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At dinner, words and images tell the Wittliff Collections stories

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Crossing the chain eatery's slanting lawn, I heard warm laughter. Louder, an 1980s rock anthem played. "What were they laughing about?" I wondered. Were they even aware that the song set the exact tone for the cookie-cutter canteen, more suited to a suburban shopping mall than the green verge of downtown?

Earlier in the evening at a nearby spot, author and actor Sam Shepard had read aloud his story, "Berlin Wall Piece," about a man who can't remember any of the music, fashion or news of the 1980s. Instead, he recalls only the reality around him: Meeting his wife; the birth of his children. The man's son, working on a school report about the '80s, is incredulous.

Such is the power of certain writers: They make you more conscious of everything around you. Writers like that were thick on the ground during the 25th Anniversary Gala for the Wittliff Collections at the Four Seasons Hotel. The archive of words and images from Texas and the Southwest has grown enormously in size and stature during those 25 years.

Another speaker at the dinner, author, editor and screenwriter William Broyles Jr., told of a creative writing class led by Larry McMurtry at Rice University. At one point, McMurtry simply read selections from "The Last Picture Show" to his students. It struck Broyles then and there that literature could come from right here, not Russia or England or the East Coast. That's the constant argument of the shrine to storytelling in words and images, boldly supported by Bill and Sally Wittliff.

At the dinner, I sat between a sterling couple — Nancy Scanlan (photographer, philanthropist) and John Watson (architect). She and I talked about the cultural differences between St. Stephen's Episcopal School (her alma mater) and St. Andrew's Episcopal School (I recently had interviewed its retiring head Lucy Nazro).

Watson chatted about old Austin and even older Austin. His ancestors settled on a Spanish land grant between Bastrop and Austin; his father claimed "farmer" as his profession and also was a World War I hero who worked for Gen. George Marshall during World War II. Watson's stories about his hometown conjured a quiet place where everyone was acquainted with everyone else. Never hear too much about that Austin.

mbarnes@statesman.com