July 2016: My best stories this month on Austin culture


A Pulitzer Prize winner pulls up a chair near the front row. Not far away sits a distinguished university dean. Just beyond him, at the back of the big Austin bookstore, is a writer of several popular volumes. Just as the evening’s author starts to speak, a stylish woman with short hair and bright eyes takes the last empty seat up front. “Look who’s here!” gasps the speaker. “The person who discovered the origins of writing!” The crowd chuckles at what they assume is a joke. The woman just smiles. “I know,” says Denise Schmandt-Besserat, nodding to the full house. “Always at parties, when I tell people that, they laugh. They don’t believe me.”


On April 27, John Bernardoni, Austin music promoter and arts backer, met with James Powell, a native Austinite and longtime antiques dealer. Powell asked Bernardoni, best known locally for helping save the Paramount Theatre, if he knew anything about “Victims of the Galveston Flood,” a sculpture by Pompeo Coppini, the artist best known locally for creating the Littlefield Fountain and the controversial statues on the South Mall at the University of Texas. Coppini had been in the news of late. Last year, his sculptures portraying Confederate President Jeff Davis and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson were moved after considerable community input. Davis is going to the Briscoe Center for American History, now under renovation, while Wilson’s new home has not been finalized.


Twenty years ago, as the 30th anniversary of the University of Texas Tower shootings loomed, Gary Lavergne completed an exacting account of the events that took place before, during and after Aug. 1, 1966. “Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders,” published by the University of North Texas Press in 1997, has since appeared in paperback, mass market paperback and Kindle editions. We sat down with the unassuming Lavergne — by day, the UT head of admissions research, and the author of three other successful books — in his office on the ground floor of the Tower.

It’s the neighborhood with no name. Or perhaps too many names. They include Sunnydale, Elmhurst Heights and Woodland Hills. Many Austinites — if they know that it exists at all — call it Travis Heights East. For years, this hilly, eclectic residential area has been represented by the South River City Neighborhood Association. It also lies within the East Riverside-Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Planning Area. That name is not likely to be adapted into the vernacular, so we will stick with Travis Heights East. High on rises above Riverside Drive between Oltorf Street, Burton Drive and Interstate 35, one can find scattered remnants of the area’s agricultural past, along with three distinct subdivisions developed in the mid to late 20th century.

When sisters Jewel Sundbeck and Georgia Sundbeck Gustafson were young, the services were conducted in Swedish. “We didn’t understand any of it,” Jewel admits. “But we were in church, there to worship God.” “The Sunday classes before services were in English,” Georgia says. “We had a lot of singing in the church. Joyful singing.” Back then, the Sundbeck sisters attended the Swedish Evangelical Free Church when it was at Colorado and 17th streets. Dedicated on Aug. 6, 1925, this handsome structure was the group’s second home, demolished after the State of Texas purchased the land. The group’s first church was a rough, wood-planked 1890s affair — later torn down — located in the eastern Travis County settlement of Decker. Worship services among the rural Swedish immigrants, some of whom had escaped religious intolerance back home, started there in homes and schoolhouses in the 1880s.
Just before noon on Monday, Aug. 1, 1966, Ora Houston and Sharon Alexander were eating lunch at the Pancake House at San Antonio and West 19th streets — the latter, later renamed for Martin Luther King Jr. — just southwest of the University of Texas campus. “It was such a beautiful day,” Alexander said recently. “All of a sudden, we started hearing all these sirens and went outside to see what was going on. There were ambulances, police cars and fire trucks everywhere. It was a terrible sight to see.” Someone told the young women — one a graduate of Anderson High School in East Austin, the other of Austin High School — that a person atop the UT Tower was shooting people. “We could see the smoke coming from the Tower,” Alexander said. “We were told to go to the back of the restaurant, because the bullets could reach us from where we were standing. A very shocking day, one I never want to see again and will never forget.”

Real estate agent Trey McWhorter has seen it time and again. Folks just don’t know what they have in hand.“Often with old, unique properties, it’s more like artwork than just a house,” says McWhorter, who specializes in midcentury modern homes. “And just as an artist has to promote himself, someone has to tell the story of the property.” That is what McWhorter has been trying to do in an area that encompasses Highland Park, Highland Park West, Balcones Park, Foothills Terrace, Colorado Foothills and Beverly Hills, as well as other midcentury subdivisions. For the most part, the steeply hilled area falls west and northwest of Camp Mabry and east of Lake Austin. Greater Tarrytown is to the south, and Northwest Hills lies to the north. Curvy Balcones Drive serves as the main through street.


In 1963, the sitcom “Petticoat Junction” first aired on CBS. The show about a rustic railroad hotel run by a steadfast matron, her lazy uncle and her three voluptuous daughters ran for seven seasons, yoked in American minds with “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres,” two other shows that riffed on the juncture between rural and urban ways. In 1964, Petticoat Lane opened on Austin’s Guadalupe Street. The Andrews family, headed by Bob and Betty Sue, were already running two dress shops on the Drag. Their new idea, later redubbed Petticoat Fair, was a full-service boutique selling just women’s undergarments. It still thrives today, now as a one-of-a-kind shop with extensive dressing rooms in the Northcross Center off West Anderson Lane.

Hearing from a Gabour family member about the UT Tower shootings

Photo: Time

We’ve heard from dozens of readers who wanted to share their stories about Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman‘s horrific spree from the University of Texas Tower initiated the modern era of mass public shootings.

They have been responding to the American-Statesman’s extensive reporting on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.

We had not, until now, heard much from the Gabour family, who were among the first shot inside the Tower on that terrible day. For 50 years, they have remained mostly silent.

Today, Jim Gabour, wrote a powerful piece for the Guardian about the deaths of family members Marguerite Gabour Lamport and Mark Gabour, as well as the critical wounding of Mary Francis and Mike Gabour.

He aslo makes connections to a sniper who later took shots at people from the Howard Johnson’s in New Orleans.

New Orleans police officers fire into a concrete cubicle atop the Howard Johnson hotel, where Mark Essex was holed up. Photograph: GE Arnold/AP

Here’s how the story begins (follow the link above and read it all):

“I remember when word came in. I was home from school for the summer, doing full-time manual labor at my family’s small weekly newspaper in Central Louisiana. We were home for an afternoon meal when the heavy old black telephone receiver rang in the kitchen. Maybe I sensed something and instinctively knew it wasn’t one of my buds, because I did not rush to the phone as usual.

My father took the call.

He was standing at first. I watched the pale, disbelieving look grow on his face as he slowly sat on the kitchen stool, the phone poised a few inches from his ear, stopping to stare at it every few seconds like it was something horrible, something foul.

He held on to the windowsill like he was dizzy. I stood a few feet away and watched silently, not wanting to intrude. Something was happening here; something was being told to my father. Something bad.”


Debut: Out and About video on Austin social scene

We had such fun creating a video version of a post on Austin Found — regarding Texas dorm life before the Ruckus — that we decided to do the same for a week’s worth of Out and About posts.

Behold below the dubious glories of “Out and About in Austin” for a recent week.

Karen Hawkins, Maria Groten and Val Armstrong at Central Standard.

Also, for the full reports, see the previous posts on Out and About.

On South Congress, slip into Mañana Coffee & Juice

Mañana Coffee & Juice

1603 S. Congress Ave. 512-872-3144. mananaaustin.com. 7 a.m.-7 p.m. seven days a week. Free underground parking and WiFi. Decaf at hand. Quiet inside and out.

Isabella Potapenko and Ben Manwaring at Mañana

One of the last pieces in the South Congress Hotel puzzle is in place. Conceived by the New Waterloo group, Mañana Coffee & Juice slips into a narrow spot behind the urban dining magnet Central Standard. You can enter this light, trim space from East Monroe Street, or from the hotel’s courtyard, where spillover tables invite guests to linger on clement days. Many of the interior seats line long counters rather than tables, and so attract solo typists more so than folks chatting. The coffee drinks — made by alert baristas — are potent and the beans come from Cuvée Coffee, while the teas are drawn from Kusmi Tea. A rare offering for an Austin coffeehouse: cold-pressed juices from JuiceLand, and milks, plus fruits and veggies overseen by chef Michael Paley. Pastry chef Amanda Rockman makes the quite fresh baked goods and snacks. These days, our downtown hotels rely on in-house Starbucks outlets, but that won’t do on idiosyncratic South Congress, where almost none of the businesses are from out of town. Despite the lack of venues to rendezvous inside Mañana, it’s likely to become a regular haunt.

In 2007, we proposed a series titled “10,000 Coffee Shops.” We found only 100 around Austin, but it felt like 10,000. Our point: That in the 1980s, there had only been three such spots here! We’re sure to count more than 200 during a new run in 2016.

UPDATE: We thought of a third 1980s coffee shop.




June 2016: My best stories on Austin culture

Here are my best stories on Austin culture published in June and early July.


June 24: How to read old country cemeteries in Austin’s backyard.

Parts of the wooded hilltop look positively Amazonian. “I had volunteers up here not long ago,” graveyard expert Karen Thompson says. “Now look at it.” Despite the overgrowth, many ancient gravestones — more than 150 years old — told their intimate stories in crisply preserved lettering. “A cemetery is like a book,” Thompson likes to say. “You just have to learn how to read it.”

Tom Coopwood and Jim Stedman grew up in Lockhart during the 1940s and ’50s.

June 25: A deep dip into Lockhart from 60 to 70s years ago.

“Over there was Friendly Joe’s place. We’d buy hundreds of malt balls there.” “This spot was the A&P. Lockhart had several small grocery stores back then.” “A barber shop stood here and a newsstand over there.” “This was one of the Glosserman stores. They owned several businesses.” “Close by, you can still find the Catholic, the Baptist, the Lutheran, the Christian, the Methodist (churches). I don’t think we ever had a synagogue, but we had Jewish families. I didn’t know there was such a thing as prejudice against Jews until I got to medical school.”

Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet. Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman.

June 29: Amy Mills takes Emancipet’s animal mission national.

“Many years ago, when Amy Mills was volunteering at an animal shelter, she visited a dog that was in pretty bad shape. “It was the first time I’d seen something like that,” says Mills, now CEO of Emancipet, the fast-growing Austin-based animal welfare charity. “Her name was Rose, and she looked terrible. She smelled terrible. When I went to take her for a walk, she was curled up tight and sleeping on a blanket in her kennel.” When Mills opened the door, Rose didn’t look up. “I went into her kennel,” Mills recalls, “sat on the floor with her, petted her and started crying. I just kept saying: I’m so sorry.” After a few minutes, Mills took a leash out of her bag.”

Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Photo: Stephan Spillman / American-Statesman.

July 2:  The Austinite who discovered the origins of writing.

“A Pulitzer Prize winner pulls up a chair near the front row. Not far away sits a distinguished university dean. Just beyond him, at the back of the big Austin bookstore, is a writer of several popular volumes. Just as the evening’s author starts to speak, a stylish woman with short hair and bright eyes takes the last empty seat up front. “Look who’s here!” gasps the speaker. “The person who discovered the origins of writing!” The crowd chuckles at what they assume is a joke. The woman just smiles. “I know,” says Denise Schmandt-Besserat, nodding to the full house. “Always at parties, when I tell people that, they laugh. They don’t believe me.”


Summer parties with Austin friends

Nothing turns formal in Austin during the summer. Our recent social exploits centered around good friends and simple good times.

At Central Standard, the urban spot on the north side of the South Congress Hotel, we met up with entrepreneur and philanthropist Monica Peraza and a birthday crowd currently associated with the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Over tasty fare such as Waygu Tatare and Steak Chips, we spent hours with Patsy Woods MartinLynn Yeldell, Alisa Weldon, Liz Arreaga and Raquel Garcia. Guess who was at the next table? A fabulous threesome: Maria GrotenKaren Hawkins and Val Armstrong.

Karen Hawkins, Maria Groten and Val Armstrong at Central Standard.

The next night, we returned to the hotel — we live close by — to take drinks with “the boys,” Bill Lavallee and Forrest Hooper, the couple we profiled when they got married after 59 years of romantic partnership. The pair, who grew up in the Upper Midwest, but spent their adult lives in California, Hawaii, Texas and Florida, know how to live. In their eighties, they still can make any get-together a frolic. And if you haven’t see the cute video by Kelly West, hit the link above.

Bill Lavallee and Forrest Hooper at South Congress Hotel Bar.

You know, we love this hotel’s lobby bar and its with-it crowd, but when it’s full, it’s loud. Gotta remember that.

We went back to the hotel two more times this week, once for a coffee date at Mañana, the new, slender stylish shop at the back, and anther time for confab with colleagues over more cocktails and/or cherry cokes at the lobby bar. I’m liking this place.

Magda Alanis at Dress for Success Austin.

We didn’t have too many social/business meetings this week, but one, at Dress for Success Austin on Tillery Street, was an eyeopener. I learned from program and volunteer manager Mia Johns and program graduate, now ambassador, Magda Alanis, about how much of their work in not just dressing women for job interviews, but teaching them financial literacy, resume writing, even health and nutrition.

When I asked — we’re bingeing on “Transparent” at home — if they’d served trans clients, the answer was yes, about a dozen. They make sure their style consultation are private and with a knowing helper. The group, which runs on about a quarter million in grants and donations a year, has trouble, however, keeping shoes and dresses that fit those special clients.

Cheering Mandy Patinkin, Danny Camacho, Lisa Byrd, Ixchel Rosal

What a weekend to cheer local heroes.

Mandy Patinkin feels at home in Austin. His first concert here in 1991 coincided with the funeral of producer Joe Papp, one of his mentors and the man who made his solo singing career possible. Nerves were raw that night. Nobody will ever forget that searing concert at the Paramount Theatre.

Mandy Patinkin

The actor and singer has returned at least four times since then. Last night at the Long Center, Patinkin spun variations on his stripped-down “Dress Casual” series. Patinkin’s voice has darkened these days; it’s less extreme, though no less dramatic. Nobody can take a familiar standard — or even a children’s tune — and make it more intensely human. The big crowd went wild.

The late Danny Camacho

Earlier, we saluted, along with another hundred admirers, community historian and activist Danny Camacho. An East Austinite for most of his life, Camacho grew up in a loving and lively family.

Juan Castillo, Kathy Vale Castillo and Lloyd Doggett at Danny Camacho Celebration.

Camacho spread joy during his seven decades of life before succumbing to a recent heart attack.

They ate well at the Danny Camacho Celebration. He would approve.

At the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett, former Mayor Gus Garcia, Judge Bob Perkins, Council Members Pio Renteria and Ora Houston, archivist Mike Miller, parks historian Kim McKnight, history advocate Gloria Espitia, school board member, the Rev. Jayme Mathias, MACC board member Kathy Vale Castillo and writer Juan Castillo, looked on as Camacho was granted posthumous honors by Travis County Historical Commission. His sister, Dolly Camacho-Watson, turned in a bravura performance that told Danny’s life story.

Lisa Byrd and Ixchel Rosal at their Farewell Party.

The night before, at a kid-friendly party on the grounds of the Carver Museum and Cultural Center, we bid fond farewell Austin cultural leaders Lisa Byrd and Ixchel Rosal. Something called Columbia University has recruited Rosal, so the family is headed to that other Riverside Drive, the one on the west side in Manhattan.

IMG_3110 (2)
What a relief on a warm Austin night.

It’s impossible to enumerate all the Austin communities that this pair has elevated over the past 25 years, but let’s make sure some are recorded: University of Texas, Dance Umbrella, Texas Performing Arts, Ballet Austin, Six Square (formerly the African American Cultural Heritage District) and various predecessors to the Mexican American Community Center.

If the #Texit comes, count on an #AusTexit

First, the #Grexit didn’t happen.

Then, the #Brexit did.

Now, regional nationalists and the usual rump caucus of secessionists are talking about a #Texit.

If that happens — and legally, it can’t — we’ll be hearing about #AusTexit.

Capitol of AusTex. Christopher V. Sherman, OverAustin.com.

Though we are proud Americans and Texans, would Austin really want to stick around a new nation that regularly treats the city as if it were a child who shouldn’t make its own decisions?

For decades, we’ve called that kind of periodic legislative abuse — attempted reversals of our democratically resolved ordinances — “Austin bashing.”

Look, if we left with just the population in the immediate Austin vicinity, say, 1 million of the 2 million in the metro area, we’d still be bigger than 74 of the world’s countries and dependent territories, according to WorldoMeters.

We’ve already got a pretty nice Capitol (see above). And think what we could do with all that state land that sits untended and untaxed. We’ve probably got enough good barbecue and Tex-Mex on hand to last a while.

Then, if we wanted to re-join the United States, we’d be like West Berlin during the Cold War. Some latter-day version of JFK could airlift us goodies blocked by Texas border guards.

Kind of like Scotland and Northern Ireland these days, thinking about their next step in a post-EU Britain, maybe Austin should keep that in mind.

Austin reacts to a proposed gondola system

When I posted a link to an American-Statesman commentary by Brigid Shea and Jared Ficklin about a proposed gondola system to help alleviate traffic, the response was predictably divided.

A few dozen readers gave the idea a thumbs-up. Others dissented thoughtfully.

Frog Design

Jake Billingly would prefer “a very large fleet of electric buses using existing roads.” I regularly take buses currently on those roads and, while they are a key part to my personal transit strategy, they still get caught in traffic and perform far better traveling north-south than east-west.

J Richard Smith was disappointed about what would be abandoned: “No light rail, but that?!” Light rail is very expensive, it tears up roads, takes away lanes, and takes seemingly forever to build. I use them in other cities, but they are already built.

John Havard Macpherson wants “moving sidewalk, Google and other technologies that work better than the 80-year-old cable car concept.” True, gondolas aren’t new, but that’s one of the selling points. They have proven to work in other cities. He also endorses a monorail, but those are also expensive and more disruptive during construction.

Later that morning, my husband, Kip Keller, looked up from the newspaper — an even older technology — to say: “Hey, am I missing something, or is this really a good idea? I don’t see any downside.”

Well, I was skeptical at first because I’m deathly afraid of heights, but the idea of stringing the first line along South First Street seemed a stroke of genius.

This is a narrow thoroughfare — a block from our house — that can’t be expanded without knocking down a lot of buildings. Also, the existing sidewalks are similarly narrow as well as uneven and would be hard to support a movement mechanism.

One could take wheelchairs, bikes, strollers and dogs onto gondola cars. They’d come every few minutes. They are air-conditioned. I’m not editorializing, but let’s give this idea a shot.

Remembering Austin’s Sunshine TB Camps from the 1930s

Well, Linda Hank Thompson beat me to it.

Yesterday, four of us visited Eva May Smith to talk about the time she attended the Austin Sunshine Camps in the 1930s.

Very poor growing up in this city, Smith had responded to a Statesman story about the Zilker Park camps that were meant to fight TB.

Expect my own report — with video — on this visit at some point, but Thompson, director of the camps, captured the kernel of the story.

Eva May Smith and Linda Hank Thompson.

“Yesterday, I had the pleasure of accompanying Michael Barnes to the home of May Smith who was a camper at Austin Sunshine Camps in the mid-1930’s. She credits the camp for giving her the self esteem she needed as a young girl growing up in poverty in Austin. Her story of hiding behind the stairwell during lunch so the other kids wouldn’t see she only had a biscuit to eat (made with water because they had no milk) was a highlight for me in understanding how far she had to come. Back in those days, kids were selected for the camp by how much they weighed. The camp was designed to nourish and feed kids in poverty at risk for tuberculosis. A great testimony, of a great lady.”