She Changed the World
Civic activist Shudde Bryson Fath, BBA ’37, was role model for leadership.
The McCombs community has lost its oldest graduate, but her life story will remain an inspiration for generations.
Shudde Bryson Fath, BBA ’37, who died Dec. 9 at the age of 106, was a trailblazer at the business school, UT, Austin, and Texas for decades. And throughout that long life, her connections to McCombs brought joy and meaning.
“We like to talk about our students changing the world. There is no better role model than Shudde Fath,” said Dean Lillian Mills. “She was an iconic leader.”
“Our McCombs family is deeply saddened by her passing. Her life’s work is an example of the values that we hold so dear at McCombs. We will continue her legacy by preparing future leaders to follow in her footsteps. I am so thankful that she shared her memories with our Centennial StoryCorps project just a few months ago.”
Fath was sparking change the minute she stepped onto the mostly male UT campus in 1933. Her path of passion and tenacity led to graduating with highest honors, a 42-year career with the Texas Employment Commission (now Texas Workforce Commission), a groundbreaking equal-rights case and years spent advocating for Austin citizens, the environment, and other causes close to her heart.
Read news reports about Shudde Fath’s civic activism, her support of the green city and her history-making fight for equal pay for women here: https://www.statesman.com/story/news/local/2022/12/09/austin-activist-shudde-fath-dies-106-years-old-obituary/69715479007/
After becoming the first woman in Texas to win a gender discrimination case, against the Texas Employment Commission in 1980, she summed up her boundless zeal with this advice for new graduates, “You gotta give a damn about something and then work hard to try to make it happen.”
Interviewed for StoryCorps
The McCombs community remained dear to Fath through the decades, and she was proud to be interviewed October 1 for a StoryCorps showcase honoring the McCombs Centennial in 2022. (Her full conversations which include her daughter, Betsy Fath Hiller, will be available online in the coming weeks.)
“She was a quite a force. I would have loved spending all day talking with her,” said videographer Jim Canning, who facilitated the StoryCorps recordings and captured video of Fath and Hiller as well. “She was so happy to be part of the university and excited to talk about her connections. And she had a wicked sense of humor.”
During interviews, Fath chuckled retelling her success conquering a difficult accounting exam and a professor who thought women did not belong in business school. She relied on her childhood puzzle-solving skills to unlock the exam’s spreadsheet answer, much to the surprise of her classmates.
“I was so happy. I just went skipping across the 40 Acres back to my dormitory.”
That professor? “He picked on me. He would call on me more often in class and seemed to hope that I would fail to answer the question.” Fath proved him wrong.
A non-traditional role
Valedictorian of Bastrop High School and a math whiz, Fath chose UT’s McCombs Business School to pursue practical options instead of more traditional “women’s” roles.
“Back then, women could be teachers, nurses, secretaries, or sales clerks,” she recalled for McCombs magazine in 2016. “We seldom had business careers. I was one of three students in the business school to graduate with highest honors in 1937, in a class of more than 160.
“I thought, if you don’t want to teach math, learn to use math.”
An orange-blood with unflagging support for the school, Fath was featured in the 2016 campaign when both she and the McCombs BBA celebrated a 100-year milestone. She was interviewed for a story and pictured on the magazine’s back cover.
“She was so proud to talk to us,” remembered Matt Turner, the McCombs market researcher and writer who interviewed her in the Zilker Park living room that had welcomed so many change-makers over the years. “Clearly, she had already led a long life of involvement, and thought we should all give back. We need more like her.”
Turner recalled a number-crunching story Fath shared from her days scrutinizing testimony before the Electric Utility Commission where she crusaded for fair rates in the 1970s. “She would glance at her notes, make a few scratches and look up at the speaker: ‘That would be wonderful if it were true, but your numbers just don’t add up.’ She kept everyone on their toes.”
Fath kept watch on Austin’s infrastructure well past the century mark and was widely appreciated for her command of the facts and long-lived dedication. She was treasurer for Save Barton Springs Association for 29 years and served on Austin’s Electric Utility Commission for 40 years.
“Shudde Fath is among the all-time greatest activists and civic leaders in Austin,” said Kim McKnight, historic preservation and tourism program manager for the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman. “She fought tirelessly for the environment and for progressive causes and was an incredible champion of women’s rights.”
As she reflected during her StoryCorps interview just weeks before her death, Fath’s lifelong mantra was simple, but powerful.
“You can’t do it alone. You need help. And you don’t win them all. But things might be worse if you hadn’t tried.”
Shudde Fath, 106, never stopped trying.
Celebration of life and full obituary. https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/austin-tx/shudde-bryson-fath-11053035
Story by Sandra Kleinsasser