Hats off to the James Armstrong Celebration of Life

Sept 20, 2017
James Armstrong at a Umlauf Sculpture Garden event. Robert Godwin for American-Statesman

Artists know how to celebrate even in mourning. A tribute to major benefactor James Armstrong was every bit as compelling as a show staged by one of the outstanding arts groups represented on the stage of the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

First, the flowers, which were everywhere and overwhelmingly beautiful. Then the crowd, which included Armstrong’s husband, Larry Connelly, and his family, as well as hundreds of respectful admirers.

RELATED: Austin arts benefactor and philanthropist James Armstrong has died

One after another Dave Steakley (Zach Theatre), Philip Barnes (Austin Opera), Peter Bay (Austin Symphony), Stephen Mills (Ballet Austin), Margaret Perry (Armstrong Community Music School), Doug Dempster (University of Texas College of Fine Arts) and others talked of Armstrong’s generosity, humor and ardency for life.

Almost every speech came with a performance of a song or aria or medley. Each was extraordinary, but I was taken unawares by Liz Cass’ deep, rich, heartfelt rendition of “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Camille Saint-Saëns‘s “Samson and Delilah.” You never know what will make you choke back tears.

Life well lived, James!

Authentic Mexico

It is good to be reminded that Authentic Mexico started out with food and the people who make it.

From the beginning, this benefit for the Hispanic Alliance has presented interior Mexican cuisine cooked by top international chefs as well as local leaders. It always has included an informative program about the Alliance’s mission to transform lives through business mentorship, arts education and excellent resources.

Yet as the evening expanded and moved — for one year only — to a hillside tent, it lost a little focus. Back on the glorious stage of the Long Center for the Performing Arts, it has regained the core qualities of intensely pleasurable rations and repartee.

Pre-dinner bocaditos came from Roberto Espinosa (TacoDeli), Kristine Kittrell (Weather Up), Rick Lopez (La Condesa), Jeff Martinez (Alcomar) and Ryan Shields (Bullfight).

We arrived in time for the entrada, an intoxicating asado de boda from Daniel Brooks (Licha’s Cantina). I could have stopped there. But no, out came the magnificent plato fuerte from Roberto Santibañez (Fonda of New York City), three long, lean, gorgeous lamb chops with guajillo, ancho and chocolate mole served with cornbread, creamy roasted poblano peppers and fried plantains. One of the best lamb dishes I’ve ever tasted.

Luckily, party regent Monica Peraza planned time between the plato fuerte and the sweet postres from Tita Jolliffe (Tita Jolliffe Catering), Juliann Stoddart (Parkside Projects), Kevin Taylor (ATX Cocina) and Sharon Watkins (Chez Zee American Bistro).

Congrats to Trailblazer Gary Valdez. We’ll catch up with him later when we are not distracted by the cuisine and the conversation.

Building Healthy Futures

Clarity. Efficiency. Effectiveness.

The Building Healthy Futures luncheon that benefits AIDS Services of Austin glorifies these virtues.

Start with the simple cards that share the lunch menu at the JW Marriott and the schedule for the hour-long event, inaugurated by Toya Bell, exact to the minute.

The testimonial videos and speeches were tight and touching. The brochure that details ASA’s 30-year history is a mini-masterpiece: A timeline cleanly chronicles the US and Austin HIV/AIDS epidemics and ASA’s responses. Clear graphics in shades of cool blue lay out revenues, expenses and services as well as programs for food, housing, testing and dental care, while precise pages honor volunteers and receipts from the Octopus Club and AIDS Walk, which is coming up Oct. 29.

Every nonprofit that gives a charity luncheon should make this event a case study in cogency.

The Big Give

Just about every Austin nonprofit of a certain size fields a young leaders group or stages a giving event geared for young backers. Few feel as authentic or as lively as the Big Give from I Live Here I Give Here.

Credit Executive Director Celeste Flores, but also her excellent party team, who put the focus this year squarely on the Patsy Woods Martin Big Giver, Brittany Morrison, of Hospice Austin. Her speech hit every right note about personal investment in a specific charity. (We promise to interview her soon.)

Additionally, the K Friese +Associates Small Nonprofit Award went to Partners in Parenting and the RetailMeNot Nonprofit Award was taken home by Big Medium.

I scored an ideal time at the Hotel Van Zandt: Chatted for a long time with two people I know and admire, Erica Saenz and Roxanne Schroeder-Arce; spoke briefly with a dozen other guests; ate three small, salty snacks; and drank one signature cocktail.

Never waited in line. Never endured long distractions. Ninety minutes max. The best.

Texas Tribute 4000 Gala

While Hurricane Harvey bore down on Texas, several Austin nonprofits chose to forge ahead with their galas. When I heard that the Texas 4000 Tribute Gala that benefits the cancer fight was not canceled, I responded: “I guess if you’ve biked 4,000 miles from Texas to Alaska, a little hurricane is not going to stop you.”

Luckily, the happy warriors at the dinner sent me this report, presented here lightly edited:

“Despite the wind and rain, Texas 4000 for Cancer had its most successful Tribute Gala to date,” they told me. “The funds raised at the JW Marriott, along with what was raised by the riders throughout the year, resulted in over $1 million in fundraising in 2017.

“Supporters were determined to not let Hurricane Harvey affect the evening, and one board member even drove round trip from Houston on Friday morning to ensure his auction items made it to the event.

“Videos portraying the 70-day summer ride reflected the many emotions the riders’ experienced, and shared some of the stories for why they ride.

Ice Ball

Another Austin gala withstood the winds of Hurricane Harvey: the Ice Ball for Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Central Texas.

This is, rightly, one of the highlights of the early fall season in Austin. This year, despite the weather, the event grossed $670,000 at the JW Marriott Hotel. The nonprofit’s helpers sent in reports, which we quote here.

“I was absolutely amazed by the turnout and by the enthusiastic support our Central Texas community showed at Ice Ball,” says board chairman Carlos Barbosa. “We were bracing for the rain, but what an amazing show of support we received. Huge thanks to all who came out, and to those who couldn’t make it but still found ways to support our agency.”

“Watch the match story,” spokeswoman Brenda Lindfors says of the testimonial video available on the Out & About blog on austin360.com. “It is a beautiful, powerful and moving story. And it was powerful to have Kirida and her mom, Theresa, in the room with us at the gala. Our guests formed a line to meet and talk with Kirida at the end of the night. She was — rightfully — a celebrity. She has overcome a lot and is going to do great things. Kirida’s Big Sister, Maggie, was stuck in Bastrop with the rain.”