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Meet Mary Arnold, the soft-spoken, indomitable godmother of Austin's green movement

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Environmental icon Mary Arnold in June at Lions Municipal Golf Course, which she has been working to save since the early 1970s.

Pretend that you are a public official. 

A polite woman who speaks clearly and carefully takes the microphone. 

Within moments, you realize that Mary Arnold, 86, is no ordinary Austin activist.

Her tone is even, her manners mild, and her eyes radiant. At the same time, her command of the facts is absolute, her will is steadfast, and her arguments are as clear as a summer morning in the high Hill Country.

Arnold, after all, is the godmother of the city's green movement.

Along with allies such as Shudde Fath, Roberta Crenshaw, Dorothy Richter, Scotty Sayers, Ben Crenshaw, Bill Bunch and others, Arnold showed that steady, smart and well-informed environmental and neighborhood activism can change the city forever. And allied with still more activists, deliver a measure of environmental justice.

Other citizen lobbyists might be louder or more obstreperous, but judged on a standard of effectiveness, few have had left as much of an imprint as Arnold.

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Take just one campaign for example: In the early 1970s, alerted by neighbors in Tarrytown — where she still lives in a modest, one-story house with husband Bill Arnold — that the Lions Municipal Golf Course, the largest green space in her neighborhood, was in danger of disappearing, she joined her friend Virginia Bedinger and took on that cause.

The University of Texas regents wanted to cancel the city lease for the course that sits on land given to UT by benefactor George Brackenridge in 1910. The Lion's Club had turned this part of the Brackenridge Tract into a public golf course with surrounding parkland in 1924. UT had leased it to the city of Austin since 1937. 

Doing her research and facing down the most powerful people in town, Arnold essentially told the UT System: "No." She said so again during two subsequent attempts to develop the land commercially.

In 2021, it remains a beloved Austin green space with a future of additional non-golfing uses as well.

Ben Crenshaw, left, Scotty Sayers, Mary Arnold and Bob Ozer speak about Sen. Kirk Watson's Senate Bill 2553 in 2019. The legislation appointed the Save Historic Muny District to preserve 141 acres, which would include the Lions Municipal Golf Course and a portion of West Austin, as a golf course, public park or a combination of both. Arnold led the charge to renew the law in 2021.

Becoming Mary Arnold, Austin activist

Although I've been aware of Mary Arnold, the activist, for almost 40 years, I had no inkling about the twists and turns in her remarkable personal story. They tell us a lot about how she has accomplished so much.

Mary Miller Arnold was born June 4, 1935, in Dallas. Her father, Shannon E. Miller, worked as a general construction engineer. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1922, and served as the designing engineer on the 1939 Galveston Causeway, among many high-profile projects.

Her mother, Anna Goodenough Miller, was born in San Antonio and grew up in Alice, then attended what is now Texas State University. A noted musician, she sang in Methodist and Presbyterian church choirs and, especially, for funerals.

Both parents' families traced parts of their histories to South Texas and Mexico. Her paternal grandfather, for instance, purchased ranch land in Durango and lived in Mexico part of the year. Her father and his brothers grew up on horseback.

Her maternal grandfather's family came to Texas in the 1870s. During his adult life, he worked as an accountant and died at age 99. From ages 70 to 90, he kept the books for the Chicken Shack, the Austin spot founded in 1934 by Leslie Strange in partnership with future Mayor C.A. McAden Sr., which grew into a multi-city restaurant group.

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"My parents met and married," Arnold says, "then spent their first three months together in McAllen, where my father was in charge of building a bridge over the Rio Grande."

The couple settled in Dallas, moving to the University Park neighborhood in 1939.

Arnold retains no specific memories from the Great Depression, but she knows her parents rented out a room in their small house to make ends meet. During World War II, her mother hosted British flyers who were training at a flight school in nearby Terrell. 

"The youngest was Tony Smith," Arnold says. "He was in his 90s when I last saw him in 2018 in Bristol. He died in August 2020."

Mary Arnold has drawn attention to the non-golfing wonders of Lions Municipal Golf Course. Under a proposal, more of the land could be visited by people who have never picked up a club.

Arnold got a jump start in the academically charged Highland Park school system by going straight into the second grade. She never slowed down. 

Arnold did not count many close friends during elementary school. More often as not, she got caught up in the world of her dolls and the doll house that her father built for her — and she still keeps. 

She also loved nature. The family kept a rough cabin on a farm near Grapevine serviced by an ice box and Bunsen burner. She also spent parts of several summers at the legendary Camp Waldemar for girls in Kerr County, where her cousin from Beeville had gone.

"I still go to Waldemar," Arnold says. "My daughter attended for eight years, and her last year told me they had started a one-week camp for former campers. (Former City Council Member) Sally Shipman went, too, and she made sure that the city budget was approved before camp."

Back in her youth, Arnold's family would stop in Austin on the way to camp. Later, her parents retired to the Hill Country. So the tie to the area's natural beauty endured.

In high school, Arnold made straight As, and participated in drama and choir while enjoying advanced classes in math and Spanish. Of course, she earned her school's valedictorian spot.

In those days, other academically adept Texas girls often headed east to women's colleges. Yet Arnold had attracted the notice of UT professor Willis Pratt, who headed the university's Plan II honors program.

"He wrote me a letter explaining that I'd get as good an education in Plan II as at any Ivy League university," Arnold recalls, "which were not at that time taking women."

Arnold encountered no trouble fitting in at UT. She stayed at residential Kirby Hall and pledged Kappa Alpha Theta, which has been training women leaders since 1870. Five in her pledge group majored in Plan II, and, in her senior year, she and five other Thetas were invited to join Phi Beta Kappa, the country's top academic student group since 1776.

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Mary Arnold and Bob Ozer in 2012 at the Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin. The two were involved in getting the Texas Historical Commission to put up a historical marker at the entrance to the course.

Mary Arnold returns to Austin, meets Bill

I've been profiling people for this newspaper for more than 30 years, and I have rarely heard a more storybook — and at the same time, thoroughly practical — start to a romance than the one between Mary and William David "Bill" Arnold.

"I came back to Austin for a spring weekend visit and stayed with four friends in a rented house on Bridle Path with four other girls," Mary recalls. "One of them from Houston had gone to high school with Bill. He had been in the Air Force ROTC at Baylor University, then served in the Navy for two years. In 1958, he had come to UT to finish his degree and had a job waiting as head waiter at Kirby Hall."

On Saturdays, Bill also cooked for the housemates on Bridle Path.

"On Sunday, I was listening to nice soft classical music when Bill arrived at the door to work on the house's electricity," Mary says. "Wearing a white T-shirts and jeans, he held a cute baby on his arm. When he left, he said 'All fixed!' So I could go back to my reading and music."

Later, one of the housemates asked Mary if she had met Bill. Mary said she assumed he was married. Her friend replied: "Oh no, he was babysitting."

"I thought: 'He cooks, he knows about electricity, and he can take care of babies,'" Mary says. "I promptly came back to grad school in the fall." The two started dating.

After studying government and English in grad school, Mary Arnold worked next at the Texas Legislature as an aide for a representative from Alice, which gave her access to the heady club of state workers portrayed fictionally in Billy Lee Brammer's "The Gay Place," a seminal Texas political novel.

She also married Bill in 1959. They rented a house near Clarksville and learned about the neighborhood's history as a freedom colony. A move to Houston while Bill worked for Gulf Toy company meant time spent in the aging suburb of West University in the early 1960s. There, the couple had a son, William Wade Arnold. Another job offer brought them back to Austin in 1965.

Bill's next big job was with a cable TV company with Jack Crosby and Ben Conroy. This was back when cable TV was seen as way to deliver television programs to remote West Texas towns and cities that had little access to broadcast. Bill traveled the state seeking out cable franchises until the company was bought out, and he spent the next 20 years as director of the Texas Cable Association.

In Austin, their second child, Ellen, was born. In 1970 they purchased their current house, built in 1963. Back in the 1950s, the couple used to drive around the gently rolling Tarrytown neighborhood and spotted signs for lots that went for $9,000.

Years later, after the kids went off to college, daughter Ellen, who thought Bill might be alone on the evenings as Mary was on the planning commission, instituted "Tuesday Night Dinners." It was a bring-your-own beer affair. Prospective guests simply left a name and number of attendees at Bill's office and he'd pick up the groceries on the way home — and was soon cooking up a meal for guests.

Quite a few politicos — and future office holders — and musicians gathered there regularly at the Arnolds' informal civic clubhouse. This was not unlike other progressive Austinites of the time.

Mary Arnold on how to lobby for good

Now was the time for Arnold to utilize her backgrounds in business, government, economics and language arts. While in graduate school, she had a job at the UT public affairs institute. She updated guides for state agencies and an organizational chart for state government.

"Learning how to navigate the inside of government opened my eyes a little bit," she says. "Helen and Ray Farabee persuaded me to join the board of the Texas Mental Health Association. I also served on the University YWCA board where I got to know civil rights leaders such as Wilhelmina Delco and Bertha Sadler Means (who golfed at Muny). Time with the League of Women Voters led to work on a study for a law on water conservation."

In particular, why did she answer the call to help save Muny in 1972?

"It was green!" Arnold almost shouts. "It was green space that needs to be preserved forever."

At that time, controversial UT Regent Frank Erwin was running into opposition to his expansion of the campus into East Austin, and he wanted to know more about other UT land assets. Abruptly, the city of Austin received a letter from the board of regents that its lease on Muny land, signed in 1937, would end in one year.

Leaders asked Arnold to help fight Erwin.

"I said I'd be glad to do research," Arnold says. "I had great fun. I looked at deed records and the history of the (nearby) Tom Miller Dam.

"We badgered the City Council. We badgered the university."

Erwin countered by engineering a bill through the legislature that might have given UT more control of the Brackenridge Tract.

"Let's learn more about it," Arnold says she thought. "A friend of a friend notified me of a hearing on his bill. We arrived en masse. Nervously, Erwin was jiggering with silver balls in his pockets. He was not happy at all. He saw where we were going. He walked up and down talking to the committee members privately, then announced, 'I asked the senator to introduce the bill and now I asked him to withdraw it.'

"Anyway, we got rid of that bill."

Mary Arnold is a firm, informed and clear-eyed activist who has fearlessly pursued environmental causes for some five decades. Here, she speaks in 2019 about the mission to preserve the Lions Municipal Golf Course.

From back room deals to the daylight of Muny's future

The land was not safe yet. Three UT System regents and three city council members met behind closed doors to negotiate about its future.

"They came up with a deal announcement," Arnold say. "Mayor Roy Butler called me to say: This is what's going to announced: The $1-a-year lease was extended to 1987. In exchange, the city would pay to upgrade and move Red River Street. Those were interesting times."

Arnold served on the city's park board from 1978 to 1988, which gave her more access to environmental giants like parks director Beverly Sheffield. She was involved in campaigns to save Austin's creeks.

Council Member Sally Shipman later appointed Arnold to the planning commission, which meant she would have a direct say in the Brackenridge Tract. She also served on the commissions for water and wastewater.

In 1982, the city agreed to update the Muny clubhouse and voters passed $500,000 in bonds to do so in conjunction with city grant money. 

In the 1980s, the battle lines formed again. A good deal of the negotiations this time had to do with land across the river along Stratford Drive, which also had been part of the Brackenridge Tract. UT sold off residential lots and, in an area deemed not worth developing, sold a portion to increase the Ulrich Water Treatment Plant acreage to provide for an expansion of the plant.

In 1987, the forces came to another temporary agreement on Muny.

"We had to pay the piper," Arnold says. "Rent for the land went up to $175,000 a year and would increase every five years until 2017, when it was $425,000 a year. Golf fees for Muny were increased, and golfers at all other city courses paid a $1 fee per round to help pay for the Muny lease."

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In 1989, more negotiations took place as to what UT could do with the Brackenridge Tract, resulting in state legislation approving a "land plan" for the Brackenridge Tract. It was presented in an agreement between the city and UT, and the Muny lease was amended to provide for a 30-year lease, and several possible extensions.

In the the 2000s, the UT system hired a New York master-planning company to devise a future for the whole remaining Brackenridge Tract on the north side of the river. This included UT's field lab that retains strong support in the university's highly ranked botany department, which insisted that it be left alone.

Mary Arnold speaks in 2008 about efforts to protect Muny and its attendant parkland. "It was green space that needs to be preserved forever," she said recently about efforts that started in 1972.

In 2019, Sen. Kirk Watson, former mayor of Austin, introduced a bill that would create a special district that could raise private money for the purchase and conservation of MUNY. But law only allowed two years for its creation. In 2021, Sen. Sarah Eckhart, Watson's replacement, filed a bill to extend the district's life for an additional two years. 

"It's a strange conglomeration," Arnolds says. "It is not a usual law. The conservancy would supply the money to buy the golf course for the city. Meanwhile, the city controls future zoning for four other cases where UT wants to develop. We have kept this alive on a month to month basis."

For decades, Arnold has sought dozens of ways to protect the golf course and other attendant parkland at MUNY. Does she even golf?

"I took golf at UT for one semester," she says. "And I've taken some itty bitty lessons. But I've enjoyed very much being on golf courses. Austin has been a good steward of the land at MUNY over the past 50 years. It's also been good at cleaning up old garbage dumps, creating green spaces, and polishing its environmental credentials. Its golf courses have some other uses, and we will keep fighting to keep them green."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at