Clients were the stars at three big Austin benefits

It’s a delicate maneuver to book a charity’s client to speak at a benefit event. After all, they usually are not practiced public speakers. And without the intervening filter of an edited video, pathos too easily could turn to bathos.

Yet nonprofits are taking that chance more often. In three recent and very different cases, it was extremely effective.

Melanie Barnes and Melba Whatley at ‘Words of Hope’ dinner for Caritas of Austin. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

For instance, during the “Words of Hope” dinner for Caritas, one could hardly beat the soaring but grounded rhetoric of Lynn and Tom Meredith, winners of the Harvey Penick Award. Their message of inclusion, collaboration and innovation as part of Austin problem-solving should be distributed to everyone who shares a love for this city.

RELATED: Austin couple shares the secrets of civic leadership.

Yet it was formerly homeless client of Caritas who also held the hundreds of guests in her spell. She grew up in an abusive household and married into one. Her life on the streets included acts which she now cannot bear to mention. For the first time in her long life, she lives in a safe, clean place of her own, thanks to Caritas and its partners. Powerful stuff.

Roberto Varela, Nico Ramsey and Johnny Devora at ‘Building Healthy Futures’ luncheon for AIDS Services of Austin. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Similarly, at the “Building Healthy Futures” luncheon for Aids Services of Austin, a parade of speakers and videos briskly and efficiently made the case for the nonprofit’s efforts to end new HIV cases in the coming decade or so. Nobody harnesses the power of numbers and graphs like this group, which recently opened its one-stop ASA Moody Medical Clinic.

RELATED: Clinic is one-stop center to help treat, prevent HIV.

All this was upstaged by two women — one transexual — who told their contrasting life stories linked together by HIV status. They were identified as Foxy and Charlotte. The first described her life on the streets — euphemistically a “social worker” — with trenchant wit. The other was quiet, serious as she talked about the special challenges for her family.

Dionne and K.C. Barner at ‘Imaginarium’ for the Thinkery. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Lastly, the “Imaginarium” for the Thinkery always promises a circus-like offering of educational entertainment. Thus we witnessed the vintage tools of the Daniel G. Benes Science Show and the electrifying — up to a point — Tesla coils of Arcattack. (Repetition does not always increase attraction.)

RELATED: Putting the think into the Thinkery.

Again, it was two Thinkery clients, Kendall Farr and Caleb Farr, who, through clever videos made the best case for the hugely popular outfit formerly known as the children’s museum. (At least I assume the Farr siblings are Thinkery regulars.) These bantering kids dressed scientific costumes are so talented, let’s hope they continue to show us exactly what it means to teach and to please.

 

UT’s Latin American Collection is a wonder of the library world

The Nettie Benson Latin American Collection is a University of Texas treasure you should get to know better.

Leslie Montoya, Maria Farahani and Ernesto Rios at a UT dinner for The Benson Latin American Collection.

Founded almost 100 years ago in 1921 with the acquisition of Mexican historian and bibliophile Genaro García‘s library, it grew vastly under the direction of UT professor Carlos Castañeda — partial namesake for the Perry-Castañeda Library — then under historian Nettie Lee Benson. For decades, the Collection has been the finest and most complete library of its kind in the Americas.

When I did research there in the 1980s for my doctoral dissertation, it was referred to by scholars as the “Library of Congress for Latin America.” Sort of like the Ransom Center across campus, its leaders had collected so many books, manuscripts and other objects in its chosen fields, people travel from around the world to visit it.

Crucially, it houses materials that back up some of what was lost in the recent fire that gutted the Brazil Museum.

The Collection, as well as its intimate partner, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies, are now receiving more attention locally.

At “An Evening for Discovery,” a recent benefit dinner at the AT&T Center, I ran into many old and new friends, including Maria Cisne Farahani, the woman behind Fara Coffee, which benefits workers in her native Nicaragua (we talked about the brisk change in political will in that country); Monica Peraza, who updated me on the latest at the Long Center, where she now captains the board of directors; attorney and event host Becky Beaver, who is becoming one of the Benson’s most eloquent promoters; Leslie Montoya, a local Univision reporter; Ernesto Rois, who is in the medical parts business (I don’t think that’s the right term, but you understand); and Adriana Pacheco Roldán, a scholar who, with Fernando Macias-Garza, gave $50,000 for an endowment to kick off the Benson’s centennial celebration.

RELATED: We bow before these honorees, including Maria Cisne Farahani.

Texas history museum names new director you might know

You might already know the newly appointed director of the Bullock Texas State History Museum. That’s because hyper-competent Margaret Koch has already twice served as the museum’s interim director as well as its director of exhibits and deputy director.

The Bullock Texas State History Museum names Margaret Koch as director. Contributed

Koch previously served as director of exhibitions and research as well as exhibition designer at the Missouri History Museum. In Austin since 2013, she has supervised award-winning shows and has widened the museum’s focus to include previously underreported histories.

She has also overseen improvements and renovations, including conversion of the museum’s IMAX theater projection to an advanced laser format, and a multi-million-dollar rethinking of the first floor gallery, to reopen in November as “Becoming Texas.”

RELATED: Museum urges visitors to rodeo across Texas.

The Bullock will become even more relevant as the corridor north of the Capitol is reshaped and a new cultural space — with a still-undetermined focus — opens in a state office tower across the street from the Bullock and the Blanton Museum of Art.

RELATED: Life and death on the Texas-Mexico border 100 years ago.

“Margaret is an experienced and trusted leader,” said Rod Welsh, executive director of the State Preservation Board, the agency that oversees the museum as well as the State Capitol building and grounds, including its statuary, and the Capitol Visitors Center. She “will keep the Bullock at the forefront of best contemporary museum practices as the institution continues to produce new and exciting programs.”

Texas White House at LBJ Ranch closed for now

The National Park Service announced Friday that it will close the “Texas White House,” once the ranch home of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his family in Stonewall, as well as the adjacent Pool House, until further notice because of health and safety concerns arising from water leakage in various places in the main house.

The Texas White House and pool at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, taken in 2012. Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman

For decades, these were the most private zones of the ranch, parts of the LBJ National Historical Park that, until 2012, were reserved for the Johnson family and not generally open to the public.

 RELATED: Exploring the inside of the Texas White House

The Park Service said they will remain closed until the service can confirm that the two buildings do not pose safety concerns.

“We don’t actually know what the problem is,” said Susanne McDonald, the national park superintendent. “We are going into an investigative stage to figure out what is happening. We are focusing on weaknesses in the structure that might be causing water intrusion. We have a few areas that have caused us problems, but we haven’t been able to figure out the exact location where the water is coming in. It could be absolutely nothing, but I don’t want to take a risk with our employees or our visitors.”

The modest buildings, preserved in 1960s styles, look less like the headquarters of the world’s most powerful person and more like a relaxing retreat where your beloved country relatives live. That is, until one notices the three attached televisions ready to broadcast the three big networks of the time.

Interiors of Texas White House were first seen by the public in 2012, preserved in their 1960s styles. Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman

“They just weren’t showy people,” former Superintendent Russ Whitlock said when the buildings were opened to the public in 2012. “The ranch and the ranch house take the Johnsons off the pedestal of president and first lady and make them into people we can relate to.”

In his recent book, “LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval,” Ken Longley, the newly named director of the LBJ Presidential Library, describes how the ranch served as a safety valve for the  sometimes volcanic LBJ, especially during his traumatic final year in office. Repeatedly during 1968, the president retreated to the ranch, took a swim, then a ate a snack on TV trays, or a tooled around the Hill Country with family or friends to relax.

All other park facilities remain open to the public. These include the Johnson settlement, President Johnson’s boyhood home, and the park visitor center in Johnson City. The LBJ Ranch driving tour is not affected, and the LBJ Ranch hangar visitor center is open as normal.

UPDATE: The quote from Superintendent McDonald was added after this was first posted.

Best Texas books: ‘The Cedar Choppers’ by Ken Roberts

The best Texas book I’ve read of late was “The Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing” by Ken Roberts (Texas A&M Press). It doubles as one of the most instructive books about Austin’s history and culture.

Roberts, a former professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, knows something about deep research. For this story about the people who once honeycombed the hills west and north of Austin, he talked to survivors and descendants. He scoured the internet for additional material and used Ancestry.com for more than just constructing family trees. He also consulted dozens of newspaper articles and books for historical context.

RELATED: Shooting heard “all over South Austin.”

Roberts grew up in Tarrytown and first encountered hard Hill Country boys on the low bridge over the Colorado River at Red Bud Trail just below Tom Miller Dam. That fraught meeting must have stuck with him. He later read feature stories and columns about “cedar choppers” — as the fiercely independent hill folk were called, not always kindly — by Mark Lisheron and John Kelso in the American-Statesman.

Roberts confirms that these mostly Scots-Irish clans, who arrived as early as the 1850s, migrated down through the Appalachian and the Ozark mountains. They grew small plots of corn for cornmeal that didn’t need milling, for corn whiskey distilled in the hollows, and to feed their roaming livestock. They hunted game and cut native ashe juniper (cedar) for use as fence posts and charcoal. Cedar remained their main cash crop for buying what they could not carve out the hills.

(You catch glimpses of this life in John Graves‘ “Goodbye to a River” and “Hard Scrabble.” And, as riparian expert Kevin Anderson reminds us, in Roy Bedichek‘s “Adventures of a Texas Naturalist.”)

In fact, during some periods, they thrived and fared better than those who tended cotton as tenant farmers on the prairies to the east. Old-growth cedar found in cool, deep canyons rose tall and straight. The red hearts were especially resistant to insects and rot. Hill Country cedar was shipped by rail all over the Southwest and towns such as Cedar Park supported multiple cedar yards, especially in the years after World War II.

The hill folk rarely took part in city activities. Some resisted the Confederate forces, others joined them.

Before Austin spread west and the life of the cedar choppers declined, the clans intermarried and helped each other out. Some also resorted to quick-tempered violence. Roberts does not stint on the crime reporting (see link above).

After reading Roberts’ book, I took a little trip to the Eanes History Center, which happened to throw an open house that weekend (it doesn’t post regular public hours). I learned much more among the old structures where the tiny, unincorporated town hosted a school that grew into the Eanes school district, long before the surrounding land became neighborhoods such as West Lake Hills, Rollingwood, Barton Creek, Rob Roy, Cuernavaca, etc.

I plan to interview Roberts later this summer. We’re not done with this subject by any means.

Throngs uplifted by Hope Awards and Taste of Mexico

Interfaith is very Austin. The city is open to ideas. And to faith. It is no wonder that Austin hosts multiple interfaith groups, which not only encourage dialogue among religionists but also action based on shared convictions.

Ali Kahn and Rizwana Bano
at the Hope Awards for iACT. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

One of those groups, iAct, helps refugees, fixes up homes and provides other opportunities for talking and doing good together. Most years, they work very closely with the American-Stateman’s Season for Caring program. More than one recipient from that annual campaign to help the neediest were present for the Hope Awards, iACT’s annual tribute to interfaith leaders at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

SEASON: Blinded by bomb, Iraqi refugee seeks to counsel others.

After some unavoidable fluff, the ceremony picked speed and gravity when Executive Director Simone Talma Flowers used her not insubstantial oratorical skills to lay out the group’s mission. Then Rev. Stephen W. Kinney, iACT’s board president, introduced the first Hope recipient, Imam Mohamed-Umer Esmail, whose pastoral humility and dignity reach far beyond his Nueces Mosque.

SEASON: Family escaped war in Syria to start over.

The remainder of the program was given over to a conversation between another Hope honoree, Luci Baines Johnson, and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith. There isn’t a better public interviewer in town and Smith pushed Johnson to reflect on sad state of civic life today. Yet Johnson focused instead on the inspiration of her parents and her own guarded but urgent optimism for her children and grandchildren. At any rate, she is an increasingly disciplined speaker who struck just the right chord for the evening.

SEASON: Caring for others keeps senior going.

TASTE OF MEXICO

Mexic-Arte Museum first staged Taste of Mexico on the street. Then the sample-and-sip fiesta moved indoors and slipped into a more traditional a gala format. The benefit, which attracts a wide range of ages and cultures, now seems to have hits its stride at Brazos Hall.

Chris Gonzales, Sara Palma and Paul Chavarria during an absolutely packed and festive Taste of Mexico benefit for Mexic-Arte Museum at Brazos Hall. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

A dizzying array of food and drink could be had on the first floor, while the open-sided deck upstairs was set up more like a crafts market. The sheer number of culinary options was overwhelming. And the copious crowd love it, swirling from one table to another just enough abandon, given the generous sips of tequila and other potent potables. At times, it felt like a pop-up nightclub, but with better food than any nightclub has ever assembled.

The program was miraculously short. And a good thing, because the speakers could not be heard beyond the front rows. I like this event. It think you would, too.

Last chance to hit the best of Austin spring party circuit

Soon it will be hot. Very hot. For many, too hot to party in Austin. That’s why we urge you to savor the last semblance of spring and hit this circuit of more than 40 parties hard.

April 26: Little Artist, Big Artist for Chula League. Mondo Gallery.

April 27-29: Austin Food + Wine Festival. Auditorium Shores and Fair Market.

April 27-28: Texas Burlesque Fest. Paramount Theatre.

April 28: Putting on the Ritz Gala for Sam Bass Theatre. Marriott North La Frontera.

April 28: Songs for Trees for TreeFolks. Lemon Lounge.

April 28: Town Lake Links 30th Anniversary Celebration. UT campus locations.

April 28: Council on At-Risk Youth Distinguished Speaker Event. AT&T Conference Center.

April 28: Viva EASB! for Elizabeth Ann Seton Board. Camp Mabry.

April 29: An Afternoon in Neverland from Ballet Austin Guild. Driskill Hotel.

April 29: A Marvelous Party: Delovely for Penfold Theatre. Kindred Oaks.

April 29: Bollywood Meets Borscht Belt from Hindu Charities and Shalom Austin. JCC Community Hall.

May 1: Great Futures Spring Luncheon for Boys & Girls Clubs. Fairmont Austin Hotel.

May 1: Hope Awards for iACT. Bullock Texas State History Museum.

May 2: Taste of Mexico for Mexic-Arte Museum. Brazos Hall.

May 3: I Heart HealthStart Gala. Gather Austin.

May 3: Opal Divine’s American Whiskey Festival. Austin City Hotel.

May 3: Evening of Honors for Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights. UT Alumni Center.

May 4: The Blue Bash for Austin Chamber Music Center. River Place Country Club.

May 4: Best Party Ever for Leadership Austin. Brazos Hall.

May 4: Austin Book Awards for Austin Library Foundation. Austin Central Library.

May 4: HeartGift Gala. JW Marriott Hotel.

May 4: Texas Monthly Live. Paramount Theatre.

May 5: Red, Hot and Soul. Zach Theatre.

May 5-6: Pecan Street Festival. East Sixth Street.

May 5: Down & Derby for the Shade Project. Mercury Hall.

May 6: Urban Roots Austin Tour de Farm. Fair Market.

May 8: Philanthropitch Austin. LBJ Auditorium.

May 8: Shoal Creek Awards. Cirrus Logic Conference Space.

May 9: Farm to Plate for Sustainable Food Center. Barr Mansion.

May 10: Due West: West Austin Studio Tour kick-off party. Central Austin Library Gallery.

May 10: Official Drink of Austin Party for Austin Food and Wine Alliance. Fairmont Austin Hotel.

May 11: Reach for the Stars Gala for Ann Richards School Foundation. Four Seasons Hotel.

May 11: Emancipet Luncheon. Hyatt Regency Austin.

May 12: Paramount Gala with the Gipsy Kings. Paramount Theatre.

May 12: Mother’s Day Jazz Brunch for the Frederick Douglass Club of Austin. Crowne Plaza Austin.

May 14: There’s No Such Thing As a Free Lunch for People’s Community Clinic. Four Seasons Hotel.

May 15: Spring For Water for Clean Water Action. Zilker Clubhouse.

May 17: Molly Awards Gala for the Texas Observer. Four Seasons Hotel.

May 19: Austin Under 40 Awards Gala. JW Marriott Hotel.

May 20: Cochon555 Culinary Competition. Four Seasons Hotel.

Al Gore picks up Lady Bird Award from LBJ Foundation

On April 24, the Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb handed over a blue globe resting in bronze hands to former Vice-President Al Gore as part of the 2018 Lady Bird Johnson Environmental Award ceremony in New York City.

Lynda Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson honor Al Gore with the 2018 Lady Bird Johnson Environmental Award. Contributed by LBJ Foundation

Also at the Metropolitan Club that evening, Mark K. Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation, conducted an open conversation with Gore, one of the world’s leading activists on the subject of global warming.

The foundation created the award to keep alive the late first lady’s commitment to environmental awareness.

RELATED: Oral history rekindles Lady Bird Johnson’s voice.

“As Lady Bird did in the 20th Century, Al Gore’s actions acknowledge this is far bigger than one political philosophy but about what affects and unites us all,” said Larry Temple, chairman of the LBJ Foundation. “He is leading the conservation movement and elevating the public’s consciousness on the importance of acting to solve the climate crisis.”

 

Glimpse inside Austin parties for history and the arts

Two subjects galvanized this year’s Angelina Eberly Luncheon, which benefits the Austin History Center Association, the nonprofit ally of the Austin History Center.

Monte Akers and Charles Peveto at Angelina Eberly Luncheon for the Austin History Center Association. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

One hot topic was the Driskill Hotel, traditional site of the always gratifying midday event. Leading the public chat about the venue’s rollercoaster past was Monte Akers, attorney and author, whose “The Grand Dame of Austin: A History of the Driskill Hotel” was recently released by Waterloo Press (must be transparent, also the publisher of my two books).

His best anecdote, however, was told off the cuff: Before lunch a lady introduced herself as Helen Corbitt. Could she really be the celebrated Driskill chef who had popularized the cheese soup that we sipped in the lobby? (She died in 1978.) Perhaps it was her daughter? Akers asked around. But the well-attired woman had vanished for a while like a Driskill ghost. Luncheon chairman Charles Peveto put the questions to rest: That was Helen Covert, not Helen Corbitt.

Also on the stage in the banquet room were Luci Baines Johnson and Julian Read. Johnson’s family was closely associated with the hotel. For decades, LBJ held periodic court in the ornate 1886 palace. His daughter told the stories behind the stories, including the fact that LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson‘s first breakfast date at the hotel was later rendered in several conflicting versions by her parents and their friends.

Read, one of the greats of public relations and public affairs, shared a detailed history of the hotel’s modern ownership. Best known in some circles for his work with Texas Gov. John Connally, Read represented the Driskill through several of those owners, all struggling to bring the building up to its historic potential.

The other subject? The association plunged deep into the campaign to give over a portion of the shuttered Faulk Library to the center, which long ago maxed out its storage, exhibition and office space. It would take $11.8 million for critical infrastructure to bring it up to code, then another $3 million for the center to expand into two floors and the basement. For a long while, leaders have endorsed a public-private partnership that could mean little or no cost to taxpayers. Luckily, in the audience this day were Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, as well as former mayors Lee Cooke and Frank Cooksey, all strong backers of the center.

Out into the arts

Sandhya Shardanand, Stephen Torrence and Janet Brooks at Malcolm Bucknall opening at Wally Workman Gallery. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

The Austin spring performing arts season is up and running. We thoroughly enjoyed Zach Theatre‘s staging of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a fluid telling of 15-year-old Christopher’s experiences as he negotiates parents, teachers and strangers through the lens of autism in the United Kingdom. Director Dave Steakley‘s team was particularly good at visualizing the mindset of Christopher, played expertly by Texas State University student Preston Straus. It will be remembered as one of the performances of the season.

We also finally caught cabaret singer Ute Lemper live at UT’s McCullough Theatre as presented by Texas Performing Arts. The modern embodiment of the 20th-century cabaret scenes in Berlin, Paris, New York and Buenos Aires, Lemper can channel Marlene Dietrich and any number of performers set off into the world in part by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, while sharing the theater history in priceless asides. That is not all. Lemper spent a good portion of the show with a pianist and a bass player scatting in high jazz form. Although technically amazing, this style paled in comparison to Lemper’s clear-eyed, clear-edged cabaret. Note of approval: “Mack the Knife” should always be performed in German. Always.

We also stopped by the opening reception for artist Malcolm Bucknall at Wally Workman Gallery. The longtime Austin artist presented exquisite amalgamations of human and animals, of in Victorian or Edwardian dress, as if borrowed from outrageous children’s books from the period. We had a fairly long talk with Bucknall about his time in the U.K., India, Cyprus and ultimately Austin, after his father moved here to start UT’s metallurgy program in 1958. We plan to hear more of these stories at his studio this week.

Austin parties we love: Early 2018

After a holiday break, the Austin social scene warms up rapidly. Peek at some parties we eagerly anticipate.

Jan. 27: Opening night of Austin Opera’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.” Long Center.

Jan. 27: Dell Children’s Gala. Austin Convention Center.

Jan. 27: Human Rights Campaign Austin Gala. JW Marriott.

Jan. 31: Promise to Children Award Luncheon for Camp Fire Central Texas. St. David’s Episcopal Church.

Feb. 2: Angelina Eberly Luncheon for Austin History Center Association. Driskill Hotel.

Feb. 3: Rodeo Austin Gala with Jack Ingram, Bruce Robison and Charlie Robison. Palmer Events Center.

Feb. 3: Casablanca for CASA of Travis County. JW Marriott.

Feb. 3: Corazón Awards for Con Mi Madre. After-party with Bidi Bidi Band. Brazos Hall.

Feb. 3: Puppy Bowl for Austin Humane Society. 124 W. Anderson Lane.

Feb. 3: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for Project Transitions. The Thinkery and other venues.

Feb. 10: Winemaker Valentine Luncheon. Fall Creek Vineyards.

Feb. 10: Carnaval Brasileiro. Palmer Events Center.

Feb. 11: The Nobelity Project’s Feed the Peace Awards. Four Seasons Hotel.

Feb. 11: Women’s Symphony League presents Red Haute Valentine Party. Omni Barton Creek Resort.

Feb. 12: Austin Blues Revue and mixer. Antone’s Nightclub.

Feb. 15: Rockin’ Round Up for Any Baby Can. ACL Live.