This pandemic year has been especially cruel for far too many. Indeed, the nation has not seen a scourge such as this in a century, and it has proven to be deeply and personally costly. Here in Houston, one need only scroll through social media feeds to find someone close who has lost a loved one to COVID-19. (Harris County Public Health reports 2,633 COVID deaths as of December 30.)
While myriad Houstonians are grieving their own towering figures lost this year, as a city, Houston bid farewell to several giants — most notably in dining, real estate, and society (some of these passings received national attention).
Many of these locals lived full, long lives, while others were taken much too soon. All will be remembered in a tumultuous year for their contributions to our city.
Princess Maria Galitzine
In a city swarming with name droppers and Texas-sized egos, Maria Singh, née Maria Galitzine, was refreshingly low-key about her blueblood status.
Boasting royal blood on both sides of her family, Singh was a great-granddaughter of the last emperor and empress of Austria, Karl and Zita, the Habsburg dynasty that ruled parts of Europe for nearly 600 years.
She passed away suddenly in Houston in May from a sudden cardiac aneurysm at 31, leaving behind husband and noted chef, Rishi Singh, and her 2-year-old son, Maxim.
Houston will forever owe part of its striking skyline to real estate mogul and visionary Gerald Hines. Widely regarded and regularly honored as a leading visionary in the commercial real estate industry, he engineered Hines from an entrepreneurial startup in Houston in 1957 into an international powerhouse that has developed, owned, and managed some of the world’s most recognizable architectural landmarks across five continents.
Hines' footprint may be global, but his roots are indelibly Houston: his unmistakable local landmarks include One Shell Plaza, The Galleria, Pennzoil Place, Bank of America Plaza, JPMorgan Chase Tower, and Williams Tower.
The real estate titan passed away in August after celebrating his 95th birthday.
Dr. Carlos Araujo-Preza
Dynamic, bold, and lively, Dr. Carlos Araujo-Preza was so adept at this job and purposeful that he nicknamed himself a “Jedi.” The Star Wars fan worked tirelessly in The Woodlands, treating critically ill patients suffering from the worst COVID symptoms.
When his partner, Paige King, asked him if he feared contracting COVID, the critical care doctor told her, “I was born for this.” Then, months after fighting on the front lines, the 51-year-old doctor was stricken by the virus and succumbed to the disease in December.
His death sparked an outpouring of messages from around the globe and made national headlines as a brutal reminder of the dangers healthcare workers face each day.
Simply put, there was Houston dining before Tony Vallone, and Houston dining after. Vallone, known affectionately as “Tony” ushered in fine dining in Houston in a way that hadn’t been seen before — calling to mind the hottest, see-and-be-seen eateries in New York.
As CultureMap food editor Eric Sandler notes, at the heights of its power, A-list socialites and celebs flocked to Vallone’s restaurant for both ultra-luxurious meals and simple pleasures like the signature chili. Regardless of the meal, Tony's become Houston’s destination to dress up and splurge.
“If there was anyone in the restaurant industry who truly motivated me, it was Tony Vallone,” Tilman Fertitta told CultureMap when Vallone passed away in September. All hail the king, indeed.
Local diners who clamor to the choice deals at Houston Restaurant Weeks should raise a glass to Cleverley Stone, who morphed the week-long event to a weeks-long dining experience.
Affectionately dubbed the “Diva of Dining,” Stone will forever be known as the founder of the month-long fundraiser that has raised over $16.6 million for the Houston Food Bank since 2003. With over 250 participating restaurants, it grew to become the single largest fundraiser for any food bank in America.
“She was always a great friend and someone you can talk to about anything — except changing Restaurant Weeks,” quipped Houston restaurateur Ben Berg. The radio host and journalist passed away in May following a lengthy battle with cancer at 68.
So prolific was Jackson Hicks that one could merely stroll into an A-list affair, survey the exquisite decor, accoutrements, and design, and immediately declare it “a Jackson.”
The dapper Hicks, dubbed “The Prince of Parties,” was a fixture of Houston society for more than 30 years, beloved and sought-after for the ornate style he brought to galas and private parties. Hicks became fast friends with former President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush.
Not surprisingly, the Bushes tapped his Jackson & Company to service the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation’s events, including a Celebration of Reading. Hicks passed away suddenly in April at 73.
Bookish Houstonians no doubt know the name Karl Killian, founder of the beloved Brazos Bookstore.
Killian was a cofounder of Inprint Houston and created Friends of PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists), a group that supported the Southwest chapter of the international writers' organization, per his obituary. He was involved with the Rice Design Alliance and served as a board member for Society for the Performing Arts.
But he will be forever tied to Brazos Bookstore, a site of countless author appearances and literary events. Killian passed away in December at 77.
Known to friends and family as Bubba, Vincenet Mandola owned a trio of Montrose's most-enduring Italian restaurants: Nino's, Vincent's, and Grappino di Nino.
He also founded Pronto Cucinino, a fast-casual concept with two locations. Mandola's brothers established some of Houston's most popular restaurants. Tony Mandola owns Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen in Montrose. Damian Mandola founded beloved Midtown restaurant Damian's as well as Pesce with his nephew, Johnny Carrabba, the owner of Carrabba's, Mia's Table, and Grace's. Mandola's cousin, the late Frankie B. Mandola, founded Ragin Cajun and, along with his cousin Bubba Butera, purchased Damian's.
Vincent passed away in July at 77.
What a legacy Sigmund Jucker and his family left Houston: The founders of Three Brothers Bakery introduced our city to bagels, challahs, and many other Jewish and European foods which didn't exist before they opened their first store. (Three Brothers Bakery now has three locations in the Houston area.) “At 17, he was sent to concentration camps and survived the horrors during the Holocaust until he was liberated on May 8, 1945. Several years later he left Germany with his brothers and followed his sister to Houston to start a new life,” Jucker’s obituary states. He was the last surviving founding brother of the iconic bakery and passed away at 98.
Another Houstonian gone far too soon, Dinah Powers lost her battle with uterine cancer in November. The popular co-host of the Rod Ryan morning show on KTBZ The Buzz had left her radio job with hopes of becoming a counselor before her diagnosis. She was a fixture of morning radio and in her death, she reminded countless Houstonians to watch for early signs of cancer.