Rich Kinder doesn't like being the center of attention. But the co-founder and executive chairman of Kinder Morgan, who Forbes magazine estimates is Houston's richest man, agreed to be interviewed by NBC news correspondent Janet Shamlian as the subject of "A Conversation With a Living Legend," the annual fundraiser for The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, only after another noted Houstonian twisted his arm.
"Bob McNair is the culprit," Kinder explained to an audience of 600 at the Hilton Americas-Houston ballroom. "I owed him a favor, and he called, so I'm going to pay him back some way."
The dinner, which was chaired by Denise Monteleone and Ellie and Michael Francisco, raised a record $1.3 million and drew such notables as McNair and his wife Janice McNair, Joan Schintzer Levy, Patsy Fourticq, Cyvia Wolff, Sara and Bill Morgan, Katie and Pat Oxford, Roxann and Tim Neumann, Hannah and Cal McNair, Anne and Dr. John Mendelsohn, Barbara and Gerald Hines, Brenda and John Duncan, Lynn and Peter Coneway, Dr. Marie and Vijay Goradia, Regina Rogers, Sheridan and John Eddie Williams, Rufus and Dr. Yvonne Cormier, and the evening's emcee, Shara Fryer.
But it was most revealing for the things we learned about Kinder, who with his wife, Nancy, are remaking Houston with transformational gifts in the areas of urban green space, education, and quality of life issues.
1. He was a journalist.
In high school at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Kinder was sports editor of the school newspaper but was fired for criticizing the judgment of the basketball coach.
2. He was a Democrat.
He's now an ardent Republican, but in 1965, Kinder, then 21, was a Democrat who skipped school to participate in the famous march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
3. He knows how to pronounce "bay-oh."
While a debate continues whether it's "bay-oh" or "bay-you," Kinder is in the "bay-oh" camp as he talked about the condition of Buffalo Bayou Park after Hurricane Harvey. He and Nancy gave $50 million to transform Buffalo Bayou into the crown jewel of Houston's park system, and they can often be seen walking around the perimeter along the extensive 5-mile trail system.
"When we helped built Buffalo Bayou Park, we knew we were going to have some flood issues, but what we had not seen before was the enormous amounts of silt. We have literally thousands of truckloads of silt that we are hauling off now," Kinder said. "The upper levels are in pretty good shape now; the lower trails still need work. Hopefully we will get that silt out of there in the next 6-8 weeks."
"The dog park is a mess," he conceded. "In retrospect, it was built too low and we're going to raise it."
4. He is giving most of his fortune away.
Kinder has signed The Giving Pledge, formally joining 170 other billionaires from around the world who have promised to give the bulk of their vast wealth to philanthropic causes.
"Warren Buffet called and asked if we could come to a dinner and made the pitch. Actually it was kind of insulting, they had the dinner in Dallas," Kinder said to loud laughs and applause from the audience. "Warren Buffett is the epitome of the friendly uncle, he's a wonderful guy but he's smart as hell. So they made this pitch, and we said we're happy to do that. We're giving 90 to 95 percent — sorry, grandchildren — back to our foundation."
"What we've found is a lot of other people have the same idea of active philanthropy. The days of just giving money and name this after you, I think those days are gone. Look at what (Bill) Gates has done in Africa (with Melinda Gates), curing malaria. This is good stuff and I think it is important."
5. He's made lots of mistakes — and learned from them.
Shamlian reminded Kinder that he once said, "the biggest mistakes I have made is not thinking big enough."
"That's true," Kinder replied. "I think we're all guilty of that. We tend to see life through our own blinders and we don't think about what can really be accomplished if you take the blinders off. That's very difficult, particularly when you're conservative like me, and you're getting old, it's hard to embrace new ideas. If you stop imagining and stop dreaming about what you can be, boy, you're on a swift decline."
"With all due respect to the president, and a lot of other presidents, I'm always amazed when they ask the president, 'What's your biggest mistake?' (and he has no reply). My response, would be, 'What day?' You make mistakes all the time and that's part of life. F. Scott Fitzgerald had this famous quote, 'There are no second acts in America.' That's just horse manure. There are all kinds of second and third acts in America.
"I think it's important that everybody embrace that. That's the most salient factor that's made Houston the great town that it is. If you fail, you pick yourself back up....We don't have beautiful beaches, we don't have the mountains, it's hot and humid, but what makes this city what it is is the entrepreneurial spirit and just the sheer drive of the people who live here. If we can keep that kind of can-do spirit, and get our kids and grandkids in that same environment, we are going to continue to be successful in the next 100 years."