Sometimes a snap decision can be life changing. Take the case of a Houston banker who accompanied his friends to a horse sale at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo one Saturday morning. A pretty filly came through and caught his eye. Before he knew it, his hand flew up to bid on her, and the next moment she was his.
Mind you, this was a man who had ridden horses when he was twelve, but hadn’t been in a saddle for thirty years. He had nowhere to board the horse and was scheduled to leave for vacation the next day. Fortunately his dentist volunteered to keep her until the impulsive banker could figure out what he was going to do.
To the banker’s surprise, his dentist friend sent the horse to a cutting horse trainer. “I’ll fall off!” he exclaimed when he found out what had happened. And sure enough he did. But after a series of mishaps, the banker found his new passion and recently was inducted into the National Cutting Horse Hall of Fame.
“I did fall off,” explains Don Neuenschwander, “my first time out, I cut nine calves and fell off seven times.”
This was only one of the many mishaps that happened to “Neuen,” as he came to be called, recounted in an entertaining book Cuttin’ Capers by author Gala Nettles, published in 1992 and reissued in 2011. And Cutter Sue, his first filly, would be just one of many horses Don would ride in shows all over the United States.
Don is a lifetime VP of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, which raises over $15 million dollars for scholarships.
A graduate of UT, Don worked as an accountant before entering the banking industry. Back in the 1970s there were many struggling banks in Texas. One of these he purchased and as wife Kathy says, “He bought the bank and he got me with it!” She was an employee there and became his secretary. They got to know each other well before they married. She shared his love of travel and together they and their horses crisscrossed the country.
Kathy, a gourmet cook, who has taken many cooking classes, including a ten-day course at the Capisano Wine & Culinary Institute in Italy, has always loved to entertain. She learned early on that when Don said he’d invited two or three couples for dinner she should plan for double that.
An illustration of Don’s largesse is when they were at a horse show in Batesville, Mississippi. He told Kathy he’d invited eight people to dinner. She planned to make enough food to share leftovers with the horse show staff and wasn’t too worried. The menu consisted of link sausage appetizers, pork chops, potatoes au gratin, and banana pudding for dessert. Thirty-two people showed up!
“I felt like Jesus with the loaves and fishes!” Kathy exclaims, “But I made it work and everyone had a good time.”
Don’s children are a source of pride for him and Kathy. Son Brody Neuenschwander is a world renowned calligrapher and artist. “I named him Brody James after the Stanford football player,” Don says, “I thought he might want drop our hard to pronounce last name, but he didn’t.” The name is Swiss and means “newcomer in town.” Brody went to Princeton University and then received a PhD in art history at Courtauld Institute in England. He and his wife, Nadine and their daughter, Clara, live in Brugges, Belgium. He is the official illuminator for both the Belgian and British royal houses, and created the scroll that Princess Diana presented to John Gielgud upon his knighthood. Brody’s website is worth a look for the amazing artwork he’s created for film, stage and public installations: www.brodyneuenschwander.com
Elder daughter Caron owns LaMay Designs in Houston and younger daughter Christi is the Chief Development Officer of Genesys Works, a non-profit that enables inner-city high school students to break through barriers and discover through meaningful work experience that they can succeed as professionals in the corporate world.
Don and Kathy are selling their Houston home but plan to keep an apartment there so they can stay close to the children and grandchildren. In addition to the two daughters and one son-in-law, Rob, they have two granddaughters, Phoebe and Loulie, in Houston. Caron’s older daughter, Sophia, is at college in Florida.
“You know how it is,” says Kathy, “they’re so busy, if we want to see them, we had better go there.”
Don retired from cutting competitions but he and Kathy are still active in another of their passions: the MyFriends Foundation, which Don started in 1972 to help abused, abandoned and traumatized children. They are active fundraisers. The non-profit is run solely by volunteers. Money is raised to support other small non-profits that reach children in need.
One of the projects that is most dear to their hearts is the Teddy Bear Program. “At first we thought, how can teddy bears help kids,” says Kathy. “But then I spoke to a police officer who told me about when he responded to a domestic violence call. The dad was taken to jail, the mom was taken to the hospital and the child was in a terrible state. The police officer offered the child a teddy bear and that little girl just ran into his arms.”
MyFriends has also been a supporter of K’Star, an emergency home for abused children in Kerrville. The next major fundraiser for MyFriends will be held in at the Bell Tower in Houston on October 14. – visit www.myfriendsfoundation.org for more information.
In honor of all the work Don has done for the MyFriends Foundation, a Presidential Endowed Scholarship was established at The University of Texas McCombs School of Business by the MyFriends Board and several of his friends.
One of Don’s favorite cars is a 1981 Mercedes SL380. Although the manufacturer’s color of the car was called Inca Red, Don was very excited that it looked UT burnt orange. Being a die-hard Longhorn fan, the color makes sense.
“When he bleeds, his blood is orange!” says Kathy.
Their lovely home is decorated in a western motif – sculptures by Jim Reno, a pencil drawing of a cow skull by Brody, Don’s last saddle, and an impressive display of silver belt buckles from Don’s cutting horse wins. In Europe Brody found a powder horn used by one of Napoleon’s soldiers, and a brass boot stirrup from a Spanish conquistador, which is surprisingly small.
Nestled in a corner of the living room are two guitars. As an adult Don decided he wanted to learn to play. At the time, the bank he owned had an airplane and limo used for depositors who had more than $100,000 in the bank. Channel 2 news in Houston decided to do a story on the bank. When they discovered that Don came to work in jeans, they dubbed him “The Guitar Playing Banker.”
Don has always been partial to the Hill Country. A photograph of him riding a cutting horse hangs in their living room. “That arena stood where Rock Barn is today” he says.
The Neuenschwanders rented a vacation home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for six weeks each summer, for ten years. When they learned the property was going to be sold and developed into condos, they decided to search for another place to vacation in the summer.
“It was between water and golf,” Kathy remembers. “While we were trying to decide, we came to visit our friends here. Don loved the golf course and the pros were so nice and friendly.”
“We bought a lot and were going to build,” says Don, “but then we saw the Villas and they had everything we wanted.” “We looked at the Villa for the first time on 7-7-07 and it was unit #7, so it was meant to be,” says Kathy.
Kathy has made many friends at Comanche Trace, through golf and Mah Jongg. A few years ago, for Don’s birthday, she surprised him with a performance by international country star Gary P. Nunn. They’d met him in Houston and became fast friends. Gary P. has performed several times at Comanche Trace as a guest of the Neuenschwanders.
Don and Kathy agree, “It’s the many friends and the fun we have with them that make Comanche Trace such a special place to live!”