Why the Harvey Penick Award is a hole-in-one

Since 1992, the Caritas of Austin honor has been given to top civic leaders.



Highlights

Harvey Penick Award, conferred by Caritas of Austin, is among the city’s most coveted.

The 25th annual Harvey Penick Award will be given out at Cartitas’ Words of Hope Dinner.

The question came up during a seminar on how to stage charitable events.

Planner: “How many awards should we give out at our gala?

Social columnist: “One. Just one.”

That is what Caritas of Austin has done since 1992. And because of that, the group, which provides food and refugee and social services, has honored only the cream of the city’s civic-minded crop with its Harvey Penick Award. Few Austin accolades come with as much authority, in large part because it has been so carefully conferred.

That said, ever since late golf guru Harvey Penick earned the first award 24 years ago, many of the laurels have gone to emissaries from the worlds of sports, law and education. The University of Texas has been particularly well-represented.

But let’s face it, those are foundational components of Austin’s culture.

It is also true that some couples and small bands of companions have taken home the statue, but that gesture just verifies that good works are rarely the result of stern individualism.

As Caritas prepares for its Words of Hope Dinner on Sept. 29 — Gary and Susan Farmer will receive the Harvey Penick Award this year, while Jeff Salz and Alepho Deng will provide the inspirational words — we look back at some of the giants to see what they thought about the man and the meaning of the award.

Keeping it simple

Too many — including Lady Bird Johnson, Barbara Jordan, Darrell Royal, Lowell Lebermann, George Christian, Bob Bullock and J.J. “Jake” Pickle — are, like the first Caritas champion, deceased. (Penick died in 1995 at age 90.)

A few, however, reflected on the prize and on the personal influence of the eminently quotable coach. Warning: The uniformly good feelings might be contagious.

“The Penick event brought all of us who were honored closer together,” says Mike Haggerty, who won alongside ThunderCloud Subs co-captains Andy Cotton, John Meddaugh and Patty Sughrue in 2015. “Mr. Penick believed in keeping things simple, direct and practical. … The ultimate elegance is simplicity. … I strive to emulate his ability to keep it simple in a complicated world.”

Steve Gurasich speaks for GSD&M co-founders Judy Trabulsi, Roy Spence and Tim McClure, who accepted the Penick Award for their collective contributions in 2012 — amid a lot of good-spirited joshing and ribbing that evening.

“Harvey used to say, ‘Golf inspires us to do things we never thought we could do,’” Gurasich recalls. “And that’s exactly what Caritas does on a large scale for so many people who aren’t as fortunate as many. For Harvey, the game of golf was a stepping-stone in the game of life and life lessons — integrity, honesty, focus, resilience, winning, competitiveness and excellence, to name a few.”

Businessman, donor and decorated World War II vet Frank Denius is not a golfer, but Penick, along with legendary UT coach Clyde Littlefield, spoke to his fraternity about the importance of self-discipline and focus, not unusual admonitions in athletics, but always a worthwhile lesson.

“Life is a contact sport,” says Denius, who picked up the Penick Award in 2014. “There are many bumps in the road of life, but you have to get up and get back in the game.”

Each of the winners is given an opportunity to work in the Caritas kitchen, which pleased philanthropists Sarah and Ernest Butler, who were reminded at the ceremony of their rooted ties to the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Austin, Austin Opera, Austin Nature and Science Center, the Dino Pit, Travis County Medical Alliance, Travis County Medical Society, Butler School of Music and Butler Opera Center.

RELATED: Why longtime patrons Sarah and Ernest Butler just gave $3 million to Ballet Austin

“Aside from the award, there were memorable gifts: a peacock stole, a handmade quilt from my book club, a bronze (replica) of Sarahsaurus,” says Sarah Butler, namesake for a genus of basal sauropodomorph dinosaur discovered in Arizona. “Ernest and I were warmly rewarded with memories from our friends of the past from over the years. As we entered the Four Seasons we encountered a giant peacock flower arrangement.”

Sally Brown, praised alongside her husband, former UT football coach Mack Brown, recalled many special details about their Penick evening in 2008.

“Having our dear friends Paige Alam and Kristin Armstrong as surprise emcees made it so very personal,” she says. “We have always valued Harvey’s words ‘Take dead aim.’ So often we reflect on what that means in terms of staying on our correct path.”

Brave and meek

State Sen. Kirk Watson, commended in 2007, says he believes Penick’s wisdom, preserved by late writer Bud Shrake in “Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book” and elsewhere, can be applied to much more than golf.

“‘Be brave if you lose and meek if you win’ is one rule that is good in virtually every aspect of life,” Watson says. “It’s certainly something I wish more folks in politics today would live by.”

Watson sensed that the crowd in the hotel banquet room on his glittering night was tightly knit.

“Austin is special in part because the people know we’re closely connected, and on a night like that, we embraced it,” he says. “It was like a big family being together, telling stories, laughing and celebrating something fun.”

Public service champion Pat Hayes — former head of St. Edward’s University, later captain of what is now known as the Seton Healthcare Family — didn’t know Penick personally. Yet she admired his mission of making people as successful as they could be.

“Not surprisingly, his life stood for the same thing Caritas stands for — empowering people so they can achieve their own greatness,” says Hayes, lionized in 2006. “My Penick Award celebration was a rare combination of warm personal affirmation, fun and community impact. It was so lovingly planned by Patty Huffines and Greg Kozmetsky and attended by my closest family and community and work colleagues.”

Former UT women’s basketball coach and Hall of Famer Jody Conradt, acclaimed in 2003, felt a special connection to Penick as an instructor of sport.

“We shared an appreciation for teaching,” Conradt says. “By reputation, Harvey was kind and humble. Those are qualities I admire. His students still cherish the time they spent with him. He was able to relate individually with each person he taught. He also enjoyed connecting with and teaching women and helped many of them advance in their careers. He provided simple, clear advice: Take dead aim!”

Few others in the room owed so much to Penick as his protege, golfing great Ben Crenshaw, who won in 2001.

“Happily, my life has been intertwined with Penick’s teaching wisdom,” Crenshaw says. “To say he made a lasting imprint on me is a classic understatement. His knowledge, patience and kindness will remain in many of us forever.”



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