Why does this columnist always stock a reserve of 100 to 150 unbeatable ideas for future newspaper articles? Because I go out and meet the most interesting Austinites and they tell me their stories. It’s that simple.
Their tales don’t usually appear in these short, timely social posts, but they almost always land in the paper eventually.
People’s Community Clinic
This outfit must have sounded vaguely socialistic to cynics when it was founded in the basement of the Congregational Church on the Drag in 1970. It was not, in fact, a tool of socialized medicine, but rather the gift of volunteer doctors and nurses who realized that hippies, students and other ordinary people needed health care that was not being delivered in the usual way.
Now the Austin outfit serves more than 20,000 people a year at a new facility in Northeast Austin and at the People’s Center for Women’s Health, located at its older spot on Interstate 35. It isn’t a free clinic, as the leaders will remind you; patients pay what they can on a sliding scale.
For years it has staged one of the simplest and most effective benefits in town, known as There’s No Such Thing As a Free Lunch. At the Four Seasons Hotel, the event honors one public health leader — this year, Dr. Philip Huang, who, among other crusades, has made significant progress on tobacco use, still a leading cause of cancer.
Then a distinguished guest speaks. Always extremely informative. And this year’s speaker, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, was no exception. He explored how public health campaigns fit into larger cultural trends in our country. He is also the author of the award-winning “Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.”
Hidden Music for Conspirare
Years ago, I wrote something like this in a review: “Critics hate Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare. They leave nothing to criticize. They are flawless.”
I have attended dozens of events put together by this musical group, which started out as a festival, morphed into a choir, and then split into multiple choirs. Along the way, it became one of the city’s most treasured gems. It is no exaggeration to say that Conspirare comes very close to channeling the soul of the city. It is open, smart, kind, fun and infinitely skillful.
The annual Hidden Music benefit refines all those qualities down to Johnson singing onstage with a few instrumentalists and vocalists. Johnson’s voice and presentation are uncanny, disorienting and ultimately heavenly.
On a tightly staged night at One World Theatre, he was joined by his friend Peter Bay of the Austin Symphony, who did not sing but rather shared with Johnson the joy of conducting Bay’s wife, Mela Sarajane Dailey, and Laura Mercado-Wright as they sang the Flower Duet from “Lakme.”
The evening could have ended right there. But I had the additional pleasure of sharing the dinner portion of the evening with Suzanne Mitchell and Richard Zansitis, who wound together so many Austin and Houston threads that I could have listened to them all night.
An Afternoon in Wonderland
Cutest party ever. To celebrate the upcoming Ballet Austin show “Alice in Wonderland,” the Ballet Austin Guild staged a costume tea party for several hundred guests at the Ella Hotel. For An Afternoon in Wonderland, youths dressed up as characters from the beloved story. Most guests simply wore their best spring attire, including an array of elaborate hats.
Every table inside the midsize banquet room looked like a shrine to the British institution of high tea. What a stroke of hosting genius to include the kids, too, not so many that it became about them, but just enough to remind us that, in fact, it is about them. Don’t miss “Alice,” which opens at the Long Center on May 12.
Women of Power for Austin Way
Nina Seely has brokered some kind of secret deal with the weather gods. The weather was exquisite not only on the evening of the Umlauf Garden Party — which I nevertheless missed this year — but also a few days later for Austin Way magazine’s third Women of Power dinner — which I made. Both were held under dusky skies at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.
Everybody was raving about cover girl Brooklyn Decker, saying how the model, actress and wife of tennis great Andy Roddick was very real, down to earth. Well, we have known that about her for quite a while. We have also spent significant time with four of the five Women of Power: Jennifer Ransom Rice, Suzanne Deal Booth, Annie Burridge and Mela Sarajane Dailey — all hail from the arts. The fifth, a literary and library backer, Maya Payne Smart, is relatively new to me. Profile?
Hope Awards for iACT
Want to feel lucky that you live in Austin? Listen to the stories of refugees. We heard several unforgettable ones at the Hope Awards for iACT, an interfaith group that last year served more than 1,000 of the 1,700 new refugees in our city.
At the Bullock Texas State History Museum, we were impressed with fifth-grader Ali Saleh, whose family is from Somalia, but who fled to Saudi Arabia, then Syria, then Turkey, then the United States. He introduced running guru and humanitarian Gilbert Tuhabonye, who shared his own harrowing refugee memories from Burundi.
Receiving Hope Awards were the Austin school district, its refugee coordinator and three schools: Doss Elementary, Murchison Middle and International High. Also, the Bullock for its annual World Refugee Day, the Glimmer of Hope Foundation Austin, St. John’s United Methodist Church and student volunteer Mehraz Rahman.
In a few simple words, Issa Noheli, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, thanked Austin — and the American-Statesman’s Season for Caring program — for his new leg and the power of locomotion.
Can’t get more gripping than that.
Hidden Heroes for Alzheimer’s Texas
A key group, Alzheimer’s Texas, held its first traditional benefit at the same time that I had a long-standing date to tour the amazing Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory. Killed me to miss the luncheon, especially because the remarkable Becky Beaver, who cares for her husband, John B. Duncan Jr., was the honoree.
We were able to snag some of Beaver’s comments, however, presented here in an edited version.
“As any family who has dealt with this pernicious disease knows, it affects everyone in the family, and suddenly, with no experience and often with very little information, one is thrust into the role of caregiver and it becomes the most important thing you do every single day.
“The early years were scary, as we were very much in denial. John was relatively young, he was so very intelligent, and he took really good care of himself. But we knew that something was happening and we were losing our husband and father in many ways and he was losing the capacity to do so many of the things that he enjoyed in life.
“Everything we tried often seemed like two steps forward and one step back on the good days … the bad days were one step forward and three steps back. I only wish I had known then of Alzheimer’s Texas to help me navigate those perilous times, to provide me the names and referrals to resources who could help and to assure me that I was not the incompetent I seemed to be most days.
“This organization is the backstop to provide information, to provide referrals, to provide support and to provide encouragement when things seem the darkest and that there really is no hope. They provide hope to those of us who never know what tomorrow will bring, and work closely with professionals and researchers on medical and therapeutic interventions and in the tireless effort to find a cure.
“Primarily and ultimately, this award is for John. He is our care partner extraordinaire. He has worked relentlessly to stay active, to stay involved, to stay interested, to stay in the moment. He gamely joins us in whatever we’re doing and wherever we’re going, and he has stood down this disease with such graceful determination. John, we are all so proud of you, and this one’s for you.”