Philanthropist Remembered

Houston philanthropist who continued family tradition of giving is remembered for unsung contributions

Houston philanthropist remembered for unsung contributions to charity

045 40 Lynda and David Underwood at Houston Methodist's Rendezvous in Blue Gala November 2013
Lynda and David Underwood, shown at a Methodist Hospital gala in 2013. Photo courtesy of CarsonPhotos.com

One of Houston's most giving — and low-profile — philanthropists is being remembered for his unsung contributions to the city's charitable scene. David Underwood, chairman of the Texas Medical Center board of directors, passed away peacefully at his home on August 30. 

He was 78.

A memorial service will be held at The Church of St. John the Divine at 11 am on Thursday (September 3).

A legacy of giving back to the community was instilled in Underwood early, friends say. His grandparents were Walter and Ella Fondren, whose names are synonymous with Houston Methodist Hospital, Rice University and many charitable institutions. A major Houston thoroughfare is named for the family. Walter Fondren, who was one of the co-founders of what is now ExxonMobil, died in 1939, but Ella Fondren lived to the age of 102. She was instrumental in establishing Methodist Hospital, and lived the last eight years of her life at a suite in the hospital until her death in 1982.

According to an account by the Duke of Windsor, who underwent heart surgery at Methodist Hospital in 1964, Ella Fondren learned that the hospital needed a new wing and asked Dr. Michael DeBakey how much it would cost. "A great deal of money, I'm afraid," he said. 

"How much?" she asked.

"$12 million, I'm afraid," he responded.

"That's not a great deal," she said, and wrote a check out on the spot.  

The duke wrote, "On hearing that one of her sons in law was a stock broker I said to her that I hoped he made money for her. 'I'm not interested in making money,' she retorted. "Only in giving it away.'"

Family tradition

While not as flamboyant, her grandson quietly continued the family tradition of giving. In addition to his close ties with the Texas Medical Center, where he served on the board for four decades and as chairman for the past 23 years, his many charitable activities included The Fondren Foundation, where he served as a member of its Board of Governors (the foundation gave nearly $11 million in grants for the year ending in October 31, 2014), and director and vice-chairman of the board of directors of the Houston Methodist Health Care System, where he was the longest-serving member.

In 2013, Underwood and his wife, Lynda, gave $20 million to Houston Methodist Hospital to create the Center for Digestive Disorders, which was named for them.

"A multifaceted man with many dimensions, David M. Underwood’s extraordinary life can never be fully summarized,"  Dr. Robert C. Robbins, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, said in a statement. "Across his spectrum of accomplishments, as a celebrated philanthropist, business leader, husband, father and friend—David’s passion for helping others has left a lasting imprint and his legacy will transcend generations.

"His immeasurable scope of influence is evident at the Texas Medical Center. As Chairman of the TMC Board of Directors for decades, David had an unrelenting vision for its future. He ushered in a new era of programmatic collaboration and innovation that will forever benefit Houstonians and the world."

Underwood was also life trustee at The Kinkaid School, chairman of The Kinkaid Endowment Fund and charter trustee of the Phillips Academy Andover, where he served as president of the board of directors from 1989 to 2004.

Business background

Underwood, the son of Milton Ramon Underwood and Catherine Fondren Underwood, was born in Houston in 1937. He attended The Kinkaid School and graduated from Phillips Academy Andover in 1954, from Yale University in 1958 and the Institute of Investment Banking at The Wharton School of Finance in 1969.

After graduating from Yale, he served in the Army Reserve, attaining the rank of Captain and was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for his distinctive service while at Fort Polk, Louisiana during the Berlin Crisis.

In 1960, Underwood began his working career at Underwood Neuhaus & Co., Inc. where he remained through its many successor organizations since that time. He most recently served as managing director of Wells Fargo Advisors. He also served as president, director, and CEO of his family company, Feliciana Corporation.

Underwood was also a past president of The Bayou Club and Houston Country Club, a past chairman of Allegro, and a member of River Oaks Country Club, Coronado Club, Houston Club, The Club at Las Campanas in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Eldorado Country Club in Indian Wells, California. 

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in support of the Houston Methodist J.C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center c/o Houston Methodist Hospital Foundation, P.O. Box 4384, Houston, TX 77210-4384 or the charitable organization of your choice.