In 1975, a divided Austin City Council considered renaming 19th Street after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Newly minted Council Member Emma Lou Linn — only the second woman, after Emma Long, to serve in that capacity, although she was soon joined by Margaret Hoffman and Betty Himmelblau — listened as J.J. Seabrook, president emeritus of what was then Huston-Tillotson College, spoke eloquently in favor of the proposal.
Then he collapsed.
“As he fell to the ground, I ran to him and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” Linn, now 78, told one historian. “Unfortunately, Seabrook died. But a photographer snapped a photo and it circulated nationally! That brought me great praise from many groups, but threats from a few.”
If that scene appears dramatic, consider other highlights from the longtime St. Edward’s University psychology professor’s life: The onetime Rodeo Queen grew up as a precocious kid in the remote backcountry of the Edwards Plateau, played three sports for the University of Texas during the 1950s, served in the Marines Corps Reserve, did pioneering research for Texas school districts in the 1960s, later extended her research and teaching into deep brain science, helped lead the local historic preservation movement, and was among the first residents to move into a hollowed-out downtown Austin in 1970, transforming, with a friend, the old St. Charles House on East Sixth Street into her home.
Recently, Linn was honored by the Old Pecan Street Association, a group she helped found, for her efforts over several decades to revive downtown.
“I’ve always loved old buildings and old people,” Linn says. “I was really fortunate to be born in 1936. I’d hear stories from hobos camping on the back property. Daddy would take them canned goods and hear the ghost stories and tall tales. I would go to Mexico with my daddy and ranchers on rainy days, and there I heard stories of the Alamo and cathedrals in Mexico. Years later, I saw a three-story building in Philadelphia restored with an apartment on top. I thought this would be a neat, neat way to live.”
Linn’s hometown, Rocksprings, is not near anything else. Junction is the closest town of any size, reached via a high, winding road along the South Llano River. Ranching is among the only regular activities in the area.
“I was born on a tabletop at my house,” Linn reports matter-of-factly. “The doctor’s brother delivered me. The doctor wasn’t in town.”
Emma Lou’s father, Ellis Ira Linn, ranched. After losing almost everything in the Depression, he carried mail and worked on county roads while holding onto some of his ranch land. He was intensely political, a multigenerational family trait.
Her mother, a pious teacher named Hallie Belle Barrows Linn, lived in town and taught at the “Mexican school.”
“She was really smart,” Emma Lou recalls. “She was going to go to business school in San Antonio. She had three brothers. Two of them went down to the bank in the late 1920s or early ’30s and talked the banker into giving them all her money, then they rode the rails. Ruined her aim in life.”
The Linns, who had dated for 10 years, married in 1933. Their match was an odd one. She was religious. He was not. He danced and taught his daughter to tango at age 10.
“She was sure I would go straight to hell,” Emma Lou laughs. “I’d go dancing at Garner State Park and Criders, then the next morning, sitting on the front row of the church, I’d have to cover my hand, because they’d stamped it the night before.”
Perhaps her mother’s piety grew out of hardscrabble circumstances: Several of her relatives were killed in squabbles or robberies.
For three years as a young girl, Emma, who really wanted to be sheriff, sold Cloverine Salve door-to-door.
“Cloverine was supposed to cure everything, including cancer,” she says with a giggle. “I was saving up points for a telescope. Every day, I went to the post office to check my box. ‘Nothing for you, Miss Emma.’ Then one day: ‘I think there’s something in your box.’ How could a telescope be in my box? There were three little lenses. The note said: ‘Now go to your hardware store and get a hollow wooden cylinder and put in the lenses.’ There wasn’t a hardware store in our town, and no such thing as a hollow wooden cylinder. I was had!”
On a cold night, however, the sky lover did catch a glimpse of a comet similar to Halley’s Comet.
“I stayed up all night and watched the tail go by,” she says, her eyes narrowing. “Shooting stars everywhere.”
Linn didn’t become sheriff but did run a gang of little kids.
“We always got in trouble,” she says, and smiles. “A woman down the street — mean as she could be — gave us real knives to swordfight with. Once we told her: ‘Buddy’s goats escaped, can you help?’ Buddy was bawling.”
The neighbor refused to help, so a tight-lipped Linn cursed her out, as only a little girl in curls can do.
Linn adored the town’s tiny but excellent schools and hated summers. Fewer than 12 students graduated from her Rocksprings High School class, but two or three later earned doctorates, Linn says.
“We were such an isolated community,” she says. “What we could get on the radio was limited, and most of that was border radio.”
One of the kings of high-wattage border radio, based in unregulated Mexico, was W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, the rustic flour salesman who sang his way into the Texas governor’s office and then into the U.S. Senate. One day, he appeared in the Rocksprings square with his Light Crust Doughboys musical group, performing from the back of a flatbed truck.
“Pappy put me up on the flatbed truck with the band playing, introduced me, gave me a 7 Up and a balloon,” Linn recalls. “That was unbelievable, incredible.”
The Linns were progressive for Rocksprings. Her grandfather, a jailer, refused to lock up Mexican-Americans at night after one was lynched by a mob.
“In the 1948 election, they had a polio epidemic, so they closed schools down, and we were quarantined on the ranch,” Linn says. “It was the Truman election, and they voted on the ranch. I sat with my aunt and helped her read the ballot: Democrats, Dixiecrats, Republicans. I asked my aunt about the (segregationist) Dixiecrats. ‘Aren’t we from the South?’ I asked. My aunt corrected me: ‘We are from the Southwest. We’d never vote Dixiecrat.’”
Escape to Austin and after
Linn left Rocksprings for the University of Texas, where she had earned a scholarship, the day after her high school senior trip in 1955. A drunk boyfriend dropped her off downtown at the Commodore Perry Hotel with three cardboard boxes. She gave the bellman an unthinkable $3 to transport them upstairs.
The next day, she enrolled at UT and moved into the Scottish Rite Dormitory.
“Mother decided not to give me money because she wanted me to go to Draughn’s Business School in San Antonio and become a stenographer,” Linn says. “That’s what she had wanted for herself.”
Luckily, a cousin whose daughter was unable to use her college fund slipped Linn part of it. She took full advantage of campus life. She played on the basketball and tennis teams, ran track. She participated in some of the first integrated classes.
“Three African-American girls sat with me on the front row in one class,” she says. “I was with their group. I had to go on the bus to East Austin to meet with them, because there were places on campus that still weren’t integrated.”
She earned a degree in psychology in 1959 and immediately headed to Houston to do work with kids who had learning challenges.
“They didn’t offer special education for minority kids,” she says. “I recommended some testing and found 57 who had mild problems. The school district said: ‘OK, now they are yours.’ They gave me some barracks. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.”
Linn took night classes at the University of Houston — where she studied physiological psychology — then was asked by the school district to work her magic with emotionally disturbed students.
She later returned to Austin for graduate school at UT. As if all this activity were not enough, Linn took time out to train with the Marines in 1957 and served in the reserves for several years.
“I played soldier a lot as a kid,” she says. “My commanding officer was Captain (Margaret) Brewer, who went on to become the Marines’ first woman general. She scared us to death.”
A professor’s life
Back in Austin, Linn rose to senior research director at UT’s childhood research center, charged with evaluating the effectiveness of Head Start programs.
Burned out on research, Linn jumped at the chance of a teaching job offered by Brother Stephen Walsh at St. Ed’s in 1970.
“They asked me to teach four courses a semester, which sounded just about right for me,” she says. “I got to be around students, for once, and other people.”
She never gave up her outside activities and played basketball on the informal Billingsly’s Brewers.
“Back then, people smoked and drank in class,” she says. “The ’70s were crazy.”
How crazy? Consider this student prank involving spiked pastries.
“One time, the students gave me some brownies. They were smiling,” she says. “I left them in the lounge for the nuns to eat. When I told the good Catholic girls what I had done, they turned white and screamed: ‘You didn’t! You didn’t! They were Alice B. Toklas brownies!’”
Linn won several awards for outstanding teacher and, eventually, for lifetime achievement.
“Not only is she a fantastic teacher, but she is rigorous as well, and regularly gets the ‘award’ for being the hardest grader in the school of behavioral and social sciences,” says Delia Kothmann Paskos, a colleague in St. Ed’s psychology department. “I love her spunk, her genuine quest for social justice, and her regular use of swear words!”
Linn has served so long that she is one of only two professors still allowed to keep an office in the historic Main Building, now mostly occupied by administration and development personnel. In the classroom and elsewhere, she focused on abnormal psychology and forensic topics.
“I love the brain. See all my brains?” she points around her office, which overlooks Central Austin. “I am convinced that most mental illnesses are neurological. You see a lot of similar details in the studies that hold true across ethnic groups and countries. Schizophrenia, for instance, holds steady at 1 percent of the population. When I was an undergraduate, it was the poor mother who had done this or that. (UT Tower shooter) Charles Whitman’s daddy was blamed for being too strict or this or that. Then they found that brain tumor.”
In the public eye
The quiet professorial life was never enough for the live firecracker from Rocksprings. Very social and quite the party organizer, she made a network of friends, especially among Austin’s emerging women leaders. She especially admired Council Member Emma Long, who was first elected in 1948 and championed desegregation.
“She was always raising Cain,” Linn says admiringly. “People mix us up, think there’s a park named after me.”
Fond of big hats, Linn was sworn in for a special term by groundbreaking lawyer Sarah Weddington.
“We had a group called ‘Uppity Women Unite,’” she snorts. Linn followed up that service with a regular term that ran from later in 1975 to 1977. Among her proudest achievements was an anti-discrimination ordinance that included age, physical disabilities and sexual orientation.
“Those are still in force today,” she says proudly. “The ordinance was passed, then recalled, and has since been reinstated.”
Another passion in public life was historic preservation. As Austin was ripping down its older buildings under the guise of progress in the 1970s, she helped write the city’s first preservation ordinance. While she was chairwoman of the Travis County Historical Commission, the county was recognized for designating the most structures in the state.
“There was no regulation at all,” she says. “At the rate they were going, they would tear down everything for parking lots. One historic building after another was gone, except for the Bremond Block. “
She was among the first to reclaim a sometimes derelict and, at night, empty downtown as her home.
With a friend from politics, Gretchen Raatz, and backed by the old Attal family and Eli Garza, she put together enough money to renovate the St. Charles House, which still stands next to the Ritz Theater.
“They didn’t let single women borrow money back then without a male’s signature,” she says. “We bought the building for $11,000 and spent $68,000 restoring it. I lived there until 10 or 15 years ago. It was quiet back then. Only a couple of bars. After a while, though, it was hard getting up those three flights of stairs. By then, the noise was crazy.”
More Austin history
For 25 years, Michael Barnes has written about Austin’s culture and history. Among his recent stories have been reports on ancestral Austin families, local desegregation and life on East Avenue. To sample more than 100 of his history stories, go to mystatesman.com/austin-history.