SUE BRANDT MCBEE, beloved wife, mother and grandmother, journalist and poet, humorist and civic leader, quietly passed away at her home at Westminster Manor in Austin, Texas, on January 3, 2011. Oh, what a wonderful life she lived!
Born September 23, 1923, to Robert Hubert Brandt and Bertha Wilhemina Frieda Maria Augusta Lamps Brandt, in Hamburg, Germany, Sue presciently was confirmed as Regina (the Queen). A mathematician might calculate her age at 87, but if ever asked she always insisted she was 19. And seeing her flawless complexion, jet black hair and the twinkle in her eyes, who would dare to argue with Sue McBee?
Sue’s father and her uncle spent a number of years before and just after her birth traveling to and from the United States as crewmen on freighters out of the port of Hamburg. On many of these trips, Robert would return home with Hershey and Baby Ruth chocolate bars for his daughter hidden in rolled newspapers, perhaps explaining Sue’s insatiable affection for anything chocolate. The brothers were finally able to open a small business in New York City and the Brandt family immigrated to the United States through the portal of Ellis Island. Sue’s pride in having joined so many other hopeful immigrants in their journey to America served as a constant motivation for her lifetime of achievement and her empathy for those still seeking fulfillment of their own American Dream.
In her own words:
The gift they gave me
After World War One
My parents – young, war-torn, afraid –
Left their mothers’ graves,
North European ways, old friends
To find new hope
And make their infant child
This gift: America
They found new friends, hard times,
The cowboys he loved
In boyhood books.
They found new English words,
A capitol, a university,
Land of their own, a small bright house
In which to live in peace.
The gift they gave me,
Meaning more than life,
Was then, still is, America.
Fortunately for those who knew Sue, her father’s New York business faltered so he looked for opportunities elsewhere. Seeing a recruiting advertisement from the University of Texas for machinists in its Physics Department, and having always been intrigued by the mystique of the Texas cowboy, Robert accepted a job that would be his life’s work until well into his eighties. Once again, the family boarded a ship for a new home, arriving this time in Galveston, and then traveling to Austin and a house on South Lamar just blocks past Barton Springs Road. Ultimately, Robert’s work in the Physics Department was of such high quality as to make him one of the most sought-after craftsmen in the lab. Sue’s mother, Bertha, joined the State Archives staff and similarly devoted most of her life to her career there.
Sue learned to speak English, a skill she unapologetically insisted should be mandatory for all immigrants truly wanting to be part of the American experience. And she attended St. Mary’s Academy up to the 7th grade, an experience she always cherished and looked back on with both amusement and not a little trepidation:
“I came there, an immigrant child, to get an education under the tutelage of nuns in black habits with white pleated headdresses. The classes, small but elite, were filled with girls named Brady and Tips and Nash . . .
“ But most of us were just ordinary kids who learned to read and add and get along as best we could . . . I learned to write old German script from sweet-faced Sister Ada, an ancient little nun from Alsace-Lorraine.
“I think we were Little Ladies, mostly, during the school day in that large, forbidding structure . . . But after school . . . a delectable metamorphosis took place.
“It was after school . . . that the Secret Society always met . . . there was something wonderful and dangerous about having a secret clubhouse behind [a gigantic statue of] Jesus, squirming through the heavy green bushes to get there and then giggling and whispering lest the nuns find out. (Of course, they knew. Those nuns weren’t dumb.)”
From, Echoes of girlish voices haunt now-vacant lot, “Remembering Austin”.
Sue discovered her love for writing and poetry in middle school. At Austin High, she, along with an amazing group of young writers including Cactus Pryor, Liz Carpenter, Dean Finley Herbst, Jimmy Banks, Windy Winn and Wray Weddell, all of whom remained BFF’s, worked on the Austin Maroon newspaper and, with the guidance of J.W. Markham and her beloved English teacher, Mary Nell Granger, learned the art of journalism. She often spoke of how lucky she was to have discovered at so early an age exactly what she wanted to be and how sad it must be for others who never really know that feeling. She also spoke often of how lucky she was to live in Austin, Texas, home of such literary giants as J. Frank Dobie, Walter Cronkite, Dean DeWitt Reddick, Liz Smith, John Henry Faulk and Bill Wittliff, not to mention The Headliners Club and the fabulous Texas Book Festival, initiated by then Texas First Lady Laura Bush and Mary Margaret Farabee, where she was fascinated to meet such writers as John Graves and Elmer Kelton, and as thrilled as a schoolgirl to mingle with celebs like Robert Duval. In 1999, Sue was herself an honoree at the Book Festival for the publication of her poems in “Lines for a Texas Town”.
Graduating from Austin High at the age of 16, Sue moved directly to then-Professor Reddick’s Journalism School at the University of Texas where she became editor of the Daily Texan. In no way shy or reticent, Sue led the Daily Texan in a vocal defense of the administration of Homer Price Rainey, the University’s 12th President, who was being criticized by the conservative Board of Regents for his seemingly overly progressive curriculum. Challenging even Rainey’s patriotism, the Regents ignored the protests of Sue’s editorials and fired Rainey. Governor Coke Stevenson refused to reinstate him. It was a battle royale that warranted even Time Magazine’s coverage. Notwithstanding her defeat, Sue graduated at 19 and took her enthusiasm for doing what she thought right to the wider world and Austin specifically.
First, though, in 1943 young Sue married her Austin High beau and fellow UT student, Frank McBee, who was taking leave of the mechanical engineering school to enter into service in World War II. Always an independent woman of intelligence and drive, did she beseech Frank this poetic request:
To a Prospective Bridegroom
Love, tell me I am free
If my south winds call to me.
Lover, say that I may go
Should the fire flicker low.
Lover, hold me tenderly:
I’ll not know captivity.
If she did, it worked, for their marriage was one of mutual respect and support for their respective strong selves, enduring for fifty-seven years until Frank’s death in 2000.
In marrying, Sue and Frank joined a number of close friends who were all doing the same thing. She and Frank moved to Wichita Falls for military training and Sue’s professional journalism career began there with The Wichita Falls Record-News. They were joined by friend for life, Cactus Pryor, who did his best both to get Frank in trouble with boyish pranks and to save Frank from the Pacific theatre by seeing to it that Frank instead was transferred to Yale University for additional training. After their stint in New Haven, Sue and Frank were assigned to a base in Florida in anticipation of Frank’s deployment. Each morning, they went together to the base and kissed goodbye with the knowledge that Frank might not be there at the end of the day. One day, indeed, when Sue returned in the afternoon to meet him, Frank was on his way to India, so Sue put on a cheerful red hat and boarded a train for Dallas, where she entered the executive training program at Neiman Marcus department store.
After the war, Sue and Frank returned to Austin. She joined the Austin American-Statesman as a columnist, writing “Hereabouts”, a collection of usually funny tidbits about the South Austin neighborhood in which they lived. In addition to Frank himself, who was teaching mechanical engineering at UT while pursuing a masters degree, it was a neighborhood populated by a number of UT instructors, including esteemed professors of art (William Lester and Charles Umlauf) and drama (Fran Hodge), and lots of kids, including two of their own, Marilyn and Robert. Frank earned his advanced degree and began working at what was then known as the Defense Research Labs of the University.
Never exactly outdoorsy (she had given up dove hunting on the day of her engagement and Frank never could get her to crew on a sailboat), Sue did enjoy many days swimming long, leisurely laps at Barton Springs. Years later, she was among the leaders in an effort to commission and install the Philosophers’ Rock sculpture at Barton Springs honoring her literary friend, J. Frank Dobie, and his buddies, Roy Bedichek and Walter Prescott Webb.
Things changed in 1955, when Frank joined others from the University in forming Texas Research Associates, which subsequently merged with another similarly young company to form Tracor Inc., Austin’s first high technology business. In its infancy, Sue managed Tracor’s public relations.
At about this time, Sue also joined briefly with John Henry Faulk in the publication of Go magazine. Faulk, an Austin humorist and storyteller formerly with CBS in New York City, had been fired and then blacklisted due to pressure from Joseph McCarthy and his supporters. With his counsel Louis Nizer, Faulk eventually prevailed in a libel suit, winning what at the time was the largest libel suit award in history. It was a fight Sue wholly endorsed.
Another landmark change in Sue’s life occurred in 1964, when she and Frank acquired their new, but very old, home at 705 San Antonio Street. The house, built in 1872 by the Walter Bremond family, inspired a tireless effort to preserve historic homes and buildings all around Austin. Sue became vice president of public relations, then president and finally chair of the foundation of the Heritage Society of Austin. Subsequently, she was the founding president of the newly established Austin History Center.
Probably no other endeavor received more of Sue’s attention for the next quarter century than historic preservation. She and Frank bought two more neighboring properties and brought them back to their original beauty. One, a multistoried apartment building affectionately known as the “Pink Palace”, she managed for over 25 years, with at least one tenant staying the entire time, probably due to the fact Sue found it easier to leave the rent unchanged for decades than to find new tenants she liked as much. In 1975, she authored “AUSTIN: The Past Still Present”, a collection of stories about many of the historically and architecturally significant buildings and homes in Austin, beautifully illustrated by her friend, Virginia Erickson.
As a result of their energy for service and the doing of good things, Sue and Frank were participants in many, many different aspects of life in Austin. In addition to her work on behalf of historical preservation, Sue also was the first woman chairperson for the (1978) United Way/Capital Area Annual Drive, and contributed significantly to St. Edwards University in a number of ways. Sue appreciated art in many forms and Laguna Gloria Art Museum also received her focus, both for its historical significance and for its contribution to Austin’s art community.
With Frank, Sue spent innumerable hours at The Headliners Club as both faithful patron and proud member of its Board of Trustees. She respected its DNA as a home to journalists and assisted in the publication of a history of the club published in 1992. As with other aspects of her life, though, what Sue truly enjoyed about The Headliners Club were the many opportunities it offered to meet and greet new and old friends. As much as anywhere, The Headliners Club was a cherished home away from home.
Sue’s efforts did not go unrecognized. She was rewarded with too many citations, plaques and acknowledgements to list, including being named an Outstanding Alumnus of the College of Communications of the University of Texas, recipient of an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from St. Edwards University and being the namesake of the annual Sue and Frank McBee Vision Award of the Heritage Society of Austin. But perhaps the award she was most proud of was the establishment of the Sue and Frank McBee Elementary School, home of the Fighting Bumblebees. Sue never failed to laugh at the school’s signature fight song: “Buzzzzzzzzzz!!!”
Similarly, while proud of her work on the various community projects with which she was involved, Sue found most rewarding all of the people she met each day, including many who sometimes were far removed from Austin’s power structure. As she walked to her office in the Scarborough Building, or had lunch or dinner at the Piccadilly Cafeteria or Chez Zee or El Rancho, Sue often took time to visit with people she met along the way. Sometimes homeless folks, sometimes students, sometimes waitresses or clerks at neighborhood businesses, these strangers never failed to reach her heart. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, often including her own family, Sue would take these new friends under her wing and do what she could to assist them with whatever struggles they were facing. She helped some with tuition or car repairs; others in connection with a job search or legal advice; and still others with medical or dental needs. Whether speaking of material things or time or just an interested ear, generosity in all its definitions was a hallmark of Sue McBee.
In 1980’s, Sue wrote a second column for the Austin American-Statesman, this time called “Reflections”, in which she wrote, sometimes whimsically and more often poignantly, about many of these people, rich and poor, immense successes or Olympian failures, old and young, liberal and conservative, that she met doing the many different parts of her life. A compilation of these columns, together with some from “Hereabouts”, were republished in 2007 by her good and supportive friend, Dwain Kelley of Starbird Press, in “Remembering Austin”.
Kelley also published Sue’s collection of poems, “Lines for a Texas Town”, in 1999. These poems, two of which are included here, were written over her entire life beginning in fifth grade. She wrote of people, houses and war, and of life and of death, and of good times and bad. And each poem exposed a little bit of Sue McBee.
A wordsmith, Sue notably could speak without hesitation the English of both elegant Queen and salty Sailor. One never knew when an alphabetic bomb might explode. But Sue was equally famous for two other things: she never learned to drive and she loved … really loved … the Four Seasons Hotel, particularly its Lobby Bar.
Why she remained a non-driver her entire life never was explained. As anyone who drove her can attest, she had well-honed, not to mention loud, skills as a “backseat driver”, so it is doubtful she could not have earned a license. But she also found joy in getting to know all of the taxi drivers who assisted her each day. She had regulars she would call who would carry her dry cleaning in their trunks for hours while she was at a meeting or lunch before picking her up a second time for the ride home. She loved learning about their children and helped out with computers and other needs for school. She also attended more than one wedding of a driver’s child. Apparently, she simply enjoyed the fun company of taxis over the isolation of driving herself.
The same explanation probably applies to the Four Seasons. She truly liked the people and catching up with gossip with Terry Young, and the noise, and the piano music, and the many exciting goings-on, and the margaritas and those sugary pecans. She was among the first persons each new manager of the hotel sought out upon his/her arrival. She knew the Chef, and every waitperson in the Lobby Bar and the dining room, and some of their significant others. Her books are in the lobby lending library, while George and the other valets never kept her ride more than a few feet away. And she had the nerve to sit at Nick Kralj’s reserved table with the phone. Regina, the Queen, indeed.
Sue McBee loved life; and life loved Sue McBee. And just as America was a gift to Sue, she was a gift to America, and to Austin, and to all of us who knew her. She will be dearly missed.
Sue is survived by her daughter, Marilyn McBee Moore, of Austin; her son, Robert Frank McBee, of Houston; and one grandchild, Michael Brett Moore, of New York City; and numerous nieces and nephews.
Sincere appreciation is owed to Ms. Toni Hollingsworth, Sue’s secretary, for her longtime support and to Ms. Joyce Hopes, Ms. Debbie Craft and Ms. Maria Elena Guevara, who have provided devoted health care for a number of years. Special appreciation is extended also to all of her neighbors and friends, including the wonderful staff, at Westminster Manor. Thanks, too, to Sister Gertrude and the always attentive caregivers of Seton Hospital.
Additional kind thanks to JoAnne Midwikis and the staff of Midwikis & Granger, as well as Laree Perez and Michael Madison, for their support and dedicated attention to Sue’s welfare for the last decade. The family wishes to thank Sue Meller and the many loyal friends at The Headliners Club, all the kind folks at the Four Seasons Hotel who treated Sue so thoughtfully, and all of her associates at the Heritage Society of Austin and the Austin History Center.
The family is honored to have as pallbearers, in addition to Robert McBee and Brett Moore, Ron Dipprey, Randy Neu, Dwain Kelley, Jim Smith, Tom Granger, Hugh Daniel, Tom Kozlowski and Pete Ball.
Honorary Pallbearers are Margaret Berry, Paul Daigle, Mary Margaret Farabee, Elaine Frederick, George S. Gotrocks (we know you’re watching), Charlotte Gres, Coleen Hardin, Dean Roderick Hart, Pat Hayes, Shirley James, Adolph Kremel, Sylvia Lester, Dr. George Martin, Sue Meller, JoAnne Midwikis, Judy Newby, Elmer Pramb, Cactus Pryor, Tom Segesta, Bud Shivers, Sharon Watkins, Alton White and Bill Wittliff.
There will be a private service and interment at the Texas State Cemetery on Monday, January 10, 2011. Also on Monday, January 10, a celebration of Sue’s wonderful and full life will be held at 4:30 p.m. at The Headliners Club, 221 West 6th Street, Suite 2100, Austin, Texas, at which it is hoped Sue’s many friends and other Uppity Women will Unite for Broadway tunes, storytelling and chocolate.
The family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the Heritage Society of Austin, P.O. Box 2113, Austin, Texas 78768; Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe Street, Austin, Texas 78701; The St. Edwards Fund, 3001 South Congress Avenue; The Seton Fund of Seton Hospital, 1201 West 38th Street, Austin, Texas 78705; The United
Way/Capital Area, 2000 East MLK Jr. Blvd, Austin, Texas 78702-1340; The College of Communications of the University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station, A0900, Austin, Texas 78712, or the charity of your choice. Or, the next time you’re standing on a corner next to a stranger, just ask them how they are doing and offer a smile. That’s what Sue would have done. Who knows, you might meet a new friend.