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CYNTHIA WOODS MITCHELL Sept. 24, 1922 ~ Dec. 27, 2009 Defying our predictions when she was the healthiest and liveliest person we had ever known, Mother proved to be mortal. Through a decade of Alzheimer's Disease, we learned to let go as the ball of fire that blazed a broad arc over so many lives was erased story by story, memory by memory, as everything familiar faded into the unknown.Born September 24, 1922 in New York City, Cynthia Loretta Woods and her identical twin Pamela moved with their mother at the age of eight to live with her mother's family in southern Illinois.After living for a time in Carrollton, Illinois, the family moved to nearby Jacksonville for the high school years. In 1934, Cynthia was crowned the champion at the spelling bee at the Green County Fair. The medallion she received was inscribed with the motto, "Strive and Thrive", which was a source of wry amusement for years after and foretold the life she would live. The twins were stellar students, beautiful and popular, and they recalled a time when the Carrollton and Jacksonville high schools competed in basketball, and they realized that between them, they had been invited on dates by every boy on both teams. They graduated from Jacksonville High at the age of 16, and the twins and their mother moved to Houston in the depth of the Great Depression. The twins became the breadwinners of the family unit as teenagers, while pursuing their higher education with night classes at the University of Houston.Shouldering adult burdens at such an early age with competence, intelligence, tenacity and even a sense of humor that allowed her to thrive in adverse circumstances -- these were the characteristics that she shared in common with a young man who was introduced by her twin's boyfriend on the train home from College Station to Houston after a football game at Kyle Field in 1941. "Hi, I'm George Mitchell, call me Mitch," he said in that first breathless moment. Cynthia was disgusted that her blind date was drinking whiskey from a flask, so her sister's boyfriend kindly escorted the annoying drunk off to another part of the train. In a heartbeat, the young man she had just met, with waves of black hair, observing the scene from a seat nearby, made the boldest and best move of his life . . . to the vacant seat next to her, and wasted no time in getting her phone number. Perhaps it was the good fortune of any beautiful young woman of her day, but she wistfully recalled just a few years ago, "You know, I do not think I ever had a boyfriend after high school that I did not meet on public transportation." As it would happen, the last boyfriend she met on public transportation was this one, the one who made a point of announcing the imminent arrival at Union Station by taking a long and very deliberate look at the engraved pocketwatch he had been awarded as valedictorian of his class of engineers at A&M. Her simple diary entry for that day: "Met a cute soldier today." At the height of World War II, Captain George Mitchell and Cynthia Woods were married by an Army chaplain - in a double wedding with her twin sister and brother in law- on Halloween, 1943.The newlyweds first settled in Houston where George was assigned to the Houston office of the Corps of Engineers, but he soon received what Cynthia always mused were his "overseas orders" -- across the bay to his hometown of Galveston -- and there they remained through the end of the war. Always a little ahead of their time, their first child arrived in early 1945, while the war still raged in Europe and the Pacific, but when the war ended, the Mitchell family baby boom began in earnest, and did not let up until 1963, when the tenth child was born.The family returned to Houston where George's career as a petroleum engineer and geologist kept pace barely -- with the burgeoning brood of children. Cynthia became a fixture in every aspect of her children's active lives, at their schools, as a leader in the Brownies and Girl Scouts for the elder daughters, and in Cub Scout dens for the younger sons.When the cultural shifts of the late 1960s occurred, Cynthia recalled, her interests as an engaged citizen differed from many of her peers of her generation as she became influenced by the the activism of the younger generation, including so many of her own children from youngsters in kindergarten to teenagers and college students - which moved her toward more modern and progressive views on issues of social justice, racial equality, poverty, educational equity and environmental protection; these perspectives inspired her charitable efforts throughout her life.Her efforts to impose some kind of order on the chaos of a huge family of her own energetic progeny are the stuff of legend. Decades before the emergence of famous white rap artists, she practically invented the genre when she would dance a jig while inventing a hilarious rap verse complaint about all the difficulties of organizing too many kids, too many destinations and activities, and a husband with a hundred irons in the fire, all pulling in different directions at times. Any friend of the family who ever happened to be there for one of her performances can tell the story to this day. She invented make-work programs for her children who were in the process of growing up with none of the hardships or responsibilities of the parents . . . until one day, the younger kids staged a strike in the living room, and walked a picket line until she danced one of her jigs. Life with Mother was not dull.In the 1970s, George's meteoric rise to prominence became a more public story as the company he had founded issued stock to the public and was listed on the stock exchange, plus his project to establish a new city at The Woodlands became better known, so the privacy the family had enjoyed disappeared. Little by little, the influence Cynthia had in George's life became better understood. She was a less visible but important force in shaping his efforts to heighten awareness of the dangers of excessive population growth and the need to establish a more sustainable future for the human impact on the earth, as expressed in the series of conferences they sponsored on the Limits to Growth beginning in 1974. She was involved from the beginning in their project to acquire and restore the core of Galveston's historic downtown district. Her charitable priorities that emphasize respect for the dignity of every human being and for the gifts of intact nature are enshrined in the mission of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, destined to become one of the nation's leading philanthropic institutions. In the modern day, any woman whose ideas and efforts would have such an important impact would have been recognized even earlier for her contributions to society. While visiting her daughter in Austin in 1976, Cynthia enjoyed a performance of the Austin Ballet at the Zilker Hillside Theatre, eating take-out chicken and sipping wine on a quilt, surrounded by families on blankets, children in swimsuits, nursing babies, frisbees and dogs. "This is great!" she exclaimed, "Just like in the Soviet Union, where everyone, not just the elite, attend the ballet and the opera!" She convinced her very capitalist husband that just such a venue would be perfect in the new city taking shape at The Woodlands. He took the hint, and chose to name the venue The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. She laughed at her sudden pop-culture status that came with the widespread marketing of popular music events at The Pavilion, especially amused when she had a small collision in rush hour traffic and the teenage kids in the other car were so excited to see the name Cynthia Woods Mitchell on her license. She became involved in selecting the musical acts that would come to The Pavilion, and now in her seventies, would amaze her adult children by calling at 7:30 am to ask, ``What do you think of Sting?'' or ``What should we do about these dangerous mosh pits at some of the concerts?'' But under her influence and with her charitable support, The Pavilion also became a home away from home for the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet, and Youth Orchestra programs became a special joy for her, satisfying her passion for development of undiscovered talent. Always modest, she was not thrilled that her full name on the venue was such a mouthful. She once said she would have supported calling it, simply, "The Cynthia." As she became more recognized in public, she and George remained the couple who, unpretentious to the end, would be the last people in the room that anyone who did not know them might think owned the place. She loved the expression, ``Fools' names and fools' faces are often found in public places.'' So she was not the best candidate for becoming more widely known beyond the circle of family and friends. Humane, witty, enigmatic, she will be irreplaceable to all who did know her, and her ethical principles and respect for humanity and nature will be a gift to many who did not. Cynthia Woods Mitchell is survived by husband George P. Mitchell, sister Pamela Woods Loomis, ten children, twenty three grandchildren and four great grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at Trinity Episcopal Church, 22nd and Winnie in Galveston, Texas on Monday, January 4, 2010 at 2 p.m. with a reception to follow at The Tremont House from 3 to 5 p.m. A Houston Symphony concert celebrating the life of Cynthia Woods Mitchell is planned for April 29, 2010 at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Cynthia's memory to: Trinity Episcopal Church Hurricane Ike Repair and Restoration Fund, c/o church office at 2116 Ball St., Galveston, Texas or to the following two Alzheimer's Disease research entities: The George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for Research in Alzheimer's Disease and Related Brain Disorders at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, 7000 Fannin, Suite 1200, Houston, Texas 77030 or The George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, c/o Development Office, 301 University Blvd., Galveston, Texas 77555-0148.
Published in Houston Chronicle from Dec. 30, 2009 to Jan. 3, 2010
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