Dora Kenyon Brumfiel grew up a half a block from the legendary Route 66 in Amarillo, TX, where she relished watching passing fancy cars she imagined were owned by Hollywood stars. Amarillo was the perfect place for a starry-eyed little girl. There were the neighborhood boys who would dance on her front lawn, while her mother played the piano, and she was ever-inspired to sketch them. “I drew everything in sight, anything that interested in me. I always liked people, so I specialized in portraits,” she says, describing her path to a career as an artist. “The eyes are the personality. I always try to capture their eyes.” Even then, mischievous Dora dreamed of exploring—whether it was following Route 66 out of town or even more foreign adventures. “I was off in the wild blue yonder sometimes,” she says.
Dora was born Dec. 19, 1922, and growing up in Amarillo cemented a life-long allegiance to the Lone Star State. She also inherited a necessary toughness from her grandparents’ stories about arriving from Kentucky via covered wagon, digging and then living in a dugout, and enduring extreme temperatures. Dora had two younger brothers and an older half-brother. Her father Arthur Kenyon was a banker, while her mother Nannie worked in ladies’ fashion. “She was a proud Texan no matter where we lived, and we lived all over the world… You’ve never hear anything till you’ve heard German spoken with a Texas accent,” laughs daughter Tracey Nelson, who lives in Austin. “’The Eyes of Texas,’ she’d always make us sing that in the car to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.’” Brumfiel graduated from the University of Texas, earning a degree in English and minoring in art. She then worked as a graphic designer for an advertising agency in Amarillo. It was around that time that she attended a dance at the local Air Force base and met the slightly younger Robert Thomas Brumfiel, who “swept her off her feet.”
Their love nearly didn’t happen. A miscommunication led Tom to come a-courting at the wrong time. Dora’s mother didn’t know her whereabouts; She had been volunteering as a candy striper at the local hospital. “I thought he’d stood me up, and no one had stood me up before,” she says. But all turned out well. The couple were wed three months later, and their overseas adventures commenced, with tours of duty in Germany, Japan – where she discovered her talents for flower arranging – and Saudi Arabia. In each location, she established a busy portrait studio. Her husband, who retired as an Air Force lieutenant colonel, worked for the Air Force Security Services, in cooperation with the National Security Agency. Dora loved the life of an itinerate military spouse as it brought to reality her dreams of travel. “She had to learn to adapt… My mother was brave and intrepid. She didn’t back down… You don’t cross my momma,” Nelson says of an enduring phrase oft used to describe Dora. “She wasn’t afraid of trying new things, new places, meeting new people… She always said what she meant and that inspired me to do the same thing.” But there was one thing to which she did not adapt well. Dora’s greatest challenge surfaced every time she and her husband were transferred. “She hates moving… My mother is a squirrel. She keeps everything,” says Nelson, who is an executive leadership coach.
Sometimes that clutter became a treasure hunt for her two children. Nelson remembers how her mom – a self-proclaimed chocoholic – would hide the confection all over the house. Dora also was a fashion horse, ever-sporting hats and heels. “She was always impeccably put together,” Tracey says. “I wanted to look distinguished,” Dora replies. “I wanted to be different, graceful and interested in other people.” Interest was something she never lacked in a life where her curiosity has led, and continues to lead, her to great adventures.