Houston’s Leaders and Legends

January 1, 2006 by  
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Houston is filled will leaders and legendary people. Those listed here are the extraordinary ones who have exemplified the meaning of giving back, service to others, volunteerism and philanthropy. There are those who have served not only the city, but who have served the country and, in so doing, have added to Houston’s international stature throughout the world. There are those whose lives are defined by giving: When presented with a need, they use their energy, creativity and determination to meet the challenge and provide amazing results, whether for health, education or the arts. – For the awesome and arduous task of selecting a mere 25 to spotlight in this issue, I asked for opinions from many “leaders and legends” themselves. They agree with me that to narrow this field of thousands who do beautiful works for the city to such a small number is laughable and ludicrous. Additionally, my colleagues at H Texas and I are cognizant of the fact that there are many among us who go unrecognized and unsung as they venture out into the world, making a difference every day. I am reminded of a favorite saying I once read, “The world knows nothing of its greatest men.” – However, herein we humbly offer but a glimmer into the heart of Houston, into its can-do, spirited, open-hearted, dynamic and talented citizens who have earned Houston its reputation as one of the most charitable cities in the world.

1. Lauren Anderson, the principal ballerina with the Houston Ballet, is a native of Houston and trained exclusively at Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy from the age of seven. In 1983, she joined Houston Ballet and by 1990 became the first African-American to be promoted to principal dancer. She has danced leading roles in numerous classical ballets and has performed as a guest artist with many ballet companies in this country and around the world. On innumerable occasions she shares her exquisite talent by teaching schoolchildren across the city the art of dance.

2. The Honorable James A. Baker III is a native Houstonian who has served in senior positions for three United States presidents. He was Under Secretary of State for Gerald Ford, Treasury Secretary for Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State for George H. W. Bush. Currently he is Honorary Chairman of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. He also serves on the board of Rice University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

3. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen received the Medal of Freedom from President Clinton on Aug. 9, 1999. The award read in part: “As a decorated World War II bomber pilot, he risked his life to defend freedom. In the House of Representatives and the Senate, he promoted fiscal responsibility and free trade while supporting civil rights of minorities and women and protections for children and older Americans. As Secretary of the Treasury, he helped bring greater opportunities and unprecedented prosperity to the country.” The new medical building, the Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Disease, will include a Stroke Research Center named for Senator Bentsen. The senator’s family, friends and admirers are contributing to this effort.

4. Georgio Borlenghi is the president of Interfin, a real-estate development company that developed Four Leaf Towers in the Galleria and Uptown Park and currently is developing a residential hotel, the Granduca. Borlenghi serves on the board of directors of Italy-America Chamber of Commerce and The University of St. Thomas. He has served on the board of Duchesne Academy, Wortham Theater, Museum of Fine Arts and the The Regis School for Boys. He is past chairman of the Texas Heart Institute Associates and co-chaired the Mayor’s Gala.

5. Former President George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, has raised millions of dollars for various charitable organizations. He currently serves on the board of M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, is honorary chairman of the Points of Light Foundation and has twice joined former president Bill Clinton to raise millions for the tsunami relief effort and the hurricane disaster fund. There is hardly a charitable organization in the city that has not benefited from the deep concern and caring that both President Bush and his wife, Barbara, have demonstrated throughout their lives.

6. Capt. Eugene Cernan, former NASA astronaut and one of the few who has walked on the moon, has said that he believes “most definitely” that there is life on other planets. He continues his efforts for NASA as chairman of Johnson Engineering Corporation, which provides NASA, Johnson Space Center with engineering, design and development services in support of space shuttle, space station and future space flight projects.

7. Dr. Paul Chu is both a professor of physics and T.L.L. Temple Chair of Science at the University of Houston. He and his research team gained worldwide attention when they discovered the first high temperature superconductor that worked above the liquid nitrogen temperature, making applications more practical and changing the way the world looks at the physics of solids. Dr. Chu established The Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston in 1987. One of the leading scientists in the United States, he has participated in activities of many civic organizations to promote the importance of education, culture, science and technology.

8. Dr. Michael DeBakey, the internationally acclaimed cardiovascular surgeon, is an ingenious medical inventor, innovator and dedicated teacher. Because of his unique ability to bring professional knowledge to bear on public policy worldwide, Dr. DeBakey is known as an international medical statesman. He has served as advisor to virtually every U.S. president in the past 50 years. Dr. DeBakey performed the first successful carotid endarterectomy for stroke, the first coronary artery bypass and the first use of a left ventricle bypass pump for heart failure. His lifelong scholarship is reflected in more than 1,600 published medical articles and books. He is a co-author of “The Living Heart” series of popular books for the public.

9. Tilman Fertitta started Landry’s in 1986 with two restaurants. He took the company public in 1993, and Landry’s has been one of the best-performing restaurant stocks on Wall Street ever since. In late 2004, Fertitta led Landry’s to the largest bond offering in U.S. restaurant history, raising $850 million dollars. Forbes magazine named Landry’s “one of the best companies in America” for three consecutive years. He serves as vice president and board member of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and vice president of Houston Children’s Charity. He serves as a board member of the Better Business Bureau, Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, Texas Business Hall of Fame, Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, Museum of Fine Arts, Sam Houston Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Central Houston Inc. and the Houston Police Foundation.

10. Rudy Festari was born in Rome; he was barely 16 and unable to speak English when he left home to move to New York. Following his dream of pursuing a career in the fashion industry, he made his way to Texas when a retail opportunity arose in Houston’s Galleria. Fourteen years ago, his dream of having his own store materialized, and the Festari for Men store was born. Throughout his career, Festari has been a strong believer in giving back; and many organizations have benefited from the annual event he and wife, Debbie, started. Festari Celebrity Men’s Fashion Show has helped Child Advocates, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston Grand Opera, Unicef, Baylor College of Medicine Breast Cancer Center and Family Services of Greater Houston.

11. Sharon Graham is the owner of one of the oldest catering companies in Houston: Sharon Graham Catering was established in 1970. She has always had a passion for “making magic, making people happy and using her God-given gift of creativity to provide memorable events.” Sharon created a company, Empathy, to assist families who are faced with having to be a host at the time of a death in the family. A wedding coordinator, as well, she developed Event Sites to provide an updated list of event sites. Graham believes in giving back to her “beloved” community and has chaired events for Baylor 10, as well as served on the boards of the Alley Theater, Baylor Partnership and Houston Council on Drug Abuse and Alcoholism. Additionally, she is a member of the Friends of the Stehlin Foundation and many other organizations.

12. Walter Kase is a Holocaust survivor who spends much of his time speaking to high school and college students, businesses and organizations about the harrowing experiences he suffered under Nazi tyranny. During his experiences, he endured forced labor camps and five separate concentration camps, including Auschwitz. When liberated at age 15, he weighed 65 pounds and learned that most of his family had been exterminated. Kase says, “I am a walking American dream, and I love, cherish and appreciate the U.S.A. All of us are witnesses to the most tragic chapter in human history, and we must never, never allow a Holocaust again.” The Anti Defamation League established The Walter Kase Teacher Excellence Award to honor four teachers each year “who help create an ethic and atmosphere inside their schools that rejects prejudice, questions stereotypes, promotes diversity and confronts hate in all its forms.”

13. Rev. William Lawson began his career in Houston as the Baptist chaplain at Texas Southern University. Quickly, he and a small group saw the need for a church in the Third Ward; and, in 1962, they founded Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Rev. Lawson became its minister. The church emphasized ministries to children, youth, seniors and the poor and responded to the minority community’s suffering with social services. Rev. Lawson and the church also gave leadership to the Civil Rights Movement in Houston. Since his “retirement,” he and his wife, Audrey, have established a foundation called WALIPP – the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity, an advocacy agency for the poor, minorities, women and other excluded people.

14. Marcello Marini is the programming/public affairs director of Channel 47 KTMD, Television. In 1968, he was forced to flee Argentina when the government took control of the television station where he worked. Coming to Houston with $13.65 in his pocket and unable to speak English, he found that he loved the city and decided to stay. Starting as a waiter, he worked up to maitre’d of a restaurant and eventually owned restaurants of his own. In 1987, Marini opened Channel 47 KTMD, which was the first Spanish station to do a telethon with Jerry Lewis for Muscular Dystrophy, the first to promote voter registration, the first to promote a health fair and blood drive for Hispanic viewers, and the first to conduct a census drive. Quarterly, he conducts forums with INS to answer questions for those in the Latino community. Marini also serves on the Board of the United Way. (photo unavailable)

15. Robert McNair came to Houston in 1960 with his wife, two children and $700. He started a trucking company that was forced into chapter 11, paid off creditors and started over. After selling his company, Cogen Technologies became the largest privately owned cogeneration company in the world; and he became chairman and CEO of The McNair Group. Committed to bringing a National Football League team to Houston, he formed Houston NFL Holdings in 1998. A year later, the NFL announced that the 32nd NFL franchise had been awarded to McNair, returning football to the City of Houston in 2002 and the Super Bowl in 2004. He has served on the boards of Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Grand Opera, Greater Houston Partnership and Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

16. Lois Moore, B.S.N., M.Ed., L.H.D., F.A.C.H.E., is the chief administrator for the Harris County Psychiatric Center, a 250-bed acute psychiatric care facility operated by the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center. Previously Dr. Moore served as president and CEO of the Harris County Hospital District, the largest inpatient health-care system in the U.S. Dr. Moore is very active in the community, serving on numerous boards, including the American Red Cross, March of Dimes, United Way, Texas Association of Public and Non-Profit Hospitals, and National Association of Public Hospitals. She is on the Advisory Board for the Health Care Administration Program at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and is a board member of St. James School and the East Side Village Community Learning Center.

17. John Maurice O’Quinn, the famous trial attorney, worked in his father’s auto mechanic garage every day after school, on the weekends and during the summers, starting when he was 9 years old. In 1994, when he was named to the National Law Journal’s list of most influential attorneys in the country, O’Quinn said, “I think it is a great honor, and I wish my father were alive to see this.” The founder of O’Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle, he was named among the five best Texas Trial lawyers of the past century by the Houston Chronicle, listed as one of the 100 Legal Legends of Texas by Texas Lawyer and recognized in Harvard Law’s “Best Lawyers in America.” He is a past member of the Board of Regents of his alma mater, the University of Houston, and has contributed generously to the law school library, facilities in the Alumni Center and renovations to Robertson Stadium. O’Quinn was instrumental in the creation of the new Children’s Assessment Center, and his foundation focuses on children, education and the environment.

18. Regina Rogers is an attorney who spends much of her life in the service of others. She is a past chairman of the Anti Defamation League and member of the Board of Visitors of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Children’s Defense Fund Texas Advisory Board, Holocaust Museum Houston and the Texas Southern University Foundation. Rogers was the first female regent of Lamar University and for six years served on the Texas College and University System Coordinating Board. She is co-founder of the Ben Rogers/Lamar University/Beaumont Public School “I Have a Dream” program, and she established the Julie Rogers “Gift of Life” program. In 1994, as chairman of the Southwest Regional Board of the Anti Defamation League, Rogers helped found the Coalition for Mutual Respect, a group of 20 religious and lay leaders whose purpose it is to promote positive inter-group relations.

19. Becca Cason Thrash started a public relations, special events production and marketing firm in 1984. Soon, she and Holly Moore joined forces, and together created the publication now known as PaperCity. For the past six years, Cason Thrash has chaired events for Best Buddies International, whose mission is to enhance the lives of persons with neuro-developmental disabilities. She has chaired or hosted fundraising events for the Houston Grand Opera, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Stages Repertory Theatre, Harris County Medical Society, Houston Ballet, March of Dimes, Houston Symphony and the Blaffer Gallery. She serves on the boards of Best Buddies International, Houston Grand Opera, Contemporary Art Museum, After-School All Stars and the Houston Ballet.

20. Dave Ward has been the anchor that Houstonians have grown accustomed to for the past 39 years on KTRK-TV Channel 13 Eyewitness nightly news. He has covered a multitude of news events: interviewed heads of state and people of every walk of life, traveled the world, covered national political conventions and worked extensively with NASA. Also, his is the face most often seen serving as master of ceremonies at innumerable charitable events throughout the year. Ward was one of the founding members of the Houston Crime Stoppers program, which has become the model of excellence for similar programs across the country. He served as president of the Easter Seals Society, chaired the public affairs advisory board of the Houston Business Council and worked with the American Cancer Society. In addition, he served as a board member of the Leukemia Society and the Houston Press Club.

21. Margaret Alkek Williams gives back to the city she loves by chairing events and serving on non-profit boards, organizations and committees. Included in the many organizations Alkek Williams works with is the Houston Symphony, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, St. Joseph Hospital Foundation, Texas Heart Institute, Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, Baylor College of Medicine, Cancer Fighters of Houston, Cancer League, Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation and Friends of the Texas Medical Center Library. Other local organizations benefiting from her services are the Houston Ballet, Hospice at the Texas Medical Center, Houston Grand Opera, Special Olympics, University of Houston Moores School of Music, University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas System-Austin and innumerable others. Along with her mother, she endowed the Alkek-Williams Distinguished Professor at UT Health Science Center.

22. Francie Willis started her professional career by coaching nearly 6,000 young women at the Wendy Ward Charm School – and then she took a visionary step and opened Urban Retreat. Now one of the leading day spas in Texas, Urban Retreat has been heralded in almost every national magazine, and Willis has been named one of the Top 50 Women Business Owners by the Houston Business Journal every year since 1996. She has maintained a leading role in community service for the past 20 years. Since 1986, she has chaired 15 galas for worthwhile causes. Most recently she chaired the Houston Grand Opera Ball; Ann B. Norris Gala for Sickle Cell; and Mediterranean Magic, benefiting the University of Houston.

23. Lynn Wyatt is internationally recognized for her donation of time, energy, creativity and resources to cultural foundations, boards and events. She serves as vice chairman of the board of directors of the Houston Grand Opera, executive committee member of Houston Ballet and is a trustee for the Alley Theatre and Museum of Fine Arts. She is a founding trustee of the Princess Grace Foundation and has been named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame. Wyatt is active with the Star of Hope Mission, which addresses the needs of the homeless, and recently chaired the Houston Grand Opera’s 50th anniversary Golden Jubilee gala and celebration.

24. Frank Young founded Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) in 1968. (The name originated from its first venue, the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park.) Since producing, directing and conducting TUTS first production, “Bells Are Ringing,” Young has guided the non-profit musical theater company to national acclaim through 37 seasons of more than 275 productions. The longest-running head of any major arts organization in Houston, Young now serves as TUTS’ president and CEO. He is the founder and first president of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre and created TUTS’ Tommy Tune Awards and the American Musical Theatre Awards.

25. Marvin Zindler is the KTRK-TV Channel 13 newsman who receives 100,000 letters a year, requesting help with medical problems, food stamps, Social Security, the IRS, housing or even immigration issues. His office answers each and every request. A part of Houston’s media industry for more than 50 years, his Action 13 work has helped thousands of people who otherwise would not have had a voice to have their needs heard. Zindler made local, national and international headlines when he closed the infamous “Chicken Ranch” in LaGrange, Texas, inspiring the hit Broadway musical, “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” At age 84, Zindler is still working every day and flying all over the world to help people. To our Leaders and Legends, we simply say, “Thank you – we are grateful to you for making this community a better place for us all.” H

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