In the weeks since the Austin school board agreed to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School, our inbox has been filled with suggestions — some sincere and some more mischievous.
Columnist and editorial board member Jody Seaborn tongue-in-cheek suggested renaming the school for Berkeley Breathed, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of “Bloom County” who was raised in Houston, graduated from the University of Texas, and briefly worked as a freelance American-Statesman editorial cartoonist. More serious in-house suggestions have included Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama and simply Hyde Park Elementary School. (Why bother with someone’s name anyway? The district’s eligibility rules allow neighborhoods and landmarks as well.)
Out in the community, we’ve heard suggestions ranging from the late author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee; famous Austin sculptor Elisabet Ney; former Austin Mayor and State Comptroller Carole Keeton; and longtime educator Dr. Frances J. Nesmith. Nominations are due April 15.
There is also a movement afoot to rename the school for photographer and University of Texas professor Russell Lee. Russell Lee was born in Illinois, but moved to Austin shortly after meeting and marrying his second wife, a Dallas newspaper reporter, Jean Smith.
Longtime Austinite and environmental activist Shudde Fath knew Russell Lee personally. Her husband was Lee’s fishing buddy on the Highland Lakes for more than four decades. She wrote us last week to make her case:
During WWII, Russell served as an aerial photographer in the Air Transport Command photographing territory where Allied troops would soon be operating. Ending WWII with an ulcer and a Rest & Relaxation recommendation from a doctor, Russell said, “Fishing perhaps?” Jean’s Dallas parents were already familiar with Lake Buchanan, so Russell and Jean rented a cabin at Buchanan and stayed eight months. They soon moved to a rent house in Austin and then bought a fine home on West Avenue. Their home quickly became a center of hospitality for their growing circle of friends. (Jean was Emma Long’s campaign manager when Emma became the first woman Austin City Council member in 1949.)
In 1946 Russell took photographs for the federal government’s Medical Survey of the Bituminous Coal Industry. He worked on industrial photography projects for Standard Oil; photographed life in San Augustine, Texas; Pie Town, New Mexico; and for The Texas Observer; and the Images of Italy book with UT’s William Arrowsmith. In 1965 Russell created the photography course in the Fine Arts Department at UT and taught there for eight years.
In 1978 “Russell Lee Photographer,” a biography by F. Jack Hurley was published, and in 1986 Ann Mundy’s award-winning video documentary was released. Hurley’s bibliography lists 49 books containing Russell Lee photographs as well as permanent collections in the Library of Congress; National Archives; University of Pittsburg; Museum of Modern Art in NYC; Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York; and University of Louisville. The Ransom Center at UT and Wittliff Gallery at TSU also have Lee collections. His archives are at the Briscoe Center for American History at UT.
When Russell died in 1986, his obituary was in The New York Times, Washington Post, Time Magazine, Austin and Dallas newspapers among others. The American-Statesman and Dallas Morning News also printed full-page retrospectives.
So, tell us. What should the new name for Robert E. Lee Elementary School be and why?