Lowell H. Lebermann Jr.
Lowell H. Lebermann Jr., a three-term Austin City Council member, former University of Texas System regent and civic, cultural and business leader, died Thursday at the age of 70. He died while vacationing in Aspen, Colo., after an apparent heart attack, according to friends. Lebermann, was renowned for his incisive intelligence and keen wit.
Born April 26, 1939, Lebermann was reared in Commerce, about 60 miles northeast of Dallas, where his father practiced medicine. At the age of 12, he lost the sight in his right eye in a gunshot accident. Vision in the other eye deteriorated as a repercussion of the accident until he was completely blind by age 23. But his dimming sight did not stop him from academic achievement.
A student in the Plan II Honors program at the University of Texas, he was elected student body president in 1961. By then Lebermann already had set up his own real estate company. He made an unsuccessful run for state representative in 1964 in Northeast Texas and returned to Austin, where his father's family had lived for four generations. But to most Austinites, he was known for his work as a member of the Austin City Council in the 1970s. Then-Mayor Roy Butler dubbed Lebermann "the Green Panther" because of his environmental efforts.
Lebermann wrote the ordinance establishing the city's Office of Environmental Resource Management and pushed through a measure governing development on Lake Walter E. Long, Lake Austin and what is now Lady Bird Lake. He also wrote the city's creeks ordinance and its historic zoning ordinance. His civic participation continued after he left office. Former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, a longtime friend, said that whether it was working on light rail or solving health care issues, "there were very few things that happened that were really important to Austin in the '70s, '80s and '90s, that Lowell Lebermann didn't play a significant role in."
A diverse investor, Lebermann ran a car dealership, owned the beer distributor Centex Beverage Inc., and served on the boards of several banks and companies. Active for years in state and national fundraising for the Democratic Party, he was elected treasurer of the state party in 1981 and for several years was on the executive committee of the Democratic National Finance Council. He ran unsuccessfully for Austin mayor in 1983. Recently, Kinky Friedman said Lebermann was helping advise him on a possible second run for governor. The list of his civic involvements was lengthy, including his service on the boards of the United Way, Salvation Army, Austin Community Foundation and the Austin Symphony Orchestra Society. He was president of the Laguna Gloria Art Museum and chairman of the Paramount Theatre board. His participation paid off for the organizations in ways large and small. "In the early years of the Long Center project,
Lowell was very supportive and sponsored a number of essential strategy meetings at his home," said Jo Ann Christian, a board member of the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Lebermann was on the Chancellor's Council Executive Committee at UT, the Ex-Students Executive Council and the Symposium Planning Committee for the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He was appointed to the UT System Board of Regents in 1993 by Gov. Ann Richards and served as vice chairman from 1993 to 1995. Lebermann was assisted by a phalanx of loyal assistants and a series of guide dogs, including a German shepherd named Lucky, who was the subject of an obituary in the American-Statesman in 1983.
For those who knew him well, his blindness was hardly a consideration and much less a focus than the reach of his intellect. But he was not reluctant to refer to his lack of sight to put others at ease. He was fond of joking that he was the only blind chairman of an art museum. And it was not uncommon for him, when told that a nearby individual was wearing especially colorful clothing, to flip up his eye patch and exclaim, "My God, that's the first thing I've been able to see in years!" Former UT board Chairman Bernard Rapoport described Lebermann as "one of the most priceless, precious human beings I've ever known. He was just marvelous. The most amazing thing, of course, was his brain. To hear something and understand it and capture it like he did was just unbelievable." Lebermann's contributions to the UT System were many, Rapoport said, but he singled out a committee that Lebermann chaired, aimed at improving management efficiency. The time and money saved by that effort, Rapoport said, "was all Lowell's ingenious contributions."
Former Gov. Mark White, a personal friend for years, said, "What impressed me most about Lebermann was the fact that, here was a fellow who'd had one of the toughest blows that a person can have, to have sight during the course of his life, and in his early youth, he lost his vision. And I never saw his spirits flag. I never saw anything but an upbeat, positive outlook on life that was an inspiration to everyone who knew him or came in contact with him."
Lebermann was "one of the most extraordinary people I've ever known," said Barnes, who had known him for more than 40 years. "I don't know of a person who was more caring and more concerned and more compassionate than Lowell Lebermann. He was always willing to help any good cause." Lebermann married twice. Both unions ended in divorce. Survivors include his daughter, Virginia, her husband, John Wotowicz, and a grandson.
Published in Austin American-Statesman from July 9 to July 24, 2009.