On the morning of August 1, 1966, Forrest Preece was riding high. A young undergrad at UT, he played sax in the Longhorn Band and had just been hired for an advertising job at the University Co-Op. Little did he know, when he stepped out of the old Rexall Drugstore on the drag, that he was one of the luckiest young men on campus that fateful day.
Charles Whitman, a UT student, was atop the UT tower in the midst of a rampage that would ultimately lead to the death of 14 people and the wounding of 32 others. Preece was standing outside with a few friends, within range of where the gunman could have targeted him, at first unaware of what was happening.
“The guy standing four feet to my right got killed that day,” he said. “It’s just a matter of him deciding to kill [the other guy] instead of me. I was standing out there with friends just like little clay pigeons waiting to get shot.”
To this day, Preece flinches when people come up behind him and grab his arm or tap his back at parties or in crowds. Had circumstances been different–if Whitman had targeted him–Preece might not have placed the advertisement that led him to his wife, Linda Ball.
Preece and his wife have been happily married for 34 years, and they met when they were both working for MRI Systems Corporation. Preece had placed an advertisement in the Dallas Morning News for a position at the company; Ball saw the ad one day and thought, why not? She was hired a month later. The couple went on their first date, at Armadillo World Headquarters, on Thanksgiving night 1974 and were married six months later.
“I like to say I placed the ad to get her down here,” Preece said with a smile, as they discussed their love of Austin and their lifelong devotion to nonprofits while sitting in the living room of their home.
Preece’s interest in ballet stems from his childhood in Austin, when he watched a production (by the initial company that would later become Ballet Austin) on the concrete stage at Zilker Hillside Theater, and he was curious about how far it had come. He’d seen a few student opera productions at UT, loved them, and he wanted to see what the professionals could do.
One day in December 1993, they decided to make a thousand- dollar donation to each of ten different nonprofits in the city. Ballet Austin proposed a higher donation for sponsorship, which led to Preece’s position on the organization’s board of directors a few years later. Once the couple decided to work with Ballet Austin, they were welcomed in as part of the family. The couple was also involved with AIDS Services of Austin’s Red Ribbon dinners, has given to Project Transitions, and they’ve served as screeners for the Austin Film Festival, this year watching nearly 200 films. although they’ve been involved with many causes over the years, those benefiting the arts and children are two areas of focus for them.
“We started with Outyouth,” said Ball. “When they were struggling, [Forrest], Eugene [Sepulveda] and a bunch of people put together a fundraiser.”
This networked, fun-loving couple can barely go anywhere in town–whether it’s an art opening, a major benefit gala, or having dinner at Jeffrey’s–without running into a close friend or associate. Ball is grateful: “We met a lot of people that way, and you don’t give to organizations; you give to people, and if your friends are involved, you donate and get involved.”
Preece also serves on the board of Badgerdog Literary Publishing, an organization that, among other things, runs a creative writing program for at-risk kids. “They get an outlet for their creative sides that they wouldn’t get otherwise,” he said. “They become more emotionally involved with school; they get a more pronounced sense of self-worth.”
“Our involvement with gay and lesbian organizations is because a lot of our friends are gay and many of the directors of the arts organizations are gay,” Ball said.
Preece and Ball grew up and went to college at a time when being gay meant something very different. Although they both were acquainted with gay people, they didn’t necessarily know for sure about anyone’s sexuality, and the openness that many people take for granted now had not yet fully developed.
They both retired before they were 60. Preece, a native Austinite who had worked in the advertising business for 39 years and ran his own firm, Good Right Arm Advertising Agency, for 28 of those, was ready to devote himself to other pursuits. Ball, who worked for a number of different companies as a programmer, also wanted to enjoy the fruits of retirement: work with nonprofits, times with friends and each other, and of, course, taking care of their parents– three of whom are more than 90 years old. “We keep our social calendar up, with charities and our parents,” said Ball.
“My dad will be 100 in November,” said Preece. “He quit smoking when he was 69 years old and I think that’s his secret.”
Beyond his work for Ballet Austin, Preece writes a weekly column for West Austin News, was a longtime contributor to the publication you’re holding right now, and is writing a meticulous chronicle of the renovation of Arthouse at the Jones center, which is reopening as a completely revamped space this fall.
Before the end of our conversation, Preece shared a funny story that happened at a party when he was giving tips to an acquaintance who wanted to know what places to visit in Paris, as Preece and Ball have been to the city of Lights a few times. “He pulled me over, kind of confidentially, and asked, ‘We’re not going to run into too many homosexuals over there, are we?’”
They both laughed at the memory of it. Preece wondered aloud how one could answer that question and Ball noted that there were probably 20 gay people at that party.
They both love to travel, and would like to do more of it in the coming years, so long as they maintain their family commitments. Preece loves jazz, checking out Austin’s fine dining establishments, and spending time with his wife. “Living downtown has made things simpler,” Preece said. “Change happens, whether you like it or not.”
“Having a partner for life’s perils and pleasures is very nice,” Ball said. “We have so much shared history.”