Mary Benton newly appointed press secretary

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner recently appointed Mary Benton as his press secretary. The appointment came just two months after Benton stepped into the job on an interim basis.

“To no one’s surprise, Mary adapted well to the demanding job since the very first day and has already demonstrated her integrity, dedication and the benefits of her experience,” Turner said. “As a key addition to my communications staff, she will ensure we effectively use every available pathway to keep the public informed about my agenda and what the city is doing for all of its residents.”

Benton, a seasoned communicator, was a news reporter for KPRC Channel 2 for 20 years before joining Harris County government in 2014.

She has managed media relations and public affairs at the  Harris County Toll Road Authority, worked in the precinct offices of two Harris County commissioners and served as a communications, education and public engagement coordinator at the Harris County Public Health Department.

Benton is a member of the Houston chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, a board member of Undies For Everyone, a member of the Texas Association of Broadcasters, a member of the Gulf Coast Apollo Chapter of Links, Inc. and a member of the Texas Association of Municipal Information Officers.

Benton earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The University of Texas at Austin. She is now a Texas Exes Life Member.

Benton said, “I am thrilled to join Mayor Sylvester Turner’s communications team as press secretary, and the work has been nonstop since day one. After a busy day of meetings at city hall, the mayor is committed to attending various community events in the evening to meet and listen to Houstonians throughout our diverse and welcoming city. He is focused on improving the quality of life for all citizens. My job is to make sure the public and media understand his priorities, which include building a stronger Houston after Hurricane Harvey flooding, restoring the city’s financial health, public safety, economic development and much more.”

Doerr Institute redefining how leaders are trained

Rice University is using a $50 million gift from John and Ann Doerr to redefine how leaders are made. The Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders opened last July, with retired Army Brigadier General Tom Kolditz as executive director. Kolditz, a genuinely chipper guy with an engaging, outgoing personality, is an internationally recognized expert on crisis leadership and leadership in extreme contexts. He has more than 25 years in leadership roles, including positions at West Point and Yale University, where he was a professor in the practice of leadership and management.

Kolditz quickly developed a professionally executed leader-development experience with a scope and scale unprecedented among major universities. The program revolves around three broad initiatives with initiatives within each – initiatives aimed not just at students, but at faculty and the very fiber of Rice University.
Individual leadership training will be available – for free – to all 6,200 graduate and undergraduate students and will occur in environments the students are already in, rather than relying on extracurricular “leadership events.” For example, a student athlete is going to get coached in the context of his athletic team; the youngster who runs the student-led coffee shop is going to get coached in that role; an engineering student is going to get coached in the context of an engineering project team.
“We’re not a little program that takes 50 or 100 or 200 students and does workshops,” Kolditz said. “We are really responsible for every student at Rice who wants leader development.
“This is unheard of, to basically tell students who are coming to a good-sized research university that if they want to have a leadership coach while they’re here, it will be provided free of charge. It’s an incredible benefit to Rice students.”
Participation is voluntary for students, Kolditz said.
“People come here ’cause it’s a great research institute,” said Lillie Besozzi, the institute’s associate director for operations. “The idea of taking these fantastic minds and great researchers and then giving them these additional resources is really exciting. I geek out over it.”
Two Early Programs
During the fall and spring semesters, the institute, which is housed in McNair Hall, ran a small pilot program, which  provided a one-on-one, elbow-to-elbow leadership coach from the Houston business community and International Coach Federation to 278 sophomores, 52 percent of which were women. Those sophomores are the coaches’ clients, and the coaches, who are paid by the institute, are required to work around their schedules, Kolditz said. 
“Our coaches never judge them or grade them,” he said. “They put them in the driver’s seat and just coach them in better and higher levels of performance. 
“This is something that usually doesn’t happen until you’re a senior vice president in a company, but we’re doing it on a grand scale with these young people. Frankly, you can have more impact doing this with young people than you can with senior executives, because those executives already have habits that are almost impossible to break.”
Three to five sessions with a professional coach can change a student’s future trajectory forever, Kolditz said.
The institute also has an ongoing coach certification course taught by the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies that is open to the entire Houston community. The first class had 10 undergraduate students and 12 members of the community, including some Rice faculty.
Measurable Results 
The institute does not do anything that doesn’t have a measurable impact on a person’s capacity to lead, and a four-person “metrics team” measures those impacts, Kolditz said. They use a full range of research measures –   including surveys, interviews, focus groups and 360 assessments – to gauge impact. 
Measurements from the coaching pilot show greater self-awareness, more assertiveness, more open-mindedness and improved framework for open-ended problem-solving among participants. 
The institute focuses on a flat, non-hierarchical concept of leadership – the kind of models used by Facebook, Google and tech companies, where there are a lot of bright, creative people.
“This is already happening in the business world,” Kolditz said. “We saw this initially with businesses going to matrixed organizations as opposed to the classic hierarchies. Even the military has gone to a more matrixed format, especially in the special operations forces. There are times when you’re part of team when, based on your expertise, you need to be the leader. Then, there are other times when you have to follow, and our students have to be able to pass in and out of that role comfortably. We’re not trying to produce a bunch of pinnacle leaders, CEOs and so forth; that’s not what we’re about. We’re about getting the best version of our students out there.”
While the leadership coaching pilot had 278 students – 12 in the fall and 266 in the spring – Kolditz estimates the program will have about 600 sophomores enrolled in the fall, putting it around 50 percent of the Class of 2019.
The institute has grown to 14 full- and part-time employees and, in the fall, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker will join as a fellow.
“You can see how, across the university, this is going to impact every student here in some way,” Kolditz said. “We want to change the nature of a Rice degree.
“It will still be one of the best research and educational college degree on the globe. But, we want people to understand we’re graduating some fabulously trained leaders, as well. Leaders who go out in the world with their degrees and are much better able to be good stewards of their professions. It enables someone not only to be a creative genius but a creative genius who has some idea about how to move forward by developing teams and making things happen.”
Dave Schafer is a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.

Buffalo Bayou Cistern now open for public viewing


Buffalo Bayou Partnership debuted the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, a renovated architectural relic, on May 13. The Cistern, reminiscent of the ancient Roman cisterns under Istanbul, is a cavernous space the size of 1.5 football fields. It  features 221 tall, slender concrete columns, each measuring 25 feet high. 
Visitors can make online reservations to tour this unique space at Admission is $2 per person for a 30-minute, docent-led tour.
The 87,500-square-foot underground drinking water reservoir was built in 1926 for the City of Houston. It supported the municipal water system’s goals of fire suppression (water pressure) and drinking water storage. After operating for decades, an irrepairable leak was discovered in the mid-2000s, and the reservoir was later decommissioned.
BBP re-discovered the site in 2011 when it was developing the $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park project. Realizing the historical and architectural significance of the highly unusual space, the organization — along with the City of Houston — worked to take over management of the site. With research, 3-D modeling of the interior by SmartGeoMetrics and community input, BBP developed a plan to repurpose the Cistern into a magnificent public space that could house temporary, environmental art installations. BBP secured grants of over $1.7 million from The Brown Foundation, Inc. to bring the space up to code, make it accessible to the public and, ultimately, house art installations. 
Architecture and engineering firm, Page, was charged with designing a ground-level entry structure to help transition visitors from the outside world to the Cistern and making improvements to the shelf on the perimeter of the space to create a six-foot-wide walkway with guardrails.
“Buffalo Bayou Partnership is excited to be opening The Cistern to the public. We have had incredible interest and, now, we will be able to share the site’s beauty and uniqueness with Houstonians and visitors to our city. We think it will attract attention from throughout the country and abroad,” said BBP President Anne Olson.
As the architect for the cistern improvements, Page Senior Principal Larry Speck said, “Descending into The Cistern the first time was like discovering some ancient ruin. It was so strange and exotic in the setting and clearly ‘lost’ to people’s consciousness. That vast field of columns, the reflective layer of water on the floor and the tiny bits of light creeping in from above were really beautiful.”
The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern will be open on Thursdays and Fridays from 3 to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $2 per person for a 30-minute docent-led tour, with free admission on Thursdays.
Another aspect of experiencing The Cistern will be through New York artist Donald Lipski’s Down Periscope, which was also unveiled. The installation, commissioned by Houston Arts Alliance in partnership with the City of Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering, sits atop The Cistern on The Brown Foundation Lawn and allows park and online visitors (www. to peer into the periscope and view the Cistern. 
To purchase tour tickets to view The Cistern, please visit

Eileen Morris: 'Making art is like making gumbo'


The Ensemble Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and Eileen Morris, its artistic director, has been involved since 1982 –– almost from the beginning. 
After earning a degree in theater arts from Northern Illinois University and getting married, Morris came to Houston, occasionally, “to get away from the cold” and to visit family. It was her sister, Nia Becnel, a professor of architecture at the University of Houston, who introduced her to The Ensemble Theatre’s founder, the late George Hawkins. 
Hawkins launched The Ensemble Theatre in 1976 to create a place where artists of color could practice and perfect their craft.
According to Morris, “He wanted to give the community a view of the richer breadth of the African American experience –not just roles depicting maids and butlers and slaves.” 
When she moved to Houston permanently in the early 1980s, Morris volunteered as The                 Ensemble Theatre’s stage manager. Later, when Hawkins received a grant from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, he was able to hire Morris as managing director. 
Morris has since produced more than 78 productions. Under her leadership, the company has been recognized for excellence and won numerous awards, including the 2013 Best Season Theater Award from The Houston Press, and the 2008 Best of Houston Theater Award from The Houston Chronicle
“Making art is like making gumbo,” Morris said, “but most people who enjoy eating gumbo don’t really understand the process. There’s the shopping, the prep work and the actual cooking —  all of which takes a long time. Because the flavors need to blend and settle, it’s actually better the next day. That’s also what happens in the theatre, where all the behind-the-scenes work happens months before a play is ready for the audience.”
Morris makes the initial selection of possible plays to produce. Then, they are discussed and, finally, chosen by The Ensemble Theatre’s  program committee — comprised of board members, staff and artists.
 “When you gather human beings who come from different walks of life and different experiences, and you put them together to create art, you don’t know what you're going to get,” she said. “You have to believe in the recipe.”
While she has acted, directed and produced –– all the elements for good theatrical gumbo –– Morris has not yet tried her hand at writing a full two- or three-act play. She has, however, assemble the elements for a one-woman show and a medley of playwright August Wilson’s female characters. 
“Everybody has a story to tell because our lives are so rich and full of challenges. Of course, I have a story to tell, too, but I don’t feel like I have the time to sit down and write it,” she said. 
Of playwrights, Morris said, “They are great human beings. They often report that another voice or unplanned character will come into the play, interrupt the process, and take it in a different direction. This inspiration may come from the Heavenly Father, a higher power in the universe or just the energy from the ebb and flow of living and breathing, but magic does take over.” 
She added, “When I’m able to create, it’s because I’ve taken a walk or been near water, or I             release myself from the four walls. Maybe I’m watching children play in the park. Sometimes, I’m at the movies, and it happens, or I’m driving. When the mind is able to drift and release the things we deal with day-to-day, the creative energies get an opportunity to awaken themselves.”  
Morris commented, “Although George passed away in 1990, not a day passes that I don’t hear his voice in my head, giving me guidance. 
“His voice comes to me at times –– ‘Ok, now we’re here,  and we’ve got to maintain and keep deserving to be here.’ 
“So, when I’m choosing plays, I’m doing so for our artists and for the needs of the institution. At the same time, I try to make sure the community is enriched, that it understands what The Ensemble Theatre’s mission is and why we do what we do,” she said. “George Hawkins set the pace for us to be able do that.”
Deborah Quinn Hensel is a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.

Brent Clanton: Vacationing this Summer

The summer doldrums have set in early this year. Houston’s vast matrix of concrete simmers and shimmers in the harsh sunlight, and it’s only 10 in the morning. The hourly growth rates of St.                     Augustinian lawns soon will be stunted by the blast furnace of July. It’s time for a vacation.

I am a very low-maintenance vacationer. I am just as happy camping out in my living room for a week as I am laying on the foredeck of a cruise ship (although if you are offering me an expense-paid choice, I’ll take the latter over the former) I have learned to eschew air travel — it’s no longer fun to fly — and to appreciate the slightly longer, less-traveled, but less crowded, routes from A to B.
Time should be no object while on vacation. That’s why traveling from Houston to Dallas by car, for example, can be made to stretch into an all-day affair if you’re careful. Getting off the Interstate and traveling the original route that US Highway 75 carved through this part of Texas can be an adventure in itself. Stop in the little towns along the way, and savor the rolling, winding vistas in between. My cousin operates a café on the town square in Madisonville. Walker’s Café is worth the detour.
Austin and the Hill Country are also favored destinations for city-stricken Houstonians. You can get there in under three hours — if you live on the west side, or leave before dawn. But,  why rush? Turn off Highway 290 at Chappell Hill, and follow your GPS to Washington on the Brazos, the birthplace of Texas. Get out of the car, and walk around.
I believe there’s not a more scenic, tranquil and beautiful county in the entire state than Washington County. There’s a reason those Blue Bell cows are so happy up there. It truly is Heaven on Earth.
From Washington on the Brazos, drive north to Highway 105 and head west to catch William Penn Road to connect with Loop 390, the scenic La Bahia Highway. Originally an Indian trail, this appealing ribbon of asphalt connects Burton, Gay Hill, Long Point and Independence. 
Burton boasts the country’s oldest operating air system cotton gin; Gay Hill features an ancient railroad viaduct; and Independence is steeped in Texas history, with the ruins of the original Baylor University. Independence Baptist Church, into which Sam Houston was baptized in 1854, also marks the gravesite of Houston’s wife, Margaret Moffett Lea.
Between Independence and Gay Hill is the cabin of the naturalist, Gideon Lincecum, at Long Point. Gideon was an explorer of the southeastern territories beyond the 13 colonies, and a correspondent with Charles Darwin. He lived among the Choctaw in Mississippi, learned their language and recorded their oral histories. He moved to Texas in 1848, settling on 1,828 acres centered at Long Point; he passed away in this cabin in 1874.
There are plenty of similar, back-road trails to sate your summer wanderlust. Most can be reached within a few hours of Houston by car. I fill up the tank, clean off the windshield, drop the top, and go. No airport lines, no luggage, no surly TSA attendants. And, the best part about any vacation: the first night back home in my own bed! 
Brent Clanton is a native Houstonian, member of Texas Radio Hall of Fame and regular contributor to Houston Woman Magazine. 
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