Merle has the distinction of being one of the founders and the first president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. Whether in his devotion to the neighborhood or in his work as an ordained Lutheran minister, he has led an admirable life of service.
Pecan Press: Your ministry brought you to Austin in 1964, but you didn’t move to Hyde Park until 1971. What led to your move to this neighborhood?
Merle Franke: When Ginna, my wife, and I moved to Austin, we weren’t able to purchase a house large enough for our five school–aged schoolchildren. We did, however, find a rental on 32nd Street very near to the church I was called to serve as pastor. Later on, we found a suitable house for sale on Avenue D, which is where we have been living since Labor Day weekend of 1971.
PP:Many current residents are quite unfamiliar with what Hyde Park was like in the 70’s. What were your impressions?
MF: I often described Hyde Park as “a small Iowa town dropped down into Central Austin.” Except that it desperately needed TLC. Our house was typical in needing major repairs and upgrading. A major negative impression was created by the destruction of grand old homes and their replacement with ugly square boxes called apartments. There seemed to be no children or young families here.
On the positive side, we saw the tremendous potential of the neighborhood once the destruction of past beauty could be stopped. We felt that there must be other residents who felt the same way.
PP: Along with several others, you became committed to the idea of starting a neighborhood association. What were the motivating factors, and who were the chief movers?
MF: I received a phone call from Janet Linder, a young woman who lived in Hyde Park and whom I had never met. Long-time resident Dorothy Richter had suggested to Janet that she get in touch with me, because, she said, “You need someone dignified to get involved.” Well, I chuckled at that. I accepted Janet’s invitation to attend a meeting in Shipe Park of people interested in forming an association. And thus in June of 1974, Ginna and I joined about six other people, and discussed the subject with considerable enthusiasm.
PP: In your discussion, did you know pretty much from the beginning what you wanted?
MF: Yes, our small group knew that we wanted Hyde Park to be a neighborhood, with a heavy emphasis on what “neighbor” means. We were not in favor of a home-owners association because of some of the rigid rules that seem to apply in such associations.
There were three factors I felt were important for the association: (1) avoiding being a “crisis” association that’s active only when a serious problem arises, (2) holding regular monthly meetings, and (3) regularly publishing a newsletter to be distributed to all residents in Hyde Park.
PP: How did you get neighbors to join in these efforts?
MF: Quite frankly I don’t recall how the word spread, but it certainly did. At our next meeting we had about 20 people. I wound up doing much of the talking, and was one of those who volunteered to draft a constitution and bylaws. A larger group met a few weeks later. One could just feel the growing pulse of enthusiasm. Numerous people volunteered to serve on committees. Neighbors young and old bonded in the process of working on a common dream.
As our numbers grew, we began meeting at the Church of Christ on Avenue B. And at the October 1974 meeting, which I was conducting, the 40 or so people in attendance adopted a constitution and bylaws to great applause. Then the inevitable further question arose: “What needs to be done next?” I hesitated to answer because I had a feeling what the result would be. But I answered, “Elect officers,” which the group promptly accomplished. And that’s how I became the first HPNA president.
PP: As the association’s first president, that must have been quite an exciting time for you. What were your biggest challenges and accomplishments?
MF: There were challenges aplenty. We had to wake City Council up about what had happened to our grand old neighborhood, so we could get the city’s help in our plans. There was the problem of seeing old houses—regardless of their condition—crushed by the blade of a bulldozer. And we wanted to bring renters as well as home owners into the task of improving Hyde Park. There was even a welcome, pleasant challenge: how to engage all the talented people who volunteered to help!
As to accomplishments, seemingly all of a sudden Hyde Park drew the interest of home buyers and realtors. We didn’t see any more bulldozers; we saved numerous houses and other structures from demolition. The grand old Oliphant house is a good example. A friend of mine who was one of my parishioners was at the time associated with a high-flying group buying old houses and replacing them with those box-like apartments. On our way to a lunch meeting, he slowed down the car as we passed the Oliphant house and said, “Our group is going to buy and tear down that old wreck and build some slick apartments on that corner.” His plan cratered: HPNA intervened and this grand old house is still there.
PP: After your time as president for three years, did you serve the association in other capacities?
MF: For a few years afterwards I edited the newsletter, which John Kerr had named the Pecan Press. In its early years, it was rather primitive, with copies run off on a mimeograph machine. In 1979, Grant agreed to take over editing responsibilities; he turned it into a much more impressive publication. Ginna and I remained active in the monthly meetings and as docents in the annual homes tours. In the mid-90’s I served as Homes Tour co-chair with Margot Thomas. In the past several years I haven’t had much involvement in HPNA activities. No reason for that other than my energies have been used in other directions.
PP:Let’s move on now to your life’s work. What made you decide to become a minister? What kind of work did you do for the Lutheran Church before you moved to Austin?
MF: As a teenager in Fargo, ND, I was strongly influenced by my pastor. He was the main reason I decided to study for the Lutheran ministry. Ordained in 1948, I served my first six years of ministry in the Virgin Islands. From there I settled in Minneapolis where I organized two new congregations, serving as pastor of the second one. From there I was called to serve on the national staff of our church for about 7 years.
PP:What about your ministry work in Austin?
MF: In 1964 I returned to parish work, as pastor of First English Lutheran Church—not far from Hyde Park—on 30th and Whitis. At the time there was much dissension in the country, Vietnam War being a big factor in that. Change was in the air; and our congregation, like most others, had members who resisted it. But all in all, my 20 years as pastor of the congregation were joyous ones, as members pitched in to bring the congregation into a new age. I closed out my years in ministry as an assistant pastor in Westlake Hills and then as an interim pastor in 7 other Austin churches.
PP:What was most satisfying aspect of your work for the church?
MF: Simply put, to have the opportunity to help individuals and families experience a better, more meaningful life because of their being part of a community of faith.
PP: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
MF: Well, I should mention two avocations that have been very important to me. Singing has been a big part of my life since I studied voice in college and graduate school. I have sung with the Austin Singers and Conspirare Symphonic Chorus for 14 years.
Then there’s my writing. In addition to the writing I did in my role as a preacher, I’ve written volumes of free verse poetry and short stories, published 10 books, and have 5 manuscripts still on my shelves. [For examples of his poems, see page XX.] I even wrote a weekly column, “A Pastor Speaks Up” for the Austin American Statesman in the mid-60s. The newspaper was a little more conservative than it is today, and I got a pink slip I think because I was a bit too liberal.