The Nature Conservancy Lunch is one midday repast that I rarely miss.
Folks from worlds of business, government and conservation gather in a big room each year to hear about measurable results around the state from this nonpartisan, science-based advocacy group.
The Conservancy’s ace in the hole is its leader, Laura Huffman, one of the city’s best public speakers. This day at the JW Marriott, she talked about how the preservation of Hill Country land is now a model for as far away as Africa; how the future of water in the state depends on conservation, not just new supplies; how the Columbia Bottomlands on the Brazos River are faring; how the Conservancy is building a pair of oyster reefs on the coast; and how the group pieced together land through purchase and, more importantly, conservation easements in the Davis Mountains.
During lunch, I sat between Deb Hastings, natural resources advisor to Texas Lt Gov. Dan Patrick, and Kristin Vassallo, director of philanthropy and operations for the Conservancy. You can bet that our chat was noteworthy on many levels.
The marquee act, however, was National Geographic photographer and adventurer Pete McBride. My newsroom neighbor Pam LeBlanc interviewed him later that afternoon — I look forward to that article — but I can report on McBride’s spellbinding public presentation, which began with his work documenting the adventures of others — such as walking the length of the Amazon River, not a comfortable assignment for a man from the arid West.
Then he moved on to his passion project, documented in his book “The Colorado River: Flowing through Conflict.” McBride had gone back to his childhood home near the source of the western Colorado and followed it by boat, atop a paddle board, on foot and in the air. The images, of course, are breathtaking, but more important are the ideas, including a long segment on the river’s dry delta. He was able to document the area in Mexico before, during and after a “pulse,” when water was briefly released from the upstream dams.
As readers of this column know, a buddy and I recently finished tracing 50 Texas rivers from their sources to their mouths. Nothing compared to the scale or stamina of McBride’s project, but as a friend texted me during lunch: “You must be in heaven.” How right he was.
Last week, author and dear friend Michael MacCambridge invited me to an early evening event at the Stark CenterPhysical Culture & Sport, located inside Royal-Memorial Stadium. He told me that news would be broken at this museum and archives, which I very much want to explore more thoroughly.
I walked in to find a couple hundred people milling around a tasty spread. A good two dozen of them turned out to be coworkers from the American-Statesman. So no scoops for me. Other than firing off a few tweets, I could relax and enjoy the company.
In fact, my colleague from the sports department, Kirk Bohls, quickly and elegantly wrote up the event, including a good number of the laugh lines as well as this two-part news: That the University of Texas has established two awards for sportswriters in the name of the legendary Dan Jenkins, also that the TCU graduate’s archives would land at the Stark Center.
Golf greats Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw were among those who spoke tenderly about Jenkins, but no one was funnier or more timely than the man of the hour. I count myself lucky to have heard him speak just this once.
When I joked to Jim Ritts, former commissioner of the LPGA and current director of the Paramount Theatre, that would I walk out without a scoop, he gave me a hot tip that I immediately took to our managing editor, John Bridges, who stood nearby.
As luck would have it, Ritts’ well-meaning tip was premature. The next day, our paper reported that Manchester United and Manchester City would most definitely not be playing an exhibition match at Royal-Memorial this summer. Good try.
Updegrove oversaw the $11 million redesign of the library’s core exhibits, which has increased visibility and visits. He planned two major symposiums at the library, the closely watched Civil Rights Summit in 2014 and the more modest Vietnam War Summit in 2016.
The former event, tied to the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which President Lyndon Baines Johnson championed and signed, attracted Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, as well as first ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush.
A consummate diplomat and spokesman, who understood the Johnson family’s unbreakable link to Central Texas history and culture, Updegrove also engaged speakers such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Sandra Day O’Connor, John Glenn, John Lewis, Hank Aaron, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
During his time in Austin, Updegrove penned “Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency.” He is working on his fifth book: “The Last Republicans: George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — a Father, a Son, and the End of an Era,” due out in 2017.
He earlier served as publisher of Newsweek in New York and manager of Time in Los Angeles and president of TimeCanada.
“Mark Updegrove is a rare leader possessed with vision, creativity, and organizational skills,” said Larry Temple, chairman, LBJ Foundation. “He is an entrepreneurial guy both with great ideas and the skills to implement them. The programming at the LBJ Library over the last eight years has brought national and even international acclaim to the library and The University of Texas. Credit that to Mark Updegrove. I won’t try to put a happy face on our disappointment on his leaving. While we will always be indebted to him for the rich legacy of accomplishment that he leaves at the Library, I just say: Darn it. We hate to see him go and we will miss him.”
This long week, we learned about child advocates, savored an opera, lingered over a humanities exhibit, mingled at a block party, toasted a nonagenarian and shared an Austin history book with the masses.
CASAblanca for CASA of Travis County
The take-away from this large gala: CASA of Travis County is on track to become the first large urban group of Court Appointed Special Advocates to place a trained volunteer with each abused or neglected youth within the area’s system. We learned this from impassioned Board President David Rubin, who followed equally stirring Executive Director Laura Wolf at the dais halfway through what, for some guests, was a six-hour event at the JW Marriott. Gratifying to find that this key nonprofit has doubled the size of its guest list and provided last year individualized help for 1,847 children, 722 of which went home to safe permanent families. During the same year, however, 700 children still needed advocates. I sat with amazing Judges Darlene Byrne and Aurora Martinez Jones, who split up the foster care cases at the same courtroom, part of the Texas foster care system that is not, as one federal judge ruled, overall “broken.”
Austin Opera’s “The Daughter of the Regiment”
Funny opera? Sure. It’s not all sturm und drang at Austin Opera. Donizetti‘s “The Daughter of the Regiment” — a young adoptee of a Napoleonic regiment must go through multiple tests before landing love — is not always laugh-out-loud funny, but every minute is smile-out-loud funny. The cast at our Sunday matinee was terrific from top to bottom and, of course, they and the orchestra sounded magnificent under maestro Richard Buckley. The combination of French (singing) and English (speaking) was jolting at first, but we took to it quickly. We’re always happy to see fresh faces in the crowd for this leading Austin arts group.
This is something we’ve been waiting to see: More of the vast collection at the Ransom Center on display for the public. With a few other lucky souls, we peeked at a preview of the exhibit, “Stories to Tell,” which will be up through July. It seems fairly evenly split among American and European literature, performing arts, film, photography and visual arts, sharing the back stories along the way. One could spend hours there and I plan to return. One encouraging bit of news: The Ransom folks plan to devote one corner of the first-floor galleries to timely, rotating samples from this collection, which ranks among the finest in the world. We enjoyed catching up with longtime photography curator Roy Flukinger and still relatively new performing arts curator Eric Colleary, as well as Austin Way editor extraordinaire Kathy Blackwell.
KMFA’s 50th Anniversary Block Party
If you are going to celebrate the 50th year for a community treasure, you invite in the whole community. And what better place to do so than the Fair Market events center in East Austin on one of the fairest days of the year? You had your food trucks, your scattered entertainment, your face painting (I demurred), your mingling over drinks. Kids seemed overjoyed, but frankly, who wouldn’t have a good time at such an event? KMFA also plans its first and only gala ever for this golden year. We look forward to it.
Patricia Fiske at 90
She’s an original in so many ways. A beauty, she grew up quickly and took on New York with all the gusto of her generation. More recently, she’s been an Austin poet, actress, memoirist, singer and peace monger by her own description. So when it came time to toast Patricia Fiske at her 90th birthday party, we couldn’t resist. The well-assembled event at the Zilker Clubhouse included comfort food and drinks, a tent to ward off inclement weather and — a special treat — the Austin Symphony Big Band. Now, I love the 1940s sound — “my music” as Patricia aptly remarked — but I’ve rarely heard it rendered so expertly as this during this loveliest of lovely nights.
Three dates for ‘Indelible Austin’
Thanks for asking: “Indelible Austin: Selected Histories” is on target to receive its third printing. And Vol. 2 is due out in the fall. Meanwhile, we’re nearing the 5oth public appearance related to this collection of my historical columns from the American-Statesman, published by Waterloo Press and benefiting the Austin History Center Association. In the course of a week, we talked to the Governor’s Mansion Docents at Chateau Bellevue, during the Angelina Eberly Luncheon — along with Saundra Kirk, Lonnie Limon and Evan Tanaguchi — at the Driskill Hotel, and to an Episcopalian gathering known as Pub Church that assembles casually but thoughtfully at Scholz Garten. Enjoyed the public dialogue with leader Stephen Kinney on the beauty of the people of Austin.
J.C. Shakespeare, who asked on of the sharpest questions, shared this excerpt from “Indelible Austin” on Facebook.
“I fall in love with Austin every day when I leave our bungalow and walk downhill to the social center of the city. Unabashedly, I cherish our arts, music, movies, fashion, sports, media, museums, nightlife, eateries, shops, and parties. I sing the praises of Great Streets, the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, and the State capitol. I linger over the reflections on Lady Bird Lake and the arcing green hills along the horizon. I boast about the University of Texas — ranked in the world’s Top 30, according to the Times of London — and how Austin Community College responds nimbly to our business ecology. As soon as I hit the social circuit by entering a room full of Austinites, I’m electrified. These people are worth knowing!”