Robert Godwin reckons he has seen Austinities give away $3 billion.
That’s because the photographer has documented Austin charity events since 1976. As his new book, "Austin Faces of Philanthropy, 1976-2012," clearly shows, the city’s social scene has evolved considerably since the American Bicentennial.
"It was as vanilla as you can imagine," Godwin says of local charity socializing during the 1970s. "There was a degree of exclusion by demographics if nothing else. And a $5,000 fundraiser was big back then. Nowadays that’s postage for invitations."
Published by Waterloo Press and pulled from the personal collection that Godwin donated to the Austin History Center, "Austin Faces" is social history at its purest. The hairstyles and fashions alone tell one story. The mix of faces and causes, the increased variety of social sets tell other, more serious tales.
"It wasn’t until the end of the 2000s, for instance, that we showed gay couples," says Godwin, 59, whose work has appeared in many publications, including the American-Statesman and Real magazine. "We had gay people all the time. It simply wasn’t acknowledged."
Quiet and modest but also wickedly funny — sotto voce — Godwin is often the first person one sees at an Austin charity benefit. One can recognize him by the moustache, tuxedo — he’s worn out three during the past 38 years — and the heavy camera slung over his shoulder.
Born in Tacoma, Wash. into an Air Force family that encouraged volunteerism, Godwin claims two brothers who took up the camera: Jay Godwin , this newspaper’s photo editor, and John Godwin , who works in commercial photography.
"Jay was the only one to aim at it," he says. "I was going to be Air Force pilot."
Their father produced Kodachrome slides of the family’s adventures and shared them with guests on an Argus projector.
"We can’t remember what we saw in life," Godwin jokes, "and what we saw in a slide show."
His first camera was Minolta SRT 101, an entry-level 35-millimeter camera, purchased with dollars won by playing unsuspecting Texas A&M professors on a Bryan golf course. He learned photography from a high school physics teacher and co-opted the Texas A&M student union wet lab.
A knee injury convinced the Air Force Academy that Godwin, after two years of training, would make "an outstanding civilian."
A bit of a history nut, he next majored in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, but was thrilled by photojournalism class taught by J.B. Colson .
As soon as he left school in 1976, he took a job, replacing his brother, Jay, at the upstart Austin Citizen.
In 1975, the Citizen, despite a circulation of only 4,000, had gone from weekly to daily rotation. Godwin worked alongside veterans such as John Bustin (entertainment), Carolyn Bengston (lifestyle) and Wray Weddell (business).
"That was an amazing core for a small daily, " he says. "It packed a lot of punch."
At first, Godwin avoided any "sosh assignment," newspaper lingo for covering a social event.
"There are no Pulitzers in sosh assignments," he says. "I wanted to dodge bullets or shoot sports. Also, I had to buy a pair of evil polyester pants that rubbed the top of your skin off and a shirt that always needed ironing."
Bengston, however, explained the link between the social scene and the charity world.
"I realized that, no matter how poor I was, I was richer than a lot of other people," he says. "It is gratifying to play some small part helping raise money for people."
Helping Hand Home for Children, Settlement Home, Austin Symphony Orchestra and Ballet Austin were among the few early nonprofits. The Junior League staged the Christmas Affair and the Admiral’s Club supported AquaFest.
"I hated AquaFest," he says of the long-gone lakeside series of concerts, water games and pageants. "I didn’t get to sleep for two weeks."
Some of those social groups have disappeared, others have grown, while still others, like the Bachelor’s Club, remain quiet remnants of the Old Austin scene.
The social stalwarts back then included names that ring familiar today, though some are since deceased: Jane and J.D. Sibley, Jim and Jere Smith, George and Jo Anne Christian, Roy and Ann Butler, Paul and Peggy Brown, Sonia and Sam Wilson, Nancy and Spencer Scott, three generations of Kozmetskys .
Meanwhile, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty King and Liz Carpenter lent respectability to any event or cause. Regular visitors Walter Cronkite, Carol Channing and Helen Hayes joined local celebrities and politicos such as Darrell Royal, John Henry Faulk, Jake Pickle and Lowell Lebermann .
By the mid-1980s, modestly monied Old Austin was joined by a discernibly more diverse New Austin. Things took off like a rocket — fueled by high tech fortunes — in the early ’90s.
"That’s when you started getting seven-digit checks and certainly six-digit checks were not uncommon," he says. "The bubble lasted only a few years, but it elevated expectations. A lot of projects got started on those expectations, then were scaled back."
Did any of his subjects wince when they saw their images reflected back from decades ago in the book?
"I didn’t pick their hairstyles and I didn’t pick those dresses in the mid-’80s," he says. "But you also didn’t shop in Austin for high end fashion back then. You went to Dallas, Houston or San Antonio. And you didn’t need to buy as many dresses because there were only about five black-tie events a season."
Now, of course, the number of charity events has increased astronomically.
"My personal record is 11 events in one day," he says. "But the show is not about me. It’s about the people that put in the months of work to put together the event to raise money for a good cause."
Godwin admits the routine can get to him.
"There’s a certain sameness to events — you come in, have cocktails, sit down for dinner, hear the program, get up and dance, then go home," he says. "With the occasional live auction to make life long — or short."
A gourmet cook who would often rather spend time hanging out with his indulgent wife Michelle Godwin, the unintentional historian sees giving as the main theme for his social reporting.
"I was so lucky because I didn’t have to care where anybody lived," he says. "I didn’t have to care how much money they had. If they were at an event, they counted."