An Alumna Reflects on Tri Towers, and the Friendships She Made There

Today, when you walk by  our former home, you won’t get a sense of the energy it teemed with 35 years ago. Tri Towers, the longstanding off-campus dormitory that has housed thousands of Longhorns is now an abandoned building, slated for demolition in early 2020 to make way for some (admittedly) nicer dorms.

But in August 1983, our days were filled with building veggie supremes all day at Conans Pizza on Anderson Lane, drinking at the Poodle Dog Lounge, and seeing David Bowie on his “Serious Moonlight Tour” at the Erwin Center. Just before fall semester, my roommate-to-be, Suzanne Smiley, BA ’86, of Houston, and I went on a hellishly hot camping trip with my family to Inks Lake, a reservoir on the Colorado River in the Hill Country. Somehow, Suzanne contracted blood poisoning from a cut on her foot. She was still on crutches when it was time to move into the dorms at 24th and Rio Grande, but we didn’t care. As former Jester Center West neighbors, we were preparing to spend our junior year at Tri Towers—the off-campus private dorms in West Campus. We were about to make friendships that would last three decades and beyond.

After two years in the College of Business Administration (now the McCombs School of Business), where I had been struggling to follow in the footsteps of my accountant parents, I was not only upgrading to West Campus, but I was also changing my major to journalism.

During the 1983-84 school year, I could have lived at home with my family in northwest Austin, catching the orange-and-white bus from Far West Boulevard. But rather than insist I commute to campus, my parents found the money to let me live near UT. For that, I will always be grateful.

It was the first year the all-girl high-rise built in 1969 was going co-ed. Suzanne and I were assigned B Tower, apartment 906. It was approximately 600 square feet of freedom. We were going from the dingy vinyl pullout “couches” of Jester to sprawling twin beds in a fully furnished apartment. We said goodbye to down-the-hall showers and toilets and the infamously underappreciated Jester cafeteria food and hello to a private bathroom and our own kitchen. I hung a huge poster of Tom Petty between the beds, and in the name of school spirit we adopted a little white cat with orange spots. We called her Alex.

Best of all, Suzanne and I had a balcony nine stories up overlooking what was then known as Posse West and Abel’s, and a view of campus, just six blocks away. We also towered over the ATO house on Rio Grande until it burned down in a string of frat house fires that year. Across 23rd Street, on the ground floor of the Tri Towers parking garage, were three of the most popular nighttime hotspots—Papers, Tricky Mickey’s, and Renegades.

On the ninth floor at Tri Towers, our guy neighbor two doors down had a giant boa constrictor and never went to class. He once talked us into going to the Hyatt for their fancy dessert bar, his treat. Turns out, we ended up having to pay. But he later let us borrow his Datsun 280Z, and we drove it out to Hamilton Pool.  That was back before you needed a reservation to swim there.

When classes started that fall, UT was celebrating its 100th birthday. One afternoon at the Texas Union, students ate pieces of an 8-and-a-half-foot-tall cake replica of the UT Tower. At the beginning of the year, when Suzanne was still on crutches, I tried a social experiment to see if I could generate some of the attention she was getting. While Suzanne was propped up against the wall outside the convenience store at the base of Tri Towers, I borrowed her crutches and hobbled inside to buy beer (the drinking age was 19 then). I wanted to see if people would open the door and carry my six-pack to the counter. It worked.

The real early ’80s campus quirkiness shone through when three smart and hilarious freshmen girls from Incarnate Word High School in San Antonio moved in. It seemed like every weekend they had parties, inviting their friends and siblings from San Antonio and other colleges.  Loud music—usually the Pretenders, Pat Benatar, the Cars, and other MTV favorites—pulsated through the cinderblock walls. Things crescendoed with an epic Police concert after-party. I was alternately irritated and in complete admiration of their tight bond. I was an Air Force brat who graduated from high school in the Philippines on the other side of the planet. They grew up together 90 miles from UT and were part of a San Antonio circle of friends they called The Dirty Dozen.

By April, when so many UT students were gravitating to Eeyore’s birthday party in Pease Park along Lamar Boulevard, I was with the Dirty Dozen celebrating Fiesta in San Antonio. The minute they asked me to join them at Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA), I threw my clothes and toothbrush into my hard-plastic typewriter case and didn’t look back. When one of their parents dropped us off at Tri Towers that Sunday, Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” was on the radio. I knew right then that these would be “the good old days.”

Today, 36 years later, these San Antonio Crissie Hynde fans—Denise Raver, BA ’87, Valerie Espinosa, BA ’87, Lisa Green, BA ’87—are my lifelong friends. So is Carlos Arcos, JD ’90, one of the Dirty Dozen who was at Baylor at the time but went on to UT for law school. Valerie is an endocrinologist in Austin, Denise has an organic bed and sleep company in Los Angeles, and Lisa is a deputy attorney general for the State of Pennsylvania.

My work has kept me in Austin, and in the early 2000s my company EnviroMedia was located just blocks away from Tri Towers at 25th Street and Lamar. It was good to be back in the old neighborhood. EnviroMedia later moved to two other locations, and we closed the company in September 2018 after nearly 22 years in business. Today, whenever I have business at UT, I always drive by Tri Towers and think of my pals.

Not every memory is happy. Our worlds were rocked during Fiesta this past April, when one of the original Dirty Dozen, Norma Villarreal Brooks, died from injuries sustained in a car wreck. If you live in San Antonio, you may have heard this story on the news. Norma, who spent more than 30 years with USAA and was a graduate of Our Lady of the Lake University, was a well-known volunteer for Therapy Animals of San Antonio, and her rescue dog Shanti had been anointed “King Anbarkio” of Fiesta’s Pooch Parade. Shanti and Norma’s sons went on to represent her at Fiesta posthumously, and we were devastated. It was surreal, and the world’s worst reason for a reunion.

A couple of weeks later, in late May, I was attending an Austin Habitat for Humanity board meeting. One of the staffers reported Habitat’s ReStore was to receive all the furnishing of “University Towers” (the newer name for our Tri Towers), which was to be demolished. I immediately texted the San Antonio gang. We collectively and digitally gasped. Remember the time Denise accidentally dropped Lisa’s rent check down the elevator shaft? Was it a sandwich, apple core, or a cigarette tossed over the balcony that caused a policeman to show up to the apartment one Saturday morning?

Youthful antics aside, this was a sad moment for us all, especially so soon after Norma’s funeral. Tri Towers was no posh high-rise. In fact, Denise’s father recently reminded me he used to call it “Fawlty Towers.” But it has been a monument to a lifetime of friendships for us and to five decades of West Campus life for thousands of UT students.

But those days are gone. In mere months, three towers of dormitory brick will be knocked down in West Campus to make way for Phases 1 and 2 of “The Standard” luxury student high-rise apartments.

Abel’s is still there as Cain & Abel’s, but for how long? I can still taste the juicy cheeseburgers of our old haunt GM Steakhouse, now a Vietnamese restaurant across the street from what is now a Target at Dobie. Tri Towers may be going away, but I can’t help but wonder how many decades of friendships like ours are still intact.

During my UT days, I lived at Kinsolving, and Jester East and West dorms but I am not in touch with any of those former roommates (although it would be lovely to hear from any of them). It’s humbling to realize the sheer luck of place and time that was the ninth floor of Tri Towers in 1983 has given me the gift of a lifetime of laughs, heartaches, and deep friendship.

Photographs, from top: The Cactus yearbook; courtesy Valerie Salinas-Davis; The Daily Texan; courtesy Therapy Animals of San Antonio

 
 
 

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