Like Bill Cunningham of The New York Times, Austinite Robert Godwin has been a fixture on the social scene in Austin since 1976. Shooting Austin’s elite for The Society Diaries, Austin American Statesman and the West Austin News, among others, has endeared him to so many for decades. Lance Avery Morgan catches up with Godwin about his new book, Austin Faces of Philanthropy, a collection of not only his best, but also his favorite subjects: people who do good.
“With Austin Faces of Philanthropy, I want to show not only the wide variety of philanthropic people, but also those people maturing as they continue to serve,” confides Robert Godwin about his social photo tome, Austin Faces of Philanthropy. “As they rolled through the decades, they drew new people to them who likewise drew new people. What was at best a meandering stream of a few hundred thousand donated dollars in 1976 is now a coursing river of tens of millions a year.”
Austin in 1976 had a population of around 300,000, a third of its current growth that hovers near a million. The town was known for academics (The University of Texas) and politics with the Capital being the main source of industry before it also became known as Silicon Hills to rival Silicon Valley. It was a middle class town that was both conservative and progressive way before Keep Austin Weird and The Live Music Capital of the World monikers infused its culture.
Godwin’s book has a social scope that encompasses photos from 1976 to the present, so it was a career in the making. “In the beginning years a backyard barbeque was a fairly common theme for fundraising events. While still popular, that barbeque now shares time with haute cuisine from nationally renowned chefs. Austin has grown into a town that can support such chefs and the plethora of causes now operating in town,” states Godwin. He goes on to say, “There are sufficient black-tie events that it is now more economical to purchase a tuxedo than to rent one. Invitations now reference attire ranging from the black tie to business casual to “Austin chic” which is anything goes.”
Godwin reflects that “Over the time period of the book, Austin has experienced three significant economic downturns, a delightful “tech bubble” and periods of overall growth.” He notes, “As one goes through the book, however, it is apparent that community citizens found a way to support charities. The book is an opportunity to celebrate four decades of victories and philanthropic participation.”
And celebrate it does. From the left over hippie-dippy 1970s to the Dynasty-esque 1980, the clothes may have evolved, yet the city’s social elite never wavered in their cause to help the plethora of causes for those much less fortunate.
“When I started covering the non-profit scene in 1976, the big four were already in place—Admirals Ball in August, Symphony League Jewel Ball in September, Bachelors Ball (which was in the Fall, but moved to January) and the Helping Hand Ball in February,” remembers Godwin. He goes on to say, “Those are all still charging along. Joining them now in either size and/or community impact are Dell Children’s Gala, Literary Gala with the Texas Book Festival, Seton Development Board Gala, Dancing with the Stars Austin Gala (Center for Child Protection), Bandana Ball (Ronald McDonald House), A Christmas Affair (Junior League of Austin), Red, Hot and Soul (Zach Scott Theater), E A Seton Evening Under the Stars, Rodeo Gala, Cattle Baron’s Ball (American Cancer Society) and one of my favorites, the Settlement Club Garage Sale. Just starting is the Perfectly Pink Party (Susan G. Komen Foundation). These are all evening events, but there are some significant lunch events as well benefiting the Girl Scouts, Ballet Austin, Breast Cancer Resource Center, People’s Community Clinic and more. At my busiest times, I was getting to over 600 events a year—primarily between September and May. And yes, that means an average of three a day Monday through Sunday. My personal record is 11 events in one day. The timing and geography all worked out.”
“A favorite memory for me was the year Ben Crenshaw was being awarded the Harvey Penick Award as presented by Caritas,” states Godwin. This was about 2000 or 2001. The ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel had been sold out for quite a while for the event. About two hours before the start, an absolute monsoon hit Austin. The wind was blowing so hard that the sheets of rain were coming in sideways. I managed to get from North Austin to downtown only as a result of journalistic pride. Once there, I joined 150 (more or less) people that had managed to get through the rain. Gary Farmer, serving as emcee, had the best line of the night when he welcomed everyone to the “first ever all-you-can-eat” Harvey Penick Award Dinner. There were enough meals prepared for everyone to have thirds.”
“Philanthropy is a thread found throughout the fabric of everyday life in Austin. I’ve documented that thread running through three generations of families and am beginning to see the initial efforts of the younger fourth generation,” muses Godwin. “As that fabric is woven, it extends to cover friends, neighbors and draws in those newly arrived. As it grows to shelter those in need, those clients add their own stitches to the fabric to create a cloth that is uniquely Austin. It is a patchwork quilt of different colors, different hopes and different dreams—but a common desire to be of service to others.”
When asked about some of his favorite social incidents over time, Godwin remains tactful. “There are certainly a lot of stories from over the years. Some I won’t tell as I don’t want to embarrass the subjects. Some I don’t remember unless my memory gets triggered by a similar happenstance, and some I can tell. My mentor in this field was Carolyn Bengtson. We worked together for 14 years. It was she who told and showed me that volunteers give up about a year of their time to create a major event.” He continues, “Their hearts are willing and their efforts are earnest, but sometimes things just don’t work. It was Carolyn’s rule, and then mine, to highlight the effort made and the non-profit’s cause rather than mention the unfortunate result. Time and again, I have seen organizations bounce back just fine from a less than successful event.”
You can count on seeing Robert Godwin enough in the future to fill up another book of photos for his audience of admirers. That book will also reflect the current styles that will garner a head shake and wonderment, as well as warm memories, in years to come.
I do all kinds of roles – nerd, psycho, nerd, psycho, nerd, psycho – and occasionally someone kind of normal. It’s weird, when I lived in Austin I was always cast as pretty normal people. But when I moved to Los Angeles I was immediately branded a psycho.
John Hawkes, Actor
We ended up moving out to Texas. We live outside of Austin. We’ve got a couple horses, we’ve got three miniature donkeys, we’ve got four dogs. Miniature donkeys are very warm, loving animals.
Kyle Chandler, Emmy-award winning Actor, Friday Night Lights
We played in Texas about a year ago, at Emo’s, the famous country and western club in Austin. And I figured, well, if I’m finally gonna die onstage, that’s where it’s going to be!
Alan Vega, Musician, Suicide
In cities like New York and Austin, there’s much more of a social context for music than in other places.
John Cale, Musician, The Velvet Underground
The Austin music scene is the reason why so many of them moved here.
Bob Livingston, Veteran Singer-Songwriter
The Chief Drive-In movie theater
The original airport of Manor Road and Airport Blvd with six gates and an observation deck, along with the FBO’s near it like Browning and Ragsdale
Armadillo World Headquarters
Night Hawk steaks on Riverside Drive and South Congress Ave.
2-J shakes and hamburgers on North Lamar Blvd.
Joske’s and Scarborough’s department stores in Highland Mall (and downtown)
Hancock Center’s outdoor fountains
Fiesta at Laguna Gloria on Lake Austin
The Uncle Jay and Packer Jack Show kiddie TV show on KTBC every afternoon
Food and music at The Pier on Lake Austin
Flower and jewelry hippie vendors on The Drag near campus.
Aqua Fest’s evening lake parade and its ethnic nights. “Kiss Me, I’m German”
El Rancho when it was downtown
Oscar Snowden’s Appliances T.V. tagline: “If you didn’t buy it from the Big-O, I know you paid too much”
Fine dining at the Villa Capri or Terrace Hotels
School field trips to the Butter Krust bakery
Media celebrities Cactus Pryor, Mel Pennington and Penny Reeves
Ellie Rucker’s how-to column in the Austin American Statesman
The Gentry section of the Austin Citizen newspaper with Gray Hawn’s photographs of debutantes
Carolyn Jackson’s “Women’s World” before “As The World Turns” daily on KTBC/CBS
KNOW AM and Disco 98 FM
The Americana movie theater that seated 1000 and had a 70 MM screen
Special thanks to Gregg Ronald Geil and his song lyrics, “Do You Remember Austin (Back In The Good Old Days)”