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Austin couple, once everywhere around town, stay busy into their 90s


They have been under the influence of each other for 80 years.

Both accomplished dancers, Sam and Bertha Shanblum met in 1936 at Paschal High School in Fort Worth. They dated, although not exclusively at first. Sam went off to college, while Bertha, a bit older, entered the Depression-era workforce.

“Then along came a little fracas called World War II,” recalls Sam, 96, later a stalwart supplier to the Austin restaurant community for almost 40 years. “When I got her letters overseas, she always closed with ‘Always.’ But she would also tell me about the boys that she danced with at the USO.”

“At least you got letters,” says a twinkle-eyed Bertha, 97, later an intrepid professor’s assistant at the University of Texas for 25 years. “I did my part. I’d take the bus out to dance with the soldiers at Camp Wolters in Mineral Wells. I still have the blue scarf they gave me for making bandages. Gosh, everybody tried to pitch in.”

The Shanblums married in 1947. They have two daughters, Lynda, 68, and Laurie, 66. Although their calendar remains pretty full with activities in and around their tidy home in the Northwest Hills, the couple once were everywhere in Austin’s business, university and faith communities.

Sharing old stories around their dining room table, the couple is not above the gentle tease or admonition. The one constant, however, since they met 80 years ago: an undisguised mutual fondness.

“I still close with ‘Always,’” Bertha says about her letters or notes to Sam. “I’ll always love you.”

The Fort Worth years

Sam’s parents emigrated from Russia and Poland in the late 19th century. Both worked in the family grocery business, as did Sam and his three brothers, on the South Side of Fort Worth, not far from the TCU campus.

“What kind of kid was I? A good one,” Sam judges himself. “All except when they caught me. I did all right in school. Not at the top, but certainly not at the bottom.”

After attending North Texas Agricultural College in Arlington, he studied at UT Law School for a year, then joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. He served with a ground crew on the island of Saipan, where he endured air raids, but no combat.

Bertha’s relatives came from Lithuania and Germany. Both Shanblums count among their male relatives a soldier or two who served during the Spanish-American War.

She grew up alongside two brothers.

“They used me for a football a lot of times,” she says with a laugh. “They’d be playing in the street and call me out to be in the middle somewhere. Somehow, I was always caught in between football players.”

Unlike Sam, Bertha graduated at the top of her class at Paschal. She wanted to be a teacher, but her family couldn’t afford to send her to college. She worked instead for a lawyer for $5 a week.

An accident in Sam’s Model T Ford — and a move to Austin — played parts in the Shanblums’ eventual marriage plans.

After the war, Sam returned to law school, but during the Easter break, he was thrown out of his car while driving outside Waco.

“My left knee was damaged,” he recalls. “I was in the hospital for two weeks, then on crutches for a month, so I missed going back to school. While recuperating, a friend came to see me and said, ‘Let’s go into business.’ I was bored and happy to get going. And I was ready to get married. It sounded like it would be a good deal.”

His friend’s family had been in the restaurant supply business for years. All that the new partners needed, then, was fresh territory. They opened up shop in Austin in 1946, a year before the Shanblums finally heard wedding bells ring.

The eatery game

Sam and his business partner, Robert Gernsbacher, opened their first restaurant supply shop in the 100 block of West Fifth Street, then moved to 615 E. Sixth St., across from what is now Esther’s Follies. Sam bought out his partner in 1949.

“There was an H-E-B on the corner of Sixth and Red River,” Sam says. “And angled parking along a two-way street. For a while, we merged Army surplus and cafe supply. I spent the next 39 1/2 years there.”

Sam sold supplies to some of the city’s most famed and long-lived eateries, including Martin’s Kum-Bak (Dirty Martin’s), the Nighthawk, El Patio, La Tapatia, Threadgill’s, the Chicken Shack, Fonda San Miguel and Cisco’s Bakery, where he befriended its legendary owner, Rudy Cisneros.

“I’d go to his restaurant twice a day every day,” Sam says. “Once in the morning for coffee, then at noon for lunch. I sat at a regular table with the same businessmen.”

RELATED: East Austin institution Cisco’s for sale

Owner Cisneros smoked cigars constantly.

“At that time, I smoked them, too,” Sam says. “One day, I was sitting at a table in the front with a number of regulars, and I was smoking a cigar. After I’d been there for a few minutes, a man asked if I would put it out. For some reason, I said no. ‘I’m going to call the manager,’ he says. ‘Go ahead,’ I say. They called for Rudy. He walks in puffing his cigar. ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘Oh, never mind.’”

He also supplied the Hoffbrau Steakhouse, the unreformed hot spot on West Sixth Street.

RELATED: Here’s the beef: Steakhouses in downtown Austin

“They were known for their greasy steaks,” Sam says with relish. “You’d have to know the brothers who ran it. There was a woman who came up and said: ‘That’s the best steak I’ve had in Austin. I’m going to tell all my friends.’ They said: ‘Don’t do that. We have all the business we can handle now.’”

At times, President Lyndon Baines Johnson ordered Hoffbrau steaks for his ranch.

“Then there was the time (business leader) Morris Shapiro wanted to have a party on Sunday, when they were closed,” Sam says. “Shapiro says: ‘I’ll guarantee so-and-so-many people and pay double the price of the steaks you serve!’ ‘No, it’s too much trouble. We don’t want to do it.’ Shapiro says: ‘I come here every day for lunch. If you don’t do this, I’ll never come in again.’ He was a man of his word.”

The owners of Hoffbrau habitually took off two weeks each fall to go hunting. Once during this regular break, they brought their iron griddle — where everything was fried — into Sam’s shop to be cleaned.

“We got two or three layers of accumulation off of it,” he says. “Later, customers said: ‘Hey, the steaks just don’t taste the same for some reason.’ ‘Yeah, we got the grill cleaned.’”

Sam retired in 1985 and sold the business.

“I gave the man six weeks of my time,” he says. “Then I walked away and never looked back.”

The psychology game

In the late 1940s, Bertha and Sam lived in a two-room apartment on Manor Road. After their daughters were born, the family moved to a house on Placid Place, next door to academic psychologist Ira Iscoe. Bertha signed up to be his administrative assistant at UT, since the job allowed her to be home to greet the children at 3 p.m.

RELATED: Longtime UT psychology professor Ira Iscoe dies at 94

“At one point, Iscoe was head of Plan II (honors),” she says. “Our offices were on the 23rd floor of the Tower, with its narrow stairs and rickety elevator. I remember the firemen were checking the layout. I asked, ‘What would we do if there’s a fire?’ He said, ‘Jump out the window.’”

Bertha wore many hats as she helped Iscoe while he moved from the psychology department to Plan II, then to the Institute of Human Development and Family Studies, which he founded.

Where was she on Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman gunned down passersby from the Tower?

“I was in Mezes Hall on the South Mall,” she says. “I was walking down the stairs, and someone shouted: ‘Get down! Get down!’”

Sam: “Bertha immediately called to say that she was all right but couldn’t get out.”

Following the Tower shootings, Iscoe created a 24-hour counseling center at UT. Bertha assisted him for 25 years, something of a UT employment record at the time.

“All these students kept calling me Ma’am. That made me feel old,” she says with a smile. “Now, my professor used four-letter words, and I told Sam I thought it was terrible, that I didn’t know if I could continue. But I just got used to it and didn’t put them into shorthand. You know, students came to me for advice. They acted as if they knew what I was talking about. I kept a box of Kleenex handy.”

Bertha retired in 1986. She received a trip to Israel as a gift.

Changing Austin

Deep into their 90s, the Shanblums keep engaged, after having traveled to 25 countries.

Sam plays poker at a standing game on Tuesdays. A permanent fixture at the branch public library, he reads prodigiously in history, mysteries, biographies and suspense. Bertha keeps the house and cooks the evening meal — including a killer meat loaf and cabbage rolls — while also playing bridge and mahjong. She taught reading in East Austin and volunteered at Congregation Beth Israel, where Sam once served as president of the board of trustees.

Of course, they have watched the changes in Austin with mixed feelings.

“I remember when Highland Mall was a big, big thing,” Sam says. “I remember the field that was there before it opened. No MoPac. The road was dirt. Had to dodge the trucks coming in and out of the quarry where Far West is now. You’d meet people at the railroad station at Third and Congress.”

For a low-cost break, the family would check into the old Terrace Motel at South Congress Avenue and Academy Drive.

“We thought it was a big adventure,” daughter Lynda says. “We were crossing the river! It was like a mini-vacation.”

Now, Austin is a city of strangers.

“We knew more people,” Sam says. “You’d go to the store, you’d know people. People would say: ‘Aren’t you the Shanblums who had that store? Sure enjoyed coming into your store.’ I’d say: ‘You should have come in more often. I might still be in business!’”



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