Barbara Ann Ellison Vackar, mother of Blake Vackar her only son, mother-in-law of Karen Vackar, grandmother to Zachary and Melody Vackar, and friend to so many others, died unexpectedly in her home in New Braunfels, Texas, on Nov. 28. She was preceded in death by her father Willis Wayne Ellison and mother Dorothy Mae Crunk Ellison.
Barbara was born Sept. 7, 1943 and lived a full and determined life. She was a loyal friend, a committed public servant, a task master on projects, and a woman with a passion for leading causes and connecting people. Barbara’s early roots were established in Gonzales, Texas, where she began a lifelong habit of putting herself in leadership roles, assuming people would follow her, and making things happen. Her election to student council in fourth grade began her commitment to a life of public service. She organized her Junior-Senior prom where her unbounded pleasure in organizing and planning big events, another lifelong habit, caught on fire and never stopped burning. Down to the last minute and last detail, she loved to plan things.
Barbara left Gonzales to attend Texas State University for her Bachelor of Science degree in Home Economics. That was parlayed into becoming the food service supervisor at the University of Texas in Austin which quickly turned into a promotion as director of special events at the Office of the President. Ever the consummate hostess and entertainer, her talents evolved into Adams Vackar Catering where the primary client was Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library. She always brought a flair and unexpected fun into these special events.
Sarah Weddington, then member of the Texas House of Representatives, recognized Barbara’s talents and asked her to lead the state coalition to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, Texans for ERA. When Sarah became Special Assistant to President Jimmy Carter she requested Barbara continue her work in Washington DC in the White House serving on President Carter’s strategic team to secure ratification of the ERA amendment.
She was also instrumental in founding the Austin Women’s Network, an organization to facilitate business opportunities for women. Founding the Austin Consumer Counseling Services for Child and Family Services was another accomplishment. This was at a time when women could not get credit on their own, a fact she encountered when she was establishing her own business. The important themes that consistently drove Barbara’s interests and efforts appear early in her career, where equality and dignity for women and children became banners and war cries of her determined heart and laser like focus on matters she cared about. Many other organizations benefited from her involvement including the National Advisory Board for the Women’s Museum in Dallas, Leadership Austin, founder and former Vice-President of Keep Austin Beautiful, Planned Parenthood, Long Range Planning Citizens Advisory Committee for Austin Community College, League of Women Voters, Travis County Democratic Chairman, AARP, St. David’s Hospital Foundation 100 Women Events, Town Lake Beautification Committee, Commission on the Status of Women, and the Chautauqua Institution Women’s Club.
Barbara never heard a show tune she didn’t want to sing or a Motown sound she didn’t want to get up and dance to with great enthusiasm. Singing could occur spontaneously and in public if she heard the music. This freedom to enjoy life and dare others to join her carried a refreshing innocence that was part of her charm. She was generous with her friendships as well as her many projects. She was the one organizing food for the ill, making batches of homemade soup, and supplying knickknacks celebrating every season and holiday. Barbara never met a placemat that didn’t need a coordinated napkin and table ornament.
Barbara’s ease with and acceptance of others set the stage for her finding a new “home away from home” in upstate New York where she was introduced to the Chautauqua Institution. Barbara’s desire for community and a close knit web of friends and ideas took deep hold when she first visited the Chautauqua Institution in 1996. The magic of Chautauqua grabbed her and did not let go. The mix of intellectual ideas, political discussion, and ever present sensibility of artists in residence in opera, symphony, visual arts, ballet, and theatre were like a siren song for her. She spent the next twenty-one summers there where she flourished in every way. True to form, she joined the Women’s Club where she quickly became an important voice for a fresh perspective on the role and future of the club. Once elected president she oversaw a capital campaign to fund a much needed remodel of the aged building, revamped the Board of Directors, and set a new direction for programming. She made a difference, like she has done with so many other endeavors. It was the right time and she was the right person to do the next right thing. It required vision, energy, and a willingness to challenge people on behalf of a bigger calling. In honor of her dedication and strategic influence, Cathy Bonner established the Barbara Vackar Lecture Series at the Chautauqua Women’s Club.
At least once a summer Barbara made sure there was dance music blaring in the lobby with ladies from 30 years old to 96 years old “dancin’ in the streets”. No one had more fun than Barbara. It was one of the few times you might have seen her sweat, something she generally avoided, especially if it was tied to physical work outs. She was never even tempted to buy into the idea of wellness through exercise. That was Barbara. If she did not want to do it, she didn’t. But if she did decide to do something, best look out and take cover. That was how she became a Master Gardener, a watercolorist, and a floral designer on top of everything else she took on. She loved flowers and gardening with a passion. Sunflowers were her signature.
Barbara’s “first and last love” was Ron Coleman, her high school sweetheart from Gonzales. After 50 years of no contact, Ron reached out to Barbara having decided that if he had one more chance to be with her, he was going to take it. Watching them reunite was like watching the clock turn back. They both became high school lovers again, with all the sweetness, tenderness and dreaminess of that time. Barbara was thrilled to have someone with whom she could walk hand in hand down the walkways in Chautauqua. Ron had health issues and the patience and grace with which Barbara attended to him demonstrated a capacity that was unique to that union. It was happy, quiet, intimate, light, and binding. Barbara was enormously grateful for the gift they were given this late in life. Ron preceded her in death.
Barbara is survived by her son Blake Vackar, his wife Karen and their two children Zachary and Melody; sister Billie Miles and Ed Miles; brother Wayne Ellison; Kim and Doug Lyon and their children Kylee Lyon and Kamdyn Lyon; and Walter Vackar, father of Blake. Barbara was fearless in life and fearless in death. She will be missed dearly and by many. She made a difference.
There will be a memorial gathering at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin on Sunday, Dec. 10 at 2 p.m. Flowers were part of Barbara’s happiness, so feel free to send flowers, as she loved them. Donations to the American Diabetes Association would also be appropriate.