Four decades back I was a kid reporter trying to do a story I had virtually no capacity to report out. A reader had reached out to tell me about an apartment building in Austin, just a half block from Austin and South Boulevard, that was owned by an Oak Parker. The building was leased, tenants were paying rent, but the owner wasn’t paying the gas bill. So in the middle of that hard winter, tenants, a good many kids among them, were suffering without heat.
I was in over my head. Making calls. Getting nowhere. Trying to keep the publisher of the Oak Park News off my back as I violated his number one rule: Puppies and children on the front page.
Somehow one of my calls led me to Bob Vondrasek. He was with the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC). A white guy. And a lead community organizer for a group that was laser focused on keeping the heat on, in more ways than one. Keeping the gas company from switching off heat in the winter. Keeping landlords from skimming cash out of failing buildings by not paying the gas bill. Helping tenants pay their utility bills directly.
Bob knew exactly the building I was talking about. He’d been there, he’d talked to tenants, he knew all about the landlord. And he was very happy to talk to a newspaper reporter from Oak Park who wanted to do the story.
That the reporter was 21 and largely clueless only worked to Bob’s advantage.
He got me into the building, introduced me to people genuinely suffering, absolutely being screwed over as they had paid their rent every month. Bob walked me through the city regulations, made clear the loopholes that prevented any timely enforcement, which protected landlords.
The story got written. Got some attention but produced no lasting impact. Eventually the building was condemned and then demolished. Poor people got shunted into other shabby buildings. Eventually the whole block on Corcoran Place/South Boulevard from Austin to Mason was redeveloped as a senior living facility and townhomes.
I’m thinking about Bob Vondrasek because our Austin Weekly News last week reported on a celebration in his honor held as health issues led to his retirement from SACCC. It was quite a crowd. Rep. Danny Davis said, “Bob Vondrasek is the most well-trained, creative, dedicated and consistent organizer I’ve ever known. I can’t escape the fact that he’s worked in a predominantly black community for 40 years.”
Others described him rightly as fearless, good-hearted, courageous, and endlessly persistent.
Of course he didn’t work alone. Always there was Mrs. Drummond, Lillian I suppose someone calls her, though I’ve always heard her called Mrs. Drummond and I’ve always called her Mrs. Drummond. These two were a pair. Constant collaborators, they made SACCC a name to be feared if you were among the many taking advantage of vulnerable, poor people in Austin. Mainly Austin got rolled. So creating a local force that genuinely intimidated the powerful was remarkable.
Bob Vondrasek educated me back in 1978 and it was a continuing process for which I am deeply grateful.
“America to Me”: Michael Romain, editor of our Austin Weekly and education reporter for the Journal for several years now, is writing a weekly viewer’s guide to the America to Me documentary series about Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Michael is a graduate of OPRF which adds to his insights.
His companion piece to episode 2 was posted Sunday night at OakPark.com and runs today on page 11. This is must reading. Far more than a synopsis of another compelling episode, Michael provides a thought-stirring, historically rooted, personal essay which extends the impact of the TV program.
He’ll be writing each week.