Tradition Of Strong Civic Leadership Helped Build Great International City

Houston Chronicle

Perhaps because Houston was created out of nothing more than the confluence of two bayous, our city has always welcomed anyone and everyone willing to work hard to build the community. And if they did all right for themselves along the way, so much the better.

In her superb history, Houston: The Unknown City, the late Marguerite Johnston wrote:

In each decade, the best of the newcomers [to Houston] were accepted warmly. Money was never important to acceptance. Those [with] a great willingness to serve the community soon blended into the old Houston society, becoming a part of it and emerging as civic and social leaders. New blood, new energies, [and] new ideas for the city have regularly revitalized Houston’s civic and corporate body.

I received a personal lesson on this phenomenon when I was fortunate to sit next to the late Nina Cullinan at a function held about 1980. She was the daughter of Joseph Cullinan, the founder of Texaco, who came to Houston right after Spindletop. Miss Cullinan became a major patron of the arts in Houston, particularly of the Museum of Fine Arts. I asked if she minded the fact that newcomers in Houston, by generous outlays of cash to organizations like the Museum, could land up literally beside her on prestige boards. Miss Cullinan’s response was swift. “Oh no,” she said. “When we came here, we had no letters of introduction to people, and yet we were welcomed.”

The pioneering television journalist Ray Miller liked to speak of the debt Houston owes to “bachelor millionaires” like George Hermann and M.D. Anderson, plus the childless widower William Marsh Rice. One might add to this list the names of bachelor millionaire ladies like Miss Cullinan and Ima Hogg. Lacking descendants, they made all of us the beneficiaries of their wills.

Apart from the arts, education, health care, and parks, there is public service. You could go all the way back to 1836 when this was the capital of the Republic of Texas and men like Sam Houston and Ashbel Smith walked its muddy streets. I prefer to start with T.W. House, a prosperous merchant who immigrated here from Britain and became mayor after the Civil War. His son, Edward – known to history as Colonel House – was for President Woodrow Wilson a combination chief of staff, national security advisor, and personnel director.

The next generation brought forth Will Clayton, whom Franklin Roosevelt made under-secretary of State for economic affairs during World War II. To Clayton belongs the credit for creating the Marshall Plan that saved postwar Europe from chaos.

And in our time there was the remarkable leadership of two tennis partners, George Bush and James Baker, who came out of the Houston realms of energy and the law to reshape the world after the Cold War.

Of course, towering over all our city’s history was Jesse Holman Jones, who literally built Houston, saved its banks during the Great Depression, and then went to Washington as head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and as secretary of Commerce. He was among those who gathered for liquid companionship in Suite 8F of the old Lamar Hotel, a group that included George and Herman Brown, Gus Wortham, Leopold Meyer, and Governor Will and Oveta Culp Hobby. While this was indeed a very elite group, the key thing is that they, like those who came before and after them, recognized that Houston would grow greater only if the base of power was constantly widened.

This was a startling conclusion, since history teaches that such people typically hoard all power unto themselves. The “Suite 8F Crowd” and other major civic leaders did the exact opposite, leading to a modern Houston in which we draw our leaders from all races, ethnicities, and lifestyles.

As a result of such forward-looking people, Houston has the healthiest racial and ethnic climate of any big city in the United States. This is a blessing of such great magnitude we often take it for granted. But it is one that we cannot forget and cannot fail to remind younger generations. More than that, we must constantly do our part to live up to the honored Houston tradition of public and civic service ourselves and to extend it to as many others as we can.

Lon Tinkle, the literary editor of the Dallas News, wrote: “It is hard not to feel affection for a city victimized by a magnificent obsession, [and] Houston is obsessed by the future. Houstonians co-exist in the present and the future. What they don’t have now, they will have next week. Tomorrow is right at home on Houston’s doorstep.”

Tinkle was writing almost 60 years ago, yet he caught the spirit of Houston then and now. It is the spirit of an optimistic people ever-anxious to keep moving, to keep achieving, and to keep working together. You might call it good human relations, but it’s just plain good business. It is all of our business to keep Houston both on track and in the tracks of those civic leaders who recognized hard work, welcomed newcomers, celebrated success, disregarded failure, and in the process built a great international city.


This column is based on remarks Ambassador Untermeyer delivered 23 April 2012 to the Houston chapter of the American Jewish Committee.



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