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Bob Vondrasek: Knocked on doors, helped people, kicked ‘big shots around’

Bob Vondrasek, 81, worked as a community organizer in the South Austin neighborhood for four decades. | Photo courtesy of Austin Weekly News

Bob Vondrasek fought the good fight.

As a community organizer in the South Austin neighborhood for four decades, Vondrasek fought banks and utility companies, City Hall and Springfield, poverty and injustice.

Yet for all that fighting, Vondrasek made a lot of friends — from poor single moms living in unheated apartments to powerful politicians respectful of his ability to bring a different kind of heat.

It would be nice if as many of them as possible made it to an 11 a.m. funeral mass Wednesday at Ascension Church, 808 S. East Ave., Oak Park, in honor of Vondrasek. He died last week from a stroke.

This will be the rare funeral where somebody probably ought to organize a protest.

Vondrasek, 81, loved a good protest. If the cause was just, he’d be there at the drop of a hat to lend his voice. Give him a couple hours notice, and he might bring a busload of his friends.

I can’t remember the first protest where I came upon Vondrasek. It was probably something to do with providing financial assistance to families whose heat had been cut off, the issue for which he became best known by helping create state and national programs.

But it could have been any of countless other causes where Vondrasek, in the Alinsky tradition, would work the periphery while his local community leaders from the South Austin Coalition Community Council would make their case to the cameras.

“Bob was a Saul Alinsky-trained organizer, the best in the business,” said Rep. Danny Davis, one of his friends.

The best?

“Maybe Saul Alinsky was a little better,” allowed Davis, who traces his own political career to the same time and place as Vondrasek in racially-changing 1970s Austin.

Davis went from the neighborhood to City Council to the County Board to Congress. Vondrasek would stay behind in the streets as the South Austin Coalition Community Council’s executive director, addressing problems where he found them.

“Oftentimes, he would be the one non-black person in the group. One white guy who became a part of that community, heart and soul,” Davis told me Tuesday.

It is indeed a measure of Vondrasek that he was able to gain the respect and trust of the residents of the predominately African-American neighborhood.

And how did he do that?

“He was really good at integrating himself into the community,” said Elce Redmond, his longtime friend and organizing partner. “He would be out there knocking on doors, asking people what they needed, getting their gas and lights turned on.”

“He didn’t have an agenda. He just wanted to do the right thing,” Redmond said.

Vondrasek and Redmond teamed up on numerous memorable campaigns: plugging potholes themselves to shame the city into doing a better job; picketing the Chinese consulate to free an Austin man imprisoned in Shanghai; creating their own forerunner to the city’s Safe Passages program to help school kids get home safely.

Bob Vondrasek, 81, worked as a community organizer in the South Austin neighborhood for four decades. | Provided photo
Bob Vondrasek, 81, worked as a community organizer in the South Austin neighborhood for four decades. | Provided photo

They started the latter around 2006 in response to community concerns about after-school fighting involving one neighborhood elementary school, Redmond said.

They recruited parents to help manage the after-school crowds and found a source of funding to pay them.

On the first day, there was a fight and Vondrasek tried to intervene by pulling a 12-year-old girl from the melee.

“She reared back and kicked Bob in the knee, and he went down,” Redmond said, the image being more complete if you know that Vondrasek was a big, rugged-looking guy.

“The first six months were absolutely horrible,” Redmond said, recalling how the two spent so much time breaking up fights that they would return to the office sore and tired.

But gradually, by being out there consistently and figuring out the source of some of the tensions, they were able to restore the peace.

It was that relentless consistency, always putting himself on the line, that earned Vondrasek his place in the hearts of so many.

One of them was Lillian Drummond, 97, who came to think of herself as Vondrasek’s “black mother.”

“Me and him would go everywhere,” she said, everywhere including long bus trips to Washington, D.C., or to the home of a recalcitrant corporate CEO.

Bob Vondrasek, center, with Lillian Drummond, left, and Juanita Ruetes, community leaders with the South Austin Coalition Community Council. | Provided photo
Bob Vondrasek, center, with Lillian Drummond, left, and Juanita Ruetes, community leaders with the South Austin Coalition Community Council. | Provided photo

Vondrasek would write the speeches and Drummond would deliver them in a manner guaranteed to get results.

“I know how to get things done when I run my mouth,” she said.

About a decade ago, somebody had the foresight to honor Vondrasek.

“If you really like it, community organizing is a wonderful job,” he told me at the time. “You’re helping people. You feel good about that.”

And there’s a bonus, Vondrasek said.

“You’re kicking the big shots around.”

Hard to beat that.