Hints from Heloise

American Icons, Home, Home & Family, Living Green, Odd Jobs, People
on September 7, 2011
Ed Lallo The woman who dispenses <i>Hints From Heloise</i> celebrates her newspaper column’s 50th year in syndication.

Inside her home in San Antonio, Texas, the woman who writes Hints From Heloise pours a cup of baking soda into the drain of her kitchen sink to demonstrate one of her most-requested household hints.

“Here comes the fun part,” says Heloise, 60, adding two cups of vinegar.

As she watches the mixture bubble and foam to eliminate unwanted odors, she laughs. “I love to do this!” she exclaims.

And she’s not kidding. Heloise’s genuine enjoyment for researching and sharing household advice—from how to freshen foul-smelling drains to removing stubborn stains—have made Hints From Heloise one of America’s most widely read newspaper columns.

Marking 50 years in syndication this month, the daily column started by Heloise’s mother has evolved into a multimedia enterprise celebrating household ingenuity, organization, efficiency and thriftiness—all with a down-home, no-nonsense brand of Texas charm and humor that are the hallmarks of the savvy businesswoman who inherited the column in 1977.

“Readers love Heloise because her column offers the kind of information you just don’t get anywhere else,” says T.R. “Rocky” Shepard III, president of King Features, which began syndicating the column in 1961. “She’s dedicated to learning, and is the hardest-working creator in our stable.”

A half-century of hints

Heloise’s work ethic and love for household problem-solving comes naturally. Her mother worked around-the-clock for 18 years to churn out the column.

“She was up at 5 a.m. and would write until 10 p.m.,” Heloise recalls. “She was always thinking about her readers.”

Eloise Bowles Cruse started the column in 1959 while her husband, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, was stationed in Hawaii. Living far from her extended family, the business school graduate sought a way to learn more about running a household and to share those tips with other women. She walked into the Honolulu Advertiser, asked to speak with an editor, and pitched the idea of a household advice column. The newspaper signed on when she offered to deliver the column, initially called Readers Exchange, for free for the first 30 days.

Written with a second-hand typewriter on a card table in her bedroom, the column garnered such a devoted following that, within two years, King Features came calling to syndicate the column which, drawing on her name Eloise, was renamed Hints From Heloise. Three years later, the column was published in nearly 600 newspapers.

Living in a household laboratory, Heloise found her mother’s quest for common-sense knowledge embarrassing at times.

“We had a plumber over to make a repair one day, and my mother had her head under the sink right along with him, asking him for a step-by-step explanation of everything he was doing,” she recalls. “I felt bad for him.”

The family eventually settled in San Antonio, where Heloise’s parents later divorced. Her mother worked in an office apartment beside their home apartment and cut a door in the wall to make working long hours easier.

“She was a pioneer when it came to working from home,” says Tina Potter-Cullum, a friend of the younger Heloise since their high school days in San Antonio.

“She was so sharp. And [her daughter] is just like her.”

Like mother, like daughter

Born Poncé Kiah Marchelle Cruse, Heloise helped her mother research hints as a youngster. For instance, they created their own stonewashed jeans.

“We poured bleach on my jeans,” Heloise recalls. “They looked great until a couple of weeks later when they ripped. We learned to never pour straight bleach on anything because it weakens the fabric.”

In 1974, with a teaching certificate and a double major in business administration and mathematics, the younger Heloise graduated from what is now Texas State University. Though she planned to become a teacher, she went to work as an office manager for her mother. Then, in 1977, her mother died from a heart attack at age 58.

“I called the syndicate the night she died,” Heloise recalls. “The next day, they asked if I’d take over the column. They had to get a press release out. I had 24 hours to make a decision.”

Having seen firsthand how hard her mother worked, Heloise, then 26, wasn’t certain she wanted the job, but she agreed to try it for one year. That was 34 years ago.

Household laboratory

Like her mother, Heloise works from home, a sprawling ranch house that she shares with her husband, David Evans, 63, a semiretired building contractor, and their miniature schnauzer, Cabbie, whom she frequently mentions in her columns. She uses her kitchen, laundry room and office as a working laboratory.

When a reader asks a question, Heloise and her staff—three full-time and two part-time employees—find an answer. She receives about 1,000 letters and 3,000 to 5,000 emails a week. “My girls always panic when I come down the hall with my tray [of testing tools],” she says with a laugh.

If Heloise doesn’t know an answer, she finds someone who does. She calls on independent researchers, registered dietitians and engineers, including her older brother, Louis, 68, a retired aeronautical and mechanical engineer who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Heloise credits her mother for her work ethic, and her late father, Marshal “Mike” Cruse, for her independent spirit. “My daddy taught me how to change a tire and jumpstart a battery before I graduated from high school,” she says. “He also gave me my first toolbox.”

She continued the tradition by teaching her stepson, Russell, now 36, how to make a pot of chili, bake a cake, load the dishwasher and do laundry before graduating from high school.

With a reputation for zaniness, the household hint-maker loves to get out of the house, too. She rides a Russian Ural sidecar motorcycle, has skydived with the Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team and flown with the Navy’s Blue Angels.

“She’s even gone on newspaper tours in her Ural,” Shepard says.

Heloise keeps her column relevant by changing with the times, dispensing advice on expanded topics including health, pets, recycling, travel and security. A frequent guest speaker, she especially enjoys talking to college students, who “need my tips more than ever,” says Heloise, whose hints include how to salvage a cell phone dropped in the toilet.

While often told that she’s managed Hints From Heloise better than her mother, Heloise humbly begs to differ. “My mother was a Honolulu housewife,” she says. “She took the newspaper world by storm. Every book she wrote was a best seller. That had never been done before and has not been done since.”

Asked what her mother, the original Heloise, would think about today’s Heloise, the usually gregarious columnist is uncharacteristically quiet. “I think she would be proud,” she says after careful thought. “And I think she would be thrilled that we’ve kept up with the times.”