Sunday, July 26, 2015

Very Smart Gals Salon

On July 1, 2015, at Eddie V's in Austin, a congress of Very Smart Gals grew to love and appreciate each other, and our gender, a little more. (L-R, Sharmyn Lilly, Lidia Agraz, Sarah Bird, yours truly, Myra McIlvain, Melanie Barnes, and Ronda Rutledge).

When Lidia Agraz, Principal, Punta Reyes Investments, former VP Public and Government Affairs, Time Warner Cable Austin, arrived, I couldn’t take my eyes off her beautiful complexion. I became a huge fan of Lidia's when she and I were involved in the Hispanic Women’s Political Caucus and the Austin Women’s Political Caucus and Lidia was the Director of the Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Lidia’s quiet grace, consummate graciousness and her completely unassuming physical beauty hasn’t changed a bit. What a joy and privilege it was to share the evening with a woman who has always been an icon of loveliness and intelligence for me. Lydia nearly brought us to tears when she spoke so lovingly of caring for her aging mother as one of the most important things she’d done in the past five years.

Ronda Rutledge, Executive Director, Sustainable Food Center, former Executive Director of the American Indian Child Resource Center, is one of those women who, when she enters a room, physically commands it with her striking beauty and intense continence. I fell in like with Ronda almost instantly when she and Sustainable Food Center became a client for my grant writing business. I knew instantly she would become my forever friend. Ronda is 100% committed to making sure that every person in Central Texas has access to healthy food, but what is equally interesting is Ronda’s  American Indian heritage. When I mentioned that America was the only industrialized nation that had never had a woman president, she corrected me saying there had been a woman President in American, Wilma Pearl Mankiller, who was President (Principal Chief) of the Cherokee Nation, and whom Ronda had met. Ronda is a “country” I have yet satisfactorily explored, but I assure you I will.

I was so excited to meet Myra Hargrave McIlvain, who wrote many of the stories on Texas Historical Markers along the highways, and her most recent book, Stein House. What I didn’t anticipate was just how amazing the experience would be. Picture a walking encyclopedia of Texas history wrapped in hyper-intelligence and charm, and you have Myra. When she spoke of writing Stein House, which was picked by Kirkus as one of the best books of 2014, her eyes sparkled and you could see her passion. As she spoke of the history behind Stein House, the characters in the book became flesh and blood. I couldn’t help but connect her capacity to enliven her characters to her stint as a family humor columnist for the Victoria Advocate. And I couldn’t help but be a little jealous of her experience as a world-wide tour director. Meeting Myra made me want to go look at her bookshelves. From one bibliophile to another, that’s a huge compliment.  

I’m always honored to be in award winning and critically acclaimed writer Sarah Bird’s presence (Above The East China Sea and much more) and here’s the kicker. She’s FUN, she’s funny, and she used to be a go-go dancer. No kidding. I thought maybe it was a joke when I first heard this about Sarah, but she was the first to the dance floor at one of our recent Couples Salon dinner party dance breaks. And then there’s the fact that her books have won killer recognitions: “Best Books of 2015", Seattle Times, “Editor’s Choice”, Chicago Tribune, “Hot Read”, Daily Beast, Best Summer Reads”, Marie Claire, well you get it. Her accolades could fill this page. Yeah, she’s famous. Some of Sarah’s best stories are about her screenwriting career, traveling with Isabella Rossellini and a similarly stunning lineup of luminaries. I’m hoping that some of Sarah’s writing skills will rub off on me, but the real reason I like hanging out with her is because she’s smart, and a gifted smart-ass. I’d tell you what she’s writing next, but then I’d have to kill you.

When I invited Sharmyn Lilly, former Executive Director, Austin History Center Association, attorney and educator, to this Very Smart Gals Salon, I sensed her acceptance hung on Sarah Bird being there. But who can blame her. Sharmyn could claim fame for any number of things herself, but her most recent accomplishment is her continued recovery from a devastating hemorrhagic stroke.  I probably don’t have the details exactly, but about seven years ago a stroke, out of the blue – no family history, no health precursors – took everything but her life. She spent months in the hospital and in rehabilitation, and has only recently recovered her ability to participate in her lifelong love of running. Sharmyn spoke with unmasked appreciation of the support of her husband, sisters and friends, and of how happy she was to actually still be here. I agree. Sharmyn is one of the most elegant women I’ve ever met - a true southern belle.

I’ve known Melanie Barnes, retired attorney, very active Austin philanthropist since1982, when I was working for an elected official and she was a young attorney at a large Austin law firm. Although Melanie and I haven’t really stayed in touch, I’ve following her well-documented life as a major Austin philanthropist who has provided leadership and support for many different nonprofits. When I asked the Very Smart Gals who were at Eddie V’s that evening what they’d done within the last five years of which they were most proud, Melanie could barely contain her excitement about her work with the Waller Creek Conservancy, which is described online as the green urban artery connecting “many of the things that shape Austin’s identity, including UT, the Texas Capitol grounds, a growing medical complex, our famous music and entertainment district, Austin’s Convention Center, Rainey Street district, Butler Hike and Bike Trail, and Lady Bird Lake.” Our community is so fortunate to home visionaries like Melanie, preserving and building on Austin’s natural environment to create the things that make our community the jewel of Texas. 

In summary, it was an exceptional evening of exceptional repartee among exceptionally Smart Gals.

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