American-Statesman at 150: Swapping old Austin newspaper tales with eyewitness Sandy Woods
During the past year, while reporting on the American-Statesman's 150th anniversary, I made new friends and caught up with old ones.
In late July, I met Virginia "Sandy" Woods for lunch at Cisco's, a trusted haunt for politicians, media types, sports figures and everyday Austinites that has survived all the dense new development that has sprung up around it in East Austin.
Woods and I agreed that this stretch of East Sixth Street was virtually unrecognizable. Cisco's, however, is still warm and welcoming. The mix of guests remains unpredictable; at one point we said hello to William Cunningham, former president of the University of Texas and former chancellor of the UT System. He still teaches marketing at the UT McCombs School of Business, where he once served as dean.
Woods and I ordered the reliable chicken taco salad, which proved too much food for either of us. Our appetites are not what they used to be.
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Right away, the gregarious Woods, 91, and I swapped tales about Austin past and present. Formerly a resident of a midcentury modern gem in the hills, she now lives in an apartment behind her daughter's domicile, located on a semi-rural lot off of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. I remembered Woods as a pretty spectacular gardener, so I was immediately curious about what she and her family had done with this fertile plot.
Woods had come to mind several times during the past year while I was writing that series of articles about this newspaper's sesquicentennial. She's one of my few living links to the postwar years when the newspaper was stretching and bending to keep up with the changes in the city, yet still before the explosive growth of the past 40 years.
Her period of peak engagement with the newspaper goes back to the 1960s and '70s, when her late husband, Bill Woods, served as city editor for the afternoon Statesman. That meant early hours at the newsroom, located in a boxy building at East Fourth and Guadalupe streets. Few photographs of this low-slung, nondescript modernist structure survive in the public record, which suggests its general lack of appeal before it was summarily demolished.
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Despite Bill's early newsroom hours, Woods remembers the lively parties, the lunches with the state press corps and politicos at a cafe north of the Capitol, and the casual encounters on the street, especially while treading the wide sidewalks along busy Congress Avenue.
“Former Attorney General Waggoner Carr frequently ate lunch at Cisco’s Bakery in East Austin,” Woods told me for 2015 for a profile of her. “As did assorted reporters, lawyers and folks from the courthouse. Judge John Watson ‘held court’ each morning at 6 a.m. in the drugstore on the ground floor of the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. Ann Richards shopped at Rylander’s when it was built in West Lake Hills. Lady Bird and Lynda bought shoes for the first Johnson grandchild at Sandy’s Shoes in Casis Village and were often seen in Sears.”
Woods, who had recently celebrated her birthday at the Headliners Club, started coming up to Austin regularly from San Antonio in the early 1960s. Here, she belonged to a book club peopled by artists, writers and professors.
"We didn't read that many books," she quips. "But those were some parties."
Back in 2015, she had recalled about Austin then: “Not everybody knew everybody. But no matter where you went, you usually saw someone you knew.”
In 2021, she amended that wisdom to say: "People probably know the same number of people as we did back then, but the place was smaller. So everybody seemed more familiar."
A mutual friend, Anita Walker Brewer Howard, a reporter for the newspaper during the 1950s and '60s and later a longtime journalism teacher, died in 2019.
“In those days, we put out at least three papers a day,” Howard once told me about her tenure at the Statesman. “So as quickly as we got the afternoon paper out, we had to start on the next morning’s — something new immediately. After the afternoon paper was on the streets, some reporters were off for the day, and sometimes we met for a drink to talk it all over.”
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Lingering at Cisco's, Woods had a story ready for almost every person we recalled, even if we both stumbled at times over names. She did not forget such oversized Austin personalities such as Cactus Pryor, Wick Fowler and late Gov. John Connally.
One anecdote concerned what she called the "First and Possibly Only Company Picnic" joke party.
"It was a takeoff on the real, deadly dull, obligatory company picnic," Woods recalls. "This one was held at our house where the instructions were to BYOB — salaries were not princely in the '60s — and a sign. I kept a couple of the more irreverent signs in the hall closet for many years."
Let the stories never end.
"Did I mention that I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when I came to Austin?" Woods wrote in an email following our lunch. "Still kinda do."
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More about the Statesman's history
We began publishing articles of the newspaper's past in July 2020, and we will continue to do so.