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Founder of Cajun Fest is remembered

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Robert Caswell was an outgoing, New Orleans native and attorney who moved to Lakehills in 1980, married a businesswoman there and became the driving force behind the creation of the Medina Lake Cajun Festival, a nationally recognized celebration that will mark its 40th anniversary this year.

“He lived and breathed the Cajun Festival,” said his wife Barbara Engel about an event that kept the Lakehills Civic Center from being lost to foreclosure. “He considered it one of the great accomplishments of his life.”

Caswell, 77, died on Dec. 11 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis and dementia. An obituary prepared by the family said “he was never defined by the illness and maintained his larger than life spirit until the end.”

“He was an amazing man from the standpoint of what he could do considering all the things he was going through,” said County Commissioner Bobby Harris, who had known Caswell and his wife for years. “He’ll be greatly missed.”

Caswell was born in New Orleans to Mary Ruth and Erwin Caswell, earned a marketing degree and later a law degree from Loyola University, which named him the Charles F. Bailey Man of the Year in 1967.

He served as a captain in the U.S. Army’s Adjutant General’s office at Fort Sam Houston from 1968-1970 and then returned to New Orleans to practice law.

In 1980, Caswell moved to Lakehills to pursue his evolving relationship with Engel, who he had met in San Antonio. Four years later, they wed.

Engel said he was “a first-class lawyer,” working largely in family law, who was driven to provide the best representation possible for his clients.

He was good at negotiating legal points, but if a fight was needed, he was prepared to do that too, his wife said.

Caswell and Engel were involved with the organization that ran the Lakehills Civic Center. He helped postpone the foreclosure process that the civic center was entangled in, which bought time for the organization to develop a fundraiser to help pay its bills.

A variety of ideas were kicked around, but Caswell’s idea about holding a Gumbo Cook-off was seen as the best option, and the first one was held in 1981, a year after he arrived in Lakehills.

Engel said Cajun food was not the popular attraction in 1981 that it has developed into, but it was starting to be recognized as a crowd-pleasing draw, and the festival drew on that wave of popularity and on Caswell’s drive to make the event the success it has become.

It was his vision about how the festival would grow with Cajun music and an arts festival and advertising that guided the development of the festival, his wife said.

“He was the instigator of it all,” said businesswoman Peggy Ashmore, who was president of the board that ran the civic center when the cook-off began. “He was behind the scenes making it all happen.”

As a Louisiana native and with a decidedly French background in his family, Caswell “really embraced his Cajun culture,” Engel said, and was happy to see it find fertile ground for development in Lakehills.

“(The festival) really saved the civic center,” said Engel. “It keeps the center going financially.”

Caswell’s declining health in the early 2000s caused him to close his law practice and to focus more on fighting multiple sclerosis, which he did with his typical determination but without losing his good humor, his wife said.

She said he was “a very devoted family man,” who loved sports, socializing and travelling and was always ready for the next challenge.

“He did live an outstanding life,” Engel said.

Caswell is survived by his brother Erwin Caswell, his wife Barbara Engel, his daughters Beth Stephens (Scott), and Celeste Caswell (Sam Martin), his son Robert (Holly Wherry), grandchildren Liv Stephens, Owen Stephens and Walter Martin-Caswell, and by Judith Moore Caswell, the mother of his children.

He is predeceased by his parents and his brother Michele Caswell.

Donations may be made in his memory to the building fund at the Lakehills Civic Center, P.O. Box 404, Lake-hills, Texas, 78063, or to the National MS Society.

A Celebration of Life honoring Caswell will be held April 4 at 4 p.m. at the civic center, 11225 Park Road 37 in Lakehills.