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Shudde Fath, Tyrant’s Foe: A Lifetime of Energy

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Shudde Fath fights for fair electricity rates.
PHOTO BY ALAN POGUE
Shudde Fath fights for fair electricity rates.

When I call Shudde Fath, 95, to talk about her lifetime of Austin activism, she gives me her closing line first. “Recently,” she says, “I was one of five senior citizens who were asked by the sociology department at [the University of Texas at Austin] to talk to a class of graduate students. Everybody was telling their history, and the students wanted to know why we did those things that we did. So when it was my turn, I said that my message was, ‘You gotta give a damn about something. You gotta find something—besides work—that you give a damn about and work to make it as much as you can the way you think it ought to be.’”

Shudde Fath thinks that residents and small businesses ought not pay more for electricity than big industrial consumers.

She came by the cause organically. In the 1950s, her husband Conrad (“Connie”) ran a fishing gear and bait shop on Barton Springs Road. Fath, who’d gotten a business degree from UT in 1937, did the books. When air conditioning became an important customer draw, Shudde Fath saw the electricity bills skyrocket. She called the city and asked about the rates, learning that, as she told In Fact Daily in July, “The big boys got cheaper rates than the little guys. The same wires that went by our shop also went downtown, where they were getting cheaper rates. I thought that was unfair.”

Lots of people would agree. But how many would take out a newspaper ad against such injustice?

Fath’s activism was ignited in 1973 when she read about yet another proposed electricity rate increase that would favor industry over individuals. Within a few years, Fath had agitated her way into official positions in the electricity wars, appointed first to the Mayor’s Commission on Electric Rates and then to the Electric Utility Commission, on which she served for 34 years.

Fath downplays her activism. “The only civic stuff I did during my working years was that electric rate,” she says. That was in addition to maintaining a strong 52-year marriage, raising a daughter, and working as an accountant for the Texas Employment Commission for more than 40 years. To Fath, civic engagement is just what people did. While raising six children, her mother had practiced xeriscaping “60 years before I heard the term,” Fath says, and had also founded the Bastrop County Historical Society. Her father was a doctor who started Bastrop’s first hospital while also serving two terms as the town’s mayor.

After her retirement from the Employment Commission in 1981—a year after winning a major settlement in a sex-discrimination lawsuit against the commission—Fath helped found RATERS, which stands for Reform Austin’s Terrible Electric Rate Structure. In collaboration with other Austin activists, RATERS made electricity rates a political issue, collecting thousands of signatures and packing a public hearing at City Council. The Council was set to vote against the RATERS plan, called Proposition 7, which included a special rate for very low-energy users, but Fath wasn’t about to make it easy on them. At the meeting, her husband Connie stood and read aloud the names of each of the 61 public organizations that had endorsed Proposition 7. After every name, the whole room cheered—except, of course, the Council members. After the meeting, one Council member passed Connie in the hallway. He looked him in the eye and said, “I wish to hell you’d stick to fishin’.” When Austin elected a new City Council, it passed Proposition 7.

Fath kept up the fight for fair electricity rates, and along the way racked up 29 years as treasurer of the Save Barton Creek Association.

Though Fath rarely drives anymore, she’s still got her own designated parking space at Austin Energy’s Town Lake Center. And Fath still writes policy-heavy letters to public figures and faxes them to her daughter, Betsy, to type up and email.

“You do all you can, and that’s all you can do,” Fath says. Asked if she’s happy about her life’s work, she laughs. “You don’t win ’em all, but if you didn’t try, it’d probably be worse.”

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.

  • Marge Wood

    I WANT TO HEAR SHUDDE FATH SPEAK. Is she still doing that?