“Bob [Sutherland] came from a family where there were ministers. I did too. And so a circuit rider seemed like a familiar term that would be kind of easy to use. And it did imply that you went out on a circuit. You went out to this town and that town and the next town, and you might spend lunch at one place, breakfast at another, dinner at another. And you’d have a round for a day or two that way, and then you’d come back to home base and go out again later. So in between classes I was partly a circuit rider, along with Bob Sutherland, Bernice Moore, and Bert [Kruger Smith], by that time not only a journalist but also a knowledgeable person to talk about mental health.
— Wayne Holtzman, Hogg Foundation director, 1970 - 1990.
In its first decade of existence, the Hogg Foundation mounted a massive public education campaign that reached every corner of Texas. Led by Robert Sutherland, a small but dedicated group of mental health experts lectured and advised groups in hundreds large cities, small towns, and unincorporated rural areas, eventually reaching all of the state’s 254 counties. These missionaries of mental health came to view themselves, half-jokingly, as “circuit riders,” evoking the itinerant ministers of earlier periods in American history.
The numbers bore out this characterization. In its first three years alone, Hogg Foundation lecturers and consultants addressed some 2,000 audiences in 152 communities, reaching about 400,000 people. About one-third of these lectures were delivered by Sutherland himself. During his first three years as foundation director, Sutherland gave 460 lectures in 56 communities, returning to some places several times. In these early years, "circuit riders" spoke at 40 colleges and 70 public schools. The foundation reprinted the most powerful of these talks in a pamphlet series titled “Lectures in Print.”
By October 1943, the foundation had published 33 of these pamphlets and more than 49,000 separate pieces of mailed literature. Within a decade, the foundation’s mailing list had exceeded 2,600. Within its first decade and a half of existence, the foundation reached well over a million people.
Sutherland’s creative use of professional and personal networks allowed the foundation to extend its geographic reach far beyond what its meager budgetary resources should have allowed. Many of the "circuit-riding" speakers were not full-time staffers, but rather had been hired on an ad hoc consulting basis. Sutherland recruited nationally known speakers such as Margaret Mead, E. Franklin Frazier, and William Menninger, as well as regional experts, for miniature speaking tours at reasonable prices or on a pro bono basis. Meanwhile, the relatively small in-house staff spent much of its time traveling across the state delivering lectures and leading workshops – sometimes visiting several locations in a single day. Filling out the roster of "circuit-riding" speakers were speakers from The University of Texas or state and local agencies that provided mental health services.
The group followed Sutherland’s lead in approaching their work with a quasi-religious sense of mission. Its core members came to view themselves, in a phrase coined by Sutherland, as “circuit riders for mental health,” driving the Texas highways and farm-to-market roads to bring the gospel of mental health to people who seldom received visitors from outside their town or county.
“A new type of circuit rider visits Texas families today,” announced the DeLeon Free Press in January 1948. The foundation’s own publications began employing the phrase regularly, and it quickly entered the organization’s mythology. A 1973 pamphlet gives a characteristic retrospective on the foundation’s early years, noting that most Texans had never heard the phrases “mental hygiene,” “mental health,” or “mental illness.” In response, “a new type of circuit rider came upon the scene,” as a host of foundation experts “began an endless trek across the thousands of miles of Texas.”
Newspaper clippings from the period suggest that a visit from a foundation-sponsored expert was often a much-anticipated event. The Dallas Morning News touted the foundation’s “outstanding authorities in mental hygiene, education, and the human relations fields … sent on statewide tours.” The foundation’s public lectures often played to packed houses at churches, community centers, school auditoriums, and rotary clubs.
To their surprise, speakers frequently found themselves surrounded by eager audience members after a presentation. One psychology professor at The University of Texas wrote Sutherland after a 1949 talk at the Taylor Women’s Club of his “trepidation” at lecturing on “psychological concepts to a lay group.” After the talk, he was “literally swamped” and “could not get away… many of the things they wanted to discuss afterward were either personal or about a personal problem of a friend or a relative.”
Long-time foundation staffer Bernice Moore experienced a similar reception to a talk given in a church in Poteet, just south of San Antonio, about women and family life. The audience was composed “entirely” of women and young children, along with four male ministers. After the talk, discussion was muted until the women could speak with Moore privately:
“When the meeting was over the women immediately gathered in a group on the church steps and one of them asked the consultant to come out there. They verbally pounced upon her — ‘We are bursting with things we want to talk about! --- every one [sic] says — tell your children the facts of life, but no one says-what to say!’ The REAL meeting was held with that feminine group which lasted an hour.” These women, for perhaps the first time, were provided “specific information” and “referred to books” to read with their children on formerly “taboo” subjects about puberty, sex, and relationships.
From the beginning, the foundation sought to include diverse populations in its mental health outreach efforts. It recruited African American experts and involved itself in mental health reform activities in historically black communities such as the Clarksville neighborhood in Austin and the town of Slocum, which had been the site of a mass lynching earlier in the twentieth century. One speaker, an African American doctoral student in the Education Department at The University of Texas, wrote Sutherland to describe the response of the African American community in Palestine, Texas, to a mental health lecture in 1953:
One elderly negro teacher asked for recognition from the superintendent after I had finished speaking and said something to this effect: "I not only want to express my personal thanks to this speaker this morning, but to the Hogg Foundation for sending him to us. I feel like I know Mr. Jim Hogg, I’ve heard about how he helped people in Texas while he was living. And some folks have a way of continuing to serve their people even after they’re gone. Mr. Hogg’s family, Miss Ima and the rest, have seen to that through this Hogg Foundation. I feel like Mr. Hogg is still serving folks in Texas this morning."
Led by Robert Sutherland, the Hogg Foundation’s circuit riders transformed the way that Texans from virtually every walk of life thought about mental health and mental illness. In the process, they created a demand for better mental health services and a thirst for greater mutual understanding across lines of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and region.