Meet the Suburban Commandos

ImageThat’s what I call this group of people who I met almost 20 years ago when I became involved in a grassroots effort to save a community green space. Although we faced incredible odds, today that land is a Harris County Precinct 4 park.

 Over the past 18 years, we successfully protested the land sale, formed a nonprofit 501(c)3 to raise money to help build the park, held numerous fundraisers – from a spaghetti supper to a community fun run – and met monthly for more than 15 years to work with Harris County Precinct 4, and Commissioner Jerry Eversole to plan the park, raise money for a barrier-free playground with Be An Angel and work with the Norchester Garden Club to establish a butterfly garden. It was a true labor of love.

We recently met at the park site to celebrate a commemorative plaque donated by director Martin Heemer that shares the park’s history. I’m proud to have served on the board with these dedicated citizens. Here’s a video that captures the day.


They Believe!

This is one of my favorite photos of all time.

I took it 23 years ago while covering the Schlumberger Family Christmas Party. I was the freelance newsletter editor at the time and was there to take pictures for the employee publication Newsline. The company put on a great family event, so I took my sons Thomas, 6, and Patrick, 3, along for the ride.

On the way to the company headquarters on I-45 near the University of Houston, I overheard Thomas tell his little brother, “Now this is not going to be the real Santa.” Knowing how the employee who played Santa each year looked perfect for the part, I told them that yes, indeed, Schlumberger always had the real Santa.

I love the twinkle in their eyes. Can you tell they believe?

Here they are 23 years later celebrating the holiday with their grandmother, uncle and little brother Byron in Jefferson on Christmas Eve Eve 2011.

Merry Christmas everyone!  May you always believe in the joy and wonder of the miracle at Christmas!

The Town that Beer Built

I just got back from a great weekend in Shiner, Texas. My long-time colleague and dear friend Theresa Parker sponsored a weekend visit to the little town that beer built. She founded two years ago to promote Texas polka music and heritage in honor of her late father, Willie Cernoch. He called polka music his happy music, and by the smiles on the faces of the people who spent the weekend in Czech country, he was right! It’s hard not to smile when you’re listening to a polka!

Our first event of the weekend was a tour of the Shiner Brewery. Unfortunately, they don’t allow cameras inside for the brewery tour, but you can check out the fun we had before and after in this video.

Some interesting facts about the brewery:

  • Only 90 employees make all that Shiner beer you see in grocery stores!
  • Shiner Blonde sold today was the original Shiner recipe made by Kosmos Spoetzel in 1909.
  • Some of Shiner’s seasonal beers are only available in Shiner Family Packs.
  • Before being put in bottles or kegs, Shiner beer is aged for at least 30 days in storage tanks.
  • The brewery bottles 15,000 cases per day. An impressive automated bottling line fills 625 bottles per minute. The crew then cleans the equipment before bottling another type of beer.
  • The current brew master has been with the brewery for more than 30 years and promises some new things in 2012, so stay tuned!

After the brewery tour, we drove to nearby Moulton and had dinner at Kloesel’s Steakhouse, while listening and dancing to the polka sounds of Chris Rybak, whose live recording of the Shiner Polka is featured in my video. (Chris will be performing December 10-11 at the German Christmas Market in Tomball.) Theresa’s son Will Seegers, who is a music composer and French horn player, picked up the miniature trumpet for the first time and jammed with the band. Willie Cernoch would have been so proud!

Watch for more on the weekend in upcoming posts, including a Night in Old Pearl City.  And for the Thanksgiving weekend, I just picked up a six pack of Shiner Holiday Cheer. I highly recommend it.  Cheers!


Race for the Cure

What can be better than a beautiful day with friends doing something for a great cause?

Team Torma joined 38,000 of our best friends in downtown Houston on Saturday, October 1, for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure® Houston.  The weather was perfect, the atmosphere was energizing and the crowds were pretty in pink!

Team Torma is a mix of family and fellow communications colleagues and friends. This year we raised more than $2,000. Having several team members who are breast cancer survivors drives home just how many people are impacted by breast cancer and why we walk or run for a cure.

Check out the video and plan to join us next year!


Camera. Action!

Storytelling’s my game. Words are my fame.  But now I’m trying something new and fun: video storytelling.

In the past three months, I’ve had several corporate clients express the desire for video components to their communications. Before my videographer friends freak, let me clarify. They don’t plan to replace their professional video companies for producing long-shelf-life projects, like an annual review, executive message or project profile. These are international companies that want to feature more employees in the field in their communications. Or, they want a video component to a short-shelf-life news story for their intranet. In many instances, they are sending Flip-type cameras to field locations and asking employees to tell their stories YouTube style.

So I’ve decided to learn the craft of video storytelling. I know the company message and I’m likely the one writing the story, so why not be the one to create a video story, too?

My first attempt was coverage of the IABC Houston chapter’s ESIG meeting. (For those of you not in the corporate communications world that stands for International Association of Business Communicators (iABC) Entrepreneurs Strategic Interest Group.) Whew!

As a subset of IABC, we are a group of independent writers, designers, PR experts, photographers, marketers and other communications entrepreneurs who meet monthly for professional development programs. I was on the task force that planned this particular program called Speed Dating for Entrepreneurs. The goal of the meeting was to let members go one-on-one to find out more about each others’ businesses, share portfolios and identify potential partners and resources to help build our businesses.

Here’s my video story of the event.

I used my Canon S95 point-and-shoot camera to capture the video and iMovie to put it into a story format.  At first, I used a fabulous recording of Getting to Know You by the 101 Strings Orchestra, but realized that was in copyright violation. So, I switched to this Garage Band version provided to me by former Houstonian Ben Shallenberger, who is the video production manager for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C.  Thanks, Ben!

I plan to get better with my filming and production capabilities. Fellow communicator Karin Knapp and I attended a seminar at the Apple store on Friday to learn more about iMovie. We’re also going to a day-long video boot camp sponsored by Ragan Communications in Dallas in October.

But overall, I’m pleased with my first attempt. Let me know what you think!

Before and After

Ok, it’s been quite a while since I have blogged. Mainly for two reasons: 1) I always felt compelled to write a story like I do for my corporate clients – with a great lead, inverted-pyramid reporting and a fantastic ending paragraph or closing quote that sums everything up and 2) I ran out of things to say because I decided not to talk about politics and religion in my blog.

But now I’m back.  I realized the blogs I enjoy reading are personal and more conversational in tone, and include pictures. (A shout out to Rachel Blanton Cherry’s Happy Healthy Runner, Mary Wiggins’ MaryWig, Georgette Sullins’ blog and my sister Kathy Duvall’s Rock Cottage blog). And now I have something big to report that’s neither political or religious (although those topics are now fair game):  Our cabin renovations!

A little background: Five years ago, my husband got a bee in his bonnet to buy a lake house near Palestine. He found a little one-room place out in the boonies on a private lake called Lake Ioni (pronounced Eye-O-Ni). Before you become too impressed, let me just say now that it was one step above camping. But this was the view from the GREAT front porch, so I went along with it.

We had occasional cookouts there. Frank and Byron would “camp out” during the fall months and sometimes during the winter. (Did I mention there’s no heat in the cabin?)

Earlier this year, we decided to give the cabin a facelift: new roof, paint on the inside and outside, new electrical wiring. After staying at a beautiful farmhouse near LaGrange last spring, I got this bee in my own bonnet that I wanted a kitchen with the 1950s Youngstown metal cabinets and built-in farmhouse sink. My grandmother had something similar in her home. So I began searching the internet and found a website devoted to this type of kitchen cabinets.  But I eventually found the cabinets on eBay and had them shipped to Palestine from Kansas City, Missouri. That set things in motion for what i call our “Funky 50s Texas” decor. You’ll see what I mean as you scroll down.

After three months, the place is looking fabulous.  Here are some before and after pics:

Side view of cabin before and after:

Front view, before and after:

Porch before and after, featuring the wonderful metal glider and chairs I found on eBay from a seller in Alabama:

Another look at my great eBay finds.  Love the red and white!

Inside pics of cabin before and after:

Bathroom before and after:

Another before and after view:

Another view of the den:

View of bedroom area after:

Here is a closer look at the coup de gras–a 1950s refrigerator find from, where else, eBay! This was from a seller in Eastpointe,  Michigan who was clearing out the home of her grandmother, who passed away in January. The grandmother kept the 1950s Norge refrigerator upstairs in a guest kitchen and didn’t even have it plugged in. She was storing her purses in it!  It looks like it came off the showroom floor and even came with the original metal ice trays and an owner’s manual!

Love the graphics in this instruction manual:

A final pic of my ’50s-style kitchen. The yellow ’50s formica table was purchased at an antique store, Duncan Depot, in Palestine:


I guess you can tell by all these pics that I’m pleased with how things have come together.  There are a few things left to do. Brother-in-law #1, who owns an AC/Heating business, is going to install central heat and air this fall or winter when business slows a little. (A shout out for George Torma Heating and Air!)  We will also be installing a wall of antique doors to separate the bedroom.  We got the idea from this antique store:

Here are the doors we purchased at Pandora’s Box, an antique store in Frankston, to form the wall. We bought four, but will probably only need three.

And there’s still a little bit more accessorizing that needs to be done. But all in all, I love the place. I may even spend the night there every once in a while. Special thanks to my good friend and college roommate Linda Heard from Austin, who helped arrange furniture and hang pics. And of course, thanks to Frank for agreeing to my quirky pursuit of all things ’50s on eBay.

He’s happy before and after with the cabin:

Y’all come visit me again soon! I promise to write a little more frequently in the future.

Celebrating the Life of a Polka King

Even though I’m not Catholic, I want a polka Mass when I die.

I just got back from one of the most uplifting celebrations of life – the funeral of Mr. Willie Cernoch, the father of my dear friend and colleague, Theresa Parker. Mr. Cernoch passed away last week after never fully recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident the week after Easter. His funeral was a polka mass, in which the music and congregational responses are all sung to the ump-pa-pa of a polka band, complete with accordion player. Mr. Cernoch always said it was hard to be sad when listening to polka music, and he was right. (For more about this wonderful husband, father and polka king, read Theresa’s Father’s Day tribute to him in the blogpost below.)

 About 40 of his fellow members of the Polka Lovers Klub of America were there in their red and white polka dancing outfits singing polka songs during the service. I feel so fortunate to have met and danced with many of them last October when Torma Communications and 2d Design Collaborative celebrated our 25th anniversaries. When Ellen Custer, the owner of 2d Design, and I decided to have an Oktoberfest, it helped that we had Theresa on our planning team to suggest not only a great dance hall in the Heights, but also to arrange to have her father’s polka club there to liven things up. That group of 70- and 80-somethings put us Baby Boomers to shame with their spirit and stamina!

The most touching part of Mr. Cernoch’s funeral service for me was at the end when it was time for the family’s procession from the sanctuary. The Polka Klub members lined the aisle of the church and sang choruses of “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, deep in my heart”  as Mr. Cernoch’s casket passed by, followed by his family. Even though I know their hearts were breaking to lose a good friend and fellow dancer, they still could celebrate a wonderful life with joy in their voices and a suppressed swing in their step.

Rest in peace, Mr. Cernoch. You will be missed.

Mr. Cernoch (front row, third from left, wearing crown) and his beloved Polka Klub of America.

Mr. Cernoch (front row, third from left, wearing crown) and his beloved Polka Klub of America.

My Dad, Polka King

By Theresa Parker

My dad is a member of the Great Generation. He served in the army during World War II and was on one of those LSTs that emptied soldiers onto the beach at Normandy. He earned a Bronze Star. He never really talked about it though, even when my sons would interview him for a Veteran’s Day report, he wouldn’t elaborate other than to say he participated. As I was reading stories about the 65th anniversary of D-Day, I came across a veteran who said he never talked about it either until just recently. To paraphrase, he said he did what he was supposed to do when he was in Europe and when he came home that assignment was over and he went on to the next thing.

I think that’s the mantra of that generation. Do what you have to do then move on. That’s my dad, Willie Cernoch. He grew up in the farming Czech community of Dubina about 95 miles west of Houston. Dubina is on the Texas tour of Painted Churches with its quaint Catholic Church—modest on the outside, glorious on the inside. The entrance to the church has a list of hometown heroes from the war and my dad’s name is listed. Makes me proud. But there are so many more reasons to be proud of him.

He has built a life on honesty, hard work and strong faith. With only a formal education through the eighth grade, he learned a trade. He was a cement mason for 40-plus years. He helped build many landmarks in the city, most notably and one he was most proud of—the Astrodome. He worked in all kinds of weather or sometimes he didn’t work because of the weather, which made the family nervous since no work meant no pay. He also was a member of a union—not a very popular thing to admit these days. We suffered through some strikes, but the union is what gave our family insurance and a pension when he retired.

Once he moved to the city, he exchanged his country name Willie for his city name Bill. He was a mentor to young men entering the cement mason profession. Upon his retirement several wished him the best and felt they were not only better masons because of him but better people.

I never heard my father complain about working—how hard it was, how much his knees undoubtedly ached after being on them all day long finishing a slab of concrete, how brutally hot or cold it was. I’d say, “Hot day today huh, dad?” He’d answer, “I mean.” Man of few words, this was one of his signature lines. It’s just how things were. This was his job—what he was supposed to do. When he was to start a new job on a Monday, he drove to the site on Sunday to make sure he knew how to get there so he wouldn’t be late. No Google Maps or GPS back then. I think that’s probably why I arrive early everywhere to this day.

My dad has been the prince of the Polka Lovers Klub of America (PoLKofA) Texas Chapter twice. He and his Klub members helped Torma Communications and Ellen Custer's 2d design celebrate 25 years in business last October.

My dad has been on the royal court of the Polka Lovers Klub of America (PoLKofA) Texas Chapter twice. He and his Klub members helped Torma Communications and Ellen Custer's 2d design celebrate 25 years in business last October. He also served as a Klub director, booking bands and venues. No one knows more about polka history in Texas than my dad.

He got up every day, put in a hard day’s work and enjoyed coming home to a beer and dinner expertly prepared by my mom. Sounds a little like Archie Bunker, right? Wrong. He enjoyed his life, his family. During the week, you work. On Sunday, you go to church. On weekends he loved to barbecue, go fishing, dance or just listen to polka music. This is happy music he would always tell me. I think polka music was his Prozac. It helped him cope. It was his happy place. Of course when I was a teen, I wanted no part of polka music. It was so not cool. And I wasn’t even trying to be cool. I just didn’t want to be any less cool than I already was.

His work cars were always classic autos—’57 Chevy, ’63 Chevy, an old Impala not sure of the year. When it came time to get me my first car he made sure it was a tank—a four-door Bonneville that I did put quite a few dents in.

As an only child, I grew up in a modest house in the Heights. In fact, we rented until my dad and mom had saved enough to buy a house when I was in junior high. The Heights was a great place to grow up. Full of unpretentious hard-working, blue-collar families. Now I can’t afford to buy to a house there.  Somehow on our one-income living, my parents were able to send me to Catholic school. My dad felt this would give me a strong foundation. And he and my mom were always in the stands Friday nights watching me perform at half time with the drill team. Side note—I tried to be in the band and played the clarinet briefly—very badly, very briefly. I think it let Dad down as he had high hopes of me being able to play one of his favorites—the Clarinet Polka, but it wasn’t to be.

Dad loved football. He and I would watch it together every Sunday. Watching the Oilers find new ways to lose eventually became too much for my dad and he had to give it up or increase his blood pressure medication. They would make some stupid mistake and he would shout, “Oh come on!” Then leave to go to his happy polka place. I think many Oiler fans are still in therapy.

I guess you could say I’m a daddy’s girl.  He taught me to ride a bike, drive, mow the grass (not excited about that one), fish and clean fish including how to skin a catfish. We had some great conversations sitting in a boat on the lake at dawn or sometimes we said nothing at all. I even once said I wanted to be a cement mason like him but he quickly talked me out of that one. He was proud that I went to college and even though when I got into corporate journalism I don’t think he understood what I did, he was proud just the same. He was beaming when my oldest son took up the French horn and was actually good at it. And he is so proud that Will has chosen music as a career. He attended Will’s graduation from Berklee College of Music in Boston last summer and it was very special to have him there. My youngest, Alec, also has a gift for music with a talent for French horn as well and for voice. I don’t think dad has missed a performance of either of his grandsons, except this year in May.

He couldn’t attend Alec’s spring choir show because he was in the hospital. My dad was in a car wreck the Monday after Easter. He fractured his neck and lower back. He had surgery and has been recovering ever since in ICU, bouncing back from one complication after another. This Thursday he finally was moved to a regular hospital room. Through it all, I have played some of his favorite polka CDs. I think it has helped him stay in his happy place. I hope so because he has been through so much, but here again, my dad is plodding along, doing what he is supposed to do—get better. There are more dances to attend, more grandson events to attend like graduation, maybe even a wedding soon. The doctors have been amazed that this 84-year-old has been able to bounce back from some of his setbacks in ICU. They don’t understand; it’s just dad doing what he has to do. This will be a Father’s Day to remember. I salute my dad and his perseverance, his notion that life is to be celebrated. Just like polka music, it’s a gift from God.

A Tribute to My Mom – An Example to Live By

Okay, I admit I may be a little bit prejudiced, but my mother is the best mom in the world. Her name is Mary Owens and she turned 79 years young on April 4. She was born in Avinger, Texas, population 600, as the youngest child and only daughter of Marshall and Florence Felker. They named her Mary Frances, but her two older brothers called her Sis, and that is the name that has stuck with her to this day. (As a sidenote, she wanted to be called M.F. when she was a girl – something she laughs about today given the popular meaning.)

With grandson Patrick Torma, Fourth of July 2008.

With grandson Patrick Torma, Fourth of July 2008.

A third generation Texan, she has a personality that reminds me of former Texas Governor Ann Richards – classy, witty, fun to be around and someone who can turn a Texas expression with the best of them. When the temperatures go below freezing, it’s not just cold – it’s colder than a well digger’s ass in Butte, Montana. Someone is not just anxious or jumpy – they are as nervous as a whore in church.

My mother taught me a lot of valuable lessons in life just by her own example of living. Some of them:

Dancing with her oldest grandson on his wedding day, October 2008.

Dancing with her oldest grandson Thomas Torma on his wedding day, October 2008.

Stay young at heart. My mom graduated from the University of Texas with a music degree, but after teaching a few years, she stayed at home to raise me and my older sister and younger brother. She was one of those “hip” mothers that my teenage friends wanted to be around. She stayed current with the latest songs and wasn’t shocked by the changing pop culture. I’ll never forget when a photo of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller holding up his middle finger to young voters at a rally in 1976 appeared on the front page of the Dallas Morning News and my grandmother asked her what it meant. Of course, my mom knew the meaning and had used the gesture herself occasionally, but she told my grandmother it meant “go to hell.” Once, after a summer visit with grandma, my middle son, who was probably six at the time, asked me, “Did Meemaw cuss when you were a little girl?” My children still laugh about her chasing them with a flyswatter if they misbehaved. Today, they think she is as cool as my friends did back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

With great grandson Byron Torma at Avinger UMC, Fall 2007.

With great grandson Byron Torma at Avinger UMC, Fall 2007.

Give back to your community. Although a stay-at-home mom, she was a tireless worker and community volunteer. When a botanist from East Texas State University discovered there were more species of wildflowers in the triangle of little towns in Cass County where we lived, my mother co-founded the Wildflower Trails of Texas, a yearly community festival held the last weekend in April. It is still in full swing 39 years later. She was the first woman to serve on the Avinger ISD school board in the 1960s. When my father died in 1997, she moved to my grandparents’ home within the city limits and finally was able to run for city office. She served on the city council for six years and became the first woman mayor of Avinger at the age of 74.  She has probably held every lay office in the United Methodist Church, not to mention playing as church organist for more than three decades in the Methodist church where I grew up. She continues to teach Sunday school and serves on the church Finance committee. She also manages the family timber business with my brother. To say I’m proud is an understatement. 

Change happens, life happens; so roll with the flow. My mom has never been afraid of change or believed in hanging on to the past. She keeps in touch by email and was sending text messages to her grandchildren long before I had the feature on my cell phone. If the family has a “crisis” (and there have been a few!), she doesn’t dwell on it. Sure, she may be concerned or upset, but after it passes, her standard comment to me is, “Well, there’s another chapter for the book.”

With grandchildren and great grandson at my grandmother's house, Christmas 2006.

With grandchildren and great grandson at my grandmother’s house, Christmas 2006.

About five years ago, we had our last Christmas Eve celebration at my grandparents’ home in Avinger because my mother decided to move to another town to be closer to my sister. Being hopelessly sentimental, I sadly commented that this would be our last Christmas celebration in a home that for me held more than 50 years of memories. My mother looked at me over her wine glass and in classic fashion said, “Move on.”

Fight for what you believe in. My mom grew up in an era and in a part of the state where the civil rights movement moved at a snail’s pace. She told me recently she remembered as a little girl in the 1930s going downtown on election day and seeing a dummy in a noose hanging in front of the town’s polling place with a sign that said, “This ‘n-word’ voted.” She thought it was a grave injustice then and the terrible memory seems seared in her consciousness still today. So fast-forward 70 years later when she came to town on Martin Luther King Day and saw that the city secretary was working on the national holiday. At the next city council meeting, my mother made a motion to declare MLK Day a city holiday and it was narrowly defeated. She was incensed. Realizing the all-white council needed some minority representation, she encouraged a young African American woman to run for city council the next election. She did and won. Guess what: MLK Day was voted as a city holiday shortly afterward. I saw the woman a couple of weeks ago when I went back home for the Wildflower Trails and she told me she was still on the city council. I’m proud my mother stood up for what was just and made a difference in a community not known for embracing change.

While moms can teach us important lessons in life by imparting wisdom and advice, I believe HOW they live makes a greater impact. Because of my mother’s willingness to stay forever young, I formed a soccer team when I was 40 even though I had never played sports in my life. (BTW, I never learned to play the game, but I loved wearing the uniform!) There’s no doubt her community activism impacted my ongoing 15-year labor of love to save a community green space that is now a Harris County park. And while we often disagree politically, I know her determination to stand up for what she believes in influenced my decision to serve as a delegate to the Democratic state convention last summer and spend 12 hours on election day as a clerk in last November’s historic election.

So Happy Mother’s Day, Sis Owens, and to all the other mothers out there who are setting examples to live by!

With me in Paris, March 2007

With me in Paris, March 2007.

The Power of Pithy Prose

I love to read outstanding news writing by a reporter who avoids the usual 5Ws of standard reporting and captures the true essence of a story with short, pithy prose.

Such was the lead of a story last week in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the state representative from Terrell, Texas, who commented during a hearing on Voter ID law that Asian-American Texans might consider adopting names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.” Betty Brown’s remark was heard around the country as media outlets nationwide reported on the gaffe. But the Star-Telegram’s article by Bud Kennedy turned an average lead into a great one.

Here’s the headline and opening paragraphs:

East Texas lawmaker tells Asian-Americans to get whole ‘nuther name

Every session, somebody in the Texas Legislature says something so phenomenally stupid, America takes note.

This session, that task has fallen on Rep. Betty Brown, a Terrell Republican, who came from her East Texas ranch to tell a Chinese-American lawyer at a “voter ID” hearing that if Asian-Americans can’t get accurate IDs, they should pick new names “easier for Americans to deal with.”

Gotta love it! In comparison, here’s how other newspapers in the state reported the incident:

Houston Chronicle:

Democratic Party wants apology from lawmaker

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Democratic Party demanded an apology Wednesday from state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell for suggesting Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.”

 Austin-American Statesman:

 Lawmaker apologizes for remark about Asian American names

A Texas lawmaker has apologized for her comments regarding names of voters of Asian descent.

Dallas Morning News:

Texas Democrats demand apology for Betty Brown’s remarks on Asian voters’ names

AUSTIN -The Texas Democratic Party has demanded an apology from state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, for suggesting that voters of Asian descent should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.”

Hats off to Star-Telegram Reporter Bud Kennedy for a fantastic headline and lead that stands out among the standard noise.

In his article, Kennedy also reports of a satirical Web site ( that went up shortly after Brown made her comments called the “Betty Brown Name Generator.”

I visited the site and according to the translator, my name is Tammy “Pottery Barn” Brown. Click on the link above to find out yours.

Only in Texas!