Betty Baker of Austin, Texas, passed away Monday, January 30, 2017.
She was born Betty Jean Gower in 1933 in Georgetown, Texas, to Dillard and Ila Gower. Betty was a member of the 1950 graduating class of Austin High School, and attended Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.
Betty had a long and distinguished career serving the citizens of Austin, which began when she started her career at the City of Austin as a stenographer in August of 1974. In a 2004 Austin Chronicle profile that nicknamed her Austin's "land use queen" Betty recounted that she was told she was not qualified to be a city planner because she lacked a college degree, although by then she was already doing exactly that. When she sought a transfer to another City department she was asked if she would train the new hire and she refused. Instead the job was reclassified to a technician position which she accepted and less than a year later she was promoted to the planner position she was initially denied. Betty was not known for taking no for an answer.
At the City's Planning Department Betty was best known for spearheading the creation of the City's Historic Preservation Office and for the next 21 years she led that effort. Betty was a tireless and passionate advocate for preserving our history by saving historically significant structures. In the 1970's preserving important buildings was often seen as an impediment to "progress." By educating people about Austin's colorful past and, more often than not through her well known strong will, Betty organized a constituency for preservation. She convinced skeptical City Council members that preserving and protecting buildings significant to our history was worthwhile and would be appreciated by future generations of Austinites. Betty's effort led to the preservation of over 400 landmark structures.
Much of what we now take for granted, such as the East 6th Street and Congress Avenue Historic Districts, are the result of Betty's tireless advocacy. Betty was most proud of saving and rehabilitating Austin's Moonlight Towers and leading the charge to recognize the contribution of African Americans to Austin's history through efforts such as identifying as the home of Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and Negro League star Willie Wells as a historic landmark.
In 1995 Betty left the Planning Department and went to the Austin Convention and Visitor's Bureau where she led the Heritage Marketing Program which used hotel tax dollars to promote Austin's history to both tourists and locals alike through programs such as walking tours and money for rehabilitating publicly owned historic buildings.
When in late 1996 the ACVB was spun off from the City of Austin Betty continued her employment but was able to retire from the City. No longer a City employee Betty was promptly appointed to the Planning Commission by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman in 2007. Betty served as the chair the Planning Commission for four years and when the Zoning and Platting Commission was created in 2001 Betty served as its chair from it's inception until 2015 completing 18 years of volunteer service
Both as a City employee and as a Planning Commissioner Betty had a reputation of a tough as nails, tell it like she sees it and not afraid to let you know it type person. Over 30 years of planning experience in Austin gave her an edge. Many City staff persons, developer lobbyists and citizens have suffered her wrath over the years, oftentimes very publicly at commission meetings. While standing at the podium at a commission meeting a raised eyebrow or a dropped pencil was a sign that you were about to get it. However, Betty always pushed for what she thought was right and best for her hometown, which she loved, and was not afraid to fight for it. As much as they sometimes feared her, both city employees and advocates on both sides of an issue most often understood she always had nothing but the best intentions. She served as a mentor to many people, co-workers and members of the public alike.
Countless current and future Austinites, whether they knew Betty or not, owe her a debt of gratitude for all she has done to preserve our City's history and her tireless public service over 30 plus years in making this city the place we love today and in the future.
Betty was preceded in death by her parents, and by her brother Charles Gower.
Betty is survived by her daughter, Brynda Baker, son-in-law Paul Wolfe, grandsons Tommy Carpenter and David Avery, granddaughter-in-law Vanessa Carpenter, and great-grandsons Damian and James Carpenter. Betty also leaves behind numerous cousins and a host of admirers, detractors, and much-loved friends.
Services will be held at 2:00 pm, Sunday, February 5, 2017, at Weed-Corley-Fish Funeral Home, 2620 S. Congress Avenue, Austin. There will be a family visitation at the funeral home from 12:30 to 2:00 pm; burial to follow at the Mahomet Cemetery in Bertram, Texas.