The changing breeze at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Its subdued celebration become more boisterous.


It doesn’t take much to shift a culture ever so slightly.

For years, the Wildflower Gala at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center glided on a breeze of pleasant memories. About the late first lady and her family. About the gorgeous and groundbreaking center that bears her name, devoted to sustainable gardening at every level. About the incredible minds and personalities gathered around the tables at the center’s courtyard, under the violet dusk.

No doubt, it was an honor just to be included.

That much has not changed. The most recent gala, however, shifted a bit. Gone was the silent auction of art inspired by nature. It was replaced by an extended live auction, a standby for hundreds of other Austin galas. If this noisier strategy raises more money and excitement for this vital cause, I suppose all is well.

As always, we heard from the generous and impassioned first family of Austin, this year represented by Luci Baines Johnson. (Close your eyes and alter the timbre, and you can hear her father on the stump.) Honored this year was Maline McCalla, a dear friend to the first lady and a member of countless volunteer groups. Her acceptance speech proved wise and witty.

The weather, of course, remained magnificent. But that has been a recurring blessing at this annual event. Only one guest could recall a rainout, when everybody scattered to indoor spaces. May it always be a Lady Bird night like this one.

Red, Hot & Soul for Zach Theatre

One reason we raced across town to catch at least part of Zach Theatre‘s annual upscale benefit — Red, Hot & Soul — is the company. And this year, we won the lottery at a Big Apple-festooned table captained by the immutable James Armstrong and Larry Connelly. To my left was restaurateur Eddie Bernal, taking a break from his breakneck schedule.

To my right were theater aces Michael Hartman and Nick Mayo. New York’s loss is Austin’s immense gain. They later ushered me over to spend a precious bit of time with Holland Taylor, then starring at Zach in “Ann,” and her romantic mate, actor Sarah Paulson. What a charming couple, even when mobbed, as they are wherever they go in Austin these days.

But who are we kidding? Zach is always about entertainment. The young pro group. The auction shenanigans. The season previews. It’s a three-ring circus.

On top of all that, we stood to salute Topfer Theatre namesake Mort Topfer on his 80th birthday. He and his wife, event empress Bobbi Topfer, permanently changed the game for Zach artistic director Dave Steakley and managing director Elisbeth Challener, as well as for all those in town who love theater.

Storybook Heroes for BookSpring

Theater training helps. Days after winning an $11,000 Philanthropitch grant with theatrical flair, Emily Ball Cicchini and her team turned BookSpring’s annual Storybook Heroes Luncheon into quite an efficient and effective show.

Among those amplifying the nonprofit group’s efforts to give books to needy kids was rock star librarian Kay Gooch, previously profiled in these pages. One volunteer, Mindy Reed Gomillion, and one business, Keller Williams Realty International, walked away with the Storybook Hero laurels.

It was author and athlete Tim Green, however, who hit an inspirational “Home Run,” coincidentally, the title of his latest hit from HarperCollins Publishers.

After a career in the NFL and as a lawyer, Green pursued another childhood fantasy by becoming a writer. He has put out more than 30 books for adults and youths. Green also speaks to schoolchildren 100 times a year, first about sports, then about reading.

He encourages 60 minutes of physical activity and 20 minutes of unrestricted reading a day. Green calls reading “mental weightlifting” and credits the practice with fostering kindness through empathy. He also recommended “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio. If Green can’t sell you on the fundamental value of reading at an early age, nobody can.

Cicchini thinks big: She wants to provide 20 books each for all 75,000 needy kids in Central Texas.

Heart Ball for the Heart Association

Never really understood the American Heart Association. Still don’t. Learning, though.

Attended part of the Heart Ball, the Austin iteration of the national tradition. It is huge. Big ballroom at the JW Marriott. A separate roomy space for the silent auction and cocktail affair. They aren’t playing around. One item was a special Fiat once owned by Jay Leno.

Me: So who comes to these functions?

Another fine social columnist: Doctors.

Me: Ah, that’s why I recognize so few. …

That social columnist: Right over there is the president of the board. Now, he isn’t the chairman. They are two different things. He’ll explain it.

Indeed. I chatted for a few golden minutes with Dr. Steven Warach of the Dell Medical School and Seton Family Healthcare, a stroke specialist previously of Boston and Washington, D.C. He attended two other eye-opening Austin events, the One Word at a Time luncheon for the amazing Austin Speech Labs, and the Future of Care luncheon with Innovation Awards for Seton.

Both are must-attend functions. Go ahead. Read about them.

Warach explained that the president of the local board is always a medical doctor who deals with the scientific end of the business, while the chairman is a civilian who focuses on events and fundraising.

I don’t know how much it netted, but the Heart Association, which disseminates the latest information on heart care, looks pretty rosy to me.


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