She was our rare Rose, and she left city better

Austin American-Statesman, June 1, 2013

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She awoke every day ... to fight for a just and fair community.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, people will gather at the Central Presbyterian Church downtown to honor Rose Lancaster, who died last week at the age of 86. Lots of people. It may turn out that the Erwin Center would have been a more appropriate-size venue.

I first met her in the ’70s when my son, Burton, was enrolled in Extend-a-Care at Mathews Elementary. That’s when, for me, she went from being Ms. Lancaster to Rose. She was the original executive director of the after-school program for children with working parents, and she made quite an impression.

It was around the time of women’s liberation, and here was this tall, strong executive with a twinkle in her blue eyes who was as nurturing as she was competent. She staffed the program with “counselors” — UT students — who, like Rose, were full of energy and loads of fun for the children. During her 15 years with the program, Extend-a-Care spread to 35 schools and now is located on 68 campuses.

Rose served as program director of the Presbyterian Children’s Home and director of Manos de Cristo at El Buen Pastor Church before retiring from full-time work.

But it was Rose’s hours off the clock (when she wasn’t swimming or playing tennis) that may have made the biggest difference. She awoke every day of her adult life to fight for a just and fair community. She championed access to quality health and dental care, appropriate care for children, shelter and services for the homeless, women’s empowerment, border issues and other causes.

Our paths crossed again in the ’90s when we both served on the Indigent Care Work Team, charged with making recommendations to improve health care delivery at the Federally Qualified Health Centers. One day, Rose opened her paper planner to set a time for us to have lunch. Every single weekday morning and afternoon of the month had an advocacy activity planned. She laughed when I gasped.

Rose briefly hired my 13-year-old son, John, to teach her to use her computer in 1997. We visited at the limestone home on West 10th Street that she and her husband, Jim, bought in 1965. It was located across the alley from the iconic castle after which the Castle Hill Local Historic District is named. Her home was built before the turn of the century, and with its wraparound porch with great view, it was a marvelous place for Rose to live and raise their four children.

Her humor and gentle, respectful demeanor brought out the best in people. Her dedication and ability to find ways to further the mission of a worthy organization made her the ideal board member. She actively served on the boards of organizations such as the Trull Foundation, the local and state League of Women Voters, the Federally Qualified Health Centers, Samaritan Counseling Center, Presbyterian Border Corporation, the Austin Human Services Association, Presbytery Border Ministries, the Pan American Round Table, Capital Area Homeless Alliance, Foundation for the Homeless, Front Steps, Religious Coalition for Assisting the Homeless, Central Health … and more. A grateful community bestowed many awards on her.

Also in the 1990s, we were both active in the Austin-Travis County Citizens Health-care Network, a coalition of providers that held monthly forums to discuss community health care issues. Venola Schmidt, Helen Hill and Carl Siegenthaler (all deceased) formed the group. Meetings were attended by representatives of more than 40 organizations as well as city health care staff and Austin City Council members.

An ambitious and inspiring young doctor, Eduardo Sánchez, attended the forums when he served at chief medical officer and health authority for the City of Austin Public Health Department. “Rose — along with Venola, Helen and Carl — truly influenced the way I think about work and what I do,” he said. “They were committed, unwavering and expected government to do right by people. At times they were the conscience of the city.”

Sánchez went on to become Texas commissioner of health, chief medical officer for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas and now the deputy chief medical officer for the American Heart Association National Service Center. “In my subsequent roles,” he said, “I find myself asking, ‘What would Rose do?’”

Like Sánchez and me, thousands of Austinites have stories to tell about their relationship with Rose Lancaster. She was always ready to listen or mentor and encourage you. All of us will remember the twinkle in her eye.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN CNS (retired), FAAN, a lifelong Austin resident, is a retired neonatal intensive care nurse and editor of NursingNews. She also wrote a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial pages for 10 years.