Austin Elders: Meet Sara Laas, the 94-Year-Old Who Couldn’t Stay Away From Austin

This independent woman won’t be “put in a box”

Sara Laas (photo by Katherine Irwin)

Sara Laas has lived all over Texas, and she has lived as far away as Venezuela. But there’s something about Austin that’s special, the 94-year-old on-and-off Austin resident will tell you. There must be, because it keeps pulling her back.

Sara, who moved to Austin four times throughout her life, grew up in the border town of Laredo (it was small then) before moving to Houston in 1947 to attend Rice University. At the time, female students were not allowed to live on campus, so Laas boarded with a family. In search of a more typical college experience, she transferred to UT-Austin after two years.

By the time she transferred, “It was a little late to be in a dorm,” Sara said. “At that time, they didn’t have apartments, they had boarding houses – they were all girls or all guys. So I lived in boarding houses – the one on San Antonio Street and the next year, my senior year, the one on Rio Grande.”

While she was a student at UT, Sara said the highlight of her day was hearing the Tower bells ring at noon. She majored in English, which she considered a bit rebellious because women were expected to go into nursing or teaching. After graduating, she jumped around different places and fields, working jobs in teaching, human resources, and television.

“In those days, you followed your husband around and picked up whatever job you could find where he was,” Sara said.

She thanks her English degree for teaching her widely applicable analytical skills. She said UT didn’t have formal programs for many of the fields she ended up working in, like human resources and film. “You have to be prepared for the next thing, which is the best thing about Austin – the next thing is always here first,” Sara said.

Sara moved to Austin for the second time in 1972. She’d just gotten a divorce and wanted a credit card.

“When you think about it, it’s not safe to carry around enough cash in case you have a car accident or need to take your child to the hospital or something like that,” she said. “It’s not safe to have that much cash on you.”

“You have to be prepared for the next thing, which is the best thing about Austin – the next thing is always here first.” – Sara Laas

But getting a credit card was a challenge, as most banks refused to issue them to women. The law also said legally married women couldn’t own their own credit cards – and a separate law said Sara needed to reside in a county for six months before she could file for divorce there.

So Sara waited for six months, then went to a bank. She recalls bringing a briefcase in an attempt to look more “businesslike.” Banks could refuse to issue credit cards to women until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 became law; however, in 1972 Texas passed its Equal Rights Amendment.

“I was able to say that’s the law and was stubborn enough to sit in the bank for three hours while they tried to ignore me,” Sara said. “Finally [the banker] gave up and gave me a credit card.”

Sara moved away again in 1975 after remarrying. She moved back to Travis County in 1993, living in the Bee Cave area but often visiting the city.

The first time Sara had lived in Austin, the city was two things: the university and the Capitol. By 1993, the city was changing. Live music, film, and technology industries grew, along with attitudes toward them. Museums seemed to be popping up. And Lady Bird Lake had gone through a transformation, a result of a beautification effort spearheaded by Lady Bird Johnson.

The city became more diverse. Sara welcomed the change. Her hometown, Laredo, had refugees from all over the world, she said, so she learned to get along with people from everywhere. Austin also became more international, she said, as events like South by Southwest brought people from around the world.

Sara left Austin in 2012 for a few years but returned again for the last time in 2015. She bought a house in the Mueller neighborhood, where she’s lived since.

“It’s frustrating when you’re just trying to be a human being and people want to put you in a box,” Sara said. “But that’s why I keep coming back to Austin, because it’s not as boxed as a lot of places. That’s why I’ve come to Austin four times; it’s the only place I feel free to be me.”

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Austin Elders, Equal Rights Amendment, Laredo, UT-Austin

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