as 10,000 people. In 1931 the city of Kilgore was incorporated and shortly thereafter paved one block of one street — the block in front of the O. G. Hermann law firm.
At age 37, she was a working attorney on a busy street in a dizzyingly busy community, She and Jack eventually — no surprise here — married and halved their monthly rent at the hotel.
Courtrooms were difficult for her — a woman. The judge in a neighboring county refused, illegally, to allow her to practice in his courtroom, says biographer Mart. In response, she developed a routine of sharing courtroom work with male attorneys, including Angus Wynne — a Longview attorney before he moved his practice to Dallas, helped found the Dallas Cowboys and built Six Flags Over Texas.
In 1932, Mart was born.
Mart says Olga did not bill her clients, opining that if her clients trusted her, she would trust them.
Respect for Mrs. Lapin, her skills and her benevolence grew; her reputation spread. When elected to the Kilgore school board, she was the first woman to serve on that board. Four years later she was chosen president of the board — another first in these parts. Among the board’s accomplishments while she served: salaries for male and female teachers were equalized.
In 1948, Beta Sigma Phi social sorority made her the first First Lady of Kilgore, an award presented in the ballroom of the Kilgore Hotel, the successor to the hotel which had been her home 18 years earlier.
In 1956, Mart joined his mother in practice at Lapin & Lapin.
The World’s Richest Acre Park, where you’ll find the brick bearing the name of Kilgore’s first First Lady, backs up to that first law office on the first paved street in Kilgore.
Olga Lapin died at home in Kilgore in 1978 after 84 years of being first.
(Mart Lapin and wife Mary moved to Orono, Maine late in the 20th century. He and I have never met but are — borrowing a term from an earlier time — regular pen pals. He sent me his biography of Olga in exchange for a promise that I’d deliver it to Kilgore Historical Preservation Foundation, and so I shall.
Bill Woodall is a former co-publisher (with wife Jessica) of the News Herald and appears to have recovered from his favorite season — bowl season.