Memorial set for Austin LGBT activist Ceci Gratias

Earlier this year, the Human Rights Campaign Austin honored LGBT activist and organizer Cecilia “Ceci” Lourdes Bulaong Gratias with the Bettie Naylor Visibility Award at its annual gala.

On Sunday, Gratias died.

Ceci Gratis in January. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

A memorial will be held at Austin City Hall Plaza at 4 p.m., Nov. 12. Details about a Ceci Gratias Legacy Project will be revealed by Mayor Steve Adler and City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, for whom she most recently tended constituent services in District 6.

After the memorial, to commemorate Gratias’ work with early Austin Pride Parades, admirers will process from the plaza to Congress Avenue then to West Fourth Street to Oilcan Harry’s club for a celebration of her life. Guests are encouraged with wear purple, her favorite color.

As detailed in our profile of Gratias, she served as an aide to former Mayor Pro Tem Gus Garcia, who encouraged her to volunteer for groups such as Out Youth and the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. She also served as the business group’s first full-time president and CEO.

Later this month, the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce will salute her life and legacy at its annual National Dinner Awards.

During our interview in a cafe at the Domain Northside, Gratias, who grew up in The Philippines, remained unreservedly open and upbeat, even though she had recently broken up with her partner, was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy.


Best Texas rivers: Buffalo Bayou, Part 1


Some readers might ask why we have included a bayou in our quest to trace 50 Texas rivers. Actually, it’s our second one. Years ago, we traced Bastrop Bayou in the tidelands of Brazoria County.

In this case, Buffalo Bayou is one of the state’s most important waterways, historically and economically. At 65 miles long, it outstrips some watercourses that are given grander names (the Comal River, for instance, flows only 2.5 miles before it reachers the Guadalupe).

When you boil it down, a Texas bayou is really a river that was named by someone from Louisiana; a Texas creek was named by someone from Tennessee; and an arroyo was named by someone from Spain or Mexico, and so forth. Those names stuck.


We began our bayou adventure where we ended our tracing of the San Jacinto River — at the San Jacinto Monument. On dead-flat, brushy land at the juncture of the two waterways, the Texan army defeated Santa Ana and his Mexican troops. Surrounding that point at the Lynchburg Ferry are miles and miles of industral plants and gritty residential neighborhoods strung along the Houston Ship Channel, the largest such industrial agglomeration in the country if not the world. It’s awe-inspiring, though not in an entirely positive way.


Joe Starr and I started by perusing the small, old-fashioned historical museum at the base of the monument before ascending the tower — taller than the Washington Monument and built during the Depression — in a tiny elevator. The small interior deck faces mostly west, but also south and north, where we spotted the mouth of the bayou near the docked Battleship Texas. Pretty spectacular setting.


We next headed to old Harrisburg, a former port on the bayou and town that predated Houston, but now is a grim neighborhood within the city limits, split brazenly by freeways and railroad tracks. It took a little iPhone detective work to find the main historical marker here, located outside a modern drive-through bank. We never discovered the location for the marker that tells about Texas’ first railroad, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado, which embarked from here in 1853.


Getting down to the docks themselves has never been easy, even less so since 9/11. We were politely turned away, for instance, from the Turning Basin at the head of the Ship Channel by a security guard. But just upstream on the still-wide bayou, we tromped around Hidalgo Park, part of an Hispanic neighborhood alongside Navigation Boulevard that goes back to the turn of the last century. Here, the banks are high and thick with brush, but we got a good view of a rusty railroad bridge and, from a distance, the Turning Basin. A reminder how the port and the rails made this town.

Except for a landscaped area around the original Ninfa’s restaurant, this is an unlovely stretch of Houston that I predicted would resist gentrification. I was wrong. Already, the section of Navigation that abuts downtown has attracted condo-buyers, bicyclists and dog walkers, three signs of what’s to come.


Only a raving man camping atop a littered hill greeted us on the Buffalo Bayou Hike and Bike Trail near South Jensen Drive. A bankside theater sat across the bayou, but there was no human activity on either side. It continued to confound me that the bayou is so wide here. Later, I read that it is tidal all the way inland to Allen’s Landing, the starting point for historical Houston. Explains a lot.


Dodging the freeways that entangle downtown, we found a lovely historical bridge on McKee Street next to James Bute Park. A handy marker informed us that this area was also a little town with a spotty history. It, too, eventually was overshadowed by the metropolis around it.


Attempts to beautify and civilize the bayou get really intense at Allen’s Landing, whose old brick buildings were rediscovered by hippies when I was young, then later by the builders of University of Houston-Downtown.


Beautiful walkways, gates and other structures makes some sense as tourist attractions, but that’s not the crowd that huddled there this day.


We next explored Buffalo Bayou Park, part of a gargantuan program by the city to “green” its signature stream, mainly from downtown to the west. The amenities, including an upscale restaurant at Lost Lake, are, indeed, impressive. We walked out on a grand, empty pedestrian bridge.


I’m sure that if it were not so incredibly humid, more joggers and bikers would have taken advantage of the park’s intricate, recently flooded landscaping.


Our last stop of the day took us to Bayou Bend, the former home of philanthropist Ima Hogg, now an outpost of the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston. The parking lot located on the northwest bank off Memorial Drive was empty because, it turns out, the pedestrian bridge over the bayou, which leads to the house and gardens on the southeast bank, was under construction. We’ll come back in the spring when the azaleas are in bloom.

It’s worth noting that the bayou will still very high from summer rains. The vegetation along the banks in the River Oaks area is quite verdant. One could imagine what explorers or early settlers thought about this near-jungle when they first encountered it. We didn’t hike around the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. In fact, by this point, we could hardly stand being outside.

We settled instead for excellent Belgian fare at Cafe Brussels on Houston Avenue. The next day: Buffalo Bayou from its source to Memorial Park.

UPDATE: The river at the mouth of Buffalo Bayou was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this post.


Rodeo Austin picks new leader

Rob Golding, new CEO of Rodeo Austin.

Rodeo Austin,  one of Austin’s signature events, has a new leader. Rob Golding, who has served in the past decade as founding principal, chairman and CEO of Live Oak Gottesman, a commercial real estate development and services company, takes over the venerable group that emphasizes entertainment and education, as well as preserving the culture of the West.

“(Golding) brings a strong background and expertise in executive leadership roles and community engagement,” said Laura Estes, director of marketing & merchandising for H-E-B said. “Rob will continue the vision and lasting impact Rodeo Austin delivers in empowering the youth of Greater Austin with entertaining and meaningful hands-on learning opportunities.”

Golding is no stranger to public service. He has been involved at the board level with numerous local organizations including the Urban Land Institute, Capitol Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Salvation Army, Austin Economic Development Corporation, Greater Austin Crime Commission, Health Alliance for Austin Musicians and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“It is an honor to step into this role with Rodeo Austin,” Golding said. “The board, staff and incredible base of volunteers have built a terrific organization and I look forward to working with them on innovative ways to grow the presence and impact of the organization. I found the mission and professional challenge at Rodeo Austin irresistible.”

First envisioned in the 1930s, Rodeo Austin started as a livestock show staged across the street from the State Capitol. It later moved to the City Market at Seventh Street and East Avenue, then the City Colosseum near the Palmer Auditorium on the south riverfront. The first two utilitarian structures were demolished, the third was recycled as the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

After the rodeo moved to its current facility, the Travis County Expo Center on Decker Lane, it grew in size, but grew away from core Austin culture. No more parades down Congress Avenue. No more office closures or class cancellations. A breakdown of attendance is usually not made available, but it appeared for years that the group’s carnival far outstripped the rodeo sports, concerts or the nearby livestock show in popularity.

For decades, the rodeo’s powerful board of directors remained resolutely the province of a few loyal families.

Longtime CEO, Bucky Lamb, parted amicably with the group several months ago, according to rodeo spokeswoman Jennifer Stevens.

Doug Stienstra, Austin writer on a mission

Writer Doug Stienstra arrived in Austin in November 2011.

“I loved many things about Austin,” the native Iowan, 27, says. “The self-starter culture of entrepreneurs, artists and musicians. And there’s so much to do. So many ways to meet people. … Austin is place of discovery for me. I’m discovering what I’m going to do with my life and what I enjoy the most.”

I met Stienstra at a BookPeople signing for “Indelible Austin: Selected Histories.” He expressed interest in local lore, so I invited him to join seven other history buffs one morning as we searched for the entry and exit points of the Chisholm Trail fords on the Colorado River. Next, we sat down over coffee and tea at Seventh Flag Coffee, partly to talk about whether he should attend graduate school to study journalism.

Doug Stienstra, writer.

Since he currently holds down a good job at Facebook and already has worked for Apple, I advised him to stay employed. Avoid all student debt. Instead, I’m exchanging a structured weekly course in journalism for his help in creating an eBook version of “Indelible Austin” with geo-locating links. One of his past projects was working on the ground for Apple Maps. Just another boost to the “sharing economy.”

Our first writing exercise: I profile him; he profiles me.

Stienstra was born in Estherville, Iowa, about three hours from Des Moines. He grew up in Orange City, Iowa, about 90 minutes southeast of his birthplace. “It’s known for its Dutch heritage,” he says. “There’s a tulip festival and most people have names like mine that you can’t pronounce.”

Both his parents descended from Dutch immigrants, though for a while, his maternal grandfather claimed some German heritage as well. Turned out, he’s 100 percent Dutch.

“I went to the town of Steins, Netherlands, where we came from,” he says. “The ‘stra’ means ‘from.’ and ‘stien’ is probably Old Dutch for ‘stone,’ though I’m not exactly sure.”

Did he feel at home in Stiens? “Yes, there were lots of tall, skinny, blue-eyed people there.”

Did his mother have her hands full with four Dutch-American sons? “You have no idea.”

As a child, Stienstra was curious, shy, always outside exploring.

“I was obsessed with snakes!” he says. “I read a lot about them. Snakes were my life at the time. It was weird. I emailed a herpetologist and went out looking for rattlesnakes when I was in seventh or eighth grade.”

He learned to play drums and piano and joined a high school band. Yes, he went through a heavy metal phase. Now he’s mostly a music fan, another reason to love Austin.

Stienstra didn’t jump on the education train until college, where he majored in international studies with emphases in anthropology, entrepreneurism and a dab of philosophy. He’s fluent in Portuguese and German. He lived in Switzerland as an exchange student in high school, then spent two years studying abroad in Brazil before finishing his degree at the University of Iowa.

A Brazilian former girlfriend inspired his first start-up, FlashPals, which were essentially stuffed-animal flash drives.

“I looked around and found a cheap teddy bear online,” he recalls. “I was pretty sure I could make something better than this. So I gathered up material: Finger puppets and flash drives for the first version. It was adorable.”

And young women, especially, loved them.

“When you see a clear demand, you are onto something,” he says. “When I came back to the States, I worked some more on it and launched in 2011. The local paper ran a short profile, which led to a bigger city paper, then Entrepreneur magazine. That’s when I decided to take it really seriously.”

At first, he assembled the fuzzy drives by hand in his living room while watching movies, then he worked out a mass supply chain in China after visiting a trade expo in Hong Kong. He found, however, no real mass market for FlashPals.

Stienstra moved to Austin when his now-fiancee, Texas-born Monica Castillo, landed a job here. Before Facebook, he worked under contract for Apple Maps, researching locations and correcting them. He then transferred to the “ground truth team” after a call went out for Portuguese and Spanish speakers who were willing to travel up to 70 percent of the year.

Stienstra: “An easy choice for me!” He worked in Australia, Singapore, France, Germany, Brazil and, of course, the U.S.It was during his travels that Stienstra starting writing the blog, Life on a Planet.

“It was mostly a way to digest what I was experiencing,” he says. “I was meeting so many interesting people and encountering fascinating cultures. It was mostly for myself, but also for others to see what I was up to.”

Now he’s on a mission to make that impulse into something much more.