Liz Murray got a standing ovation at the Soup’s On! luncheon Thursday. It was due to her providing one of the best talks heard in this neighborhood in recent years. But more about that later. Settle back with a cup of your favorite beverage because this post is going to be a long one.
A luncheon fundraiser is a bit like a one-night-only Broadway show. The 2014 fundraising season kicked off with The Stewpot Alliance‘s Soup’s On! at the Omni Thursday. The night before the angels had gathered at Jan and Fred Hegi’s creekside home. Of the chefs participating in the luncheon, only Chief Chef Brian Luscher of The Grape was present. He looked just like a cute guest in his brown sweater. Some didn’t recognize him without his white chef’s jacket. When asked about the loss of Chef Randall Copeland, who died just a few weeks after last year’s Soup’s On, Brian paused and recalled how last year the chefs had made a special contribution in Randall’s name to the Soup’s On effort.
Before Liz even arrived, the place was filled with supporters of the Stewpot Alliance like Honorary Chairs Ellen and John McStay, Marybeth Conlon, Erin Mathews, David Nichols, Chris Rentzel and Rev. Dr. Joe Clifford. Clifford, who heads up First Presbyterian and spearheads Stewpot and the Encore Park project, had just returned from a trip to Israel. . . Luncheon Chair Gail Davis revealed that they were expecting 650 at the luncheon. To tie in with the Encore Park and 508 Park projects, she and Co-Chair Sarah Charbonnet had arranged to have Shoot Low Sheriff play at the luncheon. . . Stewpot volunteer Susie Simon was enjoying the food on the dining-room table provided by The Grape. It was well-deserved. Seems Susie had been wrapping many of the 700 bowls that would be given to guests at the luncheon in cellophane and ribbons. Ah, but she’s used to it. Susie is well-known for her volunteering at the Stewpot.
But the party closed down early because the next day’s luncheon was just hours away.
Before the first guests found their way through the Omni’s construction for the big show, the behind-the-scenes activities already were underway.
In the front of the house (aka the lobby outside the Trinity Ballroom), art by Stewpot clients was being displayed.
Autographed books by Liz were being prepared for sale. Shoot Low Sheriff was setting up their equipment.
In the ballroom, tables were in their final stages of being set up, with the bowls neatly in place with the recipes for the soups that would be served. In the center of each table was an elevated card revealing which chef would be providing the soup.
The production platform was all hooked up. A much smaller platform with a video camera was set up across the way from the podium. On either side of the stage were two large screens.
Emcee Steve Blow, Joe Clifford, Gail, Sarah, Liz and Rev. Dr. Bruce Buchanan were going over last-minute details on the day’s program.
In the back of the house, the chefs (Brian, Bruno Davallion of Rosewood’s The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Omar Flores of Casa Rubia/Driftwood, Chad Kelley of Café Pacific, Matt McCallister of FT33, Danyele McPherson of The Grape, Janice Provost and Tim Woehr of Parigi, Ian Tate of Salum and Jason Weaver of the Omni Dallas) were making sure their signature soups were in the heating closets and ready for presentation.
At 11, as the guests were filling the lobby and eying the artwork for sale, the books were being sold and Shoot Low Sheriff was playing.
In a side room, the chefs had gathered to review the POA. In addition to explaining how they would be presented and then freed to head back to their restaurants, Brian spoke eloquently about what the Stewpot does and how much the chefs’ contributions have helped support it. He spoke just long enough and then they all headed back to the kitchen for final prep.
Right on cue, the ballroom doors opened and the guests filled the seats. Shoot Low Sheriff was on stage and played a final tune before a video on Encore Park was shown on the screens.
After a welcome from Emcee Steve, Rev. Joe gave the invocation and, following the “Amen,” added “Soup’s On!” With that kind of gusto, one sorta expected to see a parade of servers with trays of soup scurrying out. Instead the servers sporadically entered the scene resulting in some tables being served immediately and other concentrating on the assorted breads at the tables.
Not to worry. Everyone not only got their designer soups, but also herb-seared chicken salad and medallions of chicken seasoned with fresh herbs served on a bed of kale and missed seasonal greens with tomatoes, panko coated goat cheese, walnuts and dried cranberries served with a house balsamic dressing.
In the meantime, the chefs had hustled to the lobby for group photos.
While the meal was being enjoyed by all—except for Table 20, which no-showed—Co-Chairs Sarah and Gail welcomed the guests and introduced Brian. He in turn introduced each of the chefs, who gathered on stage and then were gone. They didn’t leave empty-handed. Thanks to Dallas artist Brad Oldham, each of the chefs received a spoon especially created for them.
At 12:45 it was time for Liz to address the group. The 650 guests settled in their chairs prepared for a speech that would keep them awake but would be similar to so many they had heard before. Still, if the talk ran beyond 1:15, they would have to hit the door.
Instead it was a talk that hit even the most jaded luncheon veteran between the heart and pocketbook. One group that had already written one check wrote another one.
The pale brunette in black at the podium was not a flashy beauty. Her articulation was not one that had been fine-tuned by professional speakers bureaus. In fact at the beginning, she spoke rather briskly, but the tempo slowed as she felt more at home in front of the crowd. Liz even admitted that when she appears “at an event like this, I feel like I’m crashing.”
She went on to tell how she “grew up in poverty.” No, not the kind of poverty where dad lost his job in a recession and the family lived on food stamps. That type of poverty would have seemed like a vacation for what young Liz and her sister Lisa experienced.
As she told it, her neighborhood in the Bronx was the “inner-city urban ghetto.” Her parents had lived the 1970’s lifestyle the wrong way — “disco to oblivion. They didn’t see the 80’s and 90’s coming.” Then the two little girls “were born and the party was over.”
Liz told of good moments with her cocaine- and heroin-addicted parents. Her father encouraged the children to read books that he took from the library . . . and never returned. Her mother kissed her face. Christmas took place 12 times a year—the first day of the month when the welfare checks would arrive. Instead of heading to the grocery store or paying bills, the parents would take their daughters with them to the drug dealers.
But by day eight or nine, there would be no money, no food, no anything. The parents would do all types of things to survive—sell sister’s coat, the TV set, for drugs. The girls would wander the hallways of their building at mealtimes drawn to the doors where the aroma was best. They would then knock on the doors and, hopefully, be allowed to take part in the meal. But, as Liz admitted, in the very last days of the months, even the most generous neighbors were running low on funds, so doors weren’t opened. It was then that ice cubes and even cherry-flavored ChapStick® became the food du jour.
As for school, it was not a low priority. It just wasn’t in the game plan.
Liz’s goal was not to succeed. It was to survive a household revolving around drugs.
At this point in the talk, Liz halted the pitiful tale and proved that she was made of tough stuff saying, “Don’t feel sorry for me. There’s a bigger conversation going on. I learned if no one was going to take care of me, then I should be responsible for myself.”
It was about this time that her parents were diagnosed HIV-positive from tainted syringes. After failing at foster care, Liz at the age of 15 was sleeping on friend’s couches and visiting her mom in hospice. Eventually, the couches weren’t available and she was sleeping in the subway.
At this point in the talk, Liz shared the one joy she had. “No matter what was happening, I could close my eyes and dream of a better life.” But then she would open her eyes and nothing was there.
Then she returned to the story of her childhood. At 16 her 41-year-old mother died and was buried the day after Christmas “in a pine box, her name misspelled, in a pauper’s grave at the Gates of Heaven Cemetery.”
On the ride back to the Bronx from the burial, Liz decided to go back to school. After failed tries at being admitted to schools, she gave it one more try at Humanities Preparatory Academy in Manhattan, where she met a teacher by the name of Perry (Weiner). They were totally different types. He with the jacket with patches on the elbows and a book of Shakespeare under his arm. She in her Gothic look with purple hair. She prepared herself for another rejection by trying to reject him first. But he knew all the tricks and even commented, “Nice pin.” It was a skull and crossbones. The twosome made a pact that she would make only A’s and sealed it with a hug, which she wasn’t used to.
While taking 10 classes, she was still sleeping on the subway but she was now eating hot meals thanks to the Door that opened at 5 p.m. Her average of a 96 earned her a trip with Perry and other students to see Harvard. That was the twosome’s next goal.
But Harvard’s tuition “was hilarious.” Then she learned of the New York Times offering scholarships and applied. One of the questions in the applications: “Have you had any obstacles to overcome?”
She became one of the finalists for the coveted scholarships and arrived at the “Gray Lady” for the interview. While waiting with the other candidates in a waiting room, she spied a tray of donuts that hadn’t been touched. She took the whole tray. During the interview, she wrapped the donuts in tissues that were on the table. The NYT staff was so touched by the situation, they took her to lunch in the paper’s cafeteria. Leaving the building, Liz decided that despite having never read the paper, she “liked those New York Times people.”
She probably liked them all the more when she was one of the six to receive the scholarship. But along with the scholarship came a story about the recipients in the paper. Her cover was blown. No one, not even Perry, had realized that she had been literally homeless and had survived her childhood.
When she arrived at school the day after the story ran, members of her community showed up in the school lobby with offers of help. They got her an apartment, helped furnish it and gave her clothes. One woman even did her laundry each week just to help.
In closing, Liz admonished the group that she had made it out of her past life thanks to Perry who mentored her because someone had mentored him. She wondered out loud just how far back the pass-it-along mentoring started. Then, like a playful schoolgirl, she smiled and passed it along to the audience saying, “Tag you’re it.”
By the time, she finished, 1:15 had come and gone, but only six people had left. This talk was one you had to hear to the end.