HOUSTON—Houston iconic figure, philanthropist and lover of arts, Cynthia Woods Mitchell, died early Sunday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was surrounded by friends and family when she peacefully passed away.
Cynthia Woods Mitchell, with her characteristic gracious reserve, seemed an unlikely champion of artistic and humanitarian causes. Yet, she leaves an abundant and empowering legacy from her lifelong devotion to personal and charitable interests.
Born one of twin identical girls on September 24, 1922 in New York City, Cynthia was raised by a single mother and extended family during the Great Depression, and came to Houston with her sister in 1939 to study literature, art and psychology at the University of Houston.
On Thanksgiving, 1941, while traveling by train from College Station to Houston, she met Lieutenant George Mitchell. 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 in 1943. Their marriage and partnership spanned six decades, joyfully filled by 10 children, 23 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
The Mitchell partnership was equally as prolific outside the home, developing major real estate and oil and gas holdings; creating a visionary new town, The Woodlands, and its premier outdoor performance arts venue, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion; and preserving and revitalizing their beloved Galveston Island.
In 2002, Cynthia was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and on December 27, she died at home, surrounded by family. She was 87 years old. Cynthia met her diagnosis with optimism and dignity, retaining a zest for life and quick sense of humor, even as the disease progressed. George poured resources and attention into Alzheimer’s research, funding Dr. Claudio A. Soto’s contributions at the George and Cynthia Mitchell Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and the George P. and Cynthia Mitchell Center for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Brain Disorders at The University of Texas Health Science Center, and Dr. Rachelle S. Doody’s work at Baylor College of Medicine.
Always the consummate volunteer even as a young mother, Cynthia led multiple troops of Girl Scouts and Brownies, Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts – often at the same time – and served on the board of the Houston Girl Scouts. She held leadership roles in the Parent Teachers Associations of Houston and Spring Branch school districts, volunteered at Trinity Episcopal Church and Texas Children’s Hospital. Her extraordinary dedication to family, community, and philanthropy seemed boundless, even contagious; she created a culture of service and contribution within her own family, starting with United Way neighborhood drives; Christmastime deliveries to those less fortunate; and a futuristic household recycling program before most people had even heard of recycling. Later, other social and artistic concerns would benefit from her financial and creative influence, and the list is impressive.
Tapping her knowledge and love of restoration, Cynthia was selected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to serve on its board. Within that organization, she and George endowed the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors, and she served on the grants selection committee. As a passionate environmentalist, Cynthia joined the board of the World Wildlife Fund, underwrote art exhibits focused on endangered species at Houston’s Museum of Natural History, and was sole underwriter for Margaret Mee’s exhibition of her research in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest. With a passion for arts and letters, Cynthia underwrote a Distinguished Authors program at the University of Houston; was a generous benefactor of the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, and Houston Ballet; and co-chaired the Texas Festival at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Honoring youth in the arts, she supported the Houston Youth Symphony and Ballet, and the University of Houston’s Texas Music Festival, which draws the best music students across the country and prepares them for a career in music. The festival also features the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artists Competition. As a compassionate defender of childhood physical and emotional well-being, Cynthia sponsored Kid-Care, The United Way, and established the Global Children’s Foundation that provides safe havens to children affected by war.
Cynthia joined forces with her husband in the revitalization of Historic Galveston, beginning with the restoration of the 1871 League Building in 1976, and continuing with the Strand Historic District. They purchased and restored the Leon and H. Blum Building to become the luxury, European-style Tremont House; purchased and restored the famed beachfront Galvez Hotel; added another significant luxury destination to the Seawall in 1984 with The San Luis Hotel; and created an authentic waterfront haven, Harbor House, a charming Inn on Pier 21. Through it all, Cynthia’s deep appreciation for fine architecture and quality design became the watermark on each of the 17 nineteenth century commercial iron-front buildings she and her husband restored. Each reflects her sense of style, attention to detail, and natural aesthetic eye. In 1985, the Mitchells turned their collaborative attention to Galveston’s renaissance, and brought back the long-dormant Mardi Gras celebration, a traditional mid-winter festival born in 1867 that today draws 500,000 visitors to the island.
To honor Cynthia’s often-stated wish to benefit her alma mater and foster her love of creativity, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts was born. Acting as a center for artistic collaboration, the Mitchell Center forms an alliance among five units at the University of Houston to cultivate interdisciplinary relationships in the performing, visual, and literary arts.
For those who knew her best, Cynthia will be remembered for her intelligence and wit; benevolence and social equality; and devotion to all that she loved.
A memorial service will be held in her honor on January 4, 2010 at 2 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church in Galveston, Texas followed by a reception at the Tremont House.