Roberta Crenshaw

I became acquainted with this lady by owning land that adjoined property she owned in south Austin.

Her obituary tells her life story far better than I can. She truly was a remarkable lady. The things she did will leave a mark of beauty on Austin for an eternity.

Civic pioneer Roberta Crenshaw dies at 90

Parks activist fought to keep Town Lake serene.

By Dick Stanley


Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Lady Bird Johnson often gets the credit for Town Lake’s beauty and its popular hike-and-bike trail, but when she was praised for that, Mrs. Johnson used to say that all she did was get aboard a moving train.

Roberta Crenshaw, a pioneer of the Town Lake greenbelt and many well-known civic institutions, was the locomotive’s engineer.

Crenshaw, Austin’s premier parks advocate, for whom the pedestrian bridge across Town Lake under MoPac Boulevard is to be named this month, died Tuesday at her home in West Austin after a brief illness. She was 90.

“Her signature is all over Austin,” her daughter, Lucy Hibberd, 64, said.

Indeed, Crenshaw was a philanthropist and civic activist who is credited with many city improvements, including helping found the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, on whose board she served for 12 years, including as its chairwoman for four years; the Austin Ballet Society, which became Ballet Austin; the Paramount Theatre, by donating her 51 percent ownership to a nonprofit group that restored it as a performing arts center; Laguna Gloria Art Museum; and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden in Zilker Park.

The Colorado River Park in East Austin, for which she donated more than 30 acres of land, is just now beginning to be developed for public use.

“She was responsible for starting more good things in this city than almost anyone else,” environmentalist Shudde Fath said. “She was my hero. She never gave up.”

She was born Roberta Purvis in Little Rock, Ark., on April 17, 1914. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother was a homemaker. She came to Austin in 1932 to attend the University of Texas, where she served as president of Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, and graduated with a degree in liberal arts.

She married Austin business executive Malcolm Hiram Reed, with whom she had two daughters. When he died unexpectedly, she remarried, and when she was widowed again, she married a third time to Charles Crenshaw, becoming the stepmother of golfer Ben Crenshaw.

She was appointed by the City Council in the late 1950s to the parks board, which then was part of the public works division.

“You weren’t supposed to do anything (as a board member) but go and behave,” she told the Austin American-Statesman in 1985. “But the city was such a great challenge it was impossible to be passive about it.”

She helped create the Parks and Recreation Department, enlarging its scope beyond school playgrounds and softball leagues and giving parks a significance of their own.

Along the way, she fought against Town Lake becoming another Lake Austin, filled with motorboats, commercial craft and noise, and maybe even a Six Flags-like amusement park along its shoreline.

It was controversial, trying to keep the lake that ran through downtown serene enough for sailing, canoeing and rowing, but she was adamant.

“She said we had a ski boat lake,” her daughter Lucy recalled, “and that Town Lake should be reserved for quieter activities.”

When the city was slow in responding, Crenshaw had a flagstone walk built near the Congress Avenue bridge down to the shore, and spent her own money to buy and plant 385 flowering peach and redbud trees along the lake’s shoreline.

In the mid-1960s, the city gave in and created a beautification committee for the lake, and a plan was eventually developed for acquiring greenbelt.

Crenshaw kept on crusading to protect the city environment and develop greenbelt parks and hike-and-bike trails until the early 1970s, when a stroke left her hospitalized for two weeks, forcing her to cut back.

After that, she kept up an interest in her environmental causes, and quietly contributed money and land to civic improvements.

Soon after her husband died in 2000, she broke her hips and began using a wheelchair. But it didn’t stop her from getting out and about.

“She gradually got less and less mobile,” said Mary Arnold, a friend and a former member of the parks board. “We took her this year to the annual parks event where she was awarded a park patrons award, made out of a piece of Treaty Oak.”

Crenshaw was preceded in death by her husband, Charles, and a daughter, Roberta. She is survived by a daughter, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Her memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Reed Park in West Austin, whose land she bought and donated to the city, with a private burial service to follow.

“Culturally, I’ve helped,” she once said. “But the main thing I did was to create an environmental awareness of the city of Austin.”

Published in Austin American-Statesman on Feb. 8, 2005

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