Feature Article: Austin Outdoors
by Anna Andersen & Anne Bruno
Photography by Randal Ford
Lifetime passes seem like the stuff of Willy Wonka Golden Tickets: too good to be true. But if you’re an octogenarian with a proven obsession with Barton Springs, Austin’s City Council wants to keep you doing you—for free.
Lifetime passes to the Springs began in 1960, when Mayor Tom Miller gave Charles Morrison what might count as the best 85th birthday present ever, along with this super-sweet, adorably formal note: “NOW, THEREFORE, I, Tom Miller, Mayor, and we, members of the City Council of the City of Austin, do hereby honor Charles W. Morrison on this, the twenty-fifth day of August, 1960, being his eighty-fifth birthday, by awarding him the lifetime privilege of swimming in Barton Springs free of charge and urge that he continue his daily swims to maintain his youthful and zestful enjoyment of life.”
Hey, we could all use a little help in maintaining a “youthful and zestful enjoyment of life.” Not to mention birthday presents from the mayor. Since Mr. Morrison, approximately 30 devotees have been awarded lifetime passes, including the following wonderful folks who agreed to share their love for the pool with us.
Nancy M. Richey, Age 84
Editor of the Daily Texan, 1956-57
Moving to Stratford Drive in the summer of 1968 turned me into a swimmer. Barton Springs was just down the street, and soon I began taking our two young sons—Crispin, then four, and David, not yet a year, down there. I would sit on the rock ledge in the shallow end while they played in the water. Gradually over the summers as they got older I would swim just a little way away, then a little farther—and one day I surprised myself by swimming to the east dam.
Then one evening at supper toward the end of Crispin’s first-grade year I said, “I think it would be nice to swim really early in the morning, but I’d have to have someone to go with me.” Seven-year-old Crispin gave me an “if that’s all it takes” look and said, “I’d do that.” So the next morning we took a bottle of hot tea with us, and he sat on the steps in his yellow-and-orange polka-dot robe, watching me. He did that for about ten days and then unceremoniously quit; he got me started.
One of those early mornings I saw Sandra Yarne there, which led to our calling each other at five in the morning and meeting at the pool to swim for years. That was only the first of the great friendships formed over the years in that special place.
Getting down here is a new act of will every day, but I always know I’ll be glad I did. To me, the water is magic. I come even when it’s cold, when there may only be about four people in the pool. Once in the late nineties I was the only person in the pool when a Statesman photographer took a picture on a 29-degree day. The cutline read: “… Elsewhere in Austin folks went sledding.”
Frank C. Cooksey, Age 83
Mayor of Austin, 1985-1988; Former president of Save Barton Springs Association
I started swimming here at about the age of seven. In grade school I was very interested in the single-cell protozoa that live in the springs. I actually wrote a paper about it for school called “One Celled Animals in the Water at Barton Springs,” and I won a prize at the Junior Academy of Science state competition! That was pretty exciting and my family was proud, I believe.
My routine here has varied over the years. When I was Special Assistant to the Texas Attorney General, I’d come down during my lunch hour and do laps. There were also many years when my regular Sunday routine after church was to go downtown to buy the New York Times at Watson’s on Congress—that was before they delivered it to you at home—and I’d take the paper to the springs and read and swim.
My wife and I have always been involved in efforts to protect the springs and the Edwards Aquifer, to keep the water clean for everyone. Before I was mayor, I was on three different task forces on water quality issues; then, when I was in office, we passed a comprehensive watershed ordinance. Later, when I was not mayor, I testified at the famous all-night city council meeting. It was really something. People have to speak up and do what they can. They sure did that night and I’m glad.
I feel lucky to still be swimming here. It’s a special place, not just for me but for so many people. The water is a constant 68 degrees, so in winter, it’s not the water but the breeze that gets you. This is pretty much what I hope heaven looks like.
Lynn C. Cooksey, Age 81
Retired Executive Director of the International Hospitality Council of Austin (now Global Austin);
Past President of the Austin History Center Association Board
I probably came here for the first time when I was a freshman at UT, but I didn’t swim regularly till I retired about eight years ago. That’s when I got really serious about it. I swam daily for about an hour starting at 7 a.m. You could say that’s when I got addicted to swimming at Barton Springs Pool—I mean that in a good way!
Whenever we have visitors come to Austin, we bring them here because, as we like to say, this is the “real Austin.” It’s the heart of our city. People tell us all the time that they’ve never seen anything like it.
I’ve brought people from all over the world here. In lots of countries, you know, people don’t necessarily have access to clean water or get to see anything like this, so everyone understands about Barton Springs and they see why we care so much about protecting it. Years ago, we had a student staying with us from Saudi Arabia. Once we introduced him to this place, he came almost every day! I know many students from around the globe who say some of their best memories in the U.S. are from right here at Barton Springs.
I still go with my friend Anne Wheat early in the morning. Sometimes in winter we may wait till midday, when the sun is out and it’s a little warmer. When we’re here early in the morning and that sun rises, you know, it’s really something. And hardly anyone is here, either. You just have to get in without missing a beat.
Every year, this is where I come on birthday, which happens to be the longest day of the year. On June 21, this is where you’ll find me!
Molly Bean, Age 81
After my husband retired as an army dentist, we moved to Austin and I went to law school. I graduated in 1982 and opened a practice in 1983, which is also when I started swimming at Barton Springs. I knew how to swim, but I really had to teach myself to swim in this cold water. Now, it’s addictive.
In the summer, I come about five days a week, as early as possible. In the winter, I come when it’s warm, if it’s at least in the seventies. I always swim for 30 minutes. I used to be able to do a half-mile in 30 minutes, but several years ago I realized it was taking me longer to do a half-mile. So, I am not a half-mile swimmer, I’m a 30-minute swimmer. To me, it’s like a meditation every day I go. I do not float, so I have to stay active when I’m in the water.
When I’m finished with my swim, I spend time outside of the pool chatting with people. I’ve established some firm friendships down here. I love walking over to the shallow end and looking over the fence to the stream. There used to not be a fence there, so I could walk down to where a good friend of mine meditated every day for a long time. She was actually joined by big birds, like the great blue heron. They got so used to seeing her that they would just land near her and do their thing close by. She felt like they were visiting with her.
After you’ve devoted yourself to the springs like I have, it’s like being on another planet or escaping into another reality. I guess that’s the best way to describe it, like I’m in another world. Sometimes I linger there even if I don’t have anybody to talk to. It’s hard to pull myself away.
Read more from the Outdoors Issue | April 2017