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Kenneth S. Wendler Jr.

1929 - 2018
Kenneth S. Wendler Jr. Obituary
WENDLER Jr., Kenneth S. Born: September 11, 1929
Died: August 13, 2018
Ken Wendler was the architect and father of the progressive Democratic movement in Travis County. He was a General Contractor building many iconic buildings in Austin such as the Forty Acres Alumni Center, the remodel of the Texas Union, the Montopolis bridge, the Fannie Davis Gazebo on Town Lake, and he built the original bathrooms on the Lady Bird Johnson Lake Hike and Bike Trail too.
His business success fueled and funded his love for Democratic politics and early in his career he was a precinct chair and took part in Democratic Party conventions and City of Austin issues. He was elected in 1972 as Chairman of the Democratic Party of Travis County and from this position he engineered (he was an architectural engineer) and rebuilt a new Democratic Party that continues to promote its progressive values today.
It was Ken Wendler who paid the costs of building a new party structure and removed the previous control from the conservative power brokers of the past. Ken moved politics in Austin into a new era of equality and action that groomed and promoted progressive candidates through the 1970's including Austin's earliest minority office holders.
Ken grew up in a liberal family with deep roots in Democratic politics of San Antonio. His family moved to Austin in 1936. During the Depression his father worked for a state agency responsible for public assistance in Texas. His mother was from the Tynan family and she worked as a reporter for a San Antonio newspaper and later became the librarian for the Texas Medical Association in Austin. His fondest memory of his father was an incident where his father physically stopped an abusive Anglo man from harassing an older African American gentleman on the street after the family witnessed the abuse when returning from dinner one night.
Ken gave assistance and opportunity to Austin politicians like Richard Moya, Johnny Trevino, Gonzalo Barrientos, Jeff Friedman, Bob Binder, Ann Richards, Wilhelmina Delco, Gus Garcia, Berl Hancock, Jimmy Snell, Sarah Weddington, Lloyd Doggett, Bob Armstrong, and Ronnie Earle. He engaged a group of young leaders (recent graduates of the University of Texas) and hired many of them to build a new party that included Peck Young, Joe Pinnelli, David Butts, Betsy Martin, Gabe Guiterrez, Liz Daily, Mike Guerrero, Garry Mauro, Roy Spence, Nancy Williams, Harriet Peppel, Judy Trabulsi, and Steve Gutow.
Although Ken never thought he had all the answers of how to turn politics around, he was determined to make sure all people are represented in public office. He said, "I just shared what I knew and turned loose these wicked smart and talented young people and together we organized and developed successful "Get Out the Vote" operations.
When former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos decided to run for office Ken Wendler bought him a suit so he could campaign. Gonzalo reminded us that, "there wasn't anyone dedicated to insuring equal representation in public office here until Ken Wendler with his big heart took the reins."
When Peck Young needed help building a new coalition of students, Hispanics, African Americans, and Labor votes so that they could win elections Ken came through. Peck says, "Ken Wendler kept the whole effort afloat. This new coalition armed with the tools of political change was responsible for changing the future of Austin and Travis County."
Ken was a mentor for many of these young leaders. Joe Pinnelli organized a visit with Ken and some of his friends the day before he died. They told old war stories, talked of the bonds they shared over progressive issues of equality and opportunity, and of course, told Ken how much they loved him.
Joe Pinnelli said, "Ken gave us a speech about how your friends are the sum of your life and how the only thing that matters is how much you helped people." He told his friends that he had a great life and he was now "headed to the end of this rope."
Ken shared a forty-two year old partnership with Cathy Bonner. Ken and Cathy met when she was hired to run a city council race in 1975. As County Chairman, Ken would give his blessing and support to people running for office that were not partisan like the City Council and School Board as well as people running as the Democratic nominee in state, national and judicial races. For over forty years, Cathy and Ken shared their love and their lives trying to make the world a better place.
Ken shared his political life with his brother, Edward Wendler Sr., who preceded him in death. Although on different sides of a few elections and issues, they shared a commitment to break new ground and old rules. Their sister, Mary Kate Kelley, lives in San Antonio and is married to former Texas Credit Commissioner, Sam Kelley.
Ken has five children from his marriage to Ann West Wendler. His children and their spouses are: Mark and Kathy Wendler, Kim and Doug Thornton, Katheryn Wendler, Kris Wendler, and Kena and Trey Bradford. He has eight grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.
Ken died from lung cancer that was a result of what he called "smoking stupid cigarettes." He wanted young people to know that even though he quit smoking in his 50's, and he ran marathons and became a "fitness nut" in his 70's, he couldn't escape the ravages of tobacco and he wished he had never smoked.
In honor of his life, Cathy Bonner is hosting a celebration on his 89th birthday, Tuesday, September 11th at 6:30 p.m. (revised time) at Chez Zee, 5406 Balcones Drive, 78731.
Memorial gifts may be made to either the Chautauqua Foundation Eleanor Fund www.giving.chq.org or mail to the Eleanor Fund/Chautauqua Foundation, P.O. Box 28, Chautauqua, NY 14722, or to the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders at www. annrichardsschool.org .
Published in Austin American-Statesman on Aug. 15, 2018
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