Austin learns a lot from Larry Wright, Evan Smith and Amy Mills

The Library was the place to be. Not the Central Public Library. But the blue-and-red rectangular meeting room at Hotel Van Zandt.

It was the location for a Toast of the Town salon to support the Neal Kocurek Scholarship Fund for health sciences careers, operated by the St. David’s Foundation. Thirty of so lucky souls were treated to an enlightening public talk between journalist and author Lawrence “Larry” Wright and journalist and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith.

Evan Smith and Larry Wright at Hotel Van Zandt for Toast of the Town. Contributed by Matthew Fuller/St. David’s Foundation

The two had met soon after Smith moved to town in the 1992 to join the staff of Texas Monthly. He was assigned to edit Wright’s piece on the chemical castration of sexual offenders. Wright was for it.

Smith went on to lead Texas Monthly and now the Texas Tribune, while also interviewing top minds on “Texas Monthly Talks” and then “Overheard with Evan Smith” on public television.

My nominee for best reporter in Texas, Wright has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since he left Texas Monthly in the early 1990s. His books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” as well as “The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State,” “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prism of Belief” and “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David.”

If those accomplishments were not enough, he writes plays and screenplays, appears on stage, and basks in the glow of the lauded TV adaptation of “The Looming Tower” now streaming on the Hulu channel.

RELATED: Toast of the Town one of the classiest acts around.

Can you see why I dropped everything for this benefit dinner? Smith devoted his early questions to terrorism and world affairs. Wright believes, for instance, we are ignoring the proliferation of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State beyond their Middle Eastern origins while we are distracted by other crises. He continues to state that the intervention into Iraq was the single worst foreign policy decision in American history.

Smith then moved on to main subject for the evening, Wright’s recent book, “God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State,” parts of which appeared in The New Yorker. On that field in inquiry, both sharp minds need no urging.

Wright’s editor at The New Yorker had asked him to explain Texas, a big task. He did not rely on the standard reports about the recent changes in the state; he spent a year observing the Texas Legislature. After all, Texas could tell us more about the future of the country, especially if its voters participated in elevated numbers.

He came away from his research with with a volume full of conclusions and an urge to run for governor. Wright thinks that the primary jobs of state government are education and infrastructure. Those needs tended to be ignored while state leaders spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on bathroom rules and sanctuary cities. He lays heavy blame on traditional business advocate Gov. Greg Abbott, who sided late in the session with radio personality Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick against outgoing Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who held together state government against all odds.

Wright has much more to say about state and national politics and culture, but as they say, buy and read the book.

Emancipet Luncheon

One speaker in town who could give Smith or Wright a run for their money is Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, an Austin nonprofit that provides free or low-cost spay, neutering and veterinary care at seven clinics in four cities.

Melissa Levine and Mary Herr Tally at Emancipet Luncheon at Hyatt Regency Austin. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

The early part of its annual luncheon, which has moved gracefully from the Four Seasons Hotel Austin to the larger banquet hall at the Hyatt Regency Austin, was spent on the tasty vegan fare, video stories of clients and statistics shared by eager board members.

The room grew hushed when Mills rose to the stage. After all, she can so cogently and quickly explain a rapidly expanding and sustainable nonprofit, she would likely trounce every other participant at Philanthropitch.

RELATED: What caused all the excitement at nonprofit pitch fest.

That fast-action pitch session from nonprofit leaders was an early-week Austin highlight. (I can’t tell you how many ambitious Austin nonprofits are exporting their great ideas around the world. Just a few decades ago, they didn’t look beyond the Austin city limits.)

Some statistics appeared in the printed program. In 2017, the group provided

• 71,539 preventative care visits

• 33,300 free or low cost spay/neuter surgeries

• 622 heartworm treatments

• 177 special surgery procedures

• $883,930 in free services to Houston-area families affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Mills expanded on the last number. With animal welfare partners, they focused, not on lost pets, but on vet care for families hit hard by the storm. They announced that their clinical services would remain absolutely free for 90 days. As workers arrived the first morning, more than 100 people were in line. Some had never visited a vet before. They saw a total of 6,641 animals.

RELATED: Amy Mills takes Emancipet mission national.

Also in 2017, Emancipet opened its largest clinic ever in Northeast Austin and its first in Philadelphia. It responded to rising vet care costs by seeing 93,576 pets. Just as importantly, they trained 28 vets to take their business model to other markets. They can’t do it all themselves.

Mills saved the most dramatic news for last. Hurricane Maria scattered pets all over Puerto Rico, who then rapidly multiplied. Emacipet with 23 other groups is headed there to spay/neuter 20,000 of them. They will then leave their surgical tools and other equipment there for vets they will train to keep up the work.

Hard to beat Mills. Hard to beat Emancipet.

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.

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 books: Start off with ‘The Nueces River’

We’ve learned more about the Nueces River, Texas birding, a standout West Texas Congressman, the King Ranch and Texas swimming holes.

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“The Nueces River: Rio Escondido.” Margie Crisp with artwork by William B. Montgomery. Texas A&M Press. Much admired Texas artist and naturalist Margie Crisp made quite a splash with her award-winning “River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado,” a gorgeously written and illustrated look at the long, ever-changing waterway that runs through Austin. Now she turns her attention to the Nueces River, which she calls “Rio Escondido,” apt since this stream that falls off the southern edge of the Edwards Plateau goes underground during dry seasons until it reemerges at Choke Canyon Reservoir near Three Rivers.  A team project with William B. Montgomery, this book represents an ideal marriage of words and images. One only wishes that Crisp were given several lifetimes so she could do the same for 48 more Texas rivers.

MORE TEXAS TITLES: Best recent books on Texas rivers.

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“One More Warbler: A Life with Birds” Victor Emanuel with S. Kirk Walsh. University of Texas Press. To say that Victor Emanuel is a god among naturalists is almost an understatement. The owner and operator of one of the world’s most prominent nature tour groups grew up in Houston and has lived in Austin for decades. This memoir, written in close collaboration with S. Kirk Walsh, tells not just about birding adventures, but also looks deeply into the way that habitual observation of nature changes the way we perceive the world around us. Bonus: Emanuel employs a natural literary touch, which Walsh clearly amplifies. You might have read our own profile of Emanuel. We promise a big feature interview about this book before long.

MORE TEXAS TITLES: Best Texas books to read in November 2016.

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“The Swimming Holes of Texas.” Julie Wernersbach and Carolyn Tracy. University of Texas Press. Like our much more adventurous colleague, Pam LeBlanc, we love this guide book. We had to add our tributes. It’s crucial, first, because this information was previously not readily available in such a user-friendly, physical format. Arranged by region — the Austin area counts as its own region — it fully lists addresses, phone number, websites, hours, entrance fees, park rules, camping options, amenities, and swimming opportunities, along with sharp descriptions that could only be acquired through sustained personal reporting. Funny thing: Writing this capsule, my thumb led me to the entry for Choke Canyon Reservoir (see above). Oh no you don’t! Last time we were there, alligators floated just offshore. No swimming for us.  Pam, don’t take that as a challenge!

MORE TEXAS TITLES: Best Texas books to read in December 2016.

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“A Witness to History: George H. Mahon, West Texas Congressman.” Janet M. Neugebauer. Texas Tech University Press. We must admit up front we have not made a big dent into this biography that runs almost to 600 pages with notes and index. But what we’ve read so far has impressed us enough to place it here. Mahon, a country lawyer, went to Congress in 1935 and served on the House Committee on Appropriations almost he his entire tenure of 44 years. Along the way, he acquired enormous power, which, if this book is any evidence, he used judiciously. A specialist in defense spending, his career spanned World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and almost the entire Cold War. We look forward to digging deeper into this crisp volume when we have more time. A lot more time.

MORE TEXAS TITLES: Best Texas books to read in October 2016.

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“Bob and Helen Kleberg of King Ranch.” Helen Kleberg Groves. Trinity University Press. Not as many books have been published about the King Ranch as have been about Texas football, rangers, tacos or politics. But it sometimes seems that the vast, daunting South Texas empire of cattle and thorn brush holds writers in an unbreakable spell. This time, the motivation is personal, since this volume was written by Helen King Kleberg Alexander-Groves. It constitutes the memoirs of the only child of the celebrated Bob and Helen Kleberg. At first, it feels like a picture book with historical and contemporary photographs that take you directly into the world of ranching past and present. Yet don’t overlook the words, because Bill Benson has helped Groves thoroughly research and confirm the history, genealogy and other aspects of this quintessentially Texas family tale.

MORE TEXAS TITLES: Best Texas books to read in September 2016.