Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Homage to Five Women of Central Texas

Over the last five years we have lost five memorable and influential women of Central Texas: Ann Robinson (2005), Ann Richards (2006), Lady Bird Johnson (2007), Grace Jones (2008) and Liz Carpenter (2010). I had the privilege of knowing one of these women well, working with one, and an acquaintance with another, and admired the remaining two. With the passing of Liz Carpenter recently I starting reflecting on what an amazing group of women these were, all born in Texas, all lived in Central Texas, all knew each other, and all had significant impacts on society.

I don’t know what it was about the environment, genes, family structure or education that propelled them to such a high levels of accomplishment, but we ought to study their lives to figure it out.

Anne Durrum Robinson

Anne Durrum Robinson was born in 1913 and died in 2005. She had a long and varied career -- or set of careers. She was a secretary, an office manager, a copy-writer, a free-lance writer for all media, a magazine editor, a poet, a broadcaster, an account executive for advertising agencies, a teacher at the university level, a building manager, a national and international presenter, a trainer of professional and support staffs, a trainer of trainers, a world traveler, a wife-mother-grandmother and great-grandmother. She wrote and performed on radio, TV, film and stage. In her later years, she was an independent consultant, teaching workshops in creativity, intuition and team building. Anne’s quick wit and great sense of humor were constants in all that she was and did.

I was a friend of Anne’s for the last 20 years of her life. I’m only sorry that I did know her when she was younger. Lunch with Annie was fun even when she was hurting and in a wheelchair. Rather than recount some of the stories she told, I’ll point you to an interview that I and two friends did in 2004, Raising the Spirit. Or, you can see her talking about spammers in Her Unsent Poem to Spammers.

One of my favorite poems of hers was “To Be Creative”:

"To be creative is to trap the wind
And tame it for the blowing of a kiss.
To be creative is to net a star
And, with its shinning, light a room like this.
To be creative is to snare the sun
And transform daybreak into a blazing morn.
To be creative is to mount a mule
And, riding change it into a unicorn!"

Ann Richards

Ann Richards was born Dorothy Ann Willison September 1, 1933 in Lake View, Texas and died on September 13, 2006. She first came to national attention as the state treasurer of Texas, when she delivered the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Richards served as the 45th Governor of Texas from 1991 to 1995. Ann Richards was the second female governor of Texas, and the 39th Democratic governor to serve. She grew up in Waco, participated in Girls State, and graduated from Waco High School in 1950. She attended Baylor University on a debate scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree. After marrying, she moved to Austin,
where she earned a teaching certificate from the University of Texas.

A homemaker before she entered politics, Richards cracked a half-century male grip on the governor's mansion and celebrated by holding up a T-shirt that showed the state Capitol and read: 'A woman's place is in the dome.'

She told an interviewer shortly before leaving office, 'I did not want my tombstone to read, "She kept a really clean house." I think I'd like them to remember me by saying that she opened government to everyone.”

She got her wish and the quote on her tombstone reads, “Today we have a vision of Texas where opportunity knows no race, no gender, no color - a glimpse of what can happen in government if we simply open the doors and let the people in.” - Ann Richards, Inaugural Address, January 1991.

“Lady Bird” Johnson

“Lady Bird” Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack, Texas in 1912 and she died in 2007. Her father was named after the second president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson Taylor. She got he name “Lady Bird” from her nurse who thought that she was as pretty as a ladybird, what we now know as a ladybug, and it stuck.

She was First Lady of the United States from 1963 to 1969 during the presidency of her husband Lyndon B. Johnson. Throughout her life, she was an advocate for beautification of the nation's cities and highways and conservation of natural resources and made that her major initiative as First Lady. After leaving the White House in 1969 and her husband's death in 1973, Lady Bird became an entrepreneur, creating the $150 million LBJ Holdings Company, and was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honors.

In the 1970s, she focused her attention on the Austin riverfront area through her involvement in the Town Lake Beautification Project. After her death in 2007, Town Lake was renamed Lady Bird Lake to honor her efforts. From 1971 to 1978, Johnson served on the board of regents for the University of Texas System. She also served on the National Park Service Advisory Board and was the first woman to serve on National Geographic's Board of Trustees.

On December 22, 1982 (her 70th birthday), she and actress Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving and reintroducing native plants in planned landscapes, located east of Austin, Texas. She believed, “Where flowers bloom so does hope.”

She understood the fundamentals of democracy well when she said, “Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.”

Grace Rosanky Putnam Jones

Grace Rosanky Putnam Jones was born near Gonzales, Texas in 1922 and died in 2008 . Mrs. Jones enrolled at Baylor University at age 15. After a year she transferred to the University of Texas. It was when she was a student that she read an article in Look magazine about women pilots in the Army Air Force.

She convinced her father to pay for flying lessons and in her early 20s became a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots . WASPs were a corps of women pilots organized in 1942 to fill the void left by male pilots while they served in World War II. The WASPS ferried military planes around during WW2. Grace was a high fashion model, appeared in TV commercials and was a TV personality. When she opened her woman’s fashion store in Salado, Texas, she went to every banker in the area and asked for a loan ...Not because she needed the money, but because she wanted the bankers to tell their wives about her boutique.

I met Grace in the late 1990s when I did some consulting work for in planning for a multipurpose event center in Salado. After a long night session with her committee, she asked me if I’d like a drink. I agreed and we went to the back room of her store and sat down at a kitchen table. She pulled a bottle of bourbon out of a cabinet and two glasses. We sat there talking and drinking straight bourbon. Our conversation floated among many topics of life and well being. She was divorced, concerned about her health, and with no children, her future. Grace’s husband had left her late in life for a younger woman. Her sister-in-law, and best friend, who was also her business partner, had just died of brain cancer, and she felt lost. I was stressed because my business partner had recently been diagnosed with cancer. And, as a cancer survivor, I had a feeling I knew what she was going through.

Behind her on the wall was a picture of her as a high fashion model, an international beauty. And, close by was a picture of her as a WASP. I was humbled by the experience, talking about life and sipping bourbon. An experience I’m not likely to forget.

Liz Carpenter

Liz Carpenter, an author and former press secretary to first lady Lady Bird Johnson, was born in 1921 and died in 2010. On Nov. 22, 1963, Carpenter scribbled the 58 words that Lyndon Johnson delivered to the nation when he returned to Washington, D.C., from Dallas following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy:

"This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help and God's."

She was a writer, feminist, former reporter, media advisor, speechwriter, political humorist, and public relations expert. Carpenter was born in historic Salado in southern Bell County, Texas. In 1936, her 24-room residence there was declared a state historic monument. In 1967, a plaque was unveiled to indicate that Carpenter had once lived there. At the age of seven, she moved with her family to Austin. Carpenter stood in the forefront of the Women's Movement when it began and never wavered from her platform. Her projects and causes ranged from supporting high tech to fighting cancer. Often called the "funniest woman in politics", she was in demand as a public speaker until her death.

I met Liz on an airplane ride from New York. This was back in the day when I was traveling a lot and had enough mileage to upgrade to first class. On the flight I set next to her and ha d a three hour conversation. Apparently, Liz didn’t fly well. The flight was bumpy and she had a death grip on my arm the whole trip. At every bump, she would exclaim and grab my arm harder. All the while she was drinking a steady flow of some alcoholic drink made with milk (I no longer remember the name.) We talked (actually she talked and I listened) about woman’s rights, politics and growing older. She spoke with loving humor about a group of her older women friends. Liz had a regular "howling at the moon" party for all her older female friends; they'd get together, knock back a few, and, well, howl at the moon. I remembered the group being called something like the daughters of the moon, but in my Internet research for this piece, the group was mentioned as the GBATT (Getting Better All the Time) Singers. She told me that her friends loved it because it shocked their children. She said, “When you’re old, shocking your children is fun!”

One of my favorite pictures of Liz and Grace shows them together holding a sign that said “Uppity women unite”.

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