Listen to Austin 360 Radio

7 Austin stories that made us smile in 2020

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Bill Derenberger stands in front of the Paramount Theatre on his 100th birthday on July 26.

OK, so, we're all agreed that there was a lot of bad news this year.

On behalf of the Austin360 team, we'd like to thank you for sticking with us this year. It's been brutal. As we peer into 2021 — with that little spot of light just poking out of this damned tunnel — we wanted to remember some good things. There were good things! Promise.

Here are seven lifestyle and entertainment stories we reported in 2020 that gave us hope, made us feel closer to the community and, dare we say, could be called "good news."

100-year-old man shares life lessons

Austinite Bill Derenberger turned 100 years old this year. You might have noticed, since his centenary milestone was heralded on the Paramount Theatre marquee downtown, as reported by arts and history columnist Michael Barnes.

“Happy 100th Birthday, Bill Derenberger! We Know Heroes Are Real Because of You,” the sign read on July 26. It was a sweet gesture by the Paramount especially because Derenberger and his late wife, Alvina, caught movies and musical acts at the theater during the 1940s.

Derenberger’s life and heart have been full over the years, with family, friends, dogs, neighbors, work, music, faith and, when his wife of 67 years died in 2011, many hours of working wood into more than 1,500 crosses, some of them distributed by his pastor to patients in hospitals.

During World War II, Derenberger, who grew up on a farm in West Virginia and who trained as a flight engineer at Del Valle Air Base outside Austin, manned some 70 missions that dropped Allied paratroopers over Europe.

Derenberger, who settled in South Austin, had one piece of advice about life for us.

“Love your neighbor,” he told the Statesman. “Before she died, Alvina would cook for the whole block and I’d give it away. I loved to give things away. I just love people.”

Willie Nelson, Paul Simon and friends raise nearly $600,000 with ’A Night For Austin’

In June, a star-studded, two-hour fundraiser called “A Night For Austin” featured performances by many of Austin’s most celebrated musical artists, including Willie Nelson. (Because of course.) It also brought in some famous folks "who’ve long held a special place in their hearts for the city," as music writer Peter Blackstock put it.

The goal? Help Austin's cultural institutions weather the storm.

"It was Paul Simon and Edie Brickell who brought the idea of 'A Night For Austin' to Willie and Annie Nelson," Blackstock wrote. "Willie’s cohorts at Luck Productions, along with musical director Charlie Sexton, helped put the whole thing together, assembling prerecorded footage into a telethon-like event that was televised on CBS Austin and twitch.tv and aired by ACL Radio and KOKE on the FM dial."

The streaming fundraiser concluded with Nelson performing "On the Road Again" from his studio in Spicewood. By the end of the night, the troubadours had raised $600,000 for the Austin Community Foundation’s A Night for Austin Fund, which benefited six local organizations, including Central Texas Food Bank and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.

Sam Garrison, lead butcher, places meat in a display at Salt & Time on May 28.

Salt & Time thrives and helps out its friends

While the pandemic created stress on the local restaurant industry that persists to this day, there have been exceptions.

One of them: East Austin's Salt & Time, the butcher shop, salumeria and restaurant opened by Ben Runkle and Bryan Butler in 2013. As restaurant writer Matthew Odam reported in June, the business adjusted its model and even thrived, ramping up its butcher shop business and adding retail grocery offerings, while watching its to-go lunch and dinner service shrink to a small fraction of the shop’s overall sales.

Their pivot included supporting their Austin comrades, adding an in-store grocery with prepared foods from local restaurants, including pizza dough and meatballs from Bufalina, fresh pasta from L’Oca d’Oro and sesame-garlic oil and chips from Suerte, along with produce and dairy from Steelbow Farm in Manor and Austin-based Farm to Table, among others. Salt & Time even helped with the design and labeling of some of the third-party restaurant packaging, relying on their knowledge of regulatory standards.

“We’ve tried to do everything we can to help other people out,” Runkle said of partnering with fellow restaurants, adding that Salt & Time passes as much of the profits onto the restaurants as possible. “An extra couple hundred dollars can make a difference when it’s this lean.”

Jonathan Park started a farm in his front yard in North Austin during the coronavirus pandemic. He's now selling the vegetables from his Bird Dog Farm at the farmers market.

Pandemic inspires new front yard farm in North Austin

"If you find yourself walking or driving through the North Austin neighborhood of Quail Creek, keep your eyes peeled for a front yard farm that popped up this fall," food writer Addie Broyles wrote in November.

On Mearns Meadow Boulevard, Jonathan Park turned his modest gardening efforts (a small plot of vegetables in the backyard) into a full-fledged personal farm.

Park had extra time on his hands because of the pandemic. So, he expanded the small garden in the backyard and built a shed that looks like a small red barn, and then slowly started tilling up more and more of the yard. By August, he was swimming in watermelons and 15 varieties of tomatoes, and even though pests ruined his cucumbers, he knew he wanted to grow even more food.

That spread to the front yard of the house he's lived in with wife Emily for 7 years.

He started going to farmers markets to see what it would take to start selling there. He got a permit to sell cut flowers, built some boxes on which to display the produce and decided on a name: Bird Dog Farm, named after their dog, Ladybird.

Park said that the ever-growing farm brought new neighborhood faces to meet him by the yard.

“When this is all over, we want to host a block party," he told the Statesman.

Bri and Lindsey Leaverton got married on April 28 at Doc's Drive In Theatre in Buda. Their original wedding plans were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, so they threw an alternate, socially distant ceremony together in 18 days.

Cedar Park couple say ‘I do’ at drive-in theater 

What do you do when the pandemic puts the kibosh on your wedding? You move your wedding to a drive-in theater, if you're Bri and Lindsey Leaverton.

After a whirlwind wrangling of plans, the Cedar Park couple tied the knot in April at Doc's Drive-In in Buda, Austin360 editor Eric Webb reported. Their friend Austin author Jen Hatmaker officiated. 

“The night before our wedding, we’re up there until 11 p.m., drinking beer, hanging out, trying to figure out how the hell we’re gonna get this ceremony to be up on both screens,” Bri Leaverton told the Statesman. “And I’ll just let you know that we did not have both screens working until 8:21 p.m. (the night of the wedding), and Lindsay was getting ready to walk down the aisle at 8:27 p.m.”

During the ceremony, Lindsey sang a love song she’d written. Bri read vows to her bride's daughters. Fireflies flitted around. Junebugs, too, but those did not practice social distancing, and Lindsey swiped one off of Bri’s wedding gown before chucking it into the sea of cars, where friends and family watched from a safe distance as two lives joined together.

“There is this magic when you don’t hold so tightly to these plans that you’re obsessed with, and all that ‘It’s supposed to look like this, it was supposed to be like this,’” Lindsey said. “Own it. Accept it. Grieve it, yes, but pivot. For me, nine times out of 10, those plans B, C, D have been so much more profound. I love that about life. The only thing that’s guaranteed is that everything’s gonna change.”

Gerardo Ramirez Jr.,18, was carried into Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas on Aug. 1. He walked out on his own before Christmas after receiving the hospital's very first heart transplant.

The first heart transplant at Dell Children's

In a year where the biggest story of the year was a health story — the coronavirus pandemic — another big story could have been overshadowed: Gerardo Ramirez Jr., 18, who likes to be called Junior, became the first heart transplant recipient at Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas.

We've been watching the Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease at Dell Children’s and UT Health Austin, the clinical practice of Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, from its start two years ago with the hiring of its chief, Dr. Charles Fraser Jr. 

On Oct. 3, reporter Nicole Villalpando spent the day in the operating room with the Dell Children's transplant team. It was a day filled with edge-of-your-seat moments, from Junior's original heart stopping unexpectedly and needing CPR to the new heart starting to beat and find its rhythm.

The story goes beyond one kid and one day. It's also about the dozens of specialists who came to Austin to start this program, the operating rooms that had to be redone, and the cardiac intensive care unit that had to be created. 

The year started with meeting Grace Jennings, a 12-year-old who was the first patient at Dell Children's to receive a left ventricular assist device the previous fall, and ended with Junior walking out of Dell Children's 144 days after he entered the hospital.

Before the transplant,  "He was right at death's door," Fraser said.

Now Junior is planning trips to Plucker's, movies with his family and high school graduation in May.

"I think it's God's miracle," Junior's father, Gerardo Ramirez, said. "He's like nothing happened. He's like a newborn child again." 

Junior listed all the things he can do:  "I can jog. I can run. I can play ... I can do some basketball. I do some yoga." 

"I'm feeling great," he said. 

Both Junior's family and the doctors always keep the donor's family, who has lost so much, in their minds.

As the new heart entered the operating room, Fraser paused to give a little whisper of thanks. “I remind everybody, on the other end of this, there's a human tragedy. ... On this end, there is great joy, but on the other end, great sorrow.”

Junior's family hopes to one day meet the donor's family and thank them in person.

“We are really sorry for that family,” Junior's dad says. “That heart is really strong. It’s keeping my kid alive. He is really good.”

Junior was the first, but he won't be the last person to receive a heart transplant at Dell Children's. It's expected to do about 10 heart transplants a year. 

"The word is getting out," said Dr. Chesney Castleberry, the medical director of the pediatric heart transplant team.

In six months, Dell Children's also expects to begin kidney transplants. 

Reaching this milestone at Dell Children's is "an indication that Dell Children's wants to serve all the needs of children in the Central Texas region," said Dell Children's President Christopher M. Born.  "We keep the children of Central Texas here in Central Texas."

Tejano legend Ruben Ramos sings at Adrian Quesada's Electric Deluxe Recorders studio during a session for "Walk With Me."

A song of hope: Austin musicians unite to create an anthem rooted in reality

The pandemic hit Austin's music community hard, with gigs going away overnight. The whole community, from musicians to venue owners, support staff to studio owners, continue to try to find new ways to stay afloat while waiting for some sort of new normal to arrive. They have banded together more than once to support each other, including releasing an anthem called "Walk With Me" in September. The song and accompanying video also were created against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Deborah Sengupta Stith wrote about the project, which was part of a national initiative from the United States Conference of Mayors and modeled on an idea developed by Greg Fischer, mayor of Louisville and current president of the group.

“It was a way to ensure musicians remained working and to help unite people with a sense of hope,” said Diane Land, who is a producer on the project and married to Austin mayor Steve Adler.

Proceeds from the project, which will include sales of digital downloads, a 7” vinyl and a poster commemorating the song, will benefit the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.

Here an excerpt from Sengupta Stith's story, in which she describes the opening of the sound and goes behind the scenes for its creation: 

As far as feel-good anthems go, “Walk With Me” is not an easy one. The stunning new super jam and ode to Austin will lift your spirits, but it doesn’t pull punches.

Rapper Megz Kelli outlines the struggle in blistering opening bars:

“Like every day it’s looking even hopeless/ I hold my head up like a king or queen and keep it going,” she raps before reminding the listener that the social justice protests that have reshaped America in the summer of 2020 are a “movement, not a moment.”

“I hope they see it in my eyes, we’re tired of living lies,” she raps as an introspective piano line from Graham Reynolds builds. Her Magna Carda collaborator Dougie Do joins on keys, and ATX hip-hop OG Tee Double kicks in on drum pads. The video shifts from studio shots to street scenes: a downtown music history mural, the Red River Cultural District logo, artists painting Black Austin Matters on Congress Avenue.

The groove expands with a guitar bridge featuring local legend Charlie Sexton and composer and music director Adrian Quesada, then it segues into a stirring duet between rising rocker Sam Houston and Latin pop sensation Gina Chavez. As R&B singer Mélat adds her voice to the soaring first chorus — “We will rise, rise in this together if you walk with me”— it becomes clear: In the grand tradition of music born from turmoil, this is a song about meeting a challenge and reaching deep for the strength to overcome.

“It's really this love song for Austin and our sense of pride and trying to grapple and deal and process just enormous emotions right now,” said Celeste Quesada, who served as one of three producers for the project.

The Quesadas, who are married, began work on the project in June, as protests over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis were roiling a country emotionally battered by months of coronavirus lockdown. The sprawling single clocks in at five minutes and 40 seconds with over 45 Austin musicians sharing their passion and talent. It stitches together a broad swath of Austin styles.

The gospel-laced chorus winds into a wistful funk-pop section with Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom, Wild Child’s Kelsey Wilson, Empress of Austin soul Tameca Jones and the Vallejo Brothers. The groove fuzzes out as Black Angels frontman Alex Maas, backed by Spoon’s Jim Eno, takes the second chorus, which weaves into a quiet movement with Shakey Graves, Stephanie Hunt and Go-Go’s bassist Kathy Valentine. Before the exhilarating ride is over we’ve had smoking guitar licks from Jackie Venson, a Spanish-language interlude featuring Tejano icon Ruben Ramos alongside Superfónicos singer Jaime Ospina and members of Grupo Fantasma, and cameos by everyone from Austin Symphony Orchestra director Peter Bay to fabulous local drag queen Basüra.

As the song unfurls, performance cuts of musicians are spliced with poignant images that capture Austin at this moment in time: messages of hope painted on boarded-up buildings downtown, health care workers in masks, a mural paying tribute to Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillén, whose death sent shockwaves through the region.