Civic leader, oil tycoon and philanthropist Jack Sawtelle Blanton Sr. died Saturday. He was 86.
Blanton died peacefully in his Galveston vacation home, according to Peter Wareing, Blanton’s son-in-law.
Blanton’s influence permeated so many aspects of Houston and Texas that friends said his passing marks the end of a generation of the city’s great civic leaders.
“He dedicated his time, effort and knowledge to the improvement of the state and Houston, and we’re all better for it,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. “Jack provided an example of what it truly means to be a civic leader. He’ll be missed dearly.”
His leadership touched every aspect of the Houston community, as he served on the boards of the Houston Endowment, the Methodist Hospital Healthcare System, the Texas Medical Center and the Houston Zoo, among others. “His leadership style was to be a consensus builder,” said Wareing. “He wanted to move the city forward. He wanted to be part of the team.”
A trusted friend
He is known for diversifying the investment portfolio of the Houston Endowment, helping double its assets to more than $1 billion in the 1990s. Blanton replaced ledger books with computers and moved its offices to a more efficient and larger space. Today, the foundation donates more than $75 million a year to non-profit organizations.
“Jack has transformed Houston Endowment to a modern institute, which greatly made a huge impact in Houston,” said Steven Fenberg, community affairs officer of the foundation and author of a biography on entrepreneurJesse Jones, who established the Houston Endowment in 1937.
“Jack improved Houston and perpetuated Jones’ legacy when he served as chairman of Houston Endowment, guided its evolution and enhanced its philanthropic practice of improving life for the people of greater Houston,” said Fenberg.
Blanton had a long, close relationship with the Jones family, which may have influenced Blanton’s dedication to improving the community.
“Jack was an involved civic leader whose benevolent personality helped Houston become the dynamic city it is today,” said former Chronicle editor Jack Loftis. “As a journalist, I relied on him frequently for his perspective on matters affecting the well being of our community.”
Blanton’s father, Bill, worked for Jones as general manager of the Houston Chamber of Commerce. As a trusted friend of the Jones family, Blanton executed the estate of Audrey, Jones’ granddaughter, in donating her assets to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Blanton’s other life-long quest was improving state education, especially at his alma mater. Appointed to the board of regents of University of Texas System by Gov. Mark White in 1985, Blanton expanded the university’s presence to South Texas, establishing University of Texas in Brownsville. UT renamed its art museum after him in 1997 to honor a $12 million donation it received from the Houston Endowment, helping to make it one of the nation’s largest university museums.
“He was very eager for the museum to touch the public and students,” said Larry Faulkner, former University of Texas at Austin president. “It is an interface between the state university and people at large.”
Blanton made the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center happen, said former President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Luci. Blanton helped Johnson with fundraising after her husband died.
“He will be missed by generations of Johnsons. He gave us magic memories. We adored him,” said Luci Baines Johnson.
Blanton, a stellar tennis player, once beat President George H.W. Bush in a match when he was in office. His fierce competitiveness on the tennis court was his hallmark.
“He’d give you the shirt off his back, but not a point on the tennis court,” Luci Baines Johnson joked.
The family remembers Blanton’s deep identification with Texas. After his first grandchild, Laura, was born in Boston, Blanton flew there with soil from Texas. He placed the dirt under her bed so they could say she was born in Texas.
With his first wife, Laura Lee Scurlock, he had three children, Elizabeth Blanton Wareing, Jack S. Blanton Jr. and Eddy S. Blanton. He was later married to the late Lucinda Bailey Blanton and is survived by his wife, Virginia Nelson Blanton. Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, 3471 Westheimer.