Queen of Dallas

Annette Strauss reigned with a lady’s touch and an iron will.

She was perhaps the most remarkable woman this city has ever seen, and no mere obituary

could capture her charm or her energy. Or her intelligence: When only a sophomore at the University of Texas, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Nor could any words capture her persistence, a streak of stubbornness that kept her zeroed in on the task at hand until the mission was accomplished. In the first year after we moved for a spell from Dallas to New York, my wife and received a Christmas card from Annette. We continued to receive

Christmas cards from her for the next 12 years. And inside the card every year were written the same five words: “We miss you. Come home.” And when we finally did come home, one of the first phone calls I received was from Annette. No preamble. No fussing. No mention of 13 years’ worth of Christmas cards. No, she was all business-her kind of business. We had to have lunch at the Dallas Arboretum, she insisted, not sometime soon, but tomorrow. She just knew 1 would want to see for myself the wonderful work they were doing there. How about noon?

She was all business all the time because her definition of business was as broad as Mother Teresa’s: It seemed to encompass every ill, every cause, and almost every person she ever met. “I said to her maybe 50 times,” recalls brother-in-law Robert Strauss, ’”Annette, you really have got to slow down your banging on people for money for these various projects. People are getting to where they won’t return your phone calls. It’s overkill.’ She’d kind of squeeze my hand and say, ’Honey, I’m sure you’re right.’ She’d just smile as if I were some sort of fool who didn’t get it, but she certainly didn’t want to hurt my feelings.”

If her brother-in-law couldn’t stop her from doing her duty as she saw it, neither could her daughters and husband. Steve Bartlett remembers when, as a member of Congress, he’d have to reach the mayor of Dallas at her vacation home in La Jolla: “She’d answer the phone and immediately put me on hold. When she’d come back on, she’d be whispering, and I’d hear the sounds of pots and pans banging. I’d say, ’Annette, I can barely hear you. Why are you whispering, and what’s all that noise?’And she’d answer, ’I promised the girls this time I wouldn’t do anything on vacation. I’m in the kitchen pretending to cook so nobody will know I’m talking to you.’ Every time we had to talk, it was the same, pots and pans banging while she whispered into the phone. She somehow had gotten me involved in a family conspiracy, and it wasn’t even my family. But boy, did I feel special.”

She made people feel special. During one particularly harsh winter she made a televised appeal for people to send in blankets for the homeless, and one lady responded by donating an electric blanket, perhaps not realizing that the homeless, being without homes, don’t have electricity. To Annette that little detail didn’t matter; the motive behind it did. She called the woman to thank her with such praise that her fellow workers on the phones thought the lady had donated a truckful of blankets.

She was competitive, and she was out to win. Last spring Karla and Lienier Temerlin invited the Strausses down to their lake house near Austin. “We decided to have a fishing contest, even though Annette protested that she hadn’t fished a day in her life,” says Lienier. “The next morning, everyone was down at the dock when Annette appeared, wearing a beige designer suit with high heels, pearl necklace and earrings, her hair perfectly coifed. We told her she couldn’t possibly go fishing dressed like that, but she waved us aside and climbed in the boat. Our fishing contest had three prizes: first fish, biggest fish, and most fish. Naturally, Annette won all three.”

Underneath the sweet layer of molasses, she was tough. Those whose arms were twisted, whose patience was tried, whose faces maybe once or twice had a finger wagged in front of them may not be the first in line to nominate Annette Strauss as a candidate for sainthood (or whatever the Jewish equivalent is). But that just means they know very little about saints, who are a lot more irritating in life than they are remembered to he in death.

After our lunch at the Arboretum (of course I canceled whatever else 1 was doing to he there and arrived, as instructed, at noon), Annette look me aside to mention that she had heard some complaints about our new policies on charitable advertising. She looked at me sternly, and the wagging finger appeared. “Don’t he arrogant,” she said. As I explained the reasons behind our new position the finger came down, but the look remained. “Just don’t he arrogant,” she said, then broke into a radiant smile. “It’s so good to have you back.”

On all those cards for all those years she wrote “We miss you. Come home.” Now we can only say how much we’ll miss her. Because Annette Strauss has gone home.

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