Arts / Museums

Houston Oil Wildcatter Amazes Museum Supporters with a $15 Million Gift

Massive Check Will Fuel Bold Expansion Plans

BY // 06.20.17

Only weeks after making a $1 million surprise capital campaign contribution to the Holocaust Museum Houston at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Moral Courage Award Dinner,  Lester and Sue Smith further astounded museum supporters on Tuesday evening with a $14 million matching grant for the museum’s massive expansion plans.

Both the gift and the plans for more than doubling the size of the museum were unveiled in ceremonies at the Holocaust Museum home in the Museum District. Once completed the $33.8 million expansion will bring the museum to 57,000 square feet making it the fourth largest Holocaust museum in the country. In honor of their gift, the new building will be named the Holocaust Museum Houston, Lester and Sue Smith Campus. Of course, Smith is a legendary oil wildcatter with a long history of immense giving.

As is Lester Smith’s wont, the big reveal for this monster donation came in the form of a mega-sized $15 million check presented to HMH CEO Kelly J. Zúñiga, HMH board chair Gary Markowitz and capital campaign chairs Heidi Gerger and Benjamin Warren.

With his signature irreverent humor and his heartfelt sincerity Lester Smith had the gathering of several hundred supporters laughing, holding back tears and giving standing ovations. As he read his remarks, he took an aside to explain of his trembling hands, “I shake because I had a double lung transplant and I’m on anti-rejection drugs and immunosupressants and one of the side effects is shaking. Believe me, I’m not nervous.”

In fact, it was a proud moment for the entire Smith family. “There is truly nothing like a near death experience to put one’s life in perspective. While in the hospital recovering,” he said. “I had lots of time to think. What would I do if I had another month. What would I do if I had another year? What would I do if I had another song, a great song, to dance with my wife? What would I do if this was it? Did I live a good life. Did I do what God wanted me to do with the resources and personal gumption that God has given me? Did I do the right thing?”

“We do believe with all of our hearts that the support of the Holocaust Museum Houston is vital in a world that seems to be wrought with discord, violence and apathy.”

The project will require razing two-thirds of the current building to make way for the new three-story structure. In the interim, the museum will close on Monday July 24 for a move to 9220 Kirby Drive near NRG Center. That location will open to the public on September 5 with “business as usual.”

Construction is set to begin in October with completion expected in early 2019.

Houston-based Mucasey & Associates, Architects has designed the LEED certified expansion with PGAL as architect of record. Museum designers Ralph Applebaum & Associates are handling exhibitions and media. Applebaum was in from New York to answer questions about the new building along with Mark Mucasey.

More than 70 percent of the capital campaign has been secured to date with contributions from 90 donors including major gifts from Laurie and Dr. Milton Boniuk, Rhona and Bruce Caress, the Stanford and Joan Alexander Foundation, the Herzstein Foundation and the Jerold B. Katz Foundation. The campaign now enters its more public phase.

The Smiths’ philanthropy is legendary in a city known for generous giving. In April of last year, the Lester and Sue Smith Foundation  committed $10 million to Baylor College of Medicine’s Baylor Lung Institute. In 2012, they chaired a Texas Children’s Cancer Center benefit that raised a city record of $32.2 million, thanks to the foundation underwriting all expenses and matching all dollars raised. In 2011, the foundation provided a $15 million grant to establish the Smith Clinic in the Harris County Hospital District. Earlier that year, the couple chaired the Texas Children’s Cancer Center dinner and raised $9.1 million thanks to their dollar for dollar match.

They have endowed seven chairs at Baylor College of Medicine, provided a $30 million challenge grant to the Breast Center and Human Genome Sequencing Center, awarded the University of Miami a $2.5 million grant to support FDA-approved stem cell research. The list goes on and on in the medical arena and includes additional generous gifts in the arts and museum arenas.

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