Her first foray into open combat saved a fire station.
In the early 1970s, the Austin city manager wanted to move the fire station on Kinney Avenue in the Zilker neighborhood to the other side of Barton Creek.
“If the fire station was out there, from one direction they’d be blocked by trains, from the other direction by floods,” says Shudde Fath, who turned 100 on Monday. “I’d seen them save a child who was choking and a neighbor’s mother having a heart attack.”
So, not for the last time, civic activist Fath marched down to the City Council without any notes.
“I was just incensed,” she says with a gentle smile. “I went up there and blew my stack, then just walked out. They didn’t move the fire station.”
Some citizens are honored merely for reaching the centennial mark. The Bastrop-born-and-reared Shudde Bess Bryson Fath has been spearheading causes for more than half her life, even before the fire station plan sparked her public outrage.
“A truly great person is someone who doesn’t remind you of anyone else,” says former Austin Mayor Carole Keeton, her sometime nemesis. “Shudde Fath does not remind you of anyone.”
Although she is best known for her consumer advocacy — she has served on the Electric Utility Commission since its inception, and the group meets in the Shudde Fath Conference Room — she and her late husband, Conrad “Connie” Fath, were involved in everything from the civil rights movement to saving Barton Creek. Some members of the environmental movement that shaped so much of Austin trace its origins to the political meetings in Fath’s living room.
“She is the grande dame of the environmental movement,” says David Butts, an Austin political consultant who has been one of the city’s most influential power brokers. Peck Young, Butts’ contemporary, met Fath while he was organizing fellow University of Texas students in the early 1970s. After considering the astounding length of a civic track record that continues to this day, he settled on a simple description of her: “She was a mentor to me, and I’m as old as dirt.”
Never giving up
“It’s like ‘Judy,’” Fath says about her first name. “But it’s ‘Shudde’ — and don’t try to spell it.”
It is actually an adaptation of her mother’s maiden name — Schueddemagen — shortened and Anglicized during World War I, which America entered during the year after her birth.
Her mother, Lily Shudde Bryson, made it halfway through medical school in Galveston on a full scholarship before meeting the future Dr. J. Gordon Bryson. They fell in love; she dropped out.
Years later, Fath’s mother revealed to another relative that she wished she hadn’t made that move. Instead, the rancher’s daughter, who grew up on the banks of the Sabinal River and spoke German first at home, assisted her husband, who was on call 24 hours a day, while raising six children.
“My father was also the unpaid football doctor,” Fath says. “He wrote two books and was the mayor. He doctored out of a horse and buggy, then a Model T Ford. He traded medical care for chickens, feed and meat during the Depression. He waited on all races.”
Fath’s parents also made do with rural skills.
“They knew how to do everything,” she says. “Dad milked a cow every day. They gardened, processed meat. Almost lived off what they produced.”
Fath remembers their first house, down by the Colorado River.
“I can’t believe the freedom we had,” Fath recalls. “We’d play on the riverbanks. Nobody was looking out where we were or if we’d drowned.”
Their second house was a brawny two-story structure across the street from the one Bastrop school. Fath could return home if she forgot any school supplies. That house still stands.
Valedictorian of Bastrop High School, Class of ’33, Fath competed with 18 other students in her senior class for the honor.
“I had the most wonderful teachers,” Fath recalls. “You see, a woman could only be a teacher, nurse, secretary, receptionist or sales clerk. I took two years of Latin, and my teacher was an honors student at Baylor.”
She played all the sports, but tennis was her main thing. She wasn’t particularly well-trained — she calls her swing a “chop stroke” — but even against the better-prepped college women, she and her UT roommate, Glenn Appling from Luling, triumphed at intramural doubles.
As with their parents’ generation, the Bryson siblings generally excelled at school. Both of Fath’s brothers became doctors. But they also learned to work their way through college.
“UT was only $15 a semester,” Fath says. “It might have got up to $25. I waited tables, worked in the women’s gym, managed our sorority house, which got me half room and board.”
In 1937, she graduated from the business school with highest honors. She had met Conrad Fath — brother of New Deal lawyer, political activist and UT benefactor Creekmore Fath — in college. Later, her husband opened Conrad Fath Boats and Motors on Barton Springs Road in the spot where Uncle Billy’s Brewery and Smokehouse stands now.
As soon as she graduated, however, Fath took a job for $90 a month at what is now the Texas Workforce Commission. She retired in 1981 after 42 and a half years of service.
Not always quiet service.
In 1975, when the federal government sent down its equal opportunity rulings, Fath realized that she had received unequal treatment at work. Her husband and his fishing buddy, lawyer Broadus Spivey, encouraged her to sue for gender discrimination.
“Those bastards mistreated you,” her husband, who died in 1990, told her. “And I don’t think you should stand for it.”
The suit — the first of its kind in Texas — was settled in 1980.
“I got $200,000 and enhanced retirement,” she says. “The commission had to pay $75,000 to the state retirement system based on normal life expectancy. I am now the state retirement system’s worst nightmare. They open the paper every day to see if I’ve succumbed. They long ago went through that $75,000.”
Laughing out loud
“Once, I laughed so loud, I set off the alarm,” Fath told Rodolfo Gonzalez, photographer for this story. “I was watching (comedian) Trevor Noah.”
Her only child and caretaker, Betsy Fath Hiller, explains that the alarm notification reported glass breakage in a bedroom.
Mother and daughter sit in the midcentury modern home the Faths built in 1966. Designed by Martin Kermacy, it is a long rectangle with open ceilings and skylights. A lifetime of papers, photographs and awards are arranged neatly on every surface.
“I’ve given 45 boxes of papers to Austin Energy and 12 Save Barton Creek Association boxes to the Austin History Center,” Fath says. “Four more boxes are destined for the Bastrop County Historical Society Museum. Mother helped found that.”
Her daughter helps in countless ways — for instance, aiding in the assembly of “The Greatest Generation,” Fath’s record of letters to and from servicemen during World War II, originally published in the Bastrop Advertiser.
A loyal subscriber, Fath has read the American-Statesman every day since 1939, which might be a record.
After the firehouse controversy, another of Fath’s causes was to save Barton Creek.
“I always was a swimmer,” she says. “Loved Barton Springs. Had paid dues to the Save Barton Creek Association since 1979. Then they lost their treasurer. I said I could do that. Did it for 29 years.”
A friend of pioneering progressive City Council Member Emma Long, first elected in 1948, Fath began her crusade for equitable utility treatment in 1971 while keeping books for the family’s boat, motor and bait shop.
“I wrote the checks,” she says. “My husband was the big-thinker type. When air conditioning came in, he had to put it in, it was so hot in the summer. Our bills went from about $10 to about $40. I called down to inquire about the rates. That’s when I found out that everybody didn’t pay the same rate. You know, the same wires went down the street that served the department stores and hotels. Why should they pay cheaper rates?”
Fath put an appeal in the paper that carried the notification, “This ad paid for with my Christmas money.”
Around this time, activists were fighting what looked like an expensive and potentially dangerous nuclear power plant. Some sleight of hand — others might call it political deftness — won her the first of multiple terms on the new Electric Utility Commission, founded in 1977. By questioning the math, she and allies were able to keep rates low for decades.
“Shudde is always the one who would say, ‘That would be wonderful if it were true, but your numbers just don’t add up,’” said Young, the political operative, who served with Fath during the commission’s early days. He adds that with Fath’s grandmalike demeanor, during public debates, “to have her tell you you’re full of it can be devastating.”
Fath admits that she almost wasn’t reappointed last year after the installment of the new 10-1 council.
“I lost the whole ballgame in 2012,” she sighs. “That’s when (the weight of electrical charges) mostly fell on residentials. We’re getting ready to go into another big electric-rate fight, and I don’t know how it’s going to come out. Bad start: No consumer advocate hired to represent residentials and small businesses.”
There are few physical manifestations of Fath’s legacy aside from that meeting room and the 77-acre Shudde Fath Tract fronting Barton Creek near Loop 360 and Texas 71.
And yet the organizations that have fiercely guarded Barton Springs and that galvanized Austin in the early 1990s grew out of those political meetings in Fath’s living room.
“It was the meeting place for liberal politics for a long time,” Young says. The River City Coordinating Committee counted neighborhood associations, environmental clubs, minority rights activists and student groups among its members.
“Shudde was the godmother of the group, and Connie was the godfather,” Young says. “Environmentalists have become the thing in Austin politics, but back before hugging trees, Shudde and Connie were doing things for an entire prior generation.”
Fath has irritated other environmentalists in recent years by insisting that Austin not cut ties with its coal plant too soon, after data suggested doing so would almost certainly raise rates.
Roger Duncan, another of the central figures in Austin’s environmental movement, was drawn into politics when, shortly after graduating from UT, there was a knock on his door and a woman named Shudde introduced herself. She hoped he would help the campaign of presidential candidate George McGovern.
From there, Duncan went on to be a political consultant, a City Council member and the general manager of Austin Energy, designing many of its energy-efficiency programs and renewable-energy policies.
Fath, he says, was an always skeptical audience — even for those on her side of the political spectrum.
“Sometimes she would bring up something that would cause us to throw our hands up,” Duncan says. He would tell fellow staff members who were grinding their teeth about Fath’s nits: “‘I know they’re irritating, but they’re usually right. So check them out.’ She really helped put the work of the utility into context. If we weren’t sure of something, by God, she would have a file box with the memo.”
Duncan retired from Austin Energy in 2009. He received numerous plaques and lifetime-of-service awards. The one he remembers was given to him in the living room that had hosted so many of the strategy meetings that shaped the Austin of today.
A small piece of copper is affixed to the back. On that piece of copper is an engraved message from Fath that Duncan says exemplifies the woman who knocked on his door and brought him into politics:
“Thank you,” it reads, “for never giving the bastards a good night’s sleep.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct that four boxes of personal papers will be donated to the Bastrop County Historical Society Museum, rather than the material already being there. It has also been updated to correct the pay at Fath's job at the Texas Workforce Commission.