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
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 lifelong 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
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."
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.
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.
Reprint from the Houston
Thursday, August 1, 2013