By now, many eloquent tributes have been composed regarding late Waco City Councilman Wilbert Austin, the modest civil-rights icon who in 1974 served as one of nine plaintiffs in a lawsuit successfully pressing for single-member Waco City Council districts, allowing minorities access to local leadership roles. The 1976 court ruling served as a wake-up call for other governmental entities to do likewise.
Yet, ironically, it then took Rev. Austin six tries before he finally won election in 2006 to the District 1 City Council seat that in some respects he helped create. He remained on the council 11 years, his service marked by everything from confronting neighborhood drug dealers to mowing the lawns of impoverished widows in East Waco, till serious illness compelled him to honorably retire from the post. He died last week at age 76.
On those not-so-infrequent occasions when residents compete to fill out unexpired council terms, the rest of us witness a parade of intriguing footnote folks in our history — remarkable individuals, each seeking like Rev. Austin the opportunity to reshape our community for the better. In touting their attributes and even their charms, they present narratives brimming with insights into where our city has been — and where it might well be headed.
Take, for instance, the City Council’s interviews with a dozen individuals seeking to fill out the remaining year on Rev. Austin’s term. The interviews remind us of two things: First, District 1 is a lot more extensive than East Waco and a lot more diverse than Waco’s African-American community, though we seldom hear of folks who live in, say, the Timbercrest area or far South Waco.
Second, intriguing ideas and unique perspectives bubble to the top when it comes to moving this complex, oft-stereotyped council district into the 21st century. And even if all the candidates obviously can’t make it onto the council, at least some of their thoughts and hopes and ideas deserve to figure in the final mix.
Consider lifelong resident Tara LaShonda Briscoe, a 39-year-old African-American part-time police dispatcher, substitute teacher and pastor for a small congregation in Italy, Texas. Her engaging testimony before the council offered insights into how her district is often overlooked: “We don’t have a lot of sidewalks in District 1 or even stop signs. I remember when we first moved over there, we were told there hadn’t been enough accidents to have stop signs.”
When council members laughed, she added: “I couldn’t make that up if I tried.”
Consider Henry Wright, 47, a mild-mannered attorney and Baylor University teacher of world cultures whose great-great-grandfather once owned a historic home on Columbus Avenue recently swept up in a dustup over short-term rentals. Given he’s white, Wright acknowledged hesitation about even applying for the post because of the council’s strongly Anglo makeup: “I think what’s important is looking at the leadership up in front of me and seeing a diversity there.”
Nevertheless, he added, “I want to confront the issue that good leadership can come from many different places because it comes from the position of wanting to help, and that begins with listening.”
So it went, candidates of all colors, ages, backgrounds and perspectives making their pitch, including 72-year-old retiree Cecil McDowell, a Vietnam veteran and a testament to resilience in the African-American community who impressed with the long list of jobs he’s held in East Waco — trucking, running a cafe, pastoring (for 19 years), overseeing a car wash, selling beepers, you name it. Or consider 25-year-old Luis Guevara, who came to the United States from Mexico as a mere infant and today is a fresh graduate of Tarleton State University (through McLennan Community College’s remarkable University Center program). He works as operations manager for locally owned Poppa Rollo’s Pizza.
Guevara radiates confidence in his work and what, as a proud U.S. citizen, he can do for Waco and beyond in public service. So far, he quipped, “I’ve had the opportunity to serve really great pizza to really great people.”
And when retired McLennan Community College government teacher Roy Walthall, former city manager of Mart and Meridian, got to make his case, council members found themselves amid a veritable explosion of footnotes. Nothing if not bristling with ideas, Walthall — who turned 66 this month — has been in and out of the spotlight for years, never lingering for long but nonetheless pivotal in ways many of us have overlooked.
We in the local press know Walthall best for his intriguing campaign to reorganize (rather than revise) the 1876 Texas Constitution which, with its countless, often provincial amendments, is impossible to comprehend as a meaningful founding document. Its present state is a shame, Walthall says, considering it was drafted in Waco by Texas Gov. Richard Coke in 1875. (Coke is buried in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery.)
Walthall’s effort gained support from such lawmakers as Republican state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who in 2012 said the effort “made our outdated state constitution actually for the first time readable.” But despite gaining traction in the Legislature in 2013 and 2015, the effort to reassemble the constitution has yet to gain full approval. Meanwhile, our state constitution promises to become all the more cluttered.
Walthall, whose demeanor suggests an eccentric uncle or college professor, tried to win election to the District 1 council post in 2006, running against Rev. Austin, pastor of Peaceful Rest Baptist Church; community activist George Coffey; and barbecue-joint owner Mae Bilton, better known as Mama B. The only white in the race, Walthall lost to Austin — ironically, a backer of Walthall’s 1987 council campaign.
Yet there’s plenty in Walthall’s resume despite failing to win a council post. For instance, he told council members his proudest moment came after he was appointed by Oscar DuCongé, Waco’s first black mayor, to serve as vice chairman of the Waco U.S. Bicentennial Commission, working alongside historian and former mayor Roger Conger and fierce Waco beautification advocate Frances Sturgis — a dynamic duo in their heyday.
“I don’t know whether you know this story,” Walthall told council members, “but basically Roger had gotten some funds to refurbish this rundown, dilapidated bridge [over the Brazos River] that was all rusty. Many people were talking about tearing it down, just like they had torn down the Interurban Bridge right next to it. But he got some funds to refurbish it. And Frances goes, ‘Oh, no, no, no — that’s such a waste. We need a park for people to enjoy themselves.’
“So Roy Walthall came to the rescue, as there were other co-chairmen, and said, ‘Wait, wait, we can do both.’ So [longtime city planner] Bill Falco, who was also on the commission, and I drew some sketches of a park and [Frances] went around and did some fund-raising and got the media and Baylor and everyone else interested and that’s why we have the Suspension Bridge and Indian Spring Park. That’s my neatest achievement.”
By that, Walthall meant forging a compromise that, in collaboration with others, saved the historic, now-iconic 1870 bridge and created an exceedingly popular riverside park on its western bank.
When Walthall got up to speak, he said his main reason for pursuing the council seat was to ensure Waco wound up as a high-speed rail hub, a passion that years ago saw him serve as then-Mayor Charles Reed’s liaison to the Texas High Speed Rail Commission. He pushed for a “wishbone route” where Waco would not only be one of six key stops but also serve as maintenance and operations center for the entire system.
But in his concluding remarks, another idea was clearly on Walthall’s mind — pressing for a larger council to even better represent an increasingly diverse and growing city. He said the idea was debated during Mayor Reed’s tenure in the early 1990s. But while night meetings were introduced during that period to allow the public to attend and a plan was put forward to televise council proceedings, expansion of the number of council posts beyond the current five (plus the mayor) never occurred.
He mentioned Timbercrest, where he lives: “We are in District 1, but we’re not East Waco. We are an added appendage put in because you needed the numbers to get a district. And it’s not just us [in this predicament]. It’s also [Texas State Technical College], the area over on Highway 6, the industrial park, the area around Harris Creek, it goes around Speegleville and the west side of the lake and the areas of Chalk Bluff and Bosqueville — basically, these are all little appendages. But these are the growing areas of Waco and they all have problems — unique problems.”
Walthall said many residents in these areas have given up on proper representation, as if to cry out: “We’re not part of that core area of the five districts and we’re just appendages and we’re thought of as appendages.’” The case was one he made in his 2006 campaign when he pressed for up to eight single-member council seats to make the body more responsive to local needs — something a city charter review commission balked at a year earlier amid arguments such a move might dilute areas with significant minority populations. Yet others at the time thought it too complicated to pull off.
As Walthall quipped in a mix of humor and frustration: “Basically, it’s like God came down from Mount Sinai and said: ‘You must have five members and that is it!’”
Following interviews, the council tapped 84-year-old Noah Jackson Jr. to fill out Rev. Austin’s unexpired term, partially because he was the pastor’s choice. Jackson, who took over the day after cancer claimed Austin’s life, indicated he will serve out his friend’s term, then likely leave it to others to vie for the post in the spring 2018 election.
Most would agree that Jackson, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee of 43 years, is an excellent choice. He has served on the downtown Tax Increment Financing Reinvestment board, the parks and recreation advisory commission, the building standards commission, the Doris Miller YMCA board and the 2010 Census Citizen Advisory Committee.
Yet he and Roy Walthall set worthy examples of how one can influence policy and better his or her community without necessarily serving on the council. As Fourth of July 2017 approaches in a nation fiercely divided by race, region and political party, their models of public service demonstrate not only knowledge of history as it’s lived and pondered but finding common ground, thinking beyond the mundane and predictable and, finally, showing the way for generations to come.
And given the earnestness of all those individuals who this month sought to succeed Rev. Austin and continue his own example of public service, there’s still reason for hope and optimism — even in times of strife, division and misunderstanding.