It was like drifting from one waking dream to another.
I first encountered that certain fantastical aspect of the Waller Creek Conservancy, which plans a series of high-design parks along a neglected stretch of downtown waterway, at a large dinner party in the Four Seasons penthouse of Tom and Lynn Meredith. All sorts of important and influential Austinites were present on that fateful and whimsical night. Despite the mammoth scale of the proposed project, I sensed that those gathered in the room high above the creek, which included fellow Conservancy visionaries, Melanie Barnes and Melba Whatley, could get it done.
Over the next few years, a series of magical benefit parties and concerts were staged with the help of Lonesome Dove chef Tim Love and C3 partner Charles Attal at the Stubb’s complex right on the banks of the creek. This time, there was something tangible to celebrate: The group had broken ground on its Waterloo Park segment with the generous help of a $15 million grant from Ross Moody and the Moody Foundation.
Well, this year’s dinner was like walking on a cloud. Everybody, including Conservancy CEO Peter Mullan and his gracious wife, Melanie Mullan, a strategic advisor, fairly glowed with felicity. Melanie led a group of her lively friends in a conversation at our table that could, from my perspective, have gone on all night. But then there was a concert by alt-pop duo Oh Wonder waiting just outside the door of the events room.
Victor Emanuel Conservation Awards
Mickey Burleson wanted to set the record straight. She did not plant Blackland Prairie seeds by moonlight at her ranch with her late husband, BobBurleson, because of some nebulous spiritual reasons. The pair, credited with restoring some of the last remnants of a critical and highly endangered ecosystem, simply broadcast the carefully collected grains after the end of long days because the seeds would have turned too hot if stored with other remnants from their old-fashioned grass seed harvester.
In probably the most thoughtful charity swag ever, guests at the Victor Emanuel Conservation Award luncheon, which benefits Travis Audubon, each received a small “Ecosystem in a Bag” of more than 1,000 grains from Native American Seed company.Some of the seeds in the Blackland Prairie Mix were descendants of those collected by the Burlesons. Heaven on Earth.
Mickey Burleson accepted this year’s award from titular award from Valerie Bristol, the chief warrior on the Balcones Canyonlands preservation. She was last year’s honoree. I’ve doted on everyone who has received this prize, including its namesake, Victor Emanuel, the nature guide who set next to me during the luncheon. Consider the rest of the honor roll: Bob Ayres, Georgean Kyle, Paul Kyle, J. David Bamberger, Carter Smith and Andy Sansom.
To borrow a phrase from frequent emcee Evan Smith at an earlier benefit, they all could be my spirit animals.
You’d need a heart of stone to turn away from the stories generated by American Gateways, the group that provides legal services to immigrants who can’t afford them. The staff in Austin, San Antonio and Waco, along with an army of pro bono attorneys, deal with heartbreaking cases every day. They don’t need to be told that our immigration system is broken. They are on the front lines.
The second annual Gateway Awards were distributed during a taco dinner at the new AFS event room at its complex in the Linc. (I saw the bedazzling movie musical, “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” there on my birthday last week.) The entertainment at the banquet was pretty amazing, too, starting with the New Generation Children’s Choir, made up of African refugees, and ending with San Antonio-based, all-female Mariachi Las Coronelas, who know how to get an audience going.
Juan Belman, a dreamer and the University of Texas graduate who famously confronted President Barack Obama at the Paramount Theatre, picked up the Social Justice Award. Lawyer Valerie Barker of Baker Botts, LLP, was named Pro Bono Attorney of the Year. Charismatic Jae Kim from Chi’Lantro Korean barbecue acclaim, won the Immigrant of Achievement Award.
Makes me proud that American Gatewaysis based right here in Austin.
Sherry Matthews knew exactly how to stage a fitting tribute to her late companion and leading Austin architect Dick Clark.
She and her team gathered almost 1,000 of Clark’s admirers at the Paramount Theatre. She drafted former University of Texas School of Architecture Dean Fritz Steiner to give the event extra dignity and stature. She spared a few minutes for leaders who graciously recognized Clark’s legacies to UT students, to cancer research and to what he called his family, his firm, which has produced some of the city’s best designers and buildings, especially in the realm of restaurants and bars, but also splendid modern residences.
Yet Matthews’ most powerful tool was a long, beautifully composed documentary film about Clark that should be seen by anyone who wants to understand our city. It also reminded me how much I wish my life was more like Clark’s. He embraced every moment and all the people around him. He didn’t sweat the small stuff and loved nothing better than to work out the infinite puzzles of design.
And, oh yes, one of Clark’s buddies, Willie Nelson, rounded out the tribute with a few songs. Going in, attendees received a clever napkin printed with the evening’s program; going out, a gorgeous little booklet about Clark’s work with words from the rumpled master: “Architecture is not just about a building. It’s about people. No matter how beautiful or functional the design, architecture’s true meaning is found in those who live their lives in the spaces we create.”
Celebration of Children in Nature
John Covert Watson must have had something to do with it. The visionary who purchased a trashed-out sinkhole above the Pedernales River and helped turn it into Westcave Preserve, a premier nature education site, must have also paved the way for the extraordinary partnerships that the nonprofit has forged with larger efforts such as the City of Austin’s Cities Connecting Children to Nature program.
That campaign won the E. Lee Walker Award for Collaboration during the Celebration of Children in Nature gala at the Four Seasons Hotel. Others included Bonnie Baskin of the Science Mill in Johnson City, who took home the John Covert Watson Award for Vision, and Jennifer L. Bristol, who accepted the Westcave Award for Enduring Dedication, and Keep Austin Beautiful, which snagged the John F. Ahrns Award for Environmental Education.
Each honor was accompanied by an adroit video and inspirational speeches. You couldn’t walk away without feeling the social tides were running in the right direction.
Party for the Parks
This event should make everyone who loves nature, communities and our modern city beam with pride. Brazos Hall was filled with mostly young, mostly fit, mostly fabulous fans of the Austin Parks Foundation, which picks up the tab for a lot of our underfunded parklands, including some of the total for the recently unveiled redo of Republic Square Park.
Everything about this group is admirable. And wandering among all the open, accessible guests, I couldn’t help thinking about the evolution of attitudes toward big challenges in Austin. When I arrived in the early 1980s, there were plenty of leaders who felt that big improvements should be done by the federal or state governments, the latter often through UT. As time when on — and city built more resources — people turned to city government.
But that’s not where the action is. No, the action is here among the people willing to roll up their sleeves and take care of our needs, among them our universally loved, but sadly sometimes neglected parks and natural areas. One last bravo to C3 and the Austin City Limits Music Festival for pumping millions into the Foundation every year. You’ve more than earned your permanent place in our little heaven.
Face facts, it’s still summer, weather-wise in Austin. So let’s look back at some recent Texas titles before rummaging through the fall books.
“The Material Culture of German Texans.” Kenneth Hafertepe. Texas A&M Press. This is a big, beautiful book on a subject that will delight antiquarians and collectors as well as the just plain curious. Heftertepe, who chairs the department of museum studies at Baylor University, has already provided two volumes essential to understanding our region, “Abner Cook: Master Builder on the Texas Frontier” and “A Guide to the Historic Buildings of Fredericksburg and Gillespie County.” Here, he delves into a rich variety of vernacular architecture, as well as covering cabinetmakers, interiors, public buildings, houses of worship and — smart to include — graveyards and grave markers. Hafertepe speaks on his book’s subject at the Neill-Cochran House, designed by Abner Cook, on Sept. 25.
“Haiku Austin: Vol 1.” Carlotta Eike Stankiewicz. Haiku Empire Press. Small gift books are all the rage. And we approve. Not every opus should double as a weapon. Stankiewicz’s slender volume brandishes its bright, quirky images and light, quirky words quite effectively. Don’t seek profundities here. Instead enjoy page after page of knowing smiles inspired by our town’s beloved singularities. Sample “Lucy in Disguise,” based on the costume shop on South Congress: “sequins and Spandex/drag queens flirt with evil clowns/grown-ups play dress-up.”
“We Come to Our Senses.” Odie Lindsey. Norton. I look forward to reading this book more carefully and interviewing the Nashville-based author, who has lived in Austin and sets some of his stories here. Lindsey will appear at the Texas Book Festival Nov. 5-6. I can tell you from what I’ve read so far: His dialogue and scene-setting ring absolutely true. His prose reminds me, to some extent, of the plays and the novel, “Rules for Werewolves,” by Austinite Kirk Lynn, which I understand is being considered for movie or TV treatment. Lindsey’s vets are characters of natural interest, given the generational involvement in what seem like endless wars fought for an American public that doesn’t much care.
“Finding Dorothy Scott: Letters of a WASP Pilot.” Sarah Byrn Rickman. Texas Tech University Press. The author is one of the key keepers of the flame regarding the nearly lost history of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, who trained in West Texas and ferried planes from base to base during World War II. (We recently wrote about one of the WASP flier, Susie Winston Bain, pegged to an excellent exhibit at the Bullock Texas History Museum.) Here, Rickman presents the letters of Scott, preserved by her twin brother, which reveal the flier’s inner life, but also the day-to-day routines of the WASP forces. Incredibly ambitious, Scott died in a mid-air crash at age 23.
“The Mammals of Texas.” (Seventh Edition). David J. Schimdly and Robert D. Bradley. University of Texas Press. I love this book. And I’ve used it in the field for years. I can’t tell you what has been improved in this, the Seventh Edition, but what will likely open the eyes of first-timers are the number of whales, porpoises and dolphins that live just off our coast, as well as the numerous introduced species, such as eastern Thompson’s gazelles, Barbary sheep and Sika deer. There are even Japanese macaques loose in Central Texas. The authors have not left out domesticated mammals, which fewer Texans could identify these days as the state urbanizes and suburbanizes. One thing: The range maps, organized by county reports, seem pretty primitive for such a image-conscious publisher like UT Press.
“A Kineñero’s Journey: On Family, Learning and Public Service.” Lauro F. Cavazos and Gene B. Preuss. Texas Tech University Press. A Kineñero is a descendant of Mexicans who worked on the King Ranch in the 1800s. Former Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos — appointed by President Ronald Reagan — counts himself as one. His father served as ranch foreman. A longtime educator, Cavazos also was president of Texas Tech University. He is assisted here in recalling his journey by Preuss, a professor of history at University of Houston-Downtown. The father of 10 children with Peggy Ann Murdoch, Cavazos was blessed with a wide-ranging interest in learning and, especially in interactions among cultures.
“Texas Land Grants, 1750-1900: A Documentary History.” John Martin Davis, Jr. McFarland. Despite the cover art, this is a serious book about serious history. What could be more important to a country than the claim to the land and its resources? Especially in Texas, where, until the modern era, much of what happened here happened because of land grants. Davis, a retired tax attorney who lives in Fort Davis, is an authority on maps. He patiently takes the reader through the history of Spanish and Mexican grants, military and emigrant headrights, Republic of Texas practices, grants among disputed territories in the Trans-Nueces and Trans-Pecos regions, as well as homestead, education and internal improvement grants. He also provides lots of images of sample grants.
UPDATES: References to Lauro Cavazos, Kenneth Hafertepe and Sarah Byrn Rickman have been corrected.
“Nobody’s heard of us,” quips the lady at the Bosque Collection, an historical archive locatedon the courthouse square in Meridian. “They say: Where?”
Few in Austin knew anything about our intended summer retreat. Exceptions: Those who had lived in the Waco area, 45 miles to the east; those who remembered late singer-songwriter Steven Fromholz, who wrote gracefully about this area; and those who had discovered its lonely roads as back ways to and from Fort Worth.
As one might guess from the name of the county seat (population 1,500), and a long, silvery creek by the same name that runs through the southern portion of the the county, the area lies on the 98th meridian, which separates, according to late UT historian Walter Prescott Webb, the East from the West. So farms in one direction dissolving into ranches in the other.
Meridian is called the “Top of the Hill Country.” In addition to the conventional juniper-draped limestone outcroppings, the region also includes generous servings of open prairies and crosstimbers. The many-branched main waterway and the county are well named — Bosque means “forested river” in Spanish — for the river banks are crowded with thickets of very old oaks.
We stayed for two weeks at the Young Ranch Guest House, located five minutes northwest of Meridian. The 100-year-old Norse stone farmhouse catches the dry breezes in the morning and evening. The ranch itself proved ideal for running our two Labrador retrievers through still-green hayfields and down to a doggy swimming hole on the North Bosque River.
Debbie and Jeff Young, who live not far away in a more contemporary house at the crest of a hill, made gracious hosts. They delivered a gift bottle of red from the local winery, Red Caboose, and must have wondered what we would do with two weeks out here during the two hottest weeks of August.
Plenty and, at the same time, not much at all.
We read a lot. Marcel Proust for me. Hard-shell writers Elmore Leonardand John D. McDonald for Kip. We indulged in creative projects and The New Yorker. Lots of Summer Olympics on TV. Birdwatching near home, hiking at Meridian State Park; swimming at Olsen Pool in nearby Clifton; a few cultural outings, such as one to the previously visited Bosque Museum, also in Clifton.
It’s one of the biggest and best local history museums in the state, which this time offered two excellent temporary exhibits on the Civilian Conservation Corps in Texas and the German settlement of the Llano Estacado. We also learned more about the Norwegian settlers in southeast Bosque County, which left behind clear influences on language, customs, faith and enough of a connection to the Old Country that the King of Norway once visited here.
Back at the guest house, we cooked and ate light, healthy meals, having stocked up at Trader Joe’s in Austin and Fort Worth, filling in the blanks at the modern Brookshire Brothers supermarket in Clifton, and at the smaller, friendly, old-fashioned Brookshire Brothers grocery store in Meridian.
One evening, we ate out at Zur Autobahn. On Texas 22 between Merdian and Cranfills Gap, a German-American couple serve up very traditional, very authentic, very good German food.
The dogs loved the place, including the wildlife (cottontails, jackrabbits, deer, etc.) and domesticated animals (gorgeous horses on the ranch proper) that went along with mostly leash-free adventures. (We prepared them with rattlesnake vaccine in advance, just in case.)
What about the heat? Didn’t really bother us much. We stayed inside during the hottest hours. Shade and breezes and brilliant Hill Country nights did the rest.
Expect my own report — with video — on this visit at some point, but Thompson, director of the camps, captured the kernel of the story.
“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.”
“Our club has a passion for trying to help foster children,” Kelly writes. “And we host, with Child Protective Services, an annual adoption-match picnic where children needing adoptive parents play games and enjoy time with volunteers, other children and prospective parents.”
The group’s recent picnic attracted 72 children — 44 boys and 28 girls — along with 28 parents and 60 or so foster parents, CPS workers and maybe 30 volunteers. They played Lego robotics, volleyball and kickball. They ran an obstacle course and bounced around inflated houses. There were craft stations, a photo booth, makeup from Mary Kay for teens, a DJ and picnic fare.
“The prospective parents just casually interact, no formal interview,” Kelly reports. “Before they attend, they go through screening and are certified by authorities for adoption purposes. Many start as foster parents then adopt, I think.”
Of course, more parents are needed. Think about it.