In Like Flynn

photographs by Jana Birchum

"Oh, I'm sorry," Charlotte Flynn trills sweetly. "I keep getting off the subject. Now, where were we?" The hard-to-harness subject here is Charlotte Flynn, the woman who keeps steering the conversation away from herself to talk about her passion. Make that passions, plural. And that right there pretty much sums up Flynn's character. She is a selfless crusader who, though she claims to be 78 and with a bum knee, can run circles around her much younger comrades in the advocacy community. On second thought, better strike that last sentence. Flynn considers it a subtle form of "ageism" to say that someone looks or acts younger than their age. Which brings us to the Gray Panthers, an intergenerational organization that has occupied Flynn's life for 20 years, the last six of which she served as chairwoman of the national board. That's the first little-known local fact about Flynn, who retired from her board position last month. The second is that Flynn is largely credited with saving the national organization, which threatened to crumble when the group's beloved founder, the radical Maggie Kuhn, grew too ill to lead the group in the same charismatic manner she had employed since 1972. When she first came upon the national scene, Kuhn, a tiny woman with white hair and spectacles thrilled in the shock value of one of her trademarks of the Seventies -- a raised fist and an "Off Your Asses!" command to audiences made up of consciousness-raising grandmothers and the like.

Flynn's style of leadership was decidedly different but equally charismatic, says Tim Fuller, executive director of the Gray Panthers Project Fund in Washington, D.C. "Charlotte was instrumental in converting the organization from having a single influence -- Maggie Kuhn -- to a collective influence. And she brought on a team of people to make that collective work." Flynn apparently made supporters out of her earlier detractors in the organization. At the group's national convention in San Francisco in September, says Fuller, "her enemies folded... they stood up and recognized Charlotte for Gray Panthers' survival."

Apparently Kuhn had recognized Flynn's leadership abilities and organizing panache. By the time Kuhn's health forced her to minimize her work in the Gray Panthers, she was well acquainted with Flynn and impressed by her national reputation. More importantly, Kuhn must have realized, Flynn was an assiduous networker -- a key survival trait in the nonprofit world. Though Flynn secured the chair by way of an election, it is doubtful she would have carried the vote without Kuhn's blessing. "Maggie fundamentally designated Charlotte to be her successor," says Fuller.

Even so, Kuhn was a tough act to follow, and when the founder died in April 1995, there was a prevailing fear among the membership that the Gray Panthers would roll over and die as well. "It was Charlotte's single-minded optimism that pulled the organization through a very narrow strait," says Fuller. "She salvaged the group and put it back on course." Yet Fuller believes Flynn isn't given the recognition she deserves in Austin. "Austin doesn't take much stock in reputations built outside its own environment. It's kind of cliquish in that sense," says Fuller, who owns a home in Austin.

You wouldn't know that to hear the way the locals talk about Flynn. First off, Flynn has been in Austin's trenches for a long time, says Lanetta Cooper, an attorney who performs pro bono work for the Gray Panthers. "She has always been very active and supportive of all good causes," Cooper says. "And because she is such a good -- a very good -- networker, she has tremendous accesses to resources."

Indeed, Flynn, a registered nurse by profession, has been a very visible advocate on the local front for many years, fighting for nursing home reform, health care, the environment, and against utility rate increases and selling the city-owned Brackenridge Hospital, just to name a few. Flynn and her family of three children moved to Austin in 1970 when husband Bill Flynn took a job as a civil engineer on building a new Seton Hospital. The couple met as students at Washington University in St. Louis, and very quickly discovered they had similar common cause interests. Having moved frequently when Bill was in the Navy, Charlotte Flynn did what she always did after landing in a new town: She headed for the local Girl Scouts office.

"With all that moving, I used Girl Scouts as my entree into each community," she says. Austin was no different. She quickly became immersed in the Lone Star Girl Scouts Council. Later in the Seventies, she grew concerned that many girls were getting kicked out of the scouts for behavioral problems. Eliminating the troublemakers didn't seem like a logical step for troubled teens, so Flynn got involved in the Texas Coalition for Juvenile Justice, where she helped organize the group's International Year of the Child activities in 1976.

The following year, she met the late Arthelia "Cookie" Smith, who was in the early stages of organizing the Austin Gray Panthers. The women struck up an instant friendship and immediately plunged into building a local organization from scratch. "We in the Gray Panthers are criticized for not having a `focus,' but that's really what I love about it. We're involved in so many issues and we're fighting for old and young alike."

And the locals are quick to praise Flynn for her work. "Charlotte is Austin's Mother Jones," says former Councilmember Brigid Shea. "She's an inspiration and we really need more role models like her."

Tom "Smitty" Smith, executive director of Citizen Action, calls Flynn a folk heroine who taught him the fine art of organizing. He recalled a time in the early Eighties when he came upon Flynn leafletting people who were lining up at the post office on April 15 to mail their tax returns. "It was a time when people were grumbling about welfare and taxes, when in reality the lion's share of the national budget was going to the military. So it was an incredibly fertile moment to see Charlotte trying to demolish the theory about welfare as people waited in line to pay their taxes."

Says another advocate, John Hildreth, president of the Coalition for Affordable Power in Texas: "If I could identify a saint in the public interest community it would be Charlotte Flynn."

Now that Flynn has stepped down from her national board seat, she is devoting herself to fundraising efforts on behalf of the Austin Gray Panthers. Last month, the local group celebrated its 20th anniversary and gave a special nod to Flynn, who fluttered enthusiastically about the hotel meeting room wearing a bright purple dress and a handsome corsage. The only thing she was sorry about that day was that the group had been able to secure the donated hotel room for only two hours. "That's a real bummer," she said, as she cleared some Gray Panthers literature off of the table. "I wish we could stay longer and enjoy ourselves."

While Flynn acknowledges she never was much of a "homemaker type," she is considered among her friends to be an accomplished cook. "And she makes a very good coffee cake," marvels Venola Schmidt, a longtime Panther who took the lead on the group's recent opposition to the city's plan to privatize its health care clinics. "She enjoys spending time with her family and her granddaughters. But really," Schmidt adds, "keeping up with what's going on is Charlotte's big pastime. She has to be in the know."

True to form, Flynn is a voracious reader of periodicals and subscribes to such publications as Mother Jones, The Texas Observer and the liberal-leaning National Catholic Reporter. "We're Catholic," Flynn acknowledges, "but we're not the kind that the Pope approves of." In two weeks, Charlotte and her husband, a civil engineer with the city's water/wastewater department, will attend a Call to Action conference in Detroit as part of a national movement seeking reforms in the Catholic Church.

By now it's fairly apparent that to understand Charlotte Flynn, it is important to understand her passion for advocacy work. "I was visiting a friend in California not too long ago and of course, I was talking about my interests," says Flynn. "And she says to me, `Charlotte, you're obsessed! What do you do for fun?' And I said, `This is it. This is how I have fun!'"

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