CHARITY: To borrow a phrase from sports pundits, Ronald McDonald House could run a clinic on how to stage an exceptional benefit. Start with the charity, which helps children to heal, and remains a model of integrity. Then consider the setting for the 25th Bandana Ball: Wild Onion Ranch, located just past the single-lane bridge on the Old San Antonio Road. Rampant development sneaks up on the rolling scrubland, but this events center remains an oasis of gracious calm. Volunteers and servers greet the guests as soon as they arrive. These well-drilled troops maintain a constant, helpful presence throughout the evening. After wandering around the grounds and checking out the silent auction, the 900 attendees repair to a large tent, where this night they hoped to raise $600,000, or about a quarter of the Austin chapter’s annual budget. To Dine For catering company provided the tasty buffet offerings, all in keeping with the loose Western theme. Later, on a terrace below the inviting pool, the Spazmatics were booked for the end of an extremely relaxing — and rewarding — evening. (Bonus: You can wear jeans or khakis. No muss, no fuss.)

SCHOOL: Tom and Penny Cedel: A team for all seasons. From my story in the Statesman: "Penny and Tom Cedel pause in a hallway at Concordia University Texas. Beaming with good will, Penny greets a passing student, then reaches out for a hug."If a student is having a tough time adjusting, often they come to me and say: ‘Miss Penny, it looks like you need a hug,’ " says the sunny wife of the university’s president. "Turns out they need the hug. I say I need 200 hugs a month or I go into withdrawal." As towering as Penny is diminutive, Tom extends a broad hand and a broader smile to each student. Without a loss of dignity, the president — who will step down in August after 12 years at the Concordia helm — is no less warm, funny and supportive than his wife with students, faculty, parents and colleagues."Leadership is about people," Tom says. "You lead, first, by encouraging them. Plus, it’s more fun." http://shar.es/BmuML(Haven’t met two more decent people in Austin.)

HISTORY: Chistopher Smith illustrates maps of adventure. From my story in the Statesman: "Christopher Smith drafted his first map for an adventure. Growing up in the Anderson Mill area, he and his friends built forts, engaged in dirt-clod battles and ran unsupervised through the nearby woods. Among the most forbidding — therefore inviting — contours of their half-wild landscape were giant pipes ready for burial. What kid could resist these ready-made labyrinths? "I’d map them by hand with pencil and paper," says Smith, 42, now a full-time mapmaker. "It wasn’t accurate, but it showed all the twists and turns. We felt like it was uncharted land." Trained as a commercial artist, Smith has long been enthralled by maps of the Old West, of trails and highways, of battlefields and nations, all adorned with annotations. Nowadays, the father of two, who lives in the Crystal Falls area, sells maps composed of stippled pen and ink on acrylic paint — or prints thereof — at art festivals." http://shar.es/Bm56p(Love, love, love these maps.)

TRAVEL: Tracing the heavenly Devils River. From my story in the Statesman: "On the Pecos River, it was a gate. On the Devils River, it was a sign. A steel barrier kept us from exploring a key stretch of the larger Rio Grande tributary. The next day, a roughly made sign discouraged us from reaching a much-praised portion of the smaller river. We started the day in Del Rio, a border city whose main highway is littered with modern retail clutter. A few miles up the road on U.S. 277, however, the West Texas land and sky open up again. Down State Recreational Road 2, we tested the Devils River as part of many-armed Lake Amistad, which also encompasses the Pecos and Rio Grande. With no sign of human activity — despite the presence of condos and recreational vehicles — we were left to the serene blue and white of the long, winding lagoon. Ducks, gulls and what looked like towhees broke the stillness." http://shar.es/Bm5EE(The 30th Texas river tracing.)

TEXAS: San Antonio suburb tries to go: "No Taxes. No Fees." From Laylan Copelin’s story in the Statesman: "As motorists speed past this tiny community along Interstate 35, they might not realize they have just passed the "Freest Little City in Texas," as Mayor Art Martinez de Vara sometimes calls it. The mayor shies away from political labels. But there is a libertarian tinge to a "zero tax, zero fee" goal as the best way to bring economic development to this poor but proud city that incorporated on the southwest side of San Antonio just six years ago. I don’t consider myself a politician," he said. "I just don’t like taxes and regulations." It’s an attitude that prompted community leaders to cut the town’s property tax rate in half while almost tripling its sales tax revenue with the help of fast-food restaurants and truck stops lured to Von Ormy’s I-35 frontage. City officials hope to recruit larger enterprises once they have installed a sewer system and to eliminate the property tax altogether. But the "Von Ormy Way," as it is called, is also about offering basic municipal services efficiently — and sometimes in innovative ways — to a community not accustomed to being served." http://shar.es/BmcbJ(Fascinating story.)