The enduring legacy of Cynthia Woods Mitchell 

The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Cynthia Woods Mitchell on September 24, presenting an opportunity to reflect on her contributions to our family and foundation.

Cynthia was humble—but was a force. She was dedicated to our family and community, and, throughout her life, she set a sterling example by treating all people with dignity and grace and inspiring all around her to envision a world that could be.

Our dad's story, George P. Mitchell, is better known.

The son of Galveston, born to poor immigrants from Greece, George built a fortune in the energy sector in Houston, transforming energy markets and geopolitics by innovating gas production from shale rock—techniques that are at the heart of making the United States the largest energy producer in the world today.

But his interests were broad and ranged far beyond energy. Drawn to global growth challenges, he turned toward an enduring commitment to sustainability issues.  

Given his prominence and success, it’s often assumed that his vision is at the heart of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. But he is only half the story.

The foundation’s values—guided by the principles of social responsibility, respect for the individual, reverence for the natural environment, and intolerance of prejudice—are based on the synergy between the two. In everything they did, Cynthia’s contribution was fundamental. And it is the enduring legacy of Cynthia Woods Mitchell—our mother—that ignites our emotions and anchors our convictions.

Cynthia was a wellspring of inspiration for her ten children, grandchildren, and husband. She was our mentor and moral leader. Her belief in human equality and respect for all people is a bountiful legacy that is more relevant today than ever.

Cynthia, like George, was a child of meager means who, by age 17, was working as a legal secretary, along with her twin sister, to help support their single-parent household. She loved languages, storytelling, and words, winning spelling contests as a child and later falling in love with music, architecture, theater, and art. Cynthia was as good with numbers as she was with words. She could easily have been a professional poet, writer, artist, or scientist in another lifetime.

Though managing a household of ten children was demanding, Cynthia viewed her extraordinary life with a sense of wonder and amusement. She had no interest in being like anyone else, and she wasn’t. This included her dress style, their artful home, and the moral compass that guided her.

Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, she juggled the myriad responsibilities of their busy Houston household. Nonetheless, her tireless energy and dedication to our family, community, school, and church activities was boundless.

Each Christmas, with us lined up like assembly line workers, our family wrapped presents, then, with everybody pitching in, piled into a station wagon full of gifts to deliver them around town to children less fortunate.

She enlisted us in door-to-door fundraising and, like a good team coach, made it fun. And despite her own household’s needs, she dedicated one day a week to volunteer service at a children’s hospital.

She revered nature, speaking eloquently about its mysteries. She took us on countless road trips to the nation’s great parks and natural areas to distinguish unspoiled natural splendor from mankind’s heavy footprint.

Littering was taboo, once slamming on the brakes and making one of us retrieve the gum wrapper that had been thrown out the car window. And she consistently modeled how we could do more. She even delivered stacks of newspapers to recycling centers on the edge of Houston—in the 1960s—before most people even knew what recycling was.

As George’s stature grew, Cynthia encouraged him to use his position and wealth to effectuate change. She understood that we were privileged and taught us the importance of giving back to the community, being generous, and why social equity and educational opportunities matter, particularly for those facing systemic and structural discrimination.

As Cynthia and George toured troubled cities in the 1960s, asking how they could be a part of the solution, he focused his time and resources on building the “new town” of The Woodlands.

As their resources grew, they aimed their sights toward philanthropy.

Cynthia’s profound awe for our planet’s beauty and the wonders of the Universe kept us and her grandchildren enthralled with a sense of optimism that led to the foundation’s dedication to environmental protection and a focus on science-based programs.

Her abiding belief that the arts can lift spirits and elevate lives influenced the founding of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands. In that same spirit, they and the foundation endowed the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston in 2003.

Cynthia knew the transformative power of education in breaking the cycle of poverty and bringing purpose to people’s lives, an understanding the foundation embraces and strives to honor. In addition, her passion for beauty and history drives the foundation’s efforts in historic preservation.

Both lovers of Galveston, their first hometown as a married couple, Cynthia and George were at the forefront of efforts to revitalize its elegant but decaying downtown. Beginning in the 1970s, they invested over $150 million in the historic preservation and revitalization of its commercial core, an accomplishment made possible by the deep engagement of her flair, talent, and intellect.

During their lifetimes, they donated, individually or through the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, some $750 million to make ours a more just and sustainable world.

As the foundation’s grantmaking has dramatically increased over the past decade, our board has rededicated its efforts to hear her voice in everything we do.

Cynthia Woods Mitchell’s undying values and beliefs drive those of us who steward the foundation today. For hers is the force and influence that motivates our deeply felt commitments to social justice, educational equality, the arts, environmental protection, and historic preservation. She is, and always will be, the lodestar that keeps us steady on our course.

Meredith Mitchell Dreiss, Sheridan Mitchell Lorenz, and C. Grant Mitchell are three of Cynthia and George Mitchell's ten children. Dreiss is the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s president emeritus. Lorenz is an active board member. Mitchell is the board chair.

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