Remembering Ethel Kutac

Ethel Kutac, a birder, environmentalist, and member of Travis Audubon for over 40 years, passed away on September 25th of this year. Described as a “force of nature,” she touched so many within the Austin birding community alone. Here we have stories celebrating her wit, strength, and sense of humor from friends she made throughout her life.

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I met Ethel in the early 90’s.  I had joined Travis Audubon with my son, Scott, who was working on his Bird Study merit badge on his way to attain the rank of Eagle Scout. I became a member of the bird records committee assisting Ed Kutac, his sister Ethel, and other early birder participants. When Ed left Austin, Ethel hosted those monthly events. I’ll always remember her special baked cookies she served.  

During the 90’s I took a day off from work on occasion to join the weekly bird group.  In 1994, Lawrence Buford took over from Ed and changed from Thursday to Wednesday. Ethel was a major part of the group, always needing a breakfast taco to begin the day. Her final outing was Friday, July 2nd, 2021, to Taylor which included BBQ for lunch.

Ethel volunteered at Westcave Preserve.  She helped organize the Christmas Bird Count and served with me as a coordinator for ten years beginning January 3rd, 2004.  She helped arrange for participants to lead the many areas of the count circle.  And she always managed to find the perfect restaurant for the countdown. 

For several years she hosted a group of birders at a family home in Galveston the last week of April which coincided with bird migrants in the area.  She always knew the best restaurants for seafood.

Ethel was a world traveling birder. She enlightened us all upon her return. She had a strong will and character and didn’t mind speaking her opinion on various matters.  She never let her failing health deter her from one of her favorite passions. Ethel was one birder we’ll never forget.

– Dan Callaway

 

My favorite memories of Ethel are from the Wednesday morning birding outings. There was never a dull moment when Ethel was there. 

When the Wednesday group came to our ranch, the walking was a little rugged for Ethel. She eagerly talked John into taking her around in the Ranger. They usually returned for lunch with tales of birds that the rest of us never saw. 

Ethel was never shy about asking the men in the group to help her into whatever vehicle was going where she needed to go. She enjoyed knowing that they all loved to come to her aid.

Ethel added good ideas and fun to any group she joined. We will miss her but enjoy remembering the fun she brought to us. 

– Ann Donovan

 

Wednesday birding on a slow day: We all meet and set out. We pile out of the cars at the first sound. We find a few birds and keep looking, hoping for the best. Folks start chatting. A few of us start giving “maybe we should move on” eyebrow raises to each other.

 Ethel: Aren’t we done here yet? We’re burning daylight! Let’s go!

 Always count on Ethel to keep the group moving!

 Ethel loved to eat at Donn’s BBQ on FM 969 before birding. She also loved Lee (Wallace). He was her favorite personal stability device and if she really wanted to see a bird, she called him to find it for her. 

 We will miss her.

– Deb Wallace

 

We met Ethel about five years ago when we started going birding with the Wednesday group. She was a lot of fun! She was always so interested in what we had been doing, even though it was only a week since we had seen her last. The thing I will always remember was how we worked to get her on the birds. Deb would set up her scope low for Ethel and we would start to work. Sometimes she would take pity on us and say “Oh yes, I see it,” but you knew she did not. You could always tell when she did. The excitement in her voice and the way she would linger at the scope appreciating the bird. The group would all cheer. I also remember the TOS meeting in Alpine where she came up and told me about the Western Screech Owl that she had seen and how some in the group had not.

I believe this picture (below) was taken at Reimer’s Ranch. We had walked about as far as Ethel was willing and she flagged down this young man to give her a ride back. She really enjoyed the ride. 

– Lee Wallace

 

Ethel was a force of nature. She was a world traveler, a teacher, a devout Catholic, a yellow dog Democrat, an avid reader, a volunteer, a Kutac legend , and a BIRDER! I first met Ethel in 2006.  I lived close to her so had the honor to give her rides to TAS events and some of her Wednesday Birding group trips. Every trip was an education and adventure! I miss her every time I pass her street; I miss her wonderful laugh and strong opinions!

 – Frances Cerbins

 

I was a fan of Ethel Kutac’s and cherished the times I got to be with her. She was an exceptionally caring person, an avid birder, a passionate educator, an adventurous woman and refreshingly outspoken. I knew her to be a quick study of people with a gift to easily connect across many spectrums. She was so curious and loved hearing others’ stories. Her voice was strong, her interaction direct, her sense of humor fantastic, and her laugh contagious. I felt drawn to her right away, 20+ years ago. 

One of my Ethel memories that isn’t about birding: On a cold evening in December with a chance of precipitation, I showed up for the Travis Audubon holiday party and silent auction to help with set-up for the event. Ethel was already there setting out the auction items. We chatted and caught up with each other while working, and I mentioned that I had made a very expensive mistake at a well-known social service organization’s silent auction once. Ethel turned to face me and said “Oh tell me!” I shared that I thought I had read the large gala crowd well and sensed a lot of money in the room. Many people kept filing past the bid sheets and bids were quickly increasing on many high-value items. I wanted to participate and not just walk through the line so I added my bid to a 6-night hotel stay for two in Hawaii, assuming I’d be out bid. Well I wasn’t! And I ended up giving that organization a huge donation that night for the Hawaii item I couldn’t afford to use at the time because it didn’t include airfare. I told Ethel I learned my lesson. She laughed and laughed. And then she said “Let me tell you, I learned my lesson too!” and she told me that she made an even bigger mistake. At a previous TAS silent auction when she was setting out the items with bid sheets, she went through and put her name on EVERY bid sheet to get the bidding started, and not just at the recommended starting bid. On that night, it was cold and icy, and hardly anyone came to the event because of how treacherous the roads were. Much to her embarrassment, she had to shell out a lot of money for nearly all the items! She said, “I love Travis Audubon and in the end I didn’t mind giving them all that money, but I’ll NEVER do that again!” We both had fun laughing about those silent auction experiences. 

– Terri Siegenthaler

 

Ethel was my roommate for several Texas Ornithological Society meetings. Mostly she rode with Jane Tillman and roomed with me. However, the year that TOS went to Amarillo, she rode with me as well. I enjoyed the company of her family in Amarillo and I appreciated her low key style of traveling. I can hardly believe that she will not be calling me up on some Sunday afternoon any more. I was so glad to read so many things I did not know about Ethel in her obituary. It seems like the end of an era with Ethel gone.

 – Georgina Schwartz

 

I first met Ethel over a decade ago.  She was a longtime member of Travis Audubon and the Wednesday Birding Group led by Dan Callaway. At the time I was a fledgling birder and the Wednesday Birding Group helped me satisfy my driving need to learn more about birds and birding. The group would hop in someone’s car and spend the whole day birding, an adventure that I loved and I have never quite found anything like since. 

I don’t know how long Ethel had been a birder, but it had been a long time. Her brother, Ed Kutac, had a following in the Austin Birding community as one of the state’s best birders, a wonderful teacher, and someone who had a passionate interest in birds. Ethel followed along, and she became just as passionate as Ed. Ethel was a strong environmentalist, and the love of birding fell right along with her passion for the environment.  

During our trips, we would all talk, and I liked listening to Ethel talk. She was from a different age than I was, an age in between my grandparents and my mother, and I liked to hear her talk about her life growing up in Yokum where she and her family pretty much took care of themselves while their widow mother went to work to support the family. In my mind’s eye I see Ethel in a sleepy little town, running around the neighborhood having fun yet at the same time taking care of the chores her mother had assigned the children. She said that the whole community kept an eye out for the Kutac brood, making sure they were okay. 

Ethel got her education as a teacher in a time when women really didn’t get education beyond high school, and she went to live in Europe and taught in the American schools overseas. Again, that was not a common choice for a woman to make in those days. I guess she must have picked up her love of travel during those years because for as long as I knew Ethel she was always going somewhere exciting, usually on a birding trip.  I loved hearing her stories of those times.  Yes, Ethel could talk about her past and her travels, but Ethel was not only rooted in the past – she had a good knowledge of current events, much better than mine, and she frequently asked me if I  “took the paper” (I confessed that I didn’t and she would shake her head.) She was a staunch democrat and as the license plate sticker said on the back of her car, “I vote for the environment.”  

Her conversation was always lively, and she was fun to be with; she would always be smiling, joking, teasing. During our adventures birding she would start conversations with people who we met up with, and she was always curious about what other people thought and she would talk about birds and birding with them. Once, I brought my daughter along birding with us, and Ethel took her under her wing and explained birding to her – she was a kindly older person who had patience with young children. 

I took a couple of longer trips with Ethel – one year we went on a Whooping Crane Cruise in Rockport, and another time we took Tim Fennell’s fantastic shorebird class together. She was always a good travel companion, fun and excited about the adventure, willing to do anything to see a bird or learn about birds.

Yes, she was always learning and perhaps that is what I liked most about her. Even when she was confined to her house after surgery she would tell me about the interesting programs she would watch and the people she met along her life’s various adventures. (Voting at 90+ years in the time of COVID, conversations she had with her priest,  the people who would come to see her.) I love the fact that she could go back and forth in her mind between present times and her past life, and to the end she was sharp, curious, and optimistic. I will miss her and her stories, the fun person she was, and the adventures we had.

– Terry Banks

Terry Banks, Ethel Kutac, and Ingrid Huskey on a birding trip.

 

I can’t say when I first met Ethel, but thanks to eBird.org I know that she accompanied my husband, Mark, and me to the Davis Mountains back in August 2010 on a Texas Ornithological Society trip. Ethel shared several birding adventures and Christmas Bird Counts with us over the years. When you spend long days together and in the field you get to know someone. Ethel was always fun and easy company. (It never ceased to amaze me how compactly she traveled – just three tiny bags at most –  not even a suitcase. I guess she learned that skill with all her overseas travels earlier in life.)

One of the more memorable trips that Ethel and I took was to chase a rare Collared Plover down near Raymondville, TX in August 2014. I picked up Ethel, we made the 4.5 hour drive (probably with a stop for coffee as Ethel was never far from a cup), and set up on a levee overlooking a dried playa in late afternoon. The temp was 103 degrees when we arrived, and it was windy – Ethel and her chair almost blew over. The plover was not easy to see, and I was not that talented in getting the scope focused on it at Ethel’s seated level. Thankfully, up walked Eric Carpenter who took charge and got her on the bird. (Later she always called him, “such a nice young man.”) The back story was that Ethel attended a Texas Ornithological Society meeting near Uvalde several years prior in May, 1992. Her field trip leader asked the group if they wanted to make a side trip to the Uvalde Fish Hatchery to see the first U.S. record of Collared Plover, and one woman said “I believe I’d like to get back to the hotel.” That did not sit well with Ethel, and I am glad she finally got to see one. Before we went to the hotel we had to go find a beer for her to celebrate. Ethel liked her beer.

During COVID I did weekly grocery shopping for Ethel at HEB and often visited afterwards. It was a pleasure to talk of mundane things like good recipes, good foods, happenings in our families, movies, and current events. Ethel had interests in so many things, and it never flagged. She could talk about the Lady Longhorns, UT football and baseball, recent books, what was right or wrong about politics and politicians, etc. I loved it when she’d lower her voice and say a little more slowly “in My Opinion.”

Religion was very important to her, but whenever Ethel had to miss Sunday Mass, due to a birding weekend, she said she was thinking of the divine out in the Cathedral of Nature. I always liked that expression. 

It tickled me that Ethel had such a network of friends, who each helped her in various ways – someone did her Randall’s and Walgreens runs, others took her to various appointments, someone brought her newspaper up to her home, someone brought the trash cans up from the curb, and others helped with plant watering, changing filters, etc. She never overworked any one of us, whether by accident or design.

Those of us who knew Ethel know how she could squeeze a penny. Stretch leftovers from restaurants into 2 or 3 meals, always buy the least expensive brand of x, y or z unless you have a really good reason for the higher priced item, and don’t take the toll road when regular roads just take a little bit longer. These economies were part of her game in life, and they allowed her to travel well in to her 80s and support charities she loved. What’s not to like about that?

It was a privilege to know Ethel. She knew how to live life fully.

– Jane Tillman

Burnet Christmas Bird Count (January 4, 2013). From left to right: Terry Banks, Jane Tillman, Janene Rowan, Ken Zaslow, Dan Callaway, Ethel Kutac, Dave Seal, Ingrid Huskey and Catfish Kelly.