Don’t know if you ever knew Lowell Lebermann. Well, even if you did, you probably didn’t know many of the intriguing aspects of the complicated, witty, civic leader whose life was cut way too short. Many of us still miss him years after his untimely death and still tell “Lowell Stories” to this day.
Lowell was not always blind. A gunshot accident while in high school caused the loss of one eye, which he covered with a black eyepatch the rest of his life. The wound so severely damaged his remaining eye that he went officially blind while serving as student body president at the University of Texas. His disability obviously did not slow his education nor his achievements.
After graduation, his successes were bolstered – he admitted this – by marrying money – so much so, that he relinquished his seeing-eye dog and hired amazingly-bright, young men who served almost ’round the clock as his aides until Lowell’s death.
He contacted me early in his career to help him run for the Austin City Council. I quizzed him incessantly to determine if there was anything in his background that might cause a campaign problem. Finally, his patience wore thin. Lowell slammed the table and said “Damn it, Neal. You need to understand the biggest problem I have when I wake up each day is figuring out how to spend my wife’s money!” Nuf said. He hired me. He won the election.
He parlayed his wife’s fortune into business successes. He bought a Lincoln-Mercury car dealership. After doing quite well with that enterprise, he took the money he made from selling that dealership and bought another mega-money-making franchise, a Miller Beer distributorship. Ka-ching! Ka-ching! His business successes lasted, his marriage didn’t.
Lowell had a command of language that stood out among the more articulate and well-educated. And his memory was a thing to behold. His aides read to him constantly, even as he moved through political and civic leadership positions. He was in great demand, not so much for his money, but for his charismatic qualities and decision-making. His laughter was contagious. His humor was legendary. And he used his rapier-wit to good advantage.
One of his fellow City Council members was Berl Handcox, the first African American since Reconstruction to serve on the Austin City Council. Berl was the only black man serving on the Council during a time of racial tensions in Austin. During a particularly-tense discussion that included some pointed racial remarks, it was getting quite dicey and almost out-of-control. Someone referenced the fact that Berl was black. It got very hushed. You could only hear some who nervously cleared their throats. Lowell’s wit surfaced when he broke the silence and loudly piped up: “Black? Berl’s black?” The room roared with laughter. The tension was broken.
And yes, there are many more “Lowell Stories.”
Watch this oral history filmed in 1987 recorded for the Austin History Center.
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