The life of one of Austin’s most dedicated activists

Mary ArnoldIn the hills of West Austin, stickers on cars tell stories. “My child is a Westlake honor student,” read some. “Texas Exes” and “Texas A&M Century Club Member,” read others.

Others are green and white — block letters with a small flag stick pointing to the sky.

“Forever Green. Save Muny,” they say.

This is the battle cry for a group of golfers and activists who have made it their mission to save a modest municipal course nestled between downtown and the banks of Lake Austin. They have been in a fight to save Lions Municipal Golf Course – better known as Muny – from development since 1972.

The course is run by the city of Austin, but the University of Texas System owns the land – the Brackenridge Tract — that Lions sits on. The UT System wants to develop the land, while golfers and residents hope to preserve this relic of old Austin.

Mary Arnold has been at the center of this fight since the beginning. For the last 45 years, she has served as a historian for the cause and her role as an activist has had as much to do with saving Muny as anything else. The 82-year-old has been a leader in the Save Muny movement since murmurs of developing the course first came up.

Arnold grew up in Dallas and attended Highland Park High School. She graduated in 1952 and headed south to the University of Texas at Austin. She met her husband, Bill, while living in Austin, and the two married in 1959. The pair left the city briefly to live in Houston, but in 1965 they returned and settled into the city they have called home ever since.

In 1972 the UT System Board of Regents sent a letter to the city of Austin. The letter stated it had one year to get off the golf course. There was no reason given. Arnold said the board cited the city allegedly not paying the $60 per year they owed for the lease. No matter the reason, Muny was in trouble.

Arnold was friends with a woman named Virginia Bedinger who, along with her husband Ben, was an avid golfer at Muny. Bedinger was connected with many vocal leaders in the city, and she decided to organize the golfers to fight the universities demands.

Save Muny was born.

Arnold wanted to help. She offered to do research on the Brackenridge Tract to assist with their efforts. Bedinger was a people person and PR aficionado. Arnold preferred to contribute with her research about the land, and Brackenridge’s original intentions for it. They were a perfect match.

A new lease was agreed upon in 1973 and Muny was safe – for the time being. It was threatened again in 1987. Again, Arnold and Save Muny were able to save the course.  A temporary two-year lease was signed in 1987. In 1989, a 30-year lease was agreed upon. It called for the city to pay the university system $200,000 every year, with a 5-percent increase every five years. Currently, the city pays roughly $500,000 per year, well below market value for the 141-acre property.

It would not be the last time Muny’s future was in jeopardy. In 2006, the UT Board of Regents began looking to the future for the Brackenridge Tract, with hopes to develop it when the city’s lease ran out. By 2008, Save Muny was no longer dormant and Arnold was once again in the middle of it.

In the interim between the lease agreement in 1989 and the fight in the 2000s, Arnold was still an active member of the Austin community. She served on the golf advisory board for the city, she worked on the Save Our Springs Alliance and she ran for city council in 1994 – though it ultimately resulted in defeat.

“It’s hard to recollect it all,” Arnold said as she spoke for 45 minutes about the history of Muny and her involvement – all without notes. The amount of information she can instantly recall about Muny would take most college students a Red Bull fueled all-night study bender to learn – though they would forget it soon thereafter. Arnold does not.

“She’s just a complete dynamo,” said Noel Bridges, one of the newest leaders in Save Muny. “She really is just essential to our group. She knows the history of the city and the history of the Save Muny issue better than anybody else. She’s like an encyclopedia.”

Save Muny is a movement with a distinct generational tie for much of its existence. Yes, younger generations of golfers have always been welcome at Muny – it is used by area high schools for practice, and hosts the UIL state golf tournament every year – but the push to save the course has been led by people from older generations.

“Muny Bulldog” is the term used to label the people who grew up playing the course and continue to visit its grounds regularly – a large portion of Save Muny’s makeup. For the most part, these bulldogs aren’t puppies anymore.

But that generational gap in Save Muny has been shrinking lately. Bridges joined the joined the cause in 2014. She grew up in Austin and considers Muny part of the identity of the city. And since coming on board, Save Muny has become more appealing to the younger generations.

Social media initiatives and other social events have become a staple for Save Muny. Bridges has brought a “youthful energy” to the table.

“As a native Austinite, it’s just something that I feel passionately about,” Bridges said. “Saving the things in town that make Austin such an amazing place to live. If we get rid of all the ‘Muny’s’ in town, then this town isn’t going to be recognizable anymore.”

That’s why Arnold has worked so diligently to save the course. To keep preserve a place that helps define Austin – even as the city changes more and more every day.

Throughout her years working with Save Muny, Arnold has collaborated with countless members of the community. Everyone who has worked alongside her can’t say enough flattering things about what she has done for not only the local golf community, but the city of Austin as a whole.

“Mary is one of the most dedicated activists in the city of Austin’s history,” said Peter Barbour, current treasurer for Save Muny.

Arnold’s colleagues with Save Muny all have their own unique descriptions of what she means to the group, but each and every person praises her commitment to the work.

“If it weren’t for her, we probably wouldn’t be standing here,” Billy Clagett said as he stood in the clubhouse. Clagett is one of the most decorated amateur golfers in Austin’s history, with much of his success coming at Muny.

Ben Crenshaw, one of the most well-known activists with Save Muny, spoke fondly about Arnold’s steadfast commitment to the cause.

“Her historical perspective, calm and yet strong demeanor, and never wavering advocacy to preserve this piece of recreational parkland for the citizens of Austin has been critical in the way the Save Muny committee has approached the campaign to keep UT from selling Lions to commercial developers,” Crenshaw said.

Crenshaw sharpened his golf game at Muny before a professional golf career that included 19 victories, including the Masters in 1984 and 1995. Now, he is fully committed to saving Muny. He recently revealed a restoration proposal for the course, with his design firm – Coore and Crenshaw — providing the services.

The fight over Muny’s future has also made its way into the state legislature in recent months. Sen. Bob Estes (R-Wichita Falls) introduced Senate Bill 822, which would transfer ownership of the land from the UT System to the Texas Parks and Wildlife association. The measure passed through the Senate on a 21-10, and now it heads to the House for deliberation.

No matter the outcome of Senate Bill 822, Save Muny leaders are confident a resolution will come before May 2019. With the pressure from the local community, they feel it is in the university’s best interest to settle the issue once and for all. Hopeful thinking for the end to a long-endured fight.

If the course is saved, Arnold will be one of the biggest reasons why.

“I would love for her to have that win,” Bridges said. “She has worked tirelessly for a long time… I just think it would be incredible to see the day where she can celebrate a win like saving Muny.”

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