Mary Margaret Farabee, 1939-2013

by Published on
MaryM2
Jen Reel
Mary Margaret Farabee

Walk around Austin and you won’t go far without encountering evidence of the mark one person can make on a city and its cultural life. The Paramount Theatre last week acknowledged its debt to a woman who helped restore the once-derelict venue, by putting her name in lights: “Mary Margaret Farabee: One of Austin’s Greatest. We Love & Will Miss You!”

A block east and a block south of the Paramount is the office of the Texas Book Festival. Each year in the fall the festival takes over the Capitol and part of Congress Avenue to host hundreds of authors and tens of thousands of readers in the single greatest celebration of books in the state. The festival sponsors numerous other events throughout the year, and it has distributed millions of dollars in grants to Texas libraries and schools. The festival exists largely because of the imagination and energy of Mary Margaret Farabee, who founded the festival with Laura Bush and served as its co-chair for the festival’s first eight years.

Two blocks in the opposite direction from the Paramount is the office of The Texas Observer. Mary Margaret wasn’t born a liberal or raised one, but she discovered liberalism after she moved from Dallas to Austin in 1959 to attend the University of Texas. And her 1991 marriage to Ray Farabee—the second for both—sealed the liberal deal. Ray had served in the Texas Senate for 13 years during the 1970s and 1980s, when liberal Democrats still commanded respect if not always majorities. Mary Margaret and Ray became strong supporters of the Observer and its causes. She served on the board of the Texas Democracy Foundation, the Observer’s publisher, and took a leading role in establishing the MOLLY National Journalism Prize, named for the inimitable Molly Ivins. Mary Margaret organized the annual MOLLY dinners that raised money for the paper and brought some of the best investigative journalists in the country to Austin.

Up Lavaca Street past where it merges with Guadalupe, on the northwest corner of the UT campus, lie the studios and offices of KUT radio and KLRU television. The radio station is run from the Ray and Mary Margaret Farabee Control Room, so named to recognize their support of KUT, KLRU and the enterprise of public broadcasting in Central Texas.

The circle broadens to West Austin to include the Charles Moore House, formerly home of the renowned architect, currently headquarters of the Charles Moore Foundation, another beneficiary of Mary Margaret’s organizational and philanthropic energy. South of the Colorado River, in Zilker Park beside the cool waters of Barton Springs, sits one of the capital city’s signature works of art, Philosophers’ Rock, on which Texas legends J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek and Walter Prescott Webb continue in bronze the discussions they commenced in life. Mary Margaret was a driving force behind the fund-raising that made the statue possible. The Umlauf Sculpture Garden is across Barton Creek from Philosophers’ Rock; Mary Margaret played a large part in the creation of this verdant outdoor gallery of the works of Charles Umlauf. Farther south, beyond the house Mary Margaret shared with Ray for 22 years, is the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, another object of Mary Margaret’s energy and attention.

Mary Margaret didn’t build these institutions by herself, needless to say. Each was the work of many minds, hearts and wallets. But every collective endeavor requires a spark, an instigator, a burr under the saddle. She was all three at times, and more besides. Her gift was to make others as passionate as she about enhancing the life of the mind and soul in her adopted city.

From the moment she discovered the joys of intellectual discourse as a Plan II student at UT, she loved to encourage and provoke the exchange of ideas. The Farabee home became a literary and artistic salon. For years the brunch she and Ray hosted on the Sunday morning of the Texas Book Festival attracted the finest authors in America to meet one another and Farabee friends from around the state. Novelists, poets, scientists, economists and political leaders shared migas, mimosas and lively conversation.

She regularly hosted book-launch parties, tailoring her guest lists to the particular subjects of the books. Local bookstores couldn’t say no to her requests to send books and salespeople—and they were glad they hadn’t when they saw how many copies her parties sold.

No one put on more effective fund-raisers. Her galas filled the biggest ballrooms in Austin, and they famously ran on time. Though she was as polite as any well-bred Dallas girl could be, nothing annoyed her more than speakers who talked past the sale and jeopardized the goal of the evening: generating money and goodwill for that night’s cause.

She was persistent, at times stubborn. She found ways around obstacles. Her initial vision for the Texas Book Festival in the early 1990s placed it in the newly renovated Texas Capitol. But state law appeared to prohibit it. She bided her time till the arrival of former librarian Laura Bush placed a key ally in the Governor’s Mansion. With Mrs. Bush’s help, the law gave way, and the festival, now in its 18th year, has thrived in the Capitol ever since.

She was a tireless advocate for Texas art and Texas artists. The Farabee house is a veritable gallery, reflecting her diverse tastes. A chance visit to the Ann Richards School took her down a hallway where student art was displayed; with the unfeigned excitement she brought to most areas of life, she decided the girls’ work needed a larger audience. Several phone calls and a few strategic meetings resulted in the girls’ art being included in one of Austin’s high-profile studio tours.

She led by example. She gave so much of her time and energy to so many boards and councils that when she discovered a new cause and threw herself into promoting it, her associates from previous endeavors couldn’t refuse her invitations and requests. Soon they became as enthusiastic as she was.

Her example was never more compelling than during her final year, as she battled the cancer that ultimately took her life. She spoke not a word of complaint, except that there was too much yet to do, and she would not have another summer to pull weeds in her garden. She continued to organize and consult and host. She threw a hair-cutting party to get a jump on her chemotherapy. Between trips to the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, she found fresh causes to champion, including a leadership program at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin. She was quietly pleased that so many of her causes were thriving. A yellow-dog Democrat to the end, she was tickled but hardly surprised at the spectacular stumble of Rick Perry in his ill-fated run for president, and she cheered the reelection of Barack Obama.

Her sense of humor never faltered, growing more irreverent as her time diminished. She held court from the bed Ray installed in their living room, where a fireplace eased the morning chill and the afternoon sun cast shadows of bare tree branches across her bookcases. Her daughter Patricia couldn’t fend off all the friends, protégés and admirers who paid calls, till Mary Margaret said with a wink that she wondered how a woman was supposed to get her rest.

She left us on a morning when the wind snapped across Zilker Park and carried a thousand kites into the sky over her beloved city.

A memorial service for Mary Margaret Farabee will be held on Monday, March 18, at 10:30 a.m. at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.

H. W. Brands is the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History and Government at the University of Texas. He’s the author of more than 20 books including biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Ulysses Grant.