George Phydias Mitchell |
May 21, 1919 - July 26, 2013
The Father We Knew
Like the summer sunsets over Galveston Bay that George Phydias Mitchell loved, he slipped quietly, peacefully beyond the horizon of this living realm. His brilliant life leaves a legacy to guide our family and the communities he loved.
He was born the third of four children to Greek immigrants, his father a hardscrabble entrepreneur and gambler, his mother a dedicated and inspiring beauty from Argos. Our father overcame poverty and the early loss of his mother to achieve outsized accomplishments while never forgetting his humble roots nor his mother's compassion. He led his life with a winning combination of confidence, risk, intellect, imagination, persistence, integrity and loyalty. He touched the lives of countless people and left the world a better place.
Always resourceful, he spent his boyhood fishing along the Galveston ship channel jetties and working odd jobs for the operators of a fishing pier. His fishing prowess provided food for the family table. To support the family, young George also earned money selling his catch and handmade bamboo fishing poles to tourists.
As a child, he dreamed of becoming an astronomer, and applied himself to the study of math, physics and chemistry. His mother wished for him to become a physician, but then his brother Johnny arranged a summer job in the oil patch where Dad became enthralled with the hunt for petroleum. During Dad's time at Texas A&M University, where he studied petroleum engineering and geology, he honed his entrepreneurial skills by selling gold embossed stationery to lovesick freshmen. Stationery profits kept him enrolled through graduation, but looking ahead he was inspired by Professor Vance who told him, "If you want to drive a Chevrolet, work for a big oil company, but if you want to drive a Cadillac be an independent."
As an unflagging optimist, Dad never let a defeat trip him up. When his beloved Aggies had their 1941 national championship hopes shattered in a loss to the Texas Longhorns in the last game of the season, he rose above the gloom during the train ride back to Houston from College Station and introduced himself to beautiful identical twin sisters. One of them, Cynthia Loretta Woods, would become his life-long partner. Her diary entry: "Met a cute soldier today."
Dad's officer training at Texas A&M prepared him for the rank of Captain in the Army. When World War II broke out, he yearned to be deployed overseas with his two brothers and comrades from Texas A&M. Appreciating his work ethic and leadership, his commanding officer in the Corps of Engineers schemed to get Dad assigned to his division stationed in Galveston. Mom always teased him that he finally got his wish by being deployed, "Overseas, to Galveston!"
After the war, he worked for a major oil company in the Louisiana swamps. But, recalling Professor Vance's lesson, he returned to Houston to establish an independent consulting business with his brother, Johnny. Soon, Dad's acute abilities earned him the reputation as a smart, young geologist and engineer with a knack for finding oil and gas. Uncle Johnny, for his part, was an exceptional promoter, and together they attracted investors, often over the lunch counter at the Esperson Drugstore. In time they invited their oldest brother Christie, who was living in Galveston, to join them in Houston. But Uncle Christie, the quintessential beachcomber and a clever journalist for the Galveston Daily News, turned down their invitation, declaring, "Any fool can make a million dollars in Houston but it takes a genius to make a living in Galveston."
Through the 1950s and '60s, our father and Uncle Johnny built the independent company that became Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation. Two decades before his innovations in hydraulic fracturing achieved economically feasible production of natural gas from the tight Barnett Shale of North Texas, he envisioned that the shale resources in North America could change the country's energy outlook. Flying in the face of a barrage of naysayers, his multi-decade, high-risk commitment to crack the shale, literally and intellectually, has now fundamentally altered world energy markets. But, he also recognized the potential environmental consequences, and has dedicated philanthropic funding to support stakeholder collaborations in raising the standards for gas drilling to protect water and air quality.
For Dad, tennis was a life-long passion. He played as a boy on the public courts in Galveston, was captain of the Texas A&M tennis team, and remained a competitive player into his late 70s. Three days a week you could find him at the Houston Racquet Club for his four o'clock match. He challenged his children, promising a reward for anyone who could beat him in tennis before he turned 60. No one did, and that included several who played on high school tennis teams. He extended the challenge to age 65 for lack of serious competition. Still, no one came close. As in business, he was not a power player, but used consistency and maddening precision as his weapons.
Along the way, he and Mom enjoyed the camaraderie of other business leaders who gathered at the periodic retreats of the Young Presidents' Organization. In YPO they developed dear friendships with other couples nationwide. As lovers of ideas and informed discourse, our parents were especially inspired by the exceptional guest lecturers at YPO conventions. One in particular had a profound effect on them: Buckminster Fuller. Fuller conveyed that intellectual and financial capital was in the hands of private sector leaders, and the future of what Fuller called "Spaceship Earth" had a dim prognosis if they did nothing about the challenges that confronted humanity -- population growth, environmental degradation and resource depletion. This lecture changed his life.
Starting in the early 1960s he endeavored to learn about the challenges we now refer to as sustainability and to plan bold actions to make his contribution, just as implored by Fuller. The most prominent result was the creation of a new town, The Woodlands. His blueprint for the tract of land was inspired by the concepts in Ian McHarg's book, "Design with Nature," combined with a yearning for the human scale of his boyhood Galveston neighborhoods. He wanted The Woodlands to demonstrate how Houston could grow sustainably. The town that emerged from his vision won the prestigious FIABCI Prix D'Excellence international award for design, among many other accolades, and is now home for more than 120,000 people.
He encouraged the National Academy of Sciences to initiate efforts in sustainability, supporting their influential report "Our Common Journey – A Transition Toward Sustainability." Later he provided an endowment to support the Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability at the Academy and he endowed the Houston Advanced Research Center in perpetuity to support its sustainability mission.
Some have called Dad "Mr. Galveston" for his passionate commitment to revitalizing the island's economy. Troubled by Galveston's decades-long decline he invested in the historic Strand District of Galveston igniting an economic and cultural rebirth. Starting in the mid-1980s, Mom and Dad had wonderful fun together reestablishing the Mardi Gras celebration in Galveston. The annual ritual of dressing up in costumes and face paint for Mardi Gras at The Tremont House is the source of great memories and priceless photos.
Among our most enduring family memories are the fishing trips to the Galveston jetties on our boat, Where the Fish Are. Dad was endlessly untangling fishing lines of toddlers and teens, baiting hooks, extracting hooks -- from fish and children -- and keeping little ones safe. He cheered on youngsters reeling in specs and reds with a proud shout, "Fight 'em, fella." Unnoticed in the din, he always landed more fish than the combined catch of all others. On those warm summer evenings, after eating his signature lemon-butter broiled fish, Dad would set up a telescope to stargaze while Mom and the older children made hand-cranked ice cream.
In 1963 they had the courage – or foolishness – to load the station wagon with 11 family members for an epic cross-country road trip for Mom's twenty-fifth high school reunion in Illinois. Remarkably, Dad, who relished these spirited diversions, operated in parallel at the highest level in a business world that had minimal interference with his time devoted to us. Our father's loving attention touched us all. His commitment to family -- and his optimism and confidence -- are summed up in a line from a letter he wrote to his sister Maria at a time when they struggled financially to stay in college: "It's a tough old world sis but if we pull together we can lick it."
While we fondly remember stargazing on warm summer nights in Galveston in the early 60s, Dad was quiet in those days about his childhood dreams of being an astronomer. However, decades later, once he sold Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation, the twinkle of starlight was rekindled in his imagination. Still driven by a burning curiosity and a fascination of what may lie at the edge of what is knowable, he founded the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M. With the Board of the Carnegie Institute of Science he co-funded an initiative to build the first of six massive mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope, an unprecedented, high-risk engineering project that proved the technology existed to open new horizons in astronomy. Although he will never peer into the depths of the universe with these new scientific tools, those who do see farther will benefit from his vision and commitment.
He dreamed big. Our living memory is inspired by his big dreams, grand challenges and the sustained perseverance he demonstrated. He achieved excellence in diverse endeavors, including loving all of us, all of humanity and nature in all its diversity.
George Phydias Mitchell is preceded in death by his wife, Cynthia Woods Mitchell, and his two brothers, Christie and Johnny. He is survived by his sister, Maria Mitchell Ballantyne; his sister-in-law Pamela Woods Loomis; his daughters Pamela Maguire, Meredith Dreiss and Sheridan Lorenz; his sons Scott, Mark, Kent, Greg, Kirk, Todd and Grant; 23 grandchildren, 5 great grandchildren and 19 nieces and nephews.
The family has planned two memorial services to remember George P. Mitchell.
On Tuesday, the 6th of August at 5:30 p.m a memorial service will be held at Trinity Episcopal Church, 2216 Ball Street in Galveston, followed by a celebration of his life at 7:00 p.m., at Saengerfest Park, 23rd and Strand. Please dress comfortably for the Texas summer heat.
On Thursday, the 8th of August at 7:30 p.m. a tribute will be held at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive in The Woodlands. This event is open to everyone who wishes to share in celebrating the life of George P. Mitchell.
The Mitchell family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made in George P. Mitchell's memory to the Galveston Sustainable Communities Alliance, Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council, or Galveston Academic Excellence Booster Club. For more information, please visit cgmf.org.
The family expresses its deepest gratitude to so many who supported our father in recent years, especially a team of caregivers including Adrianna Carr, Marvin Kelley, Augusta Morris, Betty Socie, Lisa Socie, and Lafondra Williams.
Published in Austin American-Statesman on Aug. 3, 2013