Butler's living legacy

    1:44 a.m. Sunday, March 25, 2012 Arts

The room wraps the visitor in history. Scores of photographs hang on amber walls, many of them rendered in black and white. They show presidents and governors, oil wildcatters and gentlemen ranchers, social lions and munificent benefactors.

They also reveal — in several iterations — a petite, blond woman, fit, alert and always put together. That would be Ann Showers Butler, daughter of Houston oilman Edward Showers and widow of Austin Mayor Roy Butler, a key ally of President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Yet the 83-year-old resident of this Old Enfield home is much more than that. The mother of three adult children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, Butler has been a personal force in local philanthropy for decades. She has stepped up her social activity of late, while giving $5 million to the Seton Foundation and $1 million to the Trail Foundation.

"Ann has been generous all her life," says major civic benefactor Mort Topfer, who has watched Austin grow from a mostly volunteer city to one that also gives strategically and significantly. "And in later stages of life, even more so."

In the early 1970s, inspired and aided by Lady Bird Johnson, Ann Butler helped build and landscape the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake. Last year, the trail, used by thousands of Austinites every day, was named for Butler and her late husband.

"Without Ann and Roy, it might not have happened," says former City Council Member Les Gage, who co-chaired the committee to improve Town Lake. "And the trail was the impetus to everything that has happened downtown since then."

‘She's a very upbeat person," says Jo Anne Christian, a friend since the late 1960s. "She's gregarious and funny. I think anybody responds to that kind of personality."

On this day, clad in comfortable shoes and casual slacks, Butler remains the epitome of graciousness. She shows the details of her home of more than 45 years. The 1930 Mediterranean Revival mansion was built by William Sherman Drake, president of Calcasieu Lumber Company and father to Austin Mayor William Drake Jr. — after whom the Drake Bridge over Lady Bird Lake at South First Street is named — and his sister, Katherine Drake Hart, founder of the Austin History Center.

She notes pictures in her "rogues gallery" with Sen. John McCain and late Congressman Jake Pickle. Butler has leaned heavily Republican dating to — through her parents — the Wendell Willkie campaign in 1940. Yet she has supported candidates from both parties.

"Back in our early days, there were no Republicans in Texas," she jokes. "They were all Democrats."

There's a photograph of Butler in a wide hat receiving her diploma from the Hockaday School in Dallas. And a picture of her daughter, Beth Butler Granger, as Queen of Aqua Fest, the city's former lake-based festival. (Her other children are Roy Butler Jr. and Eddie Butler, all successful in their own rights.)

A particularly prominent photo documents what looks like all of Longview gathered in 1931 around the historic F.K. Lathrop No. 1 oil well. Butler points out legendary oilmen: W.A. "Monty" Moncrief and his son W.A. "Tex" Moncreif (as a boy), H.L. Hunt and her father, the elder Moncrief's business partner.

Butler was born in Dallas, but her parents moved to Houston when she was 2.

"I've always just said I was born and raised in Houston," she says.

They lived in a big brick Tudor Revival house in the River Oaks area of Houston. The German-derived Showers family had settled near the Red River, then spread out over Texas. Her mother's family, the McEacherns, followed the migrations of other Scotch-Irish settlers from the Upper South to Texas.

The playfully active Ann Showers attended River Oaks Elementary and the private Kinkaid School. She swam and played tennis.

"I had a wonderful childhood," Butler says. "We went to the ranch every summer. We moved out there lock, stock and barrel, with servants and all. I'd go horseback riding every morning, my sisters and I."

Butler has two sisters, one in Brookshire and another who lives in San Angelo and Taos, N.M.

After two years at Hockaday, Butler headed to New York for Finch College, a finishing school that evolved into a liberal arts college and counted among its alumnae Anne Cox Chambers, Tricia Nixon Cox, Arlene Francis, Suzanne Pleshette and, strangely enough, Grace Slick.

"Loved it, loved it," she says of her time in Manhattan. "This was back in the golden years of New York theater. A theater ticket was $5 or less."

While studying art appreciation, costume design and merchandising, she socialized joyously.

"I didn't want to do anything but get married and have children," she admits. "Nobody I knew who was female worked. ... And back in my day, you didn't just date one person. You dated all kinds of people."

Her father died, however, in 1946, and her mother recalled Ann Showers to Texas. She enrolled in her mother's alma mater, the University of Texas, to study the arts. She pledged Pi Beta Phi, her mother's sorority, and lived in a women's boarding house nearby.

The campus at the time was mobbed with World War II veterans.

"I met my husband on a blind date," she says of Navy veteran and fraternity man Roy Butler. "I'd had all the blind dates I wanted. I agreed to a Coke date after my Pi Phi pledge meeting. When I came out, I looked up, and I thought: ‘Whew! That's best-looking man I've ever seen.' "

Six months later, Ann Showers and Roy Butler married in Houston.

"At times, I could have killed him," she kids. "At times, he could have killed me. But we got through it."

Roy Butler grew up without Ann's advantages and retained a Depression Era sense of frugality. Born in Greenville, he followed his Army father, a World War I veteran, to his postings across the country.

Dropping out of law school at his wife's urging, Roy Butler expanded his used-car business out of their rental house.

"If you don't enjoy what you are doing, you are not going to be successful," she told the natural salesman. "I think you ought to do what you want to do."

With a business partner, Roy Butler moved to a spacious car lot at 45th Street and Lamar Boulevard. Then he purchased the Lincoln-Mercury-Peugeot dealership. Meanwhile, he kept his eye on other opportunities.

"He always loved Coors beer," Ann Butler says. "He'd drive — or send a driver — up to Big Spring, which was the closest place you could get Coors. When he heard they were moving south, he applied for the prized distributorship."

Campaigning in Colorado in person, Roy Butler competed against heavyweights like Gov. John Connally, Gov. Preston Smith and "half the politicians of Texans," Ann Butler says. "I couldn't believe he won. He couldn't believe it either."

Roy Butler went on to own radio and cellular telephone businesses, and to serve as president of the Austin school board and as mayor from 1971 to 1975. Later, he helped start the Austin Crime Commission; the Austin police training academy is named after him.

The Butlers got to know numerous politicians, including the Johnsons, during the late 1960s.

"We really didn't know them until the president wanted to buy some cars and he wanted a Lincoln," Ann Butler says. "At that time, the Lincolns were red hot. He would want the very first one in Texas. Roy would personally deliver it to the ranch himself."

The Johnsons and Butlers exchanged invitations to various social engagements, becoming friends.

"I was not a Democrat," Ann Butler says. "I was a Republican. But I worked for him when he ran on his own. I told him I didn't vote for him when he ran with Kennedy. He just laughed."

They visited the Johnsons in the White House and, more frequently, at the ranch. Johnson even pulled the Butlers into his business sphere.

"He insisted that Roy buy the radio station here (KVET)," Ann Butler remembers. "He told Roy, he said: ‘I would rather have a friend as a competitor than an enemy.' "

The application for KVET came with a license for KASE-FM, which he acquired, and a television station.

"I told Roy ‘No!' she says. "You can't run the car business and radio stations and a TV station. We'll never see you!' "

When he was mayor, the children would go for days without seeing their father. Among the major battles during Butler's terms was the building of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1), which some property owners adamantly fought.

"Where would we be without MoPac?" Ann Butler says. "It's bad enough as it is, but without MoPac?"

‘Lady Bird was such a lovely Southern lady," Ann Butler says. "And being from the South, I appreciated that. She was smart. She was very supportive of her husband and children. She was very generous of her time and efforts. And she was fun."

In 1971, Lady Bird Johnson met up with the Butlers over cocktails in the first lady's suite at the Savoy Hotel in London.

"It was right on the Thames," Butler says. "At one point in the party, Lady Bird said, ‘Ann, come out on the balcony. I want you to see something.' So I went out on the balcony. She said: ‘Look out there. What do you see?' I said: ‘Oh, Lady Bird, it's gorgeous. The green grass and the trees and the shrubs and the flowers. And this trail.' She said: ‘Isn't it beautiful? Do you think we could do something like that on Town Lake?' "

The first lady had already accomplished just such a project in Washington. At the time, the borders of the Colorado River as it ran through Central Austin were still something of a stinking, overgrown wasteland.

"Lady Bird sold Ann on the idea, and Ann sold Roy on it," says Les Gage, who chaired the efforts with Hallie Burns (a Bremond and a Houston). "She had so many contacts, not only in Austin, but around Texas."

"We came home and got right with it," Butler says. "So many people worked on it. But many of those friends are now gone."

In the climactic fund-raising benefit for the trail, Butler borrowed some airplanes to jet backers from various Texas cities to the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall.

"Friends from Houston and Dallas gave us the big money," she says. "Because there was very little big money in Austin. We were grateful for anything."

UT football coach Darrell Royal recommended a little-known Willie Nelson to play the ranch gala.

The City of Austin divided responsibilities with private groups, many of them women's gardening clubs, to clear out the brush, plant hardy trees, shrubs and flowers, maintain the sprinkling systems and lay out the trail.

"They really didn't realize what the trail would become for Austin because fitness and running was not a big deal back then," says Trail Foundation director Susan Rankin. "Austin was a much smaller town. They didn't realize that the trail would become our promenade, our community gathering place."

The trail is just one of Ann Butler's causes. She served on the board of KLRU and chaired its first major auction. She has been deeply involved with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Seton Healthcare Family. The Ann Showers Butler Patient Pavilion now houses Seton Medical Center Austin's maternity wing. She also helps mentors younger social philanthropists such as Bobbi Topfer.

Jo Anne Christian remembers when Austin life was divided into three main social tribes that didn't get along: "Political, university and town."

"Only a handful of people crossed those lines," she says. "Ann and Roy did, to a large degree."

Not many locals can claim an active, often very public Austin social life that stretches back more than 60 years.

"She doesn't look that much different now than she did then," Christian says. "I think part of it is her everlasting activity."

"I just keep going," Butler says.

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com