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Civic Leader and Volunteer Mary Margaret Farabee Dies

Paul Woodruff

  Austin citizen, volunteer and philanthropist Mary Margaret Farabee passed away Sunday morning at home, with her family by her side.  The wife of former state Senator Ray Farabee and mother of two had been battling cancer.

Mary Margaret Farabee's work as co-founder and chair of the Texas Book Festival may have been her most visible contribution to the civic life of the city. But her quiet and dedicated work with numerous civic and arts organizations helped change the face of Austin.

Mary Margaret Farabee was born in 1939 in Dallas. She moved to Austin in 1957, to attend the University of Texas at Austin. And she never left. She built a life, a career, a family and a tradition of public service in her adopted hometown.

You don't have to go far in Austin to get a sense of what Mary Margaret Farabee meant here. She helped re-build the Paramount Theatre. She raised money for countless organizations, among them Seton Medical Center. She worked to sustain and grow Austin's public broadcasting, KLRU Television and KUT Radio. She  served as an advisor to the Harry Ransom Center; the list goes on.

Her long-time friend Nona Niland says Mary Margaret Farabee was the glue that held each project or group she worked with together … and made each one stronger.

“Mary Margaret was the kind of person you would want to invite to your latest project," Niland said, "because if she were able to become familiar with what your needs are, she had this tremendous internal Rolodex of resources that you could just see her mind start to click and ideas start to bubble out of her and she would immediately be able to connect you to the resources in the community that would be helpful."

And once Mary Margaret Farabee got started, she wasn’t easily stopped. There was one time, however, that she was slowed down. She wanted -- needed -- the newly opened state Capitol building and grounds to complete her vision for a Texas Book Festival. She said the whole thing just wouldn’t work unless it were set in the state's capital, in that building with its history.

But both were declared off-limits for anything that was not run by the state.  So Mrs. Farabee shelved her plans and moved on to other projects. Then, in 1994, George Bush was elected governor. Shortly thereafter, as Mrs. Farabee told KUT's Mike Lee last August, she received a call from Texas First Lady Laura Bush. Mrs. Bush wanted to know whether she still had her research on a book festival.

“Well, yes I have a lot of information on it. But I got very discouraged when the Capitol was off limits and we couldn’t have it there," Mary Margaret Farabee reminisced.  "And she said, ‘Well would you mind coming to my office and talking with me about it?’ And I said, 'oh I’d be thrilled and honored, Mrs. Bush, to come talk to you about it.'"

In a statement to KUT, Mrs. Bush said, "I am grateful for Mary Margaret Farabee's contributions to the Texas Book Festival as the founding co-chair and director in its early years.  President Bush and I send our deepest sympathies to Senator Ray Farabee and Mary Margaret's daughter Patricia Albright."

The first Texas Book Festival was in November, 1996. It was established as a venue to honor great writers from around the world … but always with an eye on highlighting the greats of Texas literature. Mrs. Farabee said they may have gone a little overboard on that first festival.

“But we were so Texas-centric. I mean we wanted to be … we wanted to have men and women. And we wanted all the cultures to be represented," she said. "But they all had to be Texan. So at the first Gala we had Sandra Cisneros as a reader, Larry McMurtry and John Graves. Well you can’t get any better than that. I mean it was wonderful."

The annual event has grown over the years: drawing crowds from all over the state and famous names from around the world: names like Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy and President Bill Clinton have spoken at the Texas Book Festival.

For many, launching such a legacy would be enough: But Mary Margaret Farabee had more plans. Maica Jordan is Executive Director of Development for the Paramount Theatre.

“I think that she is absolutely fascinated and invigorated by art and the beauty of it and what it does for peoples’ souls," Jordan said.

Although it was maybe her soul that drew the greatest inspiration. Nona Niland has been friends with Mary Margaret and Ray Farabee for decades. She remembers walking through the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders a few years back. Niland says it was just a general tour … until Farabee saw the student artwork on display.

“And so Mary Margaret, in typical fashion, is going through the school and thought, ‘these girls work should be seen.' And so on her own initiative she was able to reach out to the individuals who had established the East Austin studio tour and subsequently, even in her last six months of life, she did the same with the West Austin studio tour," Niland said. 

"And made the connections with gallery owners to find a place for the girls work could be seen. Personally underwrote the expense of having a reception. And basically established, just spontaneously, an incredible opportunity for these girls with artistic talent to have exposure to the community and build self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment," Niland said.

Working until she couldn’t, to help as many people as she could. Friends say that was Mary Margaret Farabee's spirit writ large. And she was always so excited to see what emerged from her efforts. Not for any personal accolades. But to see how each effort affected others. And always, of course, as a demonstration of her pride in Texas.

“It’s always thrilling to see the main authors that you’re reading about in the New York Times coming to the festival. And so we’re not as Texas-centric … Tex-centric as we used to be. But there’s a feel of it when you go to the festival. The art and everything, it’s always representative of our culture here in the state, which makes it really exciting," Mrs. Farabee said.

Mary Margaret Farabee was 73. She is survived by her husband, former Texas state Senator Ray Farabee and her daughter Patricia Albright. Her son, David, predeceased her in 1996.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.