Whether they’re preserving history, reviving a downtown, mentoring young people, protecting wetlands or contributing to space travel, we consider them visionaries and stars. Here are just a few people who are making the Texas Coast a better place for now and the future.
J.P. Bryan: Oilman revives beloved island building and shares vast collection of American West history
You might think of a Texas oilman as steely-eyed, shrewd, independent and outspoken.
J.P. Bryan, a member of the Texas oil elite, is all of those things and more.
Bryan has a deep appreciation for art and history and a zeal for saving and sharing what’s worthy: a Tom Lea mural, an architectural treasure, a person or an entire community.
He’s a maverick and visionary. And Bryan, a renowned Texas historian, has come to Galveston packing big ideas and taking careful aim.
“It’s not just about the past, it’s about our future,” Bryan said, kicking back from an enormous mahogany table in the basement of The Bryan Museum, 1315 21st St. “Galveston was the Queen City of the Gulf. It has fabulous structures and these assets need to be elevated and appreciated by everyone in the community.”
The Bryan Museum, which in June celebrated its first anniversary, is an example of what Bryan means when he talks about the colossal possibilities of heritage tourism. His renowned collection of Southwestern art, historical papers and artifacts — some 70,000 pieces — is artistically displayed in the Galveston Orphans Home, which was rebuilt two years after the 1900 Storm, placing history inside of history.
More than 17,000 people have visited the museum since its opening, and the numbers are growing steadily. It’s a significant draw for the kind of tourist who is looking for more than a beach and a margarita.
“Heritage tourism is one of the fastest growing businesses in our state, and I believe people with this interest will find Galveston a place for consistent visitation,” Bryan said.
The museum, founded by Bryan and his wife, Mary Jon, certainly is a destination for a heritage tourist. It offers a canvas of history with a glimpse into our forebears’ journey.
But it’s more than a museum; it’s a transformation.
The old orphans home has risen from decades of slumber to become the perfect venue for Bryan’s collection.
Walk through the iron gate and up the stone stairs and through massive oak doors into a vestibule of longleaf yellow pine, anchored by a wall-size fireplace. The soaring ceilings are lighted by an authentic 17th century Spanish chandelier with three sidekick lights made to match the original. There are comfortable leather chairs. It’s elegant, rustic and full of intriguing items, including some of the leftover toys of the children who once lived here.
The surrounding neighborhood also has benefited from the transformation of the building and its overgrown grounds into a museum with manicured gardens.
“This restoration has made a positive difference in our neighborhood,” said John Koloen, an author of adventure novels who lives near the museum on oak-lined Avenue M. “It’s a quiet area of mostly retired people, and some neighbors thought there might be problems with parking or noise, but that hasn’t happened. I hear nothing but praise for the way Bryan has handled it.”
The bigger change to the street where Koloen lives is the corner house that Bryan and his wife are restoring, he said.
“It was a dilapidated Victorian, divided into apartments and really in terrible shape,” Koloen said. “Now, it’s becoming the jewel of the neighborhood.”
Bryan can sense genuine gratitude from those around him; a lot of people thank him for what he’s done, he said.
“That’s what preservation can do,” Bryan said. “It elevates the place and the spirit of the people who live there.”
When it comes to the social and economic benefit of preserving history, this isn’t Bryan’s first rodeo.
“Having vision comes from a place of love, not one of financial gain,” he said.
But, the two can dance together.
Bryan has restored 20 buildings in different cities and he has witnessed what can happen.
In 1978, he bought the Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas. At the time, it was a kind of crazy purchase in a tiny, dying town.
But Bryan loved the look of the Gage, built in 1926-27, and bought it before he knew the architect was the gifted Henry Charles Trost from El Paso.
At the time, Bryan was starting a business; the hotel was a risk and a leap of faith.
Success was not immediate. It took some years and a large financial investment, but the Gage Hotel inspired a renaissance in Marathon, drawing visitors to stay before taking day trips into Big Bend National Park. As it prospered, businesses grew up around it and the town came to life.
“We didn’t just save a building, we saved a town,” Bryan said.
Bryan, 76, is retired, and able to do pretty much what he wants, along with his wife of 52 years, and his constant canine companion Chalk.
Chalk is an English springer spaniel who leads a double life as a bird-hunting savant and a columnist for the museum’s newsletter, “Chalk Talk.”
“I do have a vision for the Galveston that was and could be again,” he said.
Bryan knew and admired oilman, developer and philanthropist George P. Mitchell and acknowledges what he was able to accomplish in preserving parts of downtown Galveston. Through one of his companies, Mitchell, an island native, invested more than $125 million in preserving historic properties in Galveston’s downtown.
But that momentum has somehow stalled in a city with one of the largest and most well-preserved concentrations of Victorian architecture in the country.
Other cities are doing whatever they can to attract heritage tourism, even those with much less to offer than Galveston, Bryan said.
“We’re an island,” he said. “We’re limited in certain ways. Historical properties are valuable. If they are not secured, they will disintegrate to a point that they cannot be saved.”
Dreaming the big dream is old hat to Bryan. He was born with big boots to fill.
As the great-great-great-grandson of Emily Austin Bryan Perry, sister of Stephen F. Austin, it’s fair to say that Texas history is in Bryan’s DNA.
He grew up in Freeport, Texas, in a house filled with historical maps, books and artifacts.
His father, the late James P. Bryan Sr., was a voracious collector. The senior Bryan graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1929 and subsequently earned a law degree. He was appointed to the UT Board of Regents in 1958 and was a friend and supporter of Harry C. Ransom, who was born in Galveston and became chancellor of the University of Texas.
When J.P. Bryan was 9 years old, he started his own collection with the purchase of an 1859 .22-caliber derringer. He bought it with money he earned cutting grass and selling newspapers. He never stopped collecting.
J.P. Bryan attended St. Stephens Episcopal School in Austin and then entered the honors program at the University of Texas at Austin studying art and history in the late 1950s. He went to law school like his father, and landed in New York City, where he worked in finance with a specialty in energy.
By the time he returned to Texas to found Torch Energy Advisors, he had amassed a formidable collection of Southwestern artifacts, maps and books.
That collection has found a home in Galveston. And, so it seems, has he.
Bryan is on fire with the vision of what could happen here.
“If you want inspiration for the importance of preservation in Galveston, take a look at photographs of Ursuline Academy, the masterwork of architect Nicholas Clayton,” Bryan said. “This may have been the most beautiful building ever built in the country, and it was lost. This should be the poster child for Never Let This Happen Again.”
Ursuline Academy — the main Victorian Gothic structure along with the convent was built in the mid-1890s — sustained some damage by Hurricane Carla in 1961, but it wasn’t irreparable. Still the building was razed.
“Galveston could be so much more than it is,” Bryan said. “The assets are here. The history is here. What isn’t here is leadership for the preservation cause.”
– Marsha Canright
Anna Armitage: Texas A&M professor takes on the swampy issue of saving wetlands
Anna Armitage is something of an ecology evangelist. She went from passing by the mosquito-rich marshes of the Texas Coast with an indifference shared by many, to a life now dedicated to understanding those same wetlands. And Armitage is passionate about preserving the legacy of those vital ecosystems and sharing what she’s learned.
“Dr. Armitage is a valuable advocate for the health of Galveston Bay,” said Ashley Whitt, one of Armitage’s graduate research assistants at Texas A&M University at Galveston, where Armitage is an associate professor. “When people envision a salt marsh, they generally picture sticky, muddy, mosquito-infested grass next to the island causeway. Most undergraduates have the same view before taking her Coastal Plant Ecology course.”
Armitage’s class transforms those students’ views as they begin to understand how important marshes are: They filter toxins out of our water, provide protection against storm surges and are a valuable nursery habitat for commercial fish and crabs, Whitt said.
Armitage is no ivory-tower isolate. She is also active beyond the university classroom, taking children, including her own two — Zach, 6, and Maya, 10 — into the wetlands for both education and restoration projects.
She and her children have helped with wetlands planting at Exploration Green, a project meant to transition the nearly 200 acres of the former Clear Lake Golf Course into a multi-purpose green space that will benefit the surrounding community. The plan will include five phases, ultimately creating detention ponds and wetlands, a nursery for native trees, miles of hike and bike trails, areas of native trees, bushes and grasses and athletic fields.
“Professors are usually ‘chained to their desks’ by important obligations to write publications and research grants that fund their labs,” Whitt said. “But, whenever Anna escapes the office, she is thinking up new experiments or approaches for viewing our data. She’s not afraid to wander off a well-worn path into the marsh.”
Her practical approach to hands-on research and education can present, at times, its own small challenges.
“Early in my graduate career, the two of us were scouting new marsh sites when we came across an abandoned alligator nest,” Whitt said. “We both froze. Anna calmly mentions that it’s not alligator nesting season. But, when we started making our way back to the truck, she looked back at me and asked that we order more snake boots.”
In local seminars, Armitage presents dozens of reasons that wetlands are key to sustainable, coastal success. The most accessible reason is economic: A healthy salt marsh supports a thriving fishing industry. Harder to communicate are the consequences of both construction and climate change on our world.
“People don’t want to think about 20 or 30 years in the future,” Armitage said. “It’s the biggest challenge to get people to plan way beyond current election terms.”
Ecology, biology, chemistry, construction, communications and politics all meet at the water’s edge in her work.
“My life is a series of little moments that add up to where I am now,” Armitage said. “The stewardship of these wetlands is so important. I’m an educator at college and at home to get the next generation to think about the importance of these places.”
– Rick Cousins
Matt Doyle: The mayor ‘who makes it happen’ helps revive Texas City’s Sixth Street
Some mayors win elections, but Texas City Mayor Matt Doyle wins hearts, too.
It’s not just the dramatic face-lift that’s been given to the historic downtown area along Sixth Street, or the acres of parks and green spaces across the city, or even the low taxes that so endear him to his constituency. It’s not even the intricate balance he maintains between big industry and small city quality of life.
It’s Doyle — the person — who Texas City residents love and admire.
“Matt is what I call a ‘best’ mayor,” said Georgia Meyer, whose Karat Creations Jewelry boutique is among the growing number of commercial establishments that have recently moved to the city’s revitalized Sixth Street strip. “He is a true listener — whatever the issues, he really pays attention to what his fellow citizens say, and then he follows through — that is the best kind of mayor any city could hope to have.”
Such accolades are matched only by Doyle’s own love for his hometown and admiration for its residents. With deep roots in Galveston County’s mainland, his approach to making Texas City an all-American city is nonstop.
“If you are standing still, you’re moving backwards,” Doyle said. “Our Sixth Street project is certainly something of which to be proud, but it’s only a piece of the total picture. More importantly, when you can take care of the kids and the families, you’ve created a true, livable city.”
Texas City’s Sixth Street transformation is a high priority for many city leaders. In the past few years, the city has worked with businesses and offered incentives to spruce up the street and give it a uniform look. The initiative has lured an ice house, boutiques and shops and, most recently, an art gallery. Soon, a coffee shop will join the mix.
Doyle, who has served as mayor since 2004, also is quick to redirect credit for Texas City’s progress to others. He speaks admiringly of Meyer’s pioneering work with the downtown area’s re-emergence as a central business, retail, civic and entertainment district, and proudly notes the contributions made by James Hartshorn, the city’s administrative coordinator, and Nick Finan, director of management services for the city. Hartshorn, however, describes Doyle as the true visionary and hard-working influence behind the city’s successful transition into the 21st century.
“Mayor Doyle has a special gift for looking at what ‘is’ and visualizing what could be,” Hartshorn said. “Then he makes it happen.”
Manny Lopez, owner of El Cubano Cigars, factory, storefront and smoking lounge, said Doyle is the reason he moved his business to Sixth Street. The city offers one of the most business friendly environments Lopez has ever experienced, he said. And although Doyle’s father also served as the city’s mayor for a number of years, the younger Doyle is his own man, Lopez said.
“His father, Chuck Doyle, is a legend, but Matt Doyle has created his own legacy, ” Lopez said. “He has a passion for this community that can’t be matched. He is a politician, but he’s not in it for himself — what he ‘politics’ for is the betterment of his home community.”
Doyle’s cheering team also includes Billie Powers, an 11-year veteran at the Texas City Museum, another Sixth Street attraction that has benefited from Doyle’s civic stewardship.
“He is a people person,” Powers said. “Although he was injured in a diving accident in 1991 and must use a wheelchair, he attends almost every event the museum hosts, and makes it a point to go up to every person there and shake his or her hand.”
Texas City is home to the eighth largest U.S. port and petrochemical plants that pay millions in property taxes. Because of that, it enjoys amenities and benefits not possible in other cities its size, Powers said.
“This means lower taxes, highly competitive utility rates, good-paying jobs and an incredible number of perks — these are things that most cities our size cannot afford,” Powers said. “As an example, our museum — thanks to his efforts — has just recently received a much-needed major renovation, and he also has arranged for school groups to receive free admission — a real plus for the education of our youth.”
Such attention to issues both large and small isn’t always an easy job, especially in Texas City with its “strong mayor” form of government.
Strong mayor administrations are found in only a few cities in Texas and require the mayor to handle much of the day-to-day work of running the city.
“Texas City does not have a city manager, which means our mayor has many more duties than mayors of most other cities,” said attorney Phil Roberts, who serves as a city commissioner and mayor pro tem. “Texas City’s mayors are intimately involved with city administration and governmental actions. Such responsibility — especially when combined with our current mayor’s other job serving as chairman of the board for Texas First Bank — requires a special person such as Matt Doyle — someone who is smart, energetic, a dedicated public servant and a diligent, working partner with the city.”
This ability to work cohesively with a variety of entities on numerous levels also has won the admiration of the Texas City-La Marque Chamber of Commerce.
“Matt Doyle’s work to balance the quality of life in Texas City with the safety, welfare and economic improvement of our city is one of his greatest strengths,” Texas City-La Marque Chamber of Commerce President Jenny Senter said.
– Leslie Watts
Ironman Club: Male role models inspire hope and change in community
Cephus Scott remembers watching his father die.
He was 6 years old in 1983 when the man, a drug dealer and heroin user, was stabbed and bled to death in a doorway at the Sandpiper Cove apartments in Galveston.
“I was fortunate to see it,” Scott said. “I say fortunate because the saying ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger;’ I’ve actually used that my whole life.”
Three decades later, the apartment complex at 3916 Winnie in Galveston has undergone ownership and name changes, from Sandpiper Cove to the present Compass Pointe. It’s on this property that Scott and two friends want to change the way kids think and act. Scott, Tyerre El Amin Boyd and Greg Wilson, along with a team of community members, started the Ironman Club with a goal to fill the void of male influence in the lives of children.
“Our experiences, individually, are similar and intertwined, and they make for the best fit to address the situation we’re dealing with,” Boyd said. “We all came from this neighborhood, the projects, the ‘hood. We grew up rough.”
Scott, a behavior and intervention specialist at Central Middle School, was never arrested. He played football at Kansas State University, where he started as a free safety on a Fiesta Bowl winning team, and drew interest from NFL teams until he traded his cleats for a career in education.
Boyd took the GED before his senior year and scored in the top 10 percent statewide, earning him a spot at Texas Southern University. No one could believe it, Boyd said.
“I went from cooking dope in the kitchen one week to the campus of Texas Southern before my senior class even graduated,” he said.
It lasted a couple of months. Boyd’s father was gunned down in the street after committing a robbery. The same day, Boyd dropped out and returned to gang-banging and dealing drugs on the island. He went to prison for 10 years for attempted murder.
Wilson, whose father was a teacher, could dunk a basketball in fifth grade and colleges recruited the talented 6-foot 5-inch prospect. He’d never step foot on the hardwood as a college athlete, though.
“I actually grew up with my father, played all the sports, was being recruited by schools, but I chose the wrong thing,” Wilson said. “You can have the best things; but if you don’t make the right decisions, you can still choose the wrong things.”
He went to prison for 17 years for manslaughter stemming from drug violence. Wilson was released in 2013.
“What’s so great about this is we were all childhood friends,” Wilson said. “What makes this special for me is the way that Ironman is set up. I tell these guys I learn from them.”
Part of Scott’s job is to work with kids served with detention. He noticed a trend with the students who got in trouble. Many of them listed their mothers as emergency contacts and grandmothers as second options, Scott said.
“There’s no man involved anywhere,” he said.
In January 2015, he started the Ironman Club with weekly meetings at schools where he taught. Young men, mostly high school students and those who’d recently graduated, attended the gatherings.
The club reached out into the community, too. Members hosted an event geared toward younger kids and later an ice cream social at Compass Pointe. The events would lead to the club’s next step.
One afternoon, Scott took a student who had been suspended from school home to the apartment complex. Frank Sinito, president of Millenia Housing Management, which owns the complex, asked Scott where the club was meeting.
“I told him we were meeting at my school,” Scott remembered. “He said, ‘Not anymore.’”
Sinito handed over the club keys to the community center at no cost, he said.
Since moving into the community center, the club has broadened its efforts to include the whole community. It offers a wide range of classes for students, from teaching job interview skills, to improving decision-making, to entertainment activities.
“We want to be a safe haven for these children where they can come at anytime and know somebody cares about them,” Boyd said.
Scott, Boyd and Wilson each have the goal of reaching a point where they work full time on the club. Ultimately, they’d like to build their own facility and expand the programs to other cities.
“When you have hope from someone who’s not giving up on you, I think that inspires you to change,” Wilson said.
– Chacour Koop
Dr. Tarah Castleberry: UTMB professor works to open space flight to ordinary people
A lot of young girls are star-struck by celebrities they see on stage or screen. But the stars Dr. Tarah Castleberry dreamed about growing up in Vernon, Texas, were true celestial bodies. So obvious was her passion, that as a 15th birthday gift, an aunt presented her with a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Space Women from Mars.”
Today, that fascination with exploring what lies beyond Earth has been translated into reality as Castleberry, director of the aerospace medicine residency program at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, works toward opening up the world of commercial space flight to ordinary humans.
The news is good. In a recent study that included 86 ordinary men and women between the ages of 20 and 78 with a variety of physical, medical and psychiatric profiles, Castleberry and her fellow researchers discovered that their “regular person” research participants withstood the stressors of simulated suborbital space flight surprisingly well.
“Popular thinking holds that to participate in space flight, a person must be in exemplary physical and mental condition and perhaps of a military background,” Castleberry said. “This study, however, included a cross-section of ordinary people with a variety of diagnosed health issues and who had not received special training such as would be provided to astronauts.”
Castleberry and researchers in the study tracked five medical conditions: hypertension, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, including asthma, diabetes and chronic back or neck injury or compromise. All conditions, however, were required to be medically well controlled.
The study took place over a two-day period in which the volunteers were subjected to varying G forces during as many as seven centrifuge “runs” conducted at the National Aerospace Training and Research Center in Southampton, Penn.
During the runs, participants also experienced audiovisual simulation of what might be experienced during an actual suborbital flight. This included “real time” representative views of Earth and space, plus flight and acceleration data.
The results of the study were surprisingly positive, and Castleberry predicts a time in the near future when travelers with no special training will be able to make the trip from Houston to Australia in only a few hours.
“We are seeing the future of space travel open up with more commercial opportunities than ever before,” Castleberry said. “At the same time, our studies are helping NASA prepare for exploration missions that will include trips to other planets, notably Mars, and also develop the next generation of spacecraft to take astronauts from U.S. soil to the International Space Station.”
Although Castleberry’s teenage Martian dream now seems closer to realization than ever, the launch of her career in aerospace medicine didn’t follow a straight trajectory. An unhappy start as a mathematics major at Grand Canyon University had her considering that it might be more fun to be a marine biologist and ride around on the back of a whale. She was on her way across the campus to change her major to marine biology when she serendipitously ran into a faculty member and mentor who, upon learning her mission, suggested she might want to consider medical school.
During the next few years, Castleberry became hooked on biology and found true excitement in exploring the wonders of the human body and learning how it is formed and functions. She was still drawn to aerospace science, however, and in her junior year at Mississippi’s Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine, she discovered a U.S. Navy scholarship that would allow her to pursue an aerospace medicine residency.
“Within two weeks, I was at a Navy recruiter’s office, and not long after — as Lt. Castleberry — I began five years of service as a flight surgeon,” she said.
Next came a family medicine residency at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Castleberry honed her “cradle-to-grave” medical knowledge, training that led to her currently serving at the medical branch as an assistant professor of clinical preventive medicine. She combines that position with her current role as director of the university’s aerospace medicine residency program.
Today, Castleberry is working harder than ever to spread the word about space travel’s exciting future among both young and old, especially as it pertains to commercial applications.
“I want to open up the possibility of space travel to as many others as possible,” she said. “It has never been so vital that we as a nation reignite our passion for space exploration and truly share the sense of wonder, power and awe it generates.”
– Leslie Watts