Mixed memories

The new year is bringing with it happier people--at least the ones who appeared in this column last year are in that condition, for the most part.

Minnie Washington, as you may recall, started out 1994 feeling incredibly grateful for having heat in her house. The 62-year-old great-grandmother had spent all of Christmas week 1993 huddled in blankets in front of her oven with a full house of children and grandchildren (as young as a one-year-old) in her care, trying to think of a way to get her broken furnace fixed for no money because she didn't have any.

She called the Dallas County Department of Human Services--which, if you know anything about Texas government, should have turned into an even bigger nightmare. But director Betty Culbreath took the call personally and had the furnace fixed within 24 hours.

We last visited with Ms. Washington at the end of January, when a North Dallas mother and son who had read about Ms. Washington's plight journeyed to a part of town where they'd never been to bring her a carload of clothing, sheets, diapers and toiletries. They also handed her a $500 gift certificate for Winn-Dixie. "This is the little Jewish prince up here," Leslie Auerbach told me fondly about 17-year-old son David. "He thinks life is a first-class plane ticket and a Caribbean cruise."

Not anymore. The Auerbachs' generosity continues. Mrs. Auerbach, after surveying the flimsy beds in Ms. Washington's house, purchased three large new ones and had them delivered. Upon hearing that Ms. Washington's air conditioning unit was broken, Mrs. Auerbach sent her own repairman to fix it--twice.

David took Ms. Washington's plight back to his youth group at the Jewish Community Center. The teenagers distributed fliers in the neighborhoods around the center, asking for donations. In late August, David's friends borrowed a truck and delivered the goods.

Just last week, David loaded his Jeep Cherokee with a toilet and sink for Ms. Washington--donations from Leslie Auerbach's interior designer, who was redoing his house.

Although the Auerbachs have done an enormous amount for the Washingtons--more than most people ever do in a lifetime for strangers in need--they are, surprisingly, disappointed with their efforts. "I know David is frustrated in what hasn't been done," says Mrs. Auerbach. "I only wish that people could have joined us in our efforts. I still think about Minnie all the time--even when we go out to dinner and spend a luscious amount on fancy food. I still get a pang in my heart. And I know that if I had all the money in the world--or I had won the lottery--I would have provided all the things they needed."

Mrs. Auerbach ticks off the list--she knows the needs by heart. Minnie's $250 Monte Carlo is dead in the driveway. The carpet in the house is threadbare. The kitchen floor has no tile and some of the kitchen cabinets are missing doors. Worst of all, there's a thin sheet of plywood on the bathroom floor that threatens to give way every time someone goes in the room.

Ms. Washington says she's just fine. But her heart is heavy, literally, with all her responsibilities, including a grown daughter who recently moved in with her three children in tow and Ms. Washington's 41-year-son, who lives with her and is completely disabled with a rare liver disease. "I'm just so happy I'm seeing the New Year," says Ms. Washington, who suffers from congestive heart failure.

Happy New Year, Ms. Washington. Here's hoping you get more guardian angels like the Auerbachs.

In June, we said goodbye to two of the most high-profile liberal activists in Dallas: Joe Cook and Karen Ashmore, two people who for years--and for nominal wages--gave a voice and a sturdy shoulder to people who didn't have the resources or the wherewithal to protect themselves.

Cook, former regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union, took a position with the ACLU in New Orleans. Although we didn't get a chance to talk with him for this article, Ashmore says when she last spoke to her fellow activist in September, he was exulting about the filing of his first lawsuit and complaining about the hot, muggy weather.

Karen Ashmore was Dallas' number-one feminist. She also did God's work--raising money full-time for St. Philips Episcopal School, a private black grade school in South Dallas. She left Dallas after 16 years to find "a more progressive town" that embraced, rather than shunned, victims of sexual harassment and police abuse and people with hard-to-solve problems like homelessness and mental illness.

And, of course, as all capable people do, she found exactly what she was looking for.

She left town in June with a road map and her nine-year-old son Nicholas and proceeded to canvass most all of New Mexico and Colorado--camping out at night, grabbing a local paper in the mornings, eavesdropping for local gossip in smalltown coffee shops.

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Laura Miller