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50 (or More) Things You May Not Know About Welcome Wilson, Sr.


Welcome Wilson on the Salt Grass Trail Ride.

Text by Melanie Saxton

Photos By Pam Francis (Cover photo and color photos)

Welcome Wilson, Sr., is the proud father of three daughters and two sons, has 16 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren… and just one wife, with whom he’s celebrated a 62nd wedding anniversary. He’s had kids or grandkids enrolled at The Kinkaid School every school year since 1963. As a devoted alumnus and Regent, Wilson has been instrumental in achieving the University of Houston’s Carnegie-designated Tier One status. For the better part of 83 years he’s lived and prospered under a simple entrepreneurial philosophy: “I’ve always believed that entrepreneurship involves three steps: See a need, fill that need, and you are rewarded.” He was honored this past May at the Houston Technology Center’s “A Celebration of Entrepreneurs” and will be inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame in November.

Nameless for 22 days in 1928 as his parents argued over an appropriate moniker, he was eventually christened Welcome Wade Wilson. “Let’s make him feel ‘welcome,’ ” said his father, E. E. Jack Wilson, after the doctor forewarned the baby would be a girl. “When my mother, Irene, delivered a 12-pound boy, imagine the surprise,” says Wilson. The name destined him for a colorful eight decades that reads like a Who’s Who of Houston.

Wilson became an entrepreneur at the age of seven. “As a second-grader in Corpus Christi, I noticed students dumping their plates in one corner, making a big mess. We didn’t have trays back then, just food on a plate that cost 15 cents,” says Wilson. “I scraped and stacked those plates until the cafeteria manager said, ‘You’re really helping around here! We should pay for your lunches.’ Money was scarce during the Depression, and when my parents passed out lunch money the next day I was proud to say, ‘I don’t need it — I have a job!’ The experience became a simple life lesson: When people are willing to do something others are not willing to do, they prosper.”

Wilson’s father owned a radio station and Welcome became a newscaster, disc jockey, and station announcer, and at age 16 covered the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. He worked an extra job as a longshoreman on banana boats in Brownsville in 1945, and became president of the student body at Brownsville Junior College and a trap drummer for a 17-piece dance band.

“My father believed Houston would be the financial capital of the world and deposited my brother Jack and me on the UH campus in Army surplus house trailer No. 67 left over from World War II,” Wilson recalls. “We had a tiny kitchenette and a bathroom over a block away.” The student population exploded from 3,500 to 10,000 in one semester due to the returning GIs. “My father paid $10 in rent and $130 in tuition for each of us, then gave us each $50. ‘Boys, call me on the telephone if you need anything,’ he told us, ‘and I’ll tell you how to get along without it.’ Self-reliance was expected, and this was my father’s final financial contribution to us for the rest of his life.”

Soon Wilson took a job at the UH student newspaper, The Cougar, that no one else wanted. “Student body president Johnny Goyen normally had to browbeat people into the position,” says Wilson. “I later became the business manager and highest-paid student on campus at $1 an hour.” This reinforced Wilson’s view that people should be willing to do things others are unwilling to do. “It really is the key to opportunity, and it got my brother and me through college.” He was selected as One of Ten Outstanding Students at UH.

In 1949 he married his college sweetheart, Joanne Guest. “I saw this gorgeous girl sitting across the table in the old UH gymnasium at a Sadie Hawkins dance. We didn’t talk, and I searched for her for next six months. One day, there she came down the hall. She never got away again!” The two married on the same day Wilson graduated with a BBA degree. Wilson performed regularly on Channel 2 the same year. “The local programming was far from first class, so singing on live television was an experience!”

The Korean War erupted in 1950. Wilson lived in Japan for two years in 1951 with Joanne and their son, who put the Sr. behind Wilson’s name. He was a Defense Battalion Commander in Yokosuka and graduated first in his class at Naval Officers School.

In 1953, he became executive assistant to his best friend, Texas oilman and philanthropist R.E. (Bob) Smith, who was 40 years his senior and Houston’s No. 1 citizen. “He was the guy who put up the money to build the Astrodome,” says Wilson. “I built the Bob Smith Fountain downtown in his honor.” Wilson assisted newly elected Houston Mayor Judge Roy Hofheinz and became the Houston chairman of the March of Dimes campaign. In 1955 he led the drive to raise money to install the first weather radar in Texas. “Remember those famous Houston air raid sirens back in the ’50s and ’60s? That was us, testing them every Friday at noon,” says Wilson.

Witnessing the atom bomb tests in Nevada in 1954 and the hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1956 made an impact. “Whoever harnesses that power is of critical importance,” says Wilson. “Imagine a hydrogen bomb in the hands of a terrorist willing to kill women and children in the marketplace. The world is scarier now because those bombs are everywhere — Pakistan, North Korea, Iran. When I was a government official no one was worried about crime, inflation, or anything but a nuclear attack.”

 

Wilson became an Eisen­hower ap­pointee as the Five State Head of Civil Defense and FEMA in 1956. He was 27 years old, with the equivalent rank of a three-star general, and knew every governor and senator. The devastation of Hurricane Audrey in 1957 prompted him to hold a hearing which changed hurricane reporting by the Weather Bureau. “Three hurricanes, four major floods, and 17 tornadoes stuck the area and 500 people were killed,” recalls Wilson. “That’s when we started talking about the leading edge of a hurricane instead of the eye.” Wilson was named One of Ten Out­standing Young Men in the U.S. Federal Service for his service.

Before there was a ’60s Rat Pack in Hollywood, there was “The Pride” at University of Houston. Five lifelong friends — Wilson, his brother Jack, Johnny Goyen, Jack Valenti and Bill Sherrill — bonded over UH traditions such as Frontier Fiesta (Life magazine once proclaimed it “The Greatest College Show on Earth”) and the UH Fron­tiersmen. “The Pride” is a reference to fans of the live cougar mascot, Shasta, who first came to UH in 1947. The five friends went on to develop Jamaica Beach and Tiki Island. “The idea was to create a second-home market for Galveston vacationers. It was a learning experience and could not have been possible anywhere else in the country,” says Wilson.

Jack Valenti later became president of the Motion Picture Asso­ciation. Johnny Goyen became mayor pro-tem of Houston for 22 years. Bill Sherrill founded the Entre­preneurship Program at the Bauer College of Business, then became an appointee to the U.S. Federal Reserve Board and director of the FDIC. Wilson, with his brother Jack by his side, became a real estate developer of subdivisions, apartments, shopping centers and office buildings.

 

Enter the 1960s. Wilson served in the Executive Office of the President under John F. Kennedy in 1961, and was invited by Oklahoma Governor J. Howard Edmondson aboard a National Guard flight to D. C. for JFK’s inauguration. “We were caught in a snowstorm, circled around and landed in Richmond, Virginia — and arrived at the inauguration on a bus!” Wilson last spent time with JFK in Houston in November 1963, the night before the president’s assassination.

Wilson and Bob Smith were fitness buffs well before it became a trend. They attended the Presidents Health Club downtown, the first of its kind. “Before that, there were only gyms for boxers and weightlifters,” says Wilson. “I’ve worked out five days a week for half a century and today am a member of the Houstonian. I leave the house at 4:45 a.m., pick up Welcome, Jr. at 5 a.m. and stay at the Hous­tonian until 7. Working out is my one and only hobby.”

A friend of the original seven astronauts, Wilson was a neighbor of Alan Shepard. “He used to jog past my house in black socks and was a funny, funny guy,” says Wilson. “I knew Gus Grissom, Neil Armstrong, and was chairman for Gordon Cooper’s Houston parade in 1963.”

 

As the civil rights struggle loomed, one event changed it forever. “I was sitting in Jack Valenti’s house after he had married Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary, Mary Margaret Wiley. Johnson was in town and joined us, drinking copious amounts of decaf coffee, as was his habit. He was one formidable man,” says Wilson. “Kennedy was trying to get civil rights passed and Johnson said, ‘Well, something needs to be done about that.’ When I pressed him, he leaned into my face and said, ‘Welcome, let me tell you a story. We campaigned in New Mexico in 1960 with a caravan of about half a dozen vehicles and stopped at a filling station to get a Coke and go to the bathroom. Everyone was ready to leave after 15 minutes or so. But a young black secretary who worked in my D.C. office was missing. Why? She was 100 yards behind the building squatting down because they would not let her go to the bathroom in the building.’ And he reached over and he hit me on the knee and said, ‘Welcome, that is wrong, and when I get a chance to do something about it, I am going to.’ The Kennedy assassination happened shortly afterwards and Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.”

Beginning in 1967, Wilson also found time to ride on the Salt Grass Trail Ride for the next 43 years. “Fifteen hundred riders made up of 40 wagons,” says Wilson. “The Desperados were founded by me and my sister, Beverly Wilson Smith, who was boss of Wagon No. 13. We rode 100 miles starting from Cat Springs, ending up at Memorial Park.”

By 1970 Wilson owned 18,000 acres in seven counties. He was named Dis­tin­guished Alumnus by the University of Houston and became 10 percent owner of the Houston Astros. In 1971, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill played at his daughter’s debutante party before ZZ Top formed. “I knew Billy Gibbons’ father, Freddy, because he played piano at every luncheon in Houston,” Wilson explains. “After I booked the Moving Sidewalks, Billy got on the phone to talk Dusty into joining them. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘We have an important gig at the River Oaks Country Club, and it’s time for you to join!’ That gig caused them to partner up, and the rest is history!”

Today, Wilson is chairman of GSL Welcome Group, a family business which owns four million square feet of single-tenant industrial and office facilities from Rosenberg to Conroe. Yet he always has time to support University of Houston, which has played such a major role in his life for the past 65 years.

“I spend at least 50 percent of my time working for UH,” says Wilson. “Our Chancellor and President, Renu Khator, is originally from India and was the last to be interviewed by the Board of Regents. When she looked over and said, ‘Mr. Chairman, I have fire in the belly,’ that did it! I hired her,” says Wilson. “Only Columbia, Yale, Princeton and Harvard have graduated more CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. The CEOs of Neiman Marcus, Shell Oil, Cameron and Centerpoint are all UH grads.”

Wilson has no plans to retire. “At this age it is not a burden, but a joy to have this life and do what I love.” This great leader in politics, real estate and academia will continue to serve as an inspiration to future entrepreneurs.

Welcome and beautiful wife Joann have been married since 1949. They were college sweethearts.

Welcome Wilson currently serves as UH Chairman of the Board of Regents. He was recently honored at the Houston Technology Center’s “A Celebration of Entrepreneurs” and will be inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame in November.

In 1953, Welcome became executive assistant to his best friend, Texas oilman and philanthropist R.E. (Bob) Smith.

First born Welcome Jr., was born in Japan while Welcome Sr. was a Defense Battalion Commander in Yokosuka and graduated first in his class at Naval Officers School.

A young Welcome Wilson with Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Wilson family at their Triple W Ranch in Waller.

Welcome and Joann recently celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary.


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