Who are Houston’s Sweethearts?

February 1, 2005 by  
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I don’t remember when Valentine’s Day became so important in my life – when I started loving hearts so much. As I began to collect hearts, I don’t remember when I lost control. One of my favorite projects was creating the Celebration of Hearts in the lobby of Denton Cooley’s Texas Heart Institute. Of course, to me, hearts seem to be so much more than objects. Every time I look at one, I’m reminded of love and, actually, much more. Seeing hearts reminds me of my belief that I’m here to learn to love others – and that is a goal I’m still working on.

What does Valentine’s Day conjure in your mind? As an expression of your love and affection, is it the usual boxes of chocolates, champagne, roses, romantic dinners, gifts or cards for someone you care about or for your sweetheart?

In this February issue, I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to explore the word ‘sweetheart’ and quite honored to spotlight Houston Sweethearts: those who epitomize the word ‘sweetheart,’ defined in Webster’s Dictionary as ‘darling; one who is loved; lover.’

My personal definition of a sweetheart is one who lights up a room when they enter it; someone who is positive and uplifting, making you feel better about your life and life in general; someone who is sincere – someone that you know when they say something, you can believe it; someone who, while talking to you, is really talking to you; someone who, no matter what heights they may have reached in life, is still the same – down-to-earth and real; someone whose heart is open and ready to jump at the chance to help others whenever possible. Also, I believe that in this context, ‘sweetheart’ might be considered synonymous with ‘good heart.’

After conferring with the editors of H Texas magazine and a distinguished selection committee sharing their perception and meaning of the word “sweetheart” and agreeing on those in our community who exemplify this meaning, I am proud to present the 2005 Houston Sweethearts.

We hope you enjoy reading about our choices for Houston Sweethearts. Here’s wishing you health, happiness and sweethearts in your life. Be on the lookout because we may be asking your opinion next year.

Susan Garrett Baker is a founding member of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an organization that works with the public, private and non-profit sectors to prevent and end the tragedy of homelessness. Serving as co-chairman of this group, which began around her dining table in 1963, she works with the alliance to investigate and implement programs and policies that provide long-term solutions to homelessness. She also serves on the board of the Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit organization that facilitates the creation of low-income housing. In addition, she serves on the board of the Neighborhood Centers Inc. and is also on the advisory board of the Houston Food Bank.

She was a founding member of the Parents’ Music Resource Center, whose mission is to educate parents and teachers regarding the explicit and violent content of some contemporary music lyrics.

Susan was part of a team that organized and hosted A Gathering of Friends in Amman, Jordan, Bethlehem and Jerusalem to celebrate the 2,000th birthday of Jesus of Nazareth. The focus of this conference, attended by people from all over the world, was on Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness and reconciliation.

Married to the former Secretary of State, James A. Baker III, she is a mother of eight and grandmother of 16. She is also very active in St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. Susan Baker never lets a day go by without serving others.

Barbara and George Bush have been married 58 years. On Nov. 8, 1988, when George Bush became the 41st President of the United States, his wife, Barbara Pierce Bush, was by his side. Barbara often jokes that her successful life is a result of marrying well.

Since leaving office, President Bush has written two books: “A World Transformed” and “All the Best.” He has helped to raise millions of dollars for a variety of charitable organizations. Currently, he serves on the board of visitors of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, is honorary chairman of the Points of Light Foundation and has recently begun a campaign with President Clinton to raise funds for those affected by the tsunami disaster.

Mrs. Bush has supported hundreds of charity and humanitarian causes, but her No.1 cause is family literacy. In fact, in 1990, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy was founded. She authored “C. Fred’s Story” and the best-selling “Millie’s Book,” whose profits benefited the literacy cause and most recently wrote “Barbara Bush: A Memoir,” her best-selling autobiography emphasizing the importance of family, faith and friends.

Since leaving the White House in 1993, the Bushes have continually served others with the same tireless energy, goodwill and good humor that has endeared them to millions around the world. They have five children and 14 grandchildren.

Nellie Connally served as First Lady of Texas from 1963 through 1968, during the administration of her late husband, Gov. John B. Connally Jr. During her tenure in the governor’s mansion, Nellie was responsible for the planning and creation of its present-day gardens and received the first-ever Ruth Lester Award for her work.

Nellie has been active in a myriad of community and charitable activities, including service with the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, the Nellie B. Connally Breast Cancer Center and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was also instrumental in helping complete Tranquility Park in downtown Houston.

John and Nellie were hosting President John F. Kennedy and the first lady when they came to Texas in 1963. They were in the car when President Kennedy was assassinated and Gov. Connally was gravely wounded. Nellie is now the only living survivor of this tragic historic event. She has written a book entitled “From Love Field,” reliving the trip and what happened in the car in that instant the world will never forget.

She is the mother of four children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Scott Evans is a “yes man.” If you ask him for help or just mention that there is a need, he says, “Yes, I’ll try to help!” And he sets out to find a way. It could be that your computer is down. It could be, like it was recently with the Cancer League, that your mailing list is outdated and needs revision. Whatever it is, Scott is there. Possibly you’re missing some auction items for your charitable event, or you might need some wine or food donated. Scott is always there.

Scott served as executive producer of the Voices for Life: A Celebration of Houston Music benifiting AIDS charities. And it was he who gathered many Houston celebrities to sing on “The Voices for Life – Shades of Gray” video. He worked for several years as advisor to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation and has worked on committees of numerous charitable organizations.

Currently, Scott is the editor of The Social Book, a calendar and resource guide, and diligently provides proper information to nonprofit organizations so that their events never conflict and land on the same night. The Social Book celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Diane Gendel, Mary Ann McKeithan and Betty Tutor could easily be called “The Three Musketeers,” “The Dynamic Three-o” or “Charity’s Angels.” If one is chairing the Symphony Ball, as Betty Tutor did recently, Mary Ann and Diane are right there, co-chairing. If Mary Ann is chairing the Cattle Baron’s Ball, as she did last year, the other members of the team are right there by her side. If Diane is chairing the Moore School of Music “It’s DeLovely” Gala, Mary Ann and Betty are thoroughly involved.

All three, along with their spouses, Harry Gendel, David McKeithan and Jess Tutor, radiate enthusiasm in any gathering. Goal-oriented volunteers, they have worked on more charitable events than we could possibly name, and they have been honored many times for their outstanding contributions to the city. If there has ever been a time when I’ve seen them without a welcoming, dazzling smile, I don’t recall it. These best friends are amazing, talented and committed to helping others and serving the community. We showcase them together because their hearts are joined as one, and what a magnificent heart it is!

Melanie Lawson is the beautiful, familiar face we have enjoyed watching on KTRK ABC 13 for many years. Melanie makes you feel so comfortable, whether on television or in person, that you believe you’ve known her personally or that perhaps she really is a member of your family.

An award-winning journalist, she is a proud Houstonian. She has covered every local, state and national election since 1982. She’s won numerous awards for her reporting, including an Emmy for her coverage of President Clinton’s visit to South Africa. Melanie has interviewed a wide range of notables, including Henry Kissinger, the Dalai Lama, poet Maya Angelou, George Foreman, three United States presidents and many others. Her favorite stories are those about Houston’s rich, multiethnic communities – especially stories about children.

Her involvement in the Houston community is far-reaching, and many charitable organizations have benefited from her open-hearted desire to help others. She has worked with the Alley Theater, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the YMCA, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Foundation for Interfaith Research and Ministry, the Houston Chapter of the Links, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the Volunteer Center, the San Jacinto Girl Scouts, the Houston Association of Black Journalists, the Houston International Festival and many others. She is a proud member of her father’s congregation, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.

Trini Mendenhall (Trinidad Vasquez-Mendenhall) and her late husband, O. C. Mendendall, co-founder of Fiesta Mart Inc., created the Trini and O. C. Mendenhall Foundation in 1997 with the hope of giving back to the city that so generously contributed to their financial success. Trini was an active participant in the growth of the company after her husband’s death until she sold Fiesta Mart Inc. in 2004.

Proud of her Hispanic heritage, Trini’s lifelong vision has been to provide opportunities and to enhance the quality of life for others. In honor of her husband, who died of asthma, Trini established the Mendenhall Asthma Research Laboratory as part of Baylor’s Biology of Inflammation Center.

Her deep religious beliefs have motivated her to provide countless scholarships for the inner-city Catholic schools of the Galveston-Houston Diocese. Anna Babin, president of Catholic Charities, states, “Trini Mendenhall has been a godsend to Catholic Charities, to children and to the entire community. There are not enough honors to give or accolades to throw her way.”

With a heart as big as Texas, Trini was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame last year.

Mary Lou Retton “had us at ‘Hello.'” And when she returned from Los Angeles and the 1984 Summer Olympic games as the first American woman to win a gold medal for the all-around competition in gymnastics, she became not only America’s sweetheart, but the sweetheart of millions around the world.

Mary Lou came to Houston to train with famed gymnastics coach Bela Korolyi and never left. She met and married Shannon Kelly, and the couple now has four children, all girls. She happily considers herself a Houstonian and is active in her church and in many community activities.

“Mary Lou’s Flip-Flop Shop” was launched by Mary Lou on PBS to offer children a live role model on the Saturday morning lineup as an alternative to the multitude of animated characters.

“As a mother, I am concerned with what is out there,” she says. Her mission has always been to “encourage children to make healthy lifestyle choices.” In addition, Mary Lou has inspired thousands of people with her motivational speaking tours. As she says, “I’m very determined and stubborn. There’s a desire in me that makes me want to do more and more, and to do it right. Each one of us has a fire in our heart for something. It’s our goal in life to find it and to keep it lit.”

Nolan Ryan has always been a humble, soft-spoken, salt-of-the-earth person. He has said, “I can remember my years with the Mets, just hoping that I’d get four years in so I’d qualify for my pension. That was my goal.”

Now, he ranks among the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. During his major league career, Nolan struck out a record 5,714 batters. In fact, in 1973, he set a major league record of 383 strikeouts for a single season. Additionally, he pitched seven no-hit games and 12 one-hit games in the major leagues. No other pitcher has more than four major league no-hitters.

During his career, he won 324 games and became especially famous for his blazing fastball and his durability. Nolan was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.

The Nolan Ryan Foundation was formed in Alvin, Texas in 1990. Nolan and his wife Ruth generously give their time for signing and other fund-raising efforts that enable the foundation to provide resources for youth, education and community development. The construction of the $1.2 million Nolan Ryan Center was the first major project the foundation completed and was donated to Alvin Community College in the fall of 1996. Since then, funds have been dispersed for projects such as fulfilling a pledge to the Greater Houston YWCA as it brings a new facility to Alvin. Nolan and Ruth are always ready to help others whether in this city or any other.

(Forgive us this small indiscretion, Nolan, for calling you a “Houston Sweetheart” when you’re technically down the road a piece in Alvin. We feel justified, however, because you were a Houston Astro from 1980 to 1988.)

Dr. Jaimie Elizabeth Terry moved to Houston in 1989 after graduating from medical school. Since that time, she has established herself as a leader in our community though her achievements in medicine and her commitment to community service.

In 1994, Dr. Terry became the first African-American woman to graduate from the general surgery training program at St. Joseph Hospital, after which she opened a general surgery practice with a special focus on breast cancer education, prevention and treatment.

Dr. Terry has served on the board of trustees of the Houston Chapter of the American Cancer Society and as a medical advisor for Sisters Network, a national support group for breast cancer survivors.

Her commitment to community service begins with her patients. “I love the God-given talent I have been given to help people overcome the greatest challenge you can ever have – the threat of the loss of life,” she shares. Dr. Terry is an advocate for breast cancer awareness and speaks to countless audiences on the subject.

Martha Turner is a fifth-generation Texan and taught school for 15 years before entering the real estate profession. As president of Martha Turner Properties, she oversees Houston’s leading high-end residential firm, affiliated with the prestigious international Christie’s Great Estates Networks.

Running a company of this magnitude requires that she be at work from sunup to sundown. While she is totally committed to her agents and clients, she is equally committed to the city. She always finds the time for positions of leadership in a diverse group of civic, charitable and professional causes and boards.

Martha’s charitable and civic activities include serving, in many different capacities and positions the Texas Business Hall of Fame; Houston Association of Realtors, Leadership Texas; Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation; United Cerebral Palsy; 100 Club of Houston; Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation; the Forum Club of Houston; Cultural Arts Council; Greater Houston Women’s Foundation; Women’s Fund for Health, Education and Research; Top 500 Women-owned Businesses; and the National Registry of Who’s Who. She has chaired or underwritten more charitable events than are possible to list.

Donna and Tony Vallone own the locally beloved and nationally renowned restaurant tony’s. The Vallones have earned a flawless reputation for exceptional food, excellent wine, impeccable service and a continuously creative and changing menu. One might conclude these are the reasons for this hugely successful restaurant. I submit that the primary reason is the sweet, welcoming smiles of its owners who so often stand by the front door, greeting each person as though they were a guest in the Vallone home.

Among Tony’s most impressive distinctions are that his cuisine has been enjoyed by six United States presidents, numerous foreign presidents and notable dignitaries from around the world. He was the first Texan inducted into the National Restaurant Association Hall of Fame in 1982 and the first American-born board member of the famed Gruppo Ristoratori Italiliani of Italy. He is a member of the Nation’s Restaurant News Hall of Fame and was elected to the Culinary Who’s Who of Texas. Tony is the author of the critically acclaimed “tony’s … the Cookbook.” Tony and Donna donate much of their time and talents to numerous local and national causes and organizations.

Maurice ‘Termite’ Watkins was a National Golden Gloves champion and an Olympic team member. He began a professional boxing career at 17, won more than 100 fights and fought for the world championship in 1980. The nickname Termite came at birth because he was small and his dad’s family business was pest extermination. Termite left a lucrative job when he felt a calling from God to go to Iraq and help the troops with pest control in the winter of 2003. When coalition forces learned of his boxing history, they asked if he could train an Iraqi team to go to the summer Olympics in Athens. In a miraculously short time and with his life threatened every day, Termite not only qualified a fighter, Najah Ali, but also coached him to his first Olympic win.

Termite’s story has captivated the world’s imagination, and all the major networks and newspapers have interviewed him. He has received the Arete Award in Washington for outstanding courage and a Certificate of Honor from the New York Policeman’s Association. Mayor Bill White even pronounced a Termite Watkins Day. A book on his life is close to completion, and he is now receiving movie offers.

A tremendous motivational speaker, Termite urges others to “find a way” to overcome “one in a million” odds. Termite is finding a way to get Najah here to live with him and his wife Sharla and to attend the University of Houston. H

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