Friday, March 26, 2010

a texan worth remembering.

It's the end of an era, as far as I'm concerned.

First Ann, then Molly, then Lady Bird. Now Liz. One by one, our strong, loud, independent, hilarious, yellow-dog yellow roses of Texas have been lost to the ages.

Liz Carpenter - White House press secretary, activist, author, Democratic Party Girl, dangerously quick wit, feminist, Force of Nature, & Texan by the grace of God - died last Saturday of pneumonia at age 89.

A sixth-generation Texan, Liz - nee Mary Elizabeth Sutherland - had relatives who died at the Alamo, wrote the Texas Declaration of Independence, served in the Civil War, fought for women's suffrage, and founded the Central Texas town of Salado, where she was born.

She was the middle child of five, moved to Austin when she was seven. She found two of her lifelong loves - her future husband, Les, and journalism - at Austin High School. The couple went to The University of Texas, and Liz found a third lifelong love - politics. She was the first woman ever elected vice president of the student body.

Les and Liz married and moved to Washington, DC, to open up their own news bureau. Liz began by covering President Franklin Roosevelt's administration and New Deal, but really came into her own when then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson hired her as his executive assistant, serving chiefly as his press secretary.

It was Liz who wrote the 58 words delivered by newly sworn-in President Johnson on the November day President John Kennedy was assassinated:

"This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help and God's."

Liz transferred to First Lady Lady Bird Johnson's staff as director and press secretary. She was the darling of the press corps. The Secret Service code-named her "Springtime." And she and the First Lady developed a close friendship that lasted longer than 60 years.

And that was only the beginning. Liz went on to help launch the National Women's Political Caucus, lead the Equal Rights Amendment Initiative, serve on the International Women's Year Commission for President Gerald Ford, serve as assistant secretary of public affairs under the Secretary of Education for President Jimmy Carter, and serve on the advisory committee of the White House Conference on Aging for President Bill Clinton.

She wrote five books, was honored by The University of Texas with the Liz Sutherland Carpenter Distinguished Visiting Lectureship in the Humanities and Sciences, battled breast cancer twice - and won, and planned her own funeral, complete with two rehearsals so everyone playing a role knew just what to do. She will be cremated and her ashes, mixed with wildflower seeds, will be scattered on a hill in Salado.

Liz is survived by her daughter, Christy, of New York, her son, Scott, of Washington state, a grandson named for her late husband, and a step-granddaughter.

So many folks have so many wonderful things to say about Liz Carpenter, but I especially like this quote from Cathy Bonner, former executive director of the Texas Department of Commerce and founder of Dallas' Women's Museum:

"She was a feminist's feminist, a mentor's mentor and a stand-up comic's comedian. I loved her wisdom and her wit, her Texas soil and salt-of-the-earth sensibilities, and her loyalty to family, friends and yellow dogs."

For decades, she was Austin's grand dame, and for her whole life, she was a dame who was grand. I hope she and Lady Bird, Molly and Ann are all together up above, swapping stories, laughing until they cry, and watching over the Texas women they left behind in awe and gratitude.

image source: jennifer hill robenalt

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