The first time Cathy Bonner met Barbara Ellison Vackar during the early days of the Women’s Political Caucus, they were on a retreat — in the kitchen. While preparing a meal, Vackar knew how to peel and section a grapefruit to perfection.
Bonner, who is chair-elect of the Chautauqua Foundation Board of Directors, said she thought that Vackar was the most talented person, certainly in the kitchen. Although Vackar went on to the White House, their paths continued to cross.
“We’ve been gladiators together — in a political sense — for years,” Bonner said.
They have also been part of a small spiritual group for 30 years.
“We’ve been through the three Ds — death, divorce, disaster,” Bonner said. “She’s just the biggest-hearted, sweetest person you would ever know. And she’d do anything for you. When she was president of the Chautauqua Women’s Club, she really worked hard. She gave it her all, like she does everything. She likes to be a catalyst for intellectual discussion.”
These are among the reasons that Bonner has established the Barbara Vackar Lecture Series within CWC’s Contemporary Issues Forum.
Playwright and screenwriter Beau Willimon, perhaps best known as the writer and producer of the American political drama Netflix series “House of Cards,” will deliver the first annual Barbara Vackar Lecture at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy.
A life of leadership
Vackar cut her political teeth in Austin, Texas, and served in the Carter White House; she’s very much familiar with high-level politics.
“I think I realized about my junior year in high school when I was asked to organize the junior-senior prom that leadership came naturally to me,” Vackar said. “I had been on the student council from fourth grade on, even in college. I was raised in a very political family. My father was a county attorney, county judge, district attorney and district judge. Public service was definitely in my blood.”
For several months after graduating from Texas State University with a bachelor’s degree in home economics, Vackar planned the football team’s meals and then became a food service supervisor at the University of Texas in Austin. She was soon promoted to director of special events within the office of the president.
“I was planning things and telling people what to do,” Vackar said.
After 13 years, she left to start Adams Vackar Caterers.
When Vackar had arrived in Austin, she realized she could not get credit in her name, so she began volunteering at the capitol, lobbying for state legislation.
“Women couldn’t get credit,” she said. “Their husband or father had to sign for them. These are some of the things that young women don’t realize we fought hard for.”
Vackar also worked hard to get women on bank boards.
“It was important to get women where the money was,” she said.
After discovering that money was their primary problem, she initiated consumer counseling within Austin’s Family and Children’s Services. She said that, at the time, debt counseling was very new. Women needed to first get their debt under control. When they were not battling for money, they could work on their families.
“Women had no avenues,” Vackar said. “They would come in and say, ‘My husband is beating me up.’ Nothing is going to change until women know how to handle money.”
When her business partner’s activities jeopardized their catering company, she founded Vackar Associates, a political advising, consulting and lobbying firm. She began working with company presidents and CEOs who came to Austin, guiding their involvement in the community, based on their interests.
Since her first husband was an architect and real estate developer, Vackar also became vice president of Vackar Interests Inc. and lobbied the planning commission and city council in support of a project for financing land acquisitions.
Vackar said that she did a lot of lobbying on the city, state and national levels.
“I always lobbied on the Equal Rights Amendment,” she said. “That’s how I got started; just a little part-time job that took me to the White House, because the Pink Ladies were trying to rescind Texas’ ratification of the ERA.”
‘We are women’
In 1973, the anti-feminist Pink Ladies, part of Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-ERA campaign, began storming feminist conferences, state legislatures, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court to protest efforts to advance women’s issues.
“Phyllis Schlafly would say that men and [women] would have to use the same bathrooms,” Vackar said. “I would say, don’t we do that on airplanes?”
Sarah Weddington, an attorney and member of the Texas House of Representatives, organized a group of organizations that met at the capital, formed a coalition, and appointed Vackar as its director. Weddington was the legislator to whom Vackar had turned for advice on how to secure financial credit for women.
“I headed a big coalition, Texans for ERA, and traveled all over the state,” Vackar said. “When I spoke at the LBJ Library and said, ‘We are not women who want to be women; we are women because we are women,’ I received a standing ovation.”
President Jimmy Carter appointed Weddington as his special assistant in 1978 and his top adviser a year later. She asked Vackar to come to Washington to develop the White House’s strategy for acquiring the final three states needed for ratification of the ERA by the Congressional deadline.
Leaving her fourth-grade son and husband behind in Austin temporarily, Vackar assessed all of the states that had not ratified the ERA, and worked closely with the President and Weddington in contacting their executive and legislative leaders. The trio concentrated mainly on Florida, North Carolina and Oklahoma.
Vackar said that her biggest hurdle was in Florida, where one powerful man, Dempsey Barron, controlled the Senate. Barron would not let President Carter lobby him for the ERA, nor would he let the ERA bill out of the committee he chaired. She also said that Gov. Bob Graham supported the ERA, but did not get sufficiently involved in the legislature to facilitate its passage.
“Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, Pat Nixon and Mrs. Johnson worked very hard for the ERA,” Vackar said. “But there were also obstacles in North Carolina and Oklahoma, and time ran out. The ERA failed.”
Although Congress had extended the ratification deadline from March 22, 1979, to June 30, 1982, five states rescinded their ratifications prior to the 1979 deadline. Thus, while ratification of this Constitutional amendment by 38 states was required, only 30 of the original 35 held fast, and no other states were added before the 1982 deadline.
After returning to Austin, Vackar ran successfully in 1980 for co-chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, and became its official spokesperson for one term. She followed Bonner’s husband, Kenneth Wendler, who had long served as co-chair. She also took on a variety of volunteer positions in order to improve the lives of women locally, regionally and nationally.
While married to her second husband, Bruce Todd, who became mayor of Austin, Vackar served as First Lady from 1987 to 1989. She represented the city on trips to its sister cities in Japan, Mexico and Germany.
An avid gardener, thanks to her mother, Vackar said her big project as First Lady was “Keep Austin Beautiful.” It benefited from the success of the state’s extensive public education campaign against highway litter, “Don’t Mess with Texas,” which her friend, Chautauquan Betsy Martin, had created.
“All of this was a spin-off from Mrs. Johnson’s ‘Keep America Beautiful’ campaign,” Vackar said. “People were throwing things out of the car window right and left.”
Lady Bird Johnson’s Press Secretary and Staff Director Liz Carpenter was a family friend from Austin. Vackar had met Johnson during a luncheon for her at the University of Texas that Vackar had planned.
“She was just a woman like us,” Vackar said. “She had been out planting a tree and the wind was blowing and someone asked me to help her with her hair. I was so young.”
Later, she traveled to Maine with Johnson for a meeting with Laurance Rockefeller, a recipient of the Lady Bird Johnson Conservation Award.
Connecting to Chautauqua
Vackar and Bonner would eventually connect Chautauqua Institution with Carpenter, who gave a morning lecture about presidential humor titled “Hail to the Comic Relief” in the Amphitheater in July 1998.
Barbara Miller, a professional communications consultant and certified mediator from Austin who had been coming to Chautauqua for several years and telling her group of friends about it, invited the group to Chautauqua at the start of the 1996 season.
“She said that a bunch of people were having a party for her at Chautauqua for her 50th birthday,” Vackar said. “We rented a place. It was falling down, and there were bugs all over, and we had a ball. Cathy Bonner was there and we’ve been coming ever since. It took years for us to realize what all was involved.”
To mark the occasion, Vackar skillfully painted a colorful and lively caricature of the group’s celebration that hangs in the living room of her Chautauqua residence on Bestor Plaza.
For the 100th anniversary of the Miller Bell Tower 15 years later, she decorated one of the 100 12-inch mini Bell Tower models that the CWC sold as part of its silent auction fundraiser in 2011.
Vackar served as president of the CWC from 2005-2010. Throughout most of her term, she booked two speakers a week for the Hall of Philosophy, one for Wednesday and the other for Saturday afternoons.
“[President] Tom Becker and [former Director of Religion] Joan Brown Campbell felt that the space needed to be made available on Wednesdays because we were running into the Catholic service that followed,” Vackar said. “That was a good decision. It was hard booking those speakers.”
Vackar said that she is proudest of “raising a wonderful son, having the privilege to work at the White House, and getting the CWC House to where it is now, safe as well as beautiful. I have a picture in my office, and you wouldn’t believe the spaghetti of extension cords. Computers and other appliances weren’t invented when the house was built.”
‘And The Beat Goes On’
As president, Vackar thought that the CWC needed a video to bring people up to date with its history.
“It was hard to explain the influence of the Women’s Club,” she said last July. “Many people have no idea of all the things we are doing and have no idea of the shoulders of giants we are standing on.”
With support from the Brown/Griffin Family Fund and assistance from Chautauqua archivist Jon Schmitz, during the 2013 season Vackar conducted the research for a seven-minute film, “And the Beat Goes On.”
She said she told photographer Torrey Johnson what to film, Martin wrote the script, Miller narrated the video, and Johnson edited it. Because they were unable to complete it by the end of the season, Vackar, Martin and Miller — each of whom was living in Austin during the off-season — went to a recording studio there and finished it on Oct. 1, 2013, in preparation for CWC’s 125th season last year.
In part, Vackar’s video shows the importance of CWC and Anna J. H. Pennybacker to the Institution’s survival during the Great Depression. Pennybacker also lived in Austin, and from 1917 to 1937 served as CWC president.
“We have this weird synchronicity with Mrs. Pennybacker being from Austin and playing this central role,” Bonner said. “And then Barbara. They are alike.”
Last summer, Vackar brought much of the material she had used for the video to Smith Memorial Library for a season-long exhibit on the CWC. It was on display on the library’s second floor.
Currently, Vackar is a member of CWC’s Board of Directors and Property and Program committees. She is also chair of landscaping.
A year and a half ago, she reunited with her “first and last love,” Ron Cohen, whom she met when she was in eighth grade, dated in high school, and had not been in contact with for 50 years.
Cohen, who has been living in Sequim, Washington, introduced Vackar to a racquet sport he has been enjoying for 40 years. Pickleball — part badminton, table tennis and tennis — started on nearby Bainbridge Island in 1965. The sport was introduced at Chautauqua earlier this season, and Vackar and Cohen have been playing regularly.
Vackar said she was “just shocked” when she learned of Bonner establishing the lecture series in her honor.
“Cathy’s a very, very sharing person,” Vackar said. “We’ve been through many a thing together. We grew up as baby feminists. When we were in our 20s, the Women’s Political Caucus started. All our lives we’ve been involved. Cathy and I met through working on the ERA together in Austin. We decided we were not going to get anywhere without it, and that being in elections and controlling some money were a must. When Ann Richards, who had been an assistant to Sarah Weddington, was governor, we worked together. Cathy headed the Department of Commerce and brought in a lot of big business.”
Bonner said that last summer she wondered how to honor Vackar, and how to make contributions to Chautauqua’s program, as well as to its Promise Campaign.
“Barbara loves the intellectual stimulation of the programming at Chautauqua, contemporary issues, politics, and what’s going on in the world,” Bonner said. “I thought she’d have fun coming up with a speaker every year without also having to come up with the money for the speaker.”
The Barbara Vackar Lecture Series is the second series within the Contemporary Issues Forum. When Vackar was president, she arranged for the Brown/Griffin Lectureship, enabling CWC to bring speakers such as Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Jane Pauley and Gail Sheehy to the Hall of Philosophy.
“I wanted to underline Barbara’s gifts to the Club,” Bonner said. “At her parties, you don’t sit around and gossip. She doesn’t waste a moment. She has people exchanging ideas and developing friendships at a different level. She’s got to be the world’s greatest connector.”