A sea of dark suits filled the thousand-seat LBJ Auditorium to capacity last Thursday, a silent testimonial to the many lives Lowell Lebermann touched and the countless causes he championed. Lowell was an engaged citizen who made the most of his shrewd intelligence, his boundless imagination, and his side-splitting wit. His loss of sight never diminished his vision. Not only did he care deeply about his community, his university, his state, and nation, but he also invested generously in the institutions he valued.
Lowell, along with Mickey Klein and Mary Margaret Farabee, anchored the Austin committee of Humanities Texas’s capital campaign to restore the historic Byrne-Reed House. He hosted numerous planning lunches and dinners, identified prospective donors, and enlisted them to our cause. He held no official position in the organization; he was merely a friend. But it was his extraordinary capacity for friendship that made him special to all of us associated with Humanities Texas.
Most of us knew Lowell through The University of Texas. He was involved in so many of the university’s programs and organizations that it would have been almost impossible not to know him. Some of us became acquainted with him through the Chilean student leadership exchange program under the artful direction of Dr. Joe W. Neal. Lowell and Julius Glickman were part of the 1961 contingent. Ricardo Romo, Joe Krier, and I followed in subsequent years, but all of us shared a bond of common experiences, mutual Chilean friends, and the love of that beautiful country. Humanities Texas board members Bill Livingston, Catherine Robb, Mickey Klein, and Leslie Blanton were friends of Lowell who worked with him on university projects. Ellen Temple, one of our alumni co-chairs, served with him on the UT Board of Regents. Lowell was especially close to Janie McGarr, whose daughter, Kathryn, was his goddaughter, and whose husband, Cappy, was one of his first aides.
As an appreciation of our friend Lowell, we are posting the eloquent tributes delivered at his memorial service on July 16, 2009,— as well as remembrances from three of our board members.
UT President Bill Powers spoke first:
Good afternoon. I am Bill Powers, president of The University of Texas at Austin. We gather here to celebrate the life of a great man. A great Texan. A great American. It is my honor to welcome you all—the friends and family of Lowell Lebermann—to our campus for this memorial service.
Lowell cast a long shadow on this earth. Everything he touched was made better. People he touched became better people, more caring, more hopeful, more energetic, and more dedicated. Austin became a better city.
And most especially, our university—his university—became a better university.
Lowell Lebermann grew up in Commerce, Texas, and attended UT as a Plan II Honors student. He was elected student body president in 1961. It was the beginning of his lifelong love of all things burnt orange. Governor Ann Richards appointed him to the UT System Board of Regents in 1993, and he served as vice chairman from 1993 to 1995. Lowell received the UT Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2000.
Lowell’s interest extended to almost every corner of the campus. He supported Communication, Education, Engineering, Fine Arts, the Graduate School, Law, the LBJ School, Plan II, the Ransom Center, the UT Press, Athletics, and other UT programs.
During his time, Lowell gave wise counsel to twelve different UT presidents. I was fortunate to be one of them. His advice was always given first and foremost with his great love for this university in mind. It was a joy to have known him.
On behalf of the entire University of Texas family, I offer condolences to his daughter Ginny and her family, and to all of Lowell’s family members and friends. We have lost a wonderful friend and a great Texan. Tonight, to celebrate Lowell’s life and legacy at UT, the Tower will glow orange in his honor.
And now it is my pleasure to introduce Lowell’s good friend, Cappy McGarr.
Leberman's onetime aide and longtime friend, Cappy McGarr, reminisced about his experiences with Lowell:
Everyone says that at a time like this, we are to celebrate someone’s life. It is hard for me, and maybe you, to do any celebrating now, but Lowell talked about this day. He wanted to throw a big party with many glasses raised in his honor, no sadness, but laughter. During his run for mayor, Lowell said famously or infamously, “If it can’t be done at the Headliners, it can’t be done.” So it is right that we will all be going to the Headliners after this service to toast our good friend. In Lowell’s words, “to get it done.”
I met Lowell thirty-seven years ago this month. I was traveling the state raising money for Kappa Alpha, my fraternity and Lowell’s. I didn’t notice the dog in the next room. Her name was Laurie. Lowell asked his longtime assistant Peggy to bring in the check, and she put it in front of him and took his hand and placed it on the signature line, and he was looking straight at me, and he signed the check. That is when I first knew Lowell was blind.
That was also the first time I realized that Lowell was Lowell. Because as he wrote the check, he said, “You know, I’d like the KA’s to get involved in my reelection to the City Council.”
I never asked Lowell if in that first meeting, he was offering me a check or a bribe.
A year later, I went to work for Lowell. I took a job as his aide, and that experience changed my life, as it has for all the aides who came after me. I only actually worked for him for one calendar year. And I can hear him say, “McGarr, I’m not clear you were ever taken off the payroll.” I was the second KA aide to go to work for Lowell, and many followed—a few even were not KAs or, as Lowell called them, “Infidels Saracen.” He often remarked, “Once an aide, always an aide.” That spirit is alive today with over forty aides here as pallbearers and ushers.
I was working for Lowell, and Louise and Lowell, and his seeing-eye dog, Lucky, and I were having dinner at the Corpus Christi yacht club. The waiter came over to the table and looked at Louise and said, “Mrs. Lebermann, what will you have?” She would have the snapper. And the waiter looked at me and asked me what I would have. Fried shrimp. Then he looked at Lowell and then at Lucky, turned back to Louise and said, “Mrs. Lebermann, what will he have?” And Lowell looked up at the waiter and said ‘ahhahhahhahha’ waving his arms around.
As many of you know, Lowell lost his sight as a teenager when a buckshot 22 accidentally went off. The eye with the patch was removed, and with the other eye, he could see shadows. When Lowell was president of the student body here at The University of Texas—and, by the way, he ran as “Bang” Lebermann—his father sent him to a surgeon who told Lowell he had a 50 percent chance of seeing again. The operation failed; he lost his sight. The summer I worked for Lowell, Sandy Gottesman kept calling Lowell and me, urging us to visit his cousin in New Orleans. A famous eye surgeon involved in laser eye surgery. We went down and saw Dr. Kurt Gitter. He examined Lowell and said that he had some living tissue in his eye, but he needed to do some more tests. We were euphoric . . . making plans for the operation. Lowell knew that technology would catch up, and he might see again. In an hour Dr. Gitter came back in the room and asked me to leave. He needed to talk to Lowell. Lowell asked me to stay. Dr. Gitter told him that he only had about 2 percent living tissue and he would not do the surgery because he might lose motor control over his eye. We went to the Ponchatrain Hotel for lunch with Dr. Gitter and we had many double vodka martinis on the rocks. We only spoke about that trip once again many years later . . . that moment when Lowell accepted the fact that he would always be blind.
Lowell never let his blindness define him, but it was a part of who he was. So many of us would never have known Lowell or worked for him had he not been blind. It affected the mechanics of his life, but not the substance. So it was standard fare: Just ahead is Peter Flawn at 12:00, Mrs. Johnson at 2:00. Shirley Bird Perry at 8:00. And Lowell would say “McGarr, I can hear Shirley, you never have to tell me where she is.” At dinner, you would help him navigate his plate. . . . Foie gras at 6:00, duck at 9:00. You would be at a speech and take his hand and point to the speaker or say when he was speaking, “The audience is from here to there.” It was Lowell’s way of making everyone feel comfortable with his blindness.
Lowell and Louise and I went to Anglesey Island off the coast of Wales for duck hunting. Tal Radcliffe was the proprietor. And we went to the large pond for the shoot. Tal got behind Lowell and said up.. up.. right.. down.. shoot. And you could hear the ducks. Lowell shoots one, two, three ducks right in a row. We were all going crazy, whooping and hollering, then he turned to me to his left, lifted his eye patch, and said ‘How about that, McGarr?’
I used to cry a lot with Lowell . . . from laughter. He was a keen observer of the world around him. He had great wit, a great humor. I don’t think there ever was a time, in all those years, that we had a conversation that didn’t include laughter.
David Jaderlund and I would roast Lowell at his birthday parties, and events like the Caritas Roast. His fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays were particular fun. I did a phony slide show, where I would say, “Please dim the light,” and the light would not dim, and, “Look at the slides on the big screen,” and there was no screen. And I would have a clicker and go through some slides. “Here’s Lowell in Commerce with his pet sheep. He held the sheep tenderly. He loved the sheep,” or “Here’s Lowell on the sidelines as guest coach for one of the UT football games. He is the one facing the stands.” It was the ultimate blind joke. Jaderlund wrote some slide captions, I wrote some, and no one knew that Lowell wrote many of the fake slides. And the Jaderlund classic: “The Seeing-Eye Dog Blues.” I can hear Lowell now. “Sing, Jaderlund.” He loved to laugh.
I introduced him one time at a Texas Exes roast, and as he was coming up to the podium, I had the UT band play “Three Blind Mice.” Everyone laughed, but no one more so than Lowell.
Lowell was on the Austin City Council when I was an aide. And he had served with Burl Hancock for several years. Someone referred to Councilman Hancock as an African American in a Council meeting. And Lowell shouts out. “Oh My God, Burl is black?”
I can still hear his big hearty laugh, and I will miss it. I will also miss his wonderful sense of humor and his impeccable timing.
But even more, I will miss his generosity of spirit, a generosity that was both public and private.
Helen Keller once said: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight, but no vision.” Lowell had vision as a University of Texas Regent, as an Austin City Councilman, on many national boards, both civic and corporate, boards like Valero and National Public Radio.
Lowell was the godfather to our daughter Kathryn. He was the godfather to so many friends’ children. David White’s kids. Many others. Lowell never missed a birthday, Christmas. He never missed a graduation, high school or college. He came out to Stanford for Kathryn’s graduation. He was so proud of her. Lowell knew that my daughters, Elizabeth and Kathryn, as well as my wife, Janie, were all Phi Beta Kappa. And he knew I wasn’t. Which led him to refer to me as the only Phi Beta Crappa in the family.
It wasn’t just my family or David White’s family that he was so generous to. There were the many scholarships through the Texas Exes, and the generous contributions he made to the University that affected so many lives. There were all the Catholic Charities that he contributed to.
In Lowell’s eyes, there was no such thing as “generous to a fault.” There was just “generous.”
Lowell and I went to New York, and I had my first really spectacular meal in 1972. It was at La Cote Basque. Lowell had his new seeing-eye dog, Lucky, and I think his favorite dog. I had never had food like that. I remember exactly what we had. Artichoke vinaigrette, sea bass, and a floating island, and an excellent bottle of Batard Montrachet. The Proprietor of La Cote Basque, Madame Henriette Solue Spalter, loved Lowell and she came out with a silver terrine of steak tartare lightly sautéed with butter, and she got on her hands and knees and fed Lucky with her hands. I said, “Lowell, I don’t think that she should do that.” Seeing-eye dogs have a fairly strict bland diet. He said, “But Madame and Lucky are having so much fun.” It was not fun for me or Lucky, the rest of the afternoon and into the night.
I was not the only aide to have Lowell introduce us to new places and great food.
Lowell’s last big trip was to Europe. He wanted to know where he should eat in Paris. He called me, and I told him. L’Ami Louis, Pré Catelan. I knew the restaurants, because Lowell introduced me to great food and wine thirty-seven years ago. Foie gras at 6:00, duck at 9:00.
We will miss Lowell’s brilliant way with words, his good company, his generosity, kindness, and most of all, his wonderful sense of humor.
When I was with Lowell, I just had to point him in the right direction.
What I realized only later is that all along, he was doing the same for me.
Lowell enriched our lives. We will all miss him.
The song “Amazing Grace” has a verse:
"I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see."
The Honorable Ben F. Barnes, Lowell's close friend for forty-six years, told the following story in his eulogy:
Everybody past and present will talk about Lowell’s mental prowess, but I have an example of Lowell’s personal physical courage. Melanie and I were in Siena with Lowell and an aide named Chris Jackson, who I hope is here today. Chris could tell this story better than I can. I would like to think that there was never a sporting event that you couldn’t find a ticket to which could be scalped to get a better seat, but the Palio, as you all know, is this horse race that started in the eleventh century. It’s been going on ever since, and it’s a run around the square in the city of Siena, and hundreds of thousands of people go there. We found a place next to the fence; it wasn’t a good place but it was certainly better than about 99 percent of the other places. Chris Jackson and I decided, and I said, “Chris, there’s gotta be someone that we can put $50 on (or maybe I said a little more than that) and find a better seat, and Lowell and Melanie can stay here.”
While we were gone, there was this group of young hoodlums who decided that they wanted the place next to the fence that Melanie and Lowell were standing at. Those of you that know Melanie know she’s very shy and retiring, but when they challenged her she said, “We’re not moving,” and they said, “We’re going to move you.” And Lowell tapped Melanie on the shoulder and said “Melanie, I’m going to stand with you, but remember this: you’ve got to point me, or I’m liable to hit you first.”
He had a lot of courage, he had a lot of depth, he had a lot of compassion. It’s really impossible for me to think about what life in Austin, what life in Texas, is going to be like without him for so many of the people in this room.
Lowell's son-in-law, John S. Wotowicz, read a passage from Winston Churchill:
I would like to express Virginia’s sincere appreciation for the support of her father’s many friends, throughout her life, and particularly at this very difficult moment.
Lowell Lebermann was an admirer of Sir Winston Churchill. Lowell’s fondness for Churchill was rooted in an identification with his attitude toward adversity. Searching through Churchill’s work, I found this speech that he gave to the students of Harrow in October 1941 when England was emerging from one of its bleakest periods. I will share a portion of this speech with you today.
Churchill told the students, “You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist, certainly many more than will happen, but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination.”
Churchill continued, saying, “But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
Churchill reminded the students, “We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished. All this tradition of ours, our songs, our school history, this part of the history of this country, were gone and finished and liquidated.”
Churchill then pointed out, “Very different is the mood today. Britain, other nations thought, had drawn a sponge across her slate. But instead our country stood in the gap. There was no flinching and no thought of giving in; and by what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, though we ourselves never doubted it, we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere to conquer.”
Churchill concluded, “Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days—the greatest days our country has ever lived, and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.”
Larry R. Faulkner, president emeritus of The University of Texas at Austin, also gave an eloquent eulogy:
It is a special privilege for me to have been asked to contribute here today. Distinguished friends of Lowell have already spoken—friends who knew him for decades and were witnesses to many chapters in his life. By comparison, I was a latecomer.
I can recall exactly the moment when Lowell and I first met. It was at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas in the fall of 1997. He was a regent and was chair of the search committee for a new president of the University. I was a candidate, making my first face-to-face contact with the committee. Things evolved from there, and in the end, Lowell was—for better or worse—stuck with me.
From the beginning, Lowell treated Mary Ann and me with grace and generosity and wisdom. He taught us patiently. He was a loyal and trustworthy ally. We will always remain indebted to this remarkable man.
What does any of us see in the mind’s eye when we think of Lowell Lebermann? The images and memories swirl: A marvelous sense of style and grace. The very epitome of panache. As close to an aristocratic manner as becomes any American—almost a “Texas count.” Where did he acquire all that? No matter. He brought it off naturally and combined it perfectly with a daring sense of humor.
Did you ever meet anyone like him anywhere else? I think not.
Have you wished you could pull it off, too? I imagine so.
I associate other qualities, too, with Lowell:
Courage is at the fore. Every single person here must have admired his lion-like commitment never to give in to the limitations of his blindness. Each of us can recall little and big manifestations of that commitment: Like always being in the stands at football games. Like serving with distinction as the fundraising leader for the Suida-Manning Collection of paintings and drawings. Like bringing energy and enthusiasm to architectural reviews. What personal strength it must have taken to follow through, time after time, never to give in.
Brilliance is the second quality I want to cite, for it took brilliance indeed to organize in a manner that could support a life with such impact: the special logistics, the system of aides, the manner of using the aides—all of that made it possible for him to sustain the energetic participation that we all saw.
But there was more. I will always remember the admiring comment made by UT’s great chemist Allen Bard, who served on Lowell’s 1997 presidential search committee. “He has to keep it all in his head,” Al marveled, noting the scale and detail of knowledge that Lowell had to command first-hand, while the rest of us referred to notes and files and photos and computer records. Lowell could not have achieved anything near the impact of his life without brilliance of mind and organization.
Our friend, Lowell Lebermann, was as complex and flavorful as a fine Bordeaux. He was as luminous and expressive as a Monet. As elegant and sparkling as a Chopin waltz. His civility nudged his colleagues toward wiser, truer, and more generous actions. He believed firmly in a better future and in the importance of great institutions to that future—his university high among them. He put strong effort where his beliefs were. We have all been fortunate beneficiaries of this great soul, the like of which we shall not see again.
Farewell, good friend. The eyes of Texas are misty today with loss, as we honor you with love and gratitude for a life lived splendidly among us.
Bruce Levingston, who played piano at the memorial service, spoke about Lebermann before he played his last piece:
Before I play the piece of Debussy, I thought you might want to know just a little bit about why this pianist is playing. I went to UT and spent four of the best years of my life there. While I was at UT I had never had the opportunity to meet Lowell. A few years later, I was playing at the Aspen Music Festival. Mark McClellan said “Bruce, I have someone I want you to meet.” He took me over, and there was Lowell. Mark had told me just a little bit about him and I had heard about him. Lowell said, “Piano player, we’re going horseback riding in the mountains tomorrow. You want to come?” And I thought, “This is going to be an unusual relationship.” Before the horseback ride, I was playing touch football—my last time—and I broke my shoulder, but I thought, I really have to go on this ride. The aides there said, “Lowell, the piano player is looking a little pale.” But there was Lowell leading me through the mountains. He led me on so many adventures.
As my career progressed and I had the opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, he was there. He was so supportive with each step. He never let me forget what counted in life. His loyalty and friendship were incredible. Once we went to the Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel, and it was closed. And Lowell said, “But I have my piano player here!” Only Lowell Lebermann could have talked the Plaza Hotel into opening the Oak Bar. I played a private concert for Lowell. So I’d like one last time to play for my friend one of his favorite pieces.
"Lowell Leberman was my friend. He made me laugh; he made me think. I relished his company. He was an original with wit and perceptiveness about the daily matters of life. He inspired me to be better than I was, and I was better for the experience. So was The University of Texas. So was Austin. So was our state, and, I suspect, so were most of you reading these words."
"A wonderful friend to all who knew him. Despite his visual handicap, he was a man of great and thoughtful vision. More important than that, a man whose engaging humor made every moment with him a delightful experience."
"He was an old friend whom I greatly respected and admired. Lowell was on the Board of Regents when I was appointed president of UTSA and he always offered assistance. He was the best in making a person feel special. We will all miss him and will keep his family in our thoughts and prayers."