District 1 Councilman Wilbert Austin Sr. is stepping down for health reasons after 11 years in office, allowing Waco City Council to choose a successor for the remaining year in his term.
Austin, who has been battling a resurgent stomach cancer, submitted his resignation Wednesday to Mayor Kyle Deaver.
“Everything in life comes to an end,” Austin said Wednesday, sitting in a wheelchair at his modest home on Turner Street. “I realize that every road, no matter how long, comes to an end. So my road comes to an end on the city council. I wasn’t put here to run for city council all my life.”
The application process to replace Austin runs from Thursday to June 2, and the council will consider the appointment June 6.
“We will move at a pretty rapid pace to fill that position,” Deaver said. “Because he hasn’t been able to make the last couple of meetings, he wants to make sure we can get in someone who can represent District 1.”
Deaver said Austin leaves behind a legacy of public service.
“One of the best experiences of serving on the city council has been getting to know Wilbert Austin,” he said. “The devotion he has shown for his district and his city is remarkable and a great model for all public servants. He will be remembered for passionately representing his district and thinking about the greater good of the city at large.”
Austin, who has been under treatment for the past two months, has missed both regular council meetings this month and was hospitalized last week for complications related to his cancer. He was released Saturday from Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center after his condition improved.
Austin had undergone treatment for the same illness at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in 2013, shortly after losing his wife to cancer.
Wilbert Austin Jr., who is helping take care of the elder Austin, said his father’s heart is still in public service, but it is time to focus on recovery.
“He needs to fully concentrate on that,” he said. “The meetings are a lot of work.”
Austin, 76, a Baptist pastor and retired Owens-Illinois factory worker, was elected to represent District 1 in 2006 after five previous attempts to win the office.
District 1 includes his home base of East Waco as well as Timbercrest, Texas State Technical College and McLennan Community College.
He served as mayor pro tem from 2009 to 2010 and 2015 to 2016.
In an interview Wednesday, Austin said he had the satisfaction during his term to see murders and other crimes subside in East Waco and to see the beginning of Elm Avenue’s renewal. He said he is also proud to see the new McLane Stadium in his district.
“God gave me the ability and made it possible for me to do things that had not been done in 60 years,” he said.
Austin’s community leadership has included service on the boards of Eastern Waco Development Corp., Caritas, EOAC and EOAC Head Start and the United Way. He also has served on the National League of Cities Public Safety and Crime Prevention Steering Committee. He has served for the past 38 years as pastor of Peaceful Rest Baptist Church in Moody.
‘Loved East Waco’
But he is best known for his neighborhood volunteer work, such as painting houses, picking up trash and cutting grass for elderly widows in East Waco.
“He loved East Waco, loved his people,” Councilwoman Alice Rodriguez said. “That’s why he always wanted to be on the council and to work as hard as he did. He wanted to make it better for his constituency. We’re losing that voice and the love he had for his district.”
Rodriguez recalled that she grew up as Austin’s neighbor in the 1950s in a housing area along the Brazos River that was demolished through federally funded urban renewal programs in the 1960s.
“I told him once, ‘Who would have thought we’d be on the city council, working together for the betterment of the city?’ ” she said. “Knowing the racism and prejudice of that era, that didn’t keep us from trying to work with everyone.”
Rodriguez and Councilman Dillon Meek recall that outside of council chambers, Austin would frequently admonish them to seek divine guidance.
“He’d say, ‘Have you prayed about this issue?’ ” Meek recalled. “He said, ‘You’re getting ahead of yourself if you haven’t prayed about it.’
“I’m incredibly sad that he’s leaving. When I think of him, what comes to mind is a godly man, a strong leader, a father and a friend to this city. He’s been all those things to me. He loves this city well, cares for it deeply and fights for it. He has been a lesson to me in how to engage in this position and how to take it seriously, but also not to take it too seriously, to not forget that we can be friends and work through all these issues together.”
A special reception is planned to recognize Austin at 5 p.m. May 30 at McLennan Hall in the Waco Convention Center.
Meanwhile, eligible District 1 residents can visit the city secretary’s office at City Hall to pick up an application packet for the vacant seat starting Thursday, with an application deadline of 5 p.m. June 2. Candidates will be interviewed at the city council’s 3 p.m. work session, and the chosen candidate could be sworn in at the 6 p.m. business session.
For more information on the process, call 757-5750.