Hundreds packed the Austin Satellite Senior Center, 5071 W. Congress Pkwy., earlier this month to celebrate a well-known activist, whom Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) described as “the base of the Austin community.”
“If there ever was a white person who could really deal with the black community, they need to come see you,” Mitts told Bob Vondrasek, the pioneering community organizer and activist who served as the executive director of the South Austin Coalition Community Council before retiring recently due to health challenges.
The Aug. 8 celebration, hosted by Congressman Danny K. Davis (7th), was held so that the notably taciturn Vondrasek — who sat quietly at a table near the podium — can still smell his flowers, so to speak.
“When they first started the CAPS program in the city and you were the leader of the beat facilitators here on the West Side, I came up under you as one of those facilitators and I learned a lot from you,” Mitts said, before sharing a revealing anecdote illustrating Vondrasek’s can-do personality.
One day, Mitts said, she ran into Vondrasek while he was filling potholes on Jackson.
“I said, ‘What in the world are you doing over there filling potholes?'” the alderman recalled asking the activist. “He said, ‘The city’s not filling them.’ That’s the type of man Bob is. He’s going to get something done.”
As the longtime executive director of SACCC, Vondrasek and his longtime friend and collaborator, Lillian Drummond, became stalwarts in countless fights for the West Side’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.
“Bob Vondrasek is the most well-trained, creative, dedicated and consistent organizer I’ve ever known,” Davis said. “I can’t escape the fact that he’s worked in a predominantly black community for about 40 years that I know about.”
Davis said SACCC was founded around the time he decided to run for alderman, back in 1977. Vondrasek joined the group a year later.
One of the group’s signature accomplishments, Davis said, is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps low-income families pay their energy bills and for various energy-related home repairs. The program also helps families weatherize their homes.
“SACCC was the wind underneath the wings of the state legislators when that program was put into effect,” Davis said.
“And then they helped make that program part of the national scene,” he added. “They were perennially in Washington advocating for community reinvestment, and they did so regularly until they became powerful. When you said to a decision-maker that SACCC was on something, it often would change their minds.”
No small part of the trepidation that would well up in the powerful at the mere mention of SACCC’s name was due to Vondrasek’s fearlessness, many recalled.
Derrick Harris, a fellow activist, recalled the time he and Vondrasek went to Washington, D.C. to protest at the home of Karl Rove, the former senior advisor and White House deputy chief of staff for former president George W. Bush.
“We went to Rove’s house one Sunday and I remember knocking on the window because they were having dinner, and the Secret Service and FBI showed up,” Harris said. “That’s when I [understood] who Bob Vondrasek is.”
Vondrasek, Harris added, once walked in 95-degree heat from the satellite center to go to a community meeting on the West Side.
“Bob started walking and walking, then he started sweating and sweating,” Harris recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to kill Bob Vondrasek! … We eventually made it back here. That’s just how courageous he is. Bob, you are a courageous guy with a loving heart.”
Cherita Logan, Davis’ district director, said she observed Vondrasek’s persistence firsthand while dealing with an elderly woman who was going to lose her home.
“Every day, Bob would call and say, ‘You can help her.’ Finally, as he urged me every day to keep working and figuring something out, we were able to keep her in her home until she passed away,” Logan said. “Bob motivated me to keep looking, digging, strategizing, making phone calls and saying whatever I had to say to get that lady some help.”
Vondrasek’s persistence endeared him even to a line of West Side aldermen. In addition to Mitts, both Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) and his predecessor, Deborah Graham, were in attendance to shower praise on the longtime activist.
“Bob would tell you all the time if he was doing something, ‘It’s not personal,” said Graham. “I thank him for being a balanced man on the issues he dealt with.”
Taliaferro said Vondrasek helped “build the foundation that Austin rests on today and without his courageous spirit, we wouldn’t be the community we are. He was the one to help build that up.”
In at least one respect, that foundation is quite literal, according to Donald Dew, the president and CEO of Habilitative Systems Inc.
Dew recalled the time Vondrasek and Drummond led the fight, “years ago,” against Ameritech, a telecommunications company that was threatening to close its bill payment centers on the West Side.
“If anyone knows Bob or Ms. Drummond, you know they weren’t going to stand for that,” Dew said. “They forced Ameritech’s hands and the company donated the building at 4133 W. Madison St. to Habilitative so we could continue to operate the bill payment center.”
That building is now home to the Westside Community Triage & Wellness Center, the first and so far only comprehensive trauma mitigation center on the West Side.
“If Bob and Ms. Drummond hadn’t done what they did back in the day, we would not be where we are today,” Dew said. “Their impact will continue to be seen decades from now. You never know what a step for social justice is going to mean down the road.”