Shades of Camelot

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to discover that Kirk Watson draws his strength from family ties. Born in Oklahoma City in 1958, the first child of an electrician and a registered nurse, Watson points to the family's 1968 move to Virginia as a turning point in his young life. After completing an engineering degree at night school while working full time, Watson's father was invited to attend a year-long management training course in Virginia. What Watson recalls most fondly about pulling up stakes was the family's frequent trips into nearby Washington, D.C. He remembers that while his only sibling -- a brother two years his junior -- was bored with the city, Watson was entranced. 1968 was a big year, politically. There was a national election. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated," Watson says. "I really do credit that year with my interest in government."

When the family moved to North Texas the following year, their economic lot had greatly improved. "I'm not one of these guys that had to pull himself up by his bootstraps," admits Watson. "I mean, opportunity was handed to me."

When he entered the fifth grade at Saginaw Elementary, just north of Fort Worth, he met the girl of his dreams, sixth-grader Liz McDaniel. Throughout junior high, where the two served on the student council together, Watson says: "I was in love and she... was not." When Watson sprouted a few inches in his freshman year of high school, Liz finally gave in and began dating him. The two have never split.

Attending college in separate cities -- Liz at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Watson at Baylor in Waco -- gave Watson ample motivation to speed through undergraduate and law school in a mere five years. When they moved to Austin as a married couple for Watson's first job, the two fell in love again -- with the city. Liz moved her budding reporting career to Austin's KVUE Channel 24, where she was a weekend anchor until 1984. Watson had quick success as a trial lawyer, and formed the partnership Whitehurst, Harkness, and Watson in 1986 at the ripe old age of 28. The couple's first son, Preston, was born in 1990 into what must have seemed like a perfect world.

Soon after Preston's birth, however, the real challenges began when Watson was diagnosed with testicular cancer. His mother had already won a fight against cancer, and her experience influenced his decision to continue working throughout his treatment. "She would say: `The first time I stay home it's gonna whip me,'" he recalls. Watson describes the battle against cancer as the defining moment in his life. "When you're supposed to be dead," he says, "you realize that opportunities will not always be there."

After losing his testicles and undergoing chemotherapy in 1992, Watson decided to at least stop working on the weekends. But when the cancer recurred in his abdomen in 1995, resulting in the removal of all his lymph glands, Watson says he finally got the message. "It was like, `How many times does this take to get your attention, boy?' And so Liz and I really decided we needed to make a change." 1995 also saw the recurrence of cancer in both Watson's father and mother (who remain gravely ill), the diagnosis of Preston's juvenile diabetes, and the birth of the Watson's second son, Cooper, through a difficult pregnancy. Family stresses kept Watson busy through 1996, but he says that when 1997 rolled around, he was ready.

Only Watson could find a run for mayor a relaxing career change, but Liz explains that holding elected office was his dream. "It was kind of a follow-your-heart situation. We know how short life is, and you might as well do what you love doing," she explains. Watson had already sown his political oats as chair of the Texas Air Quality Control Board, the Travis County Democratic Party, and on the Governmental Board of the Austin Chamber of Commerce -- battling with cancer all the while. The disease has not recurred, but it's with Watson every day, in the form of humor. "He'll say: `I've been gutted and castrated, what else can they do to me?' He's just nuts," laughs college buddy Richard Suttle, lawyer for FM Properties at the Circle C subdivision.

Most telling, though, is that for all the political motivations often attributed to Watson's run for mayor, when asked about his goal for the city, it is entirely personal. "In 15 years, I want this place that grabbed me and Liz to grab [my son] in the same way."

Perhaps Watson's soul-searching battle with cancer is the key to understanding how a hard-driving trial lawyer becomes the most popular guy at city hall. Watson displayed his sensitive side right off the bat with his arrangement of a "warm and fuzzy" council and city staff retreat immediately following the election. But the real culture shock stems from the small touches. The unlikely harbingers of the change in mood were seven bouquets of gerbera daisies, courtesy of Watson, set in front of each council seat at the first Green Council meeting -- and at every meeting since.

"I wouldn't have thought of the flowers," says Goodman, "but when they showed up I thought, `Right. That's such a Kirk thing.'"

And such gestures abound. Director of Finance Betty Dunkerley was awed by Watson's simple act of "coming up the elevator" following passage of the city budget to personally thank the budget analysts. Low woman on the totem pole, city clerk's receptionist Dena Reed, concurs. "When I first met him, he came up to me and asked me how I felt instead of telling me what he wanted done, and that's very different," she says. "Usually a person in his position would dictate, but I feel like he's a friend."

Watson is more in line with the common folk than the last mayor, notes Slusher, who says he was shocked upon his first visit to the mayor's office after the changeover. "There's paper on your desk!" exclaimed Slusher. "That's just what the mayor pro tem said," Watson replied curiously. According to Slusher, Todd had kept the office "like a museum."

Watson also moved the office furniture from what had been an all-eyes-on-Bruce arrangement into a comfortable, conversational circle.

Contrary to assumptions that sensitivity would soften productivity, however, the camaraderie is effectively greasing the wheels at city hall these days. "It's not laid back at all. It's friendly and ribald at times, but it's very serious business," Slusher says. Still, observers can't help but notice how cozy all the councilmembers are with each other. There's even a rumor going around that most of them actually like each other.

More inclined to self-deprecating humor than to discussing his strengths, Watson attributes the new council's success to a simple strategy. "It's time to create, and that means creating new ways to deal with each other," Watson says. "I think the city's ready for some of that." -- K.V.

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