They met as young women who arrived to Austin between 1963 and 1966, following husbands who were professors or in graduate school.
Suellen Mills, 75, Beverly Locklin, 77, Rachel Flake, 76, Barbara Lightsey, 77, Martha Fontaine Burns, 82, and Carol Kolsti, 75, all joined University Baptist Church and began friendships that will turn 50 next year.
“I still remember the day that you and Bob came” to Sunday school class, Lightsey says to Flake about her and her ex-husband.
“Really? I don’t,” Flake says with a laugh.
For the longest time, they called themselves simply “the Group,” though at a recent lunch celebrating their birthdays, they decided on a more colorful name suggested by Kolsti’s husband, John: “the Steel Bluebonnets.”
Of course, their kids had some other names, including “The Six Bags Over Texas.”
“The boys are pretty irreverent,” Lightsey says.
The Group has been together through births and deaths, weddings and surgeries. Their lives have taken them in different directions, but they always come back together for the annual Christmas party and a birthday celebration or two.
As Kolsti once wrote to Flake: “Our ‘Group’ means more than words can convey — comfort, support, sharing talents, assisting in difficult times.”
In good times and bad
They have always known when they were needed. Sometimes they sent the husbands home while they slept in chairs by a friend’s hospital bedside.
Lightsey’s youngest son, Jason, had to be hospitalized when he was 5 weeks old. She got a phone call from Burns: “She said, ‘I heard what’s happened. What can we do to help?’”
Four-year-old Jeffrey went to live at the Burns home for a week while the Lightseys took care of Jason.
When Lightsey’s furnace went out when her sons were little, Kolsti took them in for the night.
“Beverly and Rachel helped when my grandmother died and there was a lot of family tension,” Lightsey says. “I didn’t want my 4-year-old to see it. I took him over to Beverly’s and to Rachel’s.”
The friendships extended to their husbands as well as to their children.
Four of the friends were pregnant together and had sons months apart: Kolsti had Ken in August 1967; Burns had Michael in October 1967; and Lightsey had Jeffrey in November 1967. Mills finished the run with Scott in December 1967.
The boys were in Indian Guides together, with their fathers leading. When it came time for them to go to the 4-year-old class at Sunday school, University Baptist had to get a second teacher for that class because of their four boys.
The boys all went to different schools, but they remain close and attended Jeffrey Lightsey’s wedding together.
Life kept them very busy. They took up volunteer positions. Mills has worked for Meals on Wheels and More for 40 years and started Mike’s Place, a respite for people with Alzheimer’s disease in honor of her late husband, Mike. Many of the other Steel Bluebonnets have delivered meals for Meals on Wheels. Locklin volunteered for the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts.
Kolsti has spent 50 years volunteering with Church Women United. Lightsey volunteers with the Assistance League of Austin and Drive-A-Senior: West Austin. Flake served on the local Girl Scouts Council, overseeing Camp Texlake. She also got the other five women recycling in the late 1960s. Burns and Flake started the Friendship International program at Hyde Park Baptist Church, which paired American women with wives of foreign students at UT. All of the women are church deacons.
Even as their lives got busy, they held one day sacred every year: the annual Christmas party.
“We try to get together more often,” Lightsey says. “Christmas dinner is not negotiable.”
“It’s all very exclusive,” Flake says, though one time there was a minister who just moved to town and crashed the party.
They take turns hosting it, going in alphabetical order, though recently they’re a bit off schedule because life’s circumstances haven’t always been so kind to the hostess. The hostess provides the main course and the others fill in the rest. Burns loves to make a pork tenderloin. Kolsti specializes in Swedish meatballs.
There’s always a gift exchange, and each woman gets the other five the same thing. The husbands are invited, too, but don’t want to bother with exchanging gifts.
One year, Kolsti gave mugs that said, “What happens with the girls, stays with the girls.” Locklin tatted cross bookmarks for everyone, and Flake made Christmas pins. One year Flake and Kolsti got together and made sweatshirts that read “Hark the Texas Angel Sings.” Another year Kolsti made cross-stitched hangings of “Friends Forever” with each of their names stitched in.
“We know we won’t be able to top Carol,” Flake says.
Whenever they do get together, they remember all those good times and the trips they took together. Twice they went to Round Top and one time broke out into a piano singalong with pianist James Dick.
They went to San Antonio and bought matching dresses and learned all the different ways to tie a scarf. They went to the Antlers Hotel in Kingsland and Mills made sangria. One New Year’s Eve at Lightsey’s house, they ran out of wine and drank cold duck.
“I drank it like it was water,” Mills says.
“Sue got real happy,” Lightsey says.
“It wasn’t just me,” Mills counters. “I have never drank any Cold Duck since.”
After Flake had back surgery in 1995, she ended up in a coma. As she started to recover, all she wanted to do was go down to a beach house in Port Aransas.
“After the surgery, this group took me down there and drove me in a car down to the beach,” Flake says.
They also remember the 75th birthdays of Locklin, Flake and Lightsey when they rented a limo and drove around town, including a stop at Green Pastures. “It was on my bucket list,” Lightsey says.
Of course, they also remember how the limo driver got lost getting them home.
The trio also celebrated their 60th birthdays with a 1950s theme party. Not to be outdone, Mills and Kolsti celebrated their 60th birthdays with a party that was held at a secret location that ended up being Chuck E. Cheese.
They each have fallen into new roles in the group. Lightsey is the one you go to when you can’t remember something like a name or a date.
Locklin is the transporter for Flake. “You are her Uber,” Kolsti jokes to Locklin.
They always have a good laugh at themselves.
“You see a lot of Austin when you ride with Beverly,” Flake says. “You see all the back streets.”
“I like to stop at all the historical markers,” Locklin explains.
Flake is the ideas woman, Kolsti is the artist/crafter/welder. “Carol is our very creative person,” Lightsey says. “Rachel gets the ideas, but Carol follows through and does them.”
“We’re not creative are we?” Mills says to Burns.
“No, we’re not,” Burns replies.
“Rachel is the closest thing to a sister I ever had,” Lightsey says. “But Martha was there when mother died.”
At first when they would get together, they would talk about children. Now increasingly it’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They also talk about health and worry about upcoming surgeries.
Lightsey and Burns have moved into senior residences. Flake knows that she will probably make that move as well.
Their annual Christmas dinners, originally a table for 12, is now only a table for nine.
Flake and her husband divorced in 1990. The friends saw her through it.
“It was a shock,” Flake says.
“We were really fond of him,” Lightsey says.
They remember spending a lot of time at the Flakes’ house because they had a pool.
When Mills’ husband died in 2013 from Alzheimer’s disease, they helped her through that, as well as years of living with the disease.
“When Mike got so sick, we were supposed to have the Christmas party at my house,” Mills says. “Rachel came to my home and decorated and helped Mike get into the bedroom.”
Recently, Lightsey’s husband, Louis, has not been well enough to attend.
Each of the friends have other friends they are close to, but the longevity and that they all get along is what’s special about the Steel Bluebonnets.
“We’re so grateful to see each other,” Lightsey says. “When we are together, we don’t get into weighty matters.”
They are all very volunteer-minded. “We don’t tend to talk about politics,” Burns says.
Lightsey told Flake: “There’s been a lot of love emanated from this small group of six women, benefiting not only our own families but many others in Greater Austin.”