In the one year since the first person tested positive for COVID-19 in Texas, 754 Travis County residents have died from the virus. Older residents—those 60 and older—have been disproportionately affected, representing 12% of the county's confirmed cases but 82% of deaths. So, too, are Latino residents, who make up 33.6% of the county population and account for 46% of COVID deaths.
Although testing and vaccine access have both improved, coinciding with a declining case-fatality rate, the pandemic remains threatening to many—COVID is the third-leading cause of death in Travis County, second only to cancer and heart diseases—and continues to devastate families around Austin.
In a trying year that has included not only the coronavirus but also mass protests against police violence, economic hardship, a divisive election and a series of devastating winter storms, Austonia recognizes those who have died from COVID. Here are the names of 36, or just shy of 5%, of them and—where available through obituaries, fundraising pages and local reports—a brief glimpse at their lives.
Feb. 13, 2021: A. Robert Fischer, 63, loved the company of dear friends, good wine and food, attending the University of Texas football and basketball games and, most of all, his family, according to his obituary.
Jan. 20, 2021: James Ernst, 98, was preceded by the 411,534 Americans who had died from the virus at the time of his death, according to his obituary. He joined the army in 1942 and supported the D-Day invasion by parachuting into LaHavre, France in October 1945. In 2019, he was honored with France's highest award for his role in the country's liberation.
Jan. 16, 2021: Dwight Eugene Cassell, 89, received a recommendation from one of his geology professors at the University of Texas at Austin to "call on a certain young lady" who later became his beloved wife of 64 years, according to his obituary.
Jan. 12, 2021: Joe Alvarado Jr., 76, was an Austin Police Department training instructor, who had earned a 10th degree black belt in Soryu karate and had a passion for embroidery. "Joe truly loved our officers and they loved him the same," the Austin Police Association wrote in a Facebook post following his death.
Jan. 10, 2021: Chencho Flores, 91, a veteran accordionist, began playing music in Austin in the 1940s and remained a renowned member of the local conjunto—a Tejano-style ensemble—scene through the 2010s.
Jan. 8, 2021: James Robert "Jim Bob" Moffett, 82, was born on the same day as Elvis Presley's death and died on Presley's birthday. The oil magnate and University of Texas donor often impersonated the singer at parties or his children's events.
Jan. 8, 2021: Kenneth "Beaver" Ray Bray, 82, was a 50-year member of the Balcones Country Club, where he spent some of his best times with his best friends, and enjoyed his work with House of Friends, an Alzheimer's respite program, according to his obituary.
Dec. 15, 2020: Patricia Dean Dodgen, 84, was "an Austinite through and through," according to her obituary. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, taught at multiple elementary schools around town and traveled the world with the Flying Longhorns.
Dec. 2, 2020: Patricia Perez, 70, was a dedicated Travis County poll worker who had a passion for politics. Her family believes she contracted the virus while working during the early voting period last October.
Sept. 5, 2020: Guadalupe "Shorty" Ortiz, 78, recorded the hit song "Un Ratito," which was nominated for a Tejano Music Award, when he was 19 and founded two bands: Shorty and the Corvettes, a popular '60s group, and Mariachi Corbetas, which included his son and grandson. A charismatic performer, he would often choose a woman in the crowd to sing his songs too. "Let's say eight times out of 10, they would start crying," his son told the Austin American-Statesman.
We have had the Ortiz Family in our hearts and minds and will dearly miss our friend, Guadalupe "Shorty" Ortiz. Ortiz was an Austin music icon with his groups Shorty & the Corvettes and Mariachi Corbetas. pic.twitter.com/ttPsszCoY3
— Texas Folklife (@texasfolklife) September 18, 2020
Aug. 21, 2020: René van Zanten, 76, was born in Jakarta, Indonesia and later moved with his family to the Netherlands before immigrating to the U.S. He spent the last 13 years of his life in Austin and will be "remembered by many for his vast intellect, engaging personality and love of life," according to his obituary.
Aug. 19, 2020: Sebastian "Sebe" Cardenas, 53, grew up in East Austin the youngest of six children and later became a father—and father figure—to many, according to his obituary. He loved grilling, the Dallas Cowboys and jamming out to classic rock.
Aug. 14, 2020: Jesse "Chuy" Ramirez Morales, 77, was one of nine members of his family to contract the virus. His son, Roger, was released from the hospital in December after a five-month stay, according to Spectrum News; his other son, George, is a Travis County constable and hopes to encourage his community to get vaccinated to help avoid a similar loss.
Aug. 14, 2020: Virginia Ann Hranitzky Hirsch, 92, was known as the Flounder Lady in Port O'Connor, Texas, where she fished with her son until she could no longer get in and out of a boat, due to her prowess for the sport.
Aug. 2, 2020: Willie Showels Sr., 81, opened Willie's Bar-B-Q on East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with his wife, Pearlie Mae, in 1991 and served as its pitmaster until early last year. He is survived by 10 of his 11 children, 42 grandchildren and 72 great-grandchildren, according to Austin 360.
Late July 2020: Claudia Bertaud, 48, loved dancing to norteñas, a genre of music from Northern Mexico, according to KXAN. She worked as a Spanish immersion preschool teacher in South Austin and stopped going to work after developing a cough.
July 28, 2020: Lois P. Villaseñor, 87, was a dedicated and pioneering funeral home director for over 40 years, tirelessly serving East Austin families as one of the state's first female funeral home directors. The day after her death, her son, Charles Villaseñor II hosted a funeral service for another family. "They said, 'Your mother just died, you're here doing a funeral?'" he told the Austin Business Journal. "I just told them my mom would have expected me to do my job and treat them right."
July 25, 2020: James Nagy, 71, was known for his personal style and good eye for antique furniture and art. He also took great pride in raising his daughters "to be as empowered and adventurous as he was," according to his obituary. "Whether it was a road trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains or an NYC subway ride, he was determined to show them the world."
July 19, 2020: Billy "Logan" Pausewang, 94, married his wife, Imola, at Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin, where his funeral was held after his death from COVID. "God needed the 'best machinist' in heaven so He called Logan home," according to his obituary.
July 16, 2020: Raymond Guillory, 78, loved woodworking and "dancing as often as he could" to country music bands, according to his obituary.
July 15, 2020: Edmund Gerald "Jerry" Wermund, 94, spent his career focused on the geology of the Gulf Coast region. In his retirement, he volunteered as a docent for the Austin Children's Museum, now the Thinkery, and published four scholastic children's books about geology and earth resources.
July 13, 2020: Manuel Alvarado was a "much-loved" custodian at Crockett Early College High School, according to a GoFundMe organized by Principal Kori Crawford, and spent much of his free time renovating his home in Cedar Creek.
July 12, 2020: Jordan Herrera, 38, died four days after walking himself out to the ambulance that took him to the hospital, where he died of COVID after saying goodbye to his fiancée and their two daughters over Zoom.
July 9, 2020: Mary Margaret "Sug" Blackwell, 83, earned a bronze medal in diving at the Junior Olympics, served as a duchess during Fiesta in San Antonio and was famous for her recipes, including for crab rolls, rum cake and gumbo, according to her obituary.
July 3, 2020: Vincent Paul Segura, 64, earned an offer to try out with the Houston Astros as a teenager and spent his later years spending time with his family and friends, who remember him as a one-of-a-kind South Austin legend.
June 13, 2020: Dale LaPlant, 81, celebrated his 35th birthday 47 times. His ashes will be placed in the Neptune Memorial Reef off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida.
June 11, 2020: Michael Hickson, 46, was a Black father of five with quadriplegia and COVID-19 whose death raised concerns among disability rights activists and community leaders. "ADAPT of Texas has long been concerned about the devaluation and resulting lack of care for people with disabilities, especially in this pandemic," the local disability rights organization wrote on its website in the wake of Hickson's death.
June 3, 2020: Harold Miller, 74, opened a small private practice dedicated to serving low-income and uninsured Austinites, which he called "Texas Country Doctor in the City," according to his obituary.
May 27, 2020: Billie Lee Turner, 95, was a professor emeritus in the integrative biology department at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the nation's foremost plant taxonomists, with a particular expertise in the sunflower family. One of his proudest accomplishments was quintupling the size of the UT herbarium to one million holdings, according to a Texas Leader Magazine profile.
May 19, 2020: David Uhrich, 60, died at Hospital Galveston after being transferred from a Navasota prison, where he was serving a five-year sentence out of Travis County. People in Texas prisons die from COVID at disproportionately high rates: 140% higher than the statewide rate and 35% higher than the national prison population average, according to a November report from the University of Texas at Austin.
April 18, 2020: David Colbert, 47, was among the 256 homeless residents who died on Austin's streets last year. The National Coalition for the Homeless cited his experience in its 2003 list of "Meanest Cities" for poor and homeless people, on which Austin ranked eighth.
April 17, 2020: Maurice Dotson, 51, was a certified nursing assistant at a South Austin nursing home and one of the first health care workers in Austin to die from the virus. A friend told the Austin American-Statesman that he would check in on his residents every single night to make sure they didn't need anything before he headed home.
April 16, 2020: Lois Thomas, 89, was an avid reader and kept a thick notebook throughout her life, where she listed the books she had read.
April 16, 2020: Barbara Jane Gardner, 86, "enjoyed nothing more than a long conversation in the kitchen while cooking and watching her detective shows," according to her obituary. She spent the last four years of her life in a nursing home, where her husband of 63 years visited her every day.
April 14, 2020: Selma Esther Ryan, 96, died of COVID more than 100 years after her sister, Esther, died at age 5 during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Because of her husband's military appointments, she and her family lived in Ethiopia during a coup d'etat; she dug out one of the bullets lodged in their home and had it gold-plated for her charm bracelet.
April 2, 2020: Patricia Hernandez, 51, was a "much-loved" community member at Casis Elementary School and longtime employee of Austin ISD. Annelise Tanner, AISD's executive director of food service, told CBS Austin: "Pati would always show me the food she'd prepared for the kids that day and was very proud of the quality of food that she prepared for the kids."
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If you are a committed, grunge-wearing resident of the Pacific Northwest, it is easy–almost automatic–to look at Texas as an extraordinarily dry, hot and culturally oppressive place that is better to avoid, especially in the summer. Our two granddaughters live with their parents in Portland.
Recently we decided to take the older girl, who is 15, to Dallas. Setting aside the summer heat, a Portlander can adjust to the vibes of Austin without effort. So let’s take Texas with all of its excesses straight up. Dallas, here we come.
Our 15-year-old granddaughter and her sister, 12, have spent summer weeks with us, usually separately so that we could better get to know each individually. In visits focused on Austin and Port Aransas, the girls seemed to be developing an affection for Texas.
Houston and Dallas are two great American cities, the 4th and 9th largest, each loaded with cultural treasures, each standing in glittering and starchy contrast to Austin’s more louche, T-shirts and shorts ways.
Three hours up I-35, Dallas loomed before us as a set of gray skyscrapers in a filmy haze, accessed only through a concrete mixmaster of freeways, ramps and exits. I drove with false confidence. Be calm, I said to myself, it will all end in 10 minutes under the hotel entrance canopy. And it did.
The pool at the Crescent Court Hotel in Dallas. (Crescent Court Hotel)
We stayed three nights at the Crescent Court Hotel ($622 a night for two queens), a high-end hotel in Uptown, patronized by women in white blazers, business people in suits, and tall, lean professional athletes, their shiny Escalades and Corvettes darting in and out, and other celebrities like Bill Barr, the former attorney general who shoe-horned his ample self into a Toyota.
Each morning as I walked to Whole Foods for a cappuccino, a fellow identified by a bellman as Billy the Oilman arrived in his Rolls Royce Phantom. Where does he park? “Wherever he wants to. He likes the Starbucks here.”
We garaged our more modest set of wheels for the visit. We were chauffeured for tips by Matt Cooney and Alfonza “The Rev” Scott in the hotel’s black Audi sedan. They drove us to museums, restaurants and past the enclaves of the rich and famous. In Highland Park, The Rev pointed out the homes of the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones and Troy Aikman along with the family compound of the Hunts, oil and gas tycoons.
The Dallas Museum of Art’s “Cartier and Islam” exhibit (until Sept. 18) attracted an older crowd; the nearby Perot Museum of Nature and Science was a powerful whirlpool of kids’ groups ricocheting from the Tyrannosaurus Rex to the oil fracking exhibit. Watch your shins.
A Geogia O'Keeffe oil painting called "Ranchos Church, New Mexico" at the Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art. (Rich Oppel)
For us, the best museum was the Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, a 50-minute, madcap drive away via a 75 mph toll lane along I-30. Don’t try it during rush hour. The Carter has an exquisite collection of Remington paintings and sculptures and an excellent array of 19th and 20th-century paintings as well. Pick one museum? The Amon Carter. Peaceful, beautiful, uncrowded, free admission and small enough to manage in two hours.
The Fort Worth Stockyards, a place of history (with a dab of schmaltz), fun and good shopping, filled one of our mornings. The 98 acres brand the city as Cowboy Town, with a rodeo and a twice-daily (11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.) cattle drive. We shopped for boots, drank coffee and watched the “herd” of 18 longhorns. So languid was their progress that if this were a real market drive the beef would have been very tough and leathery before it hit the steakhouse dinner plate.
The cattle drive at the Fort Worth Stockyards. (Rich Oppel)
But we could identify: the temperature was 97. “I saw a dog chasing a cat today,” said the emcee, deploying a very old joke. “It was so hot that both were walking.”
With limited time, we chose three very different restaurants:
- Nobu, in the Crescent Court Hotel; Jia, a modern Chinese restaurant in Highland Park; and Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth. Nobu’s exotic Japanese menu set us back $480, with tip, for four (we had a guest), but it was worth it.
- Jia was an ordinary suburban strip mall restaurant, but with good food and a reasonable tab of $110 for four.
- Joe T.’s is an 85-year-old Fort Worth institution (think Matt’s El Rancho but larger), a fine Mexican restaurant where a meal with two drinks was $115.
Sushi at high-end restaurant Nobu. (Crescent Hotel)
It was all a splurge for a grandchild’s visit. Now we will get back to our ordinary road trips of Hampton Inns, where a room rate is closer to the Crescent Court’s overnight parking rate of $52. And to corner cafes in small towns.
Did Dallas change our 15-year-old’s view of Texas? “Yes. I think it’s a lot cooler than I did. The fashion, the food.” So, not only Austin is cool. Take Texas as a whole. It’s a big, complex, diverse and wonderful state.
Giga Texas, the massive Tesla factory in southeast Travis County is getting even bigger.
The company filed with the city of Austin this week to expand its headquarters with a new 500,000-square-foot building. The permit application notes “GA 2 and 3 expansion,” which indicates the company will make two general assembly lines in the building.
More details about the plans for the building are unclear. The gigafactory has been focused on Model Y production since it opened in April, but the company is also aiming for Cybertruck production to kick off in mid-2023.
While there is room for expansion on the 3.3 square miles of land Tesla has, this move comes after CEO Elon Musk’s recent comments about the state of the economy and its impact on Tesla.
In a May interview with Tesla Owners Silicon Valley, Musk said the gigafactories in Berlin and Austin are “gigantic money furnaces” and said Giga Texas had manufactured only a small number of cars.
And in June, Musk sent a company wide email saying Tesla will be reducing salaried headcount by 10%, then later tweeted salaried headcount should be fairly flat.
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