Exploring Lives – Interview with Dorothy Richter

Editor’s Note: Born in 1921 and affectionately known as the “Mayor of Hyde Park”, Dorothy Richter is only months away from celebrating her 50th year as a resident. While her activism extends well beyond the borders of this neighborhood, it would be no exaggeration to say that Hyde Park would not be anything like it is today without her efforts and accomplishments. Her extraordinary successes in citizen action reminded this editor of Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War, the fictional tale of how the traditional pushcart vendors of New York’s Lower East Side, against all odds and through collaborative non-violent action, defeated the big Mack Trucks and their allies at city hall who were trying to drive them off the streets and in the process destroy their livelihoods.


Pecan Press: You grew up in the depression in rural Texas. What was that like?

Dorothy Richter:   For one thing, Stockdale, where I was born, had no electricity until 1926. We relied on wood stove and fireplace. Wagons and mules were used to haul produce. While I was growing up, though, improvements were occurring. In addition to electricity, we got some paved roads.

I wasn’t really aware of the depression, perhaps because people were so poor to begin with.   On the other hand, my family did seem to have more privileges and money. I had a Shetland pony and a bicycle. My father was a county commissioner and a rancher

PP: You have become a force to be reckoned with in defending causes you take up. Any inklings of that as you were growing up?

DR: I’m not sure why, but from early on I didn’t like to see anybody bullied. I guess it offended my sense of fairness or justice. Because of a misalignment of her spine, my cousin had to undergo surgery that resulted in a humped back and small size. People made fun of her, especially this group of boys. I remember two incidents. As we were standing in line at school, one larger boy was bothering my cousin. When I jumped out of line towards him, he ran. I am right behind him and beat him with a stick that I had picked up. He didn’t fight back.

On another occasion when we were coming back from an Easter Egg hunt, these five bullies started to bother my cousin again. In running after them, I threw eggs and hit the ring leader in the back of his head. It made a real mess. The egg was not hard-boiled.   They threatened me, but never did anything, perhaps because I was popular, good at sports, and captain of a team. After these incidents, my cousin was much better treated.


PP: When you were young, did you desire to pursue a particular career?

DR: In those days, about the only careers open to a girl were to be a teacher, nurse, or secretary. Me, I wanted to be a vet. I loved animals, felt protective toward them. Still do. From early on, I raised and took care of birds that were injured. I was also inspired by my uncle who functioned as the town vet. But A&M, the only vet school in Texas, didn’t take girls.

PP: That was a significant limitation on you as a girl. Anything else in your upbringing that worked against or for you as a girl?

DR: I was driven to do my best. In retrospect, as an only child, I think I sensed that my father would have preferred to have a boy to carry on the family name. I compensated for that by trying to be the best in whatever I did.

PP: So what was your back-up career plan?

DR: I liked home economics in high school and was actually chosen to compete at the state level for dress design. So I went to college at Southwest Texas Teachers College [now known as Texas State] to become a home economics teacher. That’s where I met my husband Walter, whom I married in 1941. I worked for a short time as a teacher, but during the war mostly helped my uncle in his drugstore.

PP: Your husband became a state senator in 1963. What did you think about that?

DR: I didn’t really want that. Not sure why. I didn’t say no, but did tell him that I wasn’t going to help. As it turned out, his opponent came up with some untruths about him and I got really mad at the injustice of it all. I then worked on some projects that helped him get elected.

PP: It’s hard to imagine you just playing the role of a politician’s wife.

DR: I was happy for him that he won but I just didn’t like always getting invited to this or that event. I hated when people were lined up to shake hands. You had to say you were glad to meet these folks, but I wasn’t and didn’t like not being truthful. I hated to dress up, and those terrible pointed shoes you had to wear!

PP: Did your husband ever try to rein you in?

DR: He never complained about anything I ever did. No other man would have put up with me like that. He sort of had me on a pedestal.

PP: Was it then that smoking started to be an issue for you?

DR: Yes, I was really bothered by all the smoke I had to endure at those political meetings and events.   It made me sick. Everybody smoked. This was an injustice, I thought at the time. Not fair to me. These people are doing something that is messing with my health.

PP: So what did you do about it?

DR: I started to be outspoken at places where people smoked. I’m sure I embarrassed my family on many an occasion. I remember once telling Price Daniels he couldn’t get into our car if was going to puff on that cigar of his. After persistent complaints, I got Green Pastures to agree to make one room a non-smoking room. Eventually I founded Texans United for the Rights of Non-Smokers in the early 70s. Through its efforts—and this is something I’m very proud of—a state law was passed, the first one in the country that outlawed smoking in some public places.

PP: His senate seat was in Gonzales. Why did you move to Austin and Hyde Park?

DR: Our son was very talented on the piano. A UT professor of graduate students training to be concert pianists had agreed to be my son’s piano teacher for free. And just by chance, a suitable house in Hyde Park was for sale.

PP: How many children did you have?

DR: Two. My son still plays the piano, but eventually decided to go in a different direction. He’s now a professor of mathematics at Southwestern, right here in Georgetown. My daughter is a teacher of EMS at Austin Community College. I chose not to work out of the house after the war. I don’t think there’s anything more important than a mother who stays home to take care of her children.

PP: Why didn’t your husband continue his senate career in Austin?

DR: There wasn’t an opportunity at the time; and besides, we thought his income would be too low to meet family needs if he stayed in the senate. An opportunity did occur later on in 1973 when Walter announced his candidacy for an open senate seat. At that time, a young Lloyd Doggett was wanting to enter into state politics. After a visit from him, I convinced Walter to withdraw his candidacy, and thus Doggett’s political career was launched.

PP: Hyde Park must certainly have been different when you arrived in the mid-60s. What most comes to mind about it?

DR: At first I didn’t pay much attention, but the neighborhood was a mess. The houses were run down, yards were not kept up, the city had designated the area for student housing.

PP: So what sparked your interest in getting involved in Hyde Park issues?

DR: Well, it just sort of happened.   I first got involved with the Shipe House right across the street from me at 39th and G. It was in bad shape and was probably a drug house. Someone from the city who was taking a picture said they wanted to change the zoning and build student apartments. And for some reason I didn’t like that idea. When I don’t like something, you better watch out and get out of my way.

I knew nothing about zoning. A neighbor and I hired a lawyer. I did a survey of neighbors in the immediate area; a lot of them didn’t think having a bunch of students on the corner would be a good idea. At a Planning Commission meeting, I was designated to speak out against the zoning proposal. I was successful enough there that the proposal never made it to Council.

From that point on, I was focused on neighborhood issues. I boned up on zoning issues, and learned how to fight zoning changes that go from single-family to multiple family. I trained people on how to fight those changes and sign petitions. In the early 80s I won a seat on the city’s Board of Adjustment, where I had a great deal to say and a lot of influence about zoning issues throughout Austin.

PP: Can you name 3 or 4 of your accomplishments in Hyde Park that you feel are particularly important?

DR: Saving our neighborhood fire station was of course a big one. And later on, a major tree preservation ordinance resulted from my standing in the way of bulldozers to save a tree at the fire station. I also cherish my role in preventing the demolition of the Barker House, the beautiful 2-story brick home with white columns that sits near Hyde Park on Duval.

Some other accomplishments were ensuring there were sufficient restrictions on what could be developed on the vacant lot covering a whole block at Avenue H and 41st and keeping the post office from moving out of Hyde Park.

PP: You were active in issues in other parts of the city, too. Can you talk about that a bit?

DR: I was involved in efforts to ensure that our state capitol remained visible from major roadways. And I became active in Barton Creek protests. I was the first to join a group to fight zoning changes there, and later fought development of the Barton Springs Mall. I was a daily swimmer at the springs, and it really upset me that I could no longer see my hand in the water because of construction of the mall. To this day, I’ve never spent a dime in any of those stores. In all my protests it took others to help. I couldn’t have done anything by myself.

PP: You’ve seen a lot of changes in Austin, including its rapid growth. How do you view these changes?

DR: Naturally I am not happy with these changes. I thought Austin was pretty nice as it was—it had a capitol, a river, a university. We’ve grown too fast, and now we just have sprawl. Mansions are springing up because of the technology boom. I wouldn’t even know how to live in those places. Maybe we’re living on quicksand. What if our boom goes bust, and we’ll have all this expensive infrastructure but no funds to maintain it.

PP: You’ve won quite a few awards in your lifetime. What recognition has meant the most to you?

DR: The most recent one, my induction into the Women’s Hall of Fame, was very important to me. It seemed to sum up everything I’ve done. What affected me the most, though, was all the people who made such an effort to come to the ceremony to honor me. Even my yard man showed up, looking dapper.

PP: It’s hard to imagine you just sitting back relaxing even in your 90’s. Any plans for the future?

DR: I’m still working for change. For the last four years I’ve been agitating to get rid of daylight savings time in Texas. It’s not healthy, and it’s no longer needed for energy reasons. I introduced a resolution at the precinct level, hand out stickers, and everywhere wear my “Don’t Mess with my Body Clock—One Time for Texas” sweatshirt. I’ve heard a rally is being planned in Austin. We’ll see what happens.