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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Friday, April 1, 2016 by Jo Clifton
Austin mourns environmentalist Mary Gay Maxwell
Members of Austin’s environmental community were in mourning Thursday after learning of the death of Environmental Commission Chair Mary Gay Maxwell. According to Department of Public Safety Trooper Robbie Barrera, Maxwell died Wednesday afternoon after being involved in a head-on collision outside of Smithville after her car crossed over the median on Highway 71.
Maxwell’s friends and colleagues expressed great admiration for Maxwell, 77, and uniformly noted her passion and commitment to Austin.
She was a psychologist by profession, having earned both a bachelor’s and doctoral degree from the University of Texas. The Save Our Springs Alliance put out a statement Thursday saying, “Austin and the Austin environmental community lost a beloved leader and friend yesterday” and noting that she joined the SOS Alliance board of directors in the 1990s. “In 1999, during a time of great difficulty, Doctor Maxwell stepped in as SOS’s full-time volunteer executive director,” says the statement.
Maxwell served on the city’s Environmental Board, and later the Environmental Commission, for 15 years, starting with her appointment by City Council Member Beverly Griffith in 2001. She was subsequently reappointed by Council members Betty Dunkerley and Laura Morrison. After the election system and the name of the board changed, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo reappointed her last year to represent District 9.
Maxwell became chair of the board in 2008 and continued in that position until her death. In addition, records from the Office of the City Clerk show that Maxwell served on the Waterfront Overlay Task Force in 2008 and the Lake Austin Task Force in 2012, as well as the Boards & Commissions Task Force in 2014.
In a statement, Chuck Lesniak, the city’s environmental officer, said, “Dr. Maxwell was a fierce and passionate advocate for protecting and preserving Austin’s environment. She was also a strong supporter of protecting Austin’s neighborhoods and worked hard to preserve Austin’s unique atmosphere.”
He added, “She led the Commission with integrity and honor and devoted many hours every week to the work. I depended on her for her insight and experience in protecting the environment while understanding the reality and necessity of Austin’s growth.
“Dr. Maxwell was also an incredible supporter of the City’s Watershed Protection Department and our efforts to address water quality protection and prevent flooding. I will miss her, and she leaves a void that will be hard to fill,” Lesniak concluded.
Barbara Rush and Linda Guerrero, friends who worked with Maxwell on environmental issues, sent out a statement Thursday to members of the community. It said in part, “The passing of Mary Gay is a tragic loss for her family, her friends and for our community. For decades she has been a champion for protection of the environment and preservation of Austin neighborhoods.
“Mary Gay was born on September 13, 1938 and moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas. She always said that ‘Austin felt like home to her heart.’ And Austin was the fortunate recipient of Mary Gay and her committed work to protect the quality of life for everyone who lives here.”
Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, a friend of Maxwell’s, sent the Austin Monitor the following statement: “I am heartbroken. Mary Gay was remarkable, especially for her incredible dedication to protecting our environment. Many future generations will benefit from her tireless work to protect and preserve so much of what we love most about Austin.”
Council observed a moment of silence in Maxwell’s memory on Thursday morning. In prepared remarks, Tovo said, “As some of you may know, the city of Austin lost a member of its extended family yesterday with the passing of Dr. Mary Gay Maxwell.” Tovo described Maxwell as a “passionate environmentalist and tireless advocate for this community … (who) contributed her energy and expertise to countless city efforts.”
Council Member Leslie Pool said, “Mary Gay was a friend, a teacher and a determined advocate for Austin’s environment and our natural resources. She leaves a considerable gap in Austin’s environmental leadership. Mary Gay created a legacy of promoting stewardship and responsibility in protecting our city’s unique beauty. I am tremendously saddened by her passing.”
Former Mayor Lee Leffingwell was chair of the Environmental Board in 2001 when Maxwell joined it. He told the Monitor, “I remember being immediately impressed with her experience, her expertise, and her resolute dedication to environmental preservation, and her thoughtful consideration of applicants before the Board and the opinions of her colleagues. She was a personal friend, and her work on the Board was always collaborative and constructive. She made a very positive contribution to our city, and she will be greatly missed.”
Dave Anderson, who also served on the Environmental Board with Maxwell, said in a statement, “Working side by side with Mary Gay for so many years on the Environmental Board and in the community, I remember thinking that I could literally feel her passion for Austin and its natural environment. She single-handedly willed good things to happen and kept our resources protected. Along with so many others, I will miss her tremendously.”
Environmental activist Paul Robbins also wrote a statement about Maxwell, saying, “She played a pivotal and anchor role in Austin’s environmental community. Relatively few people realize the enormous amount of time and the breadth of knowledge and commitment she donated to this city. It is going to take a while to adjust.”
Guerrero said that Maxwell is survived by her sister, Jane Adam, and her niece, Lisa Whiting, of Houston, as well as many friends.
Barrera said that Judge Larry Dunne of Bastrop ordered an autopsy to find out whether Maxwell suffered a medical emergency that caused her to lose control of her vehicle and cross over the grassy median on Highway 71 before colliding with another car. Austin funeral homes contacted on Thursday said they had no information about Maxwell.
Not only did Mary Gay Maxwell love Austin’s natural wonders, but she loved her dogs, pictured here with her on her Facebook page a few years ago.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.
Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS): An advocacy organization. According to its web site, Save Our Springs "works to protect the Edwards Aquifer, its springs and contributing streams, and the natural and cultural heritage of the Hill Country region and its watersheds, with special emphasis on Barton Springs."