Friday, March 12, 2010

Austin: The Past

Back in Seattle after our "Spring Break" trip to Austin (with a side trip to San Antonio), I'm looking over the photographs in my camera taken during the final two days we spent in the Capitol city of Texas. I'm remembering the Austin of my past; those rich memories triggered by images of the Austin of the present.

Austin has a hold on an important three years of my life, a time when I was literally rocketed out of my home environment (Aruba) and relocated to a boarding school 8 miles west of the city for grades 10-12. Imagine a shy, introverted and very naive youngster of fifteen leaving the comforts of home to live in a small room in a sterile dormitory, adjusting to a roommate and a communal bathroom all in a locale some 3000 miles from my parents and friends. Harsh? I may not have used that particular word at the time. My word would have been terrified. The school in Aruba, affected by budget cuts, ended at the 9th grade. Thereafter, if employees of Lago Oil and Transport Co. (now ExxonMobil) wished to keep their jobs, their high school age children need to enroll in U.S. boarding schools. My Dad, being an educator (principal of the American school in Aruba), was on the inside of information regarding which private boarding schools were best. St. Stephen's Episcopal School, tucked into the hill country west of Austin, was the choice for me; excellent college prep curriculum and "close" to my older sister in Houston. Close is a relative term; the 150 miles between Austin and Houston was every bit as far as the 3000 miles to Aruba. I had to grow up fast.

Having said all of that, St. Stephen's was an excellent choice. Thanks Dad. You picked a winner. There is absolutely no question that I received a great education and was prepared academically for college. There is also no question that the staff and teachers at St. Stephen's were always on the lookout for the well being of the students, particularly the boarding students entrusted to their care. My advisor (who still teaches at the school 35 years later!) took me under her wing and played the role of parent as I flailed around trying to find myself in those awkward mid teen years.

Laura and I visited the St. Stephen's campus twice during our stay in Austin; once at night and then because I felt like she really hadn't "seen" the campus without the light of day we went back yesterday before our flight home to Seattle. The campus was quiet with students away on Spring Break. So much has changed although many of the original buildings such as the chapel, one of the dorms I lived in, and the auditorium are the same. The new construction is impressive. The biggest change is the passage of time marked by the expansion of Austin's city limits. What was once a small school community accessed by a four mile stretch of a single lane of winding road through undeveloped countryside is now part of the city proper. A major highway is within a quarter mile of the school and there are lovely homes and flourishing businesses adjacent to the 300 plus acre property. Trying to explain to my daughter how remote the school felt back in the day was tough when everything now seems incorporated by the big city.

I remember hiking with classmates down the western slope of campus down through brush to the shores of Lake Austin (more like a river that flows out of Lake Travis to the north). We called this the "gulch". Lovely and wild. Yesterday I learned that the "gulch" is no more; those acres are now fully developed with gorgeous homes built into the hills, some with river-front access. Such is the passage of time.

While I'm traveling memory lane, I'll add a few more.

Lamme's Candies, an Austin original for generations, is still a presence in the big city although their main shop is no longer on South Congress in downtown Austin. I used to stop in the downtown shop regularly as a high school student on the occasional "town trip" (freedom!!) from boarding school. The candy hasn't changed at all. Laura and I picked up pralines and mints that taste just like they always have.

Finally, the campus at U.T. Austin......Denny spent four years there getting his undergraduate degree back in the 70's. Laura and I walked about campus and the Co-op, checked out all the orange and white, Bevo laden T shirts, coffee mugs, magnets and myriad other souvenirs filling two entire floors of the building. I remember when the Co-op was where students bought textbooks and notebooks.

The U.T. Tower, Jester Hall (the high rise dorm that Denny lived in as a freshman), and Dobie Center were three buildings that caught our attention on our walking tour. I think Laura appreciated hearing the stories that came with our journey through campus. Family history.

Laura had never heard of the Tower's dark history from 1966, an event that stood as the worst mass murder on a college campus until the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.

On the south side of the tower stands a plaza with a lovely view of the state capitol building. Surrounded by live oaks the setting is quite peaceful. I remember as a high school senior, my brother visited me at St. Stephen's School and took me in to the city for a lovely dinner. A great steak wrapped in bacon and baked potato with the works was the favorite meal for deprived students suffering through institutional food. We also walked around the U.T. campus and stood at this very spot on the plaza. He carved his initials "J.T." and mine, "K.T." into the limestone ledge shown in the picture above. For years afterward, every time I was in Austin I would trek through campus to this site, find those initials carved into the ledge, and feel the bittersweet of time's passage. Nearly 40 years later, I had hoped to find those initials again but eventually the seemingly permanent dissolves away. Sandblasting has rendered the ledges smooth. Or is it just time and weathering? Gone. But, not forgotten.

For me, Austin is all about memories of a young life belonging to a person I barely recognize from where I stand today.


  1. It's amazing that so many things are the same with all the changes to the area surrounding the school.

  2. What a lovely post, Kate. I wish I could have been there while you visited.


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