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The George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy

Donor Profiles

The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation

The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation is a mission‐driven grantmaking foundation that seeks innovative, sustainable solutions for human and environmental problems. The foundation, managed by three generations of Mitchells, works as an engine of change in both policy and practice in Texas, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy.

Since its incorporation in 1978, George P. Mitchell and the late Cynthia Woods Mitchell, and the foundation, have distributed or pledged more than $400 million in grants to myriad causes, programs and institutions.Current grantmaking programs focus on initiatives related to Water, Sustainability Science, Clean Energy, and Natural Gas Sustainability.

The Texas-based foundation also supports Cook’s Branch Conservancy, the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M University, and other issues and organizations that reflect the values and vision of Cynthia and George Mitchell.

George P. Mitchell

From oil and gas exploration to deep space investigations, George P. Mitchell is no stranger to tackling the unknown, knowing the outcome could be a boon to humanity.

His inauspicious beginnings in Galveston, Texas, provided the tenacity and conviction which would drive his stratospheric success. Born in 1919 to Greek immigrants, George Phydias Mitchell enjoyed entrepreneurial enterprises from an early age, supplementing his father’s dry cleaning business by working at a fishing pier, often providing meals from the day’s catch.

Mitchell headed to Texas A&M University with a predisposition for science and a fascination for energy exploration after a summer of drilling in Louisiana. At A&M he honed his entrepreneurial spirit, printing embossed stationery to sell on campus and pocketing as much as $300 a month.

Mitchell earned his five-year petroleum engineering degree in four years, graduating as valedictorian in 1940. He accepted a job with Amoco, then was called to active duty with the Army Corps of Engineers one month before Pearl Harbor. He met Cynthia Woods in 1941 on a train ride to Houston from College Station; the couple married on Halloween 1943.

After his honorable discharge in 1944, Mitchell became a consulting geologist and engineer with a wildcatting company. He was later named a partner and in 1959 became its president.

In an unconventional move in 1952, Mitchell purchased 10,000 acres in the North Texas region dubbed “the wildcatter’s graveyard.” The company drilled 13 consecutive producing wells in one year and placed 300,000 acres under lease. In time, he grew Mitchell Energy & Development Corp. into one of the nation’s largest independent oil and gas producers, boasting 10,000 wells, 200 oil and 350 gas discoveries, and 3,000 employees.

A pioneer in creating the shale gas revolution, Mitchell was first to successfully use a hydraulic fracturing technique His unconventional thinking and unwavering determination has changed the energy future for the United States. His innovations and contributions to the industry and society have been recognized with numerous distinctions and honors.

In addition to his oil and gas successes, Mitchell became one of the most successful real estate developers in the Houston-Galveston region. In the 1960’s, he envisioned a real estate project on a scale never seen in the area – a complete new town. That vision became reality when The Woodlands opened in 1974. When it sold two decades later, it had a population of 48,000 and led Houston’s market in new home sales for seven consecutive years.

Mr. Mitchell also played a key role in the rejuvenation of Galveston’s historic Strand District and the rebirth of its Mardi Gras celebration. Along their journey, George and Cynthia Mitchell made a lifelong commitment to ensure that the wealth they created would enrich their community and their world. Their generous support of cultural, environmental and scientific endeavors is on a scale limited to few.

For instance, Mr. Mitchell is founder of the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), a contract and grant research institute headquartered in The Woodlands’ Research Forest. Convinced that if Texas’ great universities would work together they could compete on any level, he personally saw to it that the University of Houston, Texas A&M, Rice University and The University of Texas became founding members. One of HARC’s first deliverables was the design of a shielded magnet to accelerate sub-atomic particles for the Superconducting Super Collider. While the Texas-based, high-energy physics lab was shut down in 1993, the seeds for an equally groundbreaking project – Texas A&M’s George P. and Cynthia W. Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy – were sown.

In 2002, the Mitchells committed their first million-dollar gift to help make Texas A&M a world-class leader in fundamental physics and astronomy. Mitchell later committed $33.25 million to secure Texas A&M’s participation in the $700 million Giant Magellan Telescope project. The Mitchells pledged another $35 million in 2005 toward construction of the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building – the first campus buildings to be financed through a public-private partnership involving substantial donor funds. More recently, the Mitchell Family Foundation made a $20 million legacy gift to enable a significant expansion in Institute activities.

To date, Mr. Mitchell, his late wife Cynthia, and their family foundation,have given more than $95 million to Texas A&M University –making them the most generous modern-day benefactors to the university.

Charles Munnerlyn

Munnerlyn, considered one of the founding fathers of laser vision correction, received his bachelor of science in physics from Texas A&M and his Ph.D. in optical engineering from the University of Rochester in 1969 after three years of service in the United States Air Force. Munnerlyn, who holds more than 30 U.S. patents in the field of optics, designed and built the first excimer laser system for vision correction and developed the core mathematical formulas that dictate the amount of corneal tissue to be removed by the laser. The company he founded in 1987, VISX Inc., — currently a part of Abbott Laboratories — is the leading manufacturer of laser vision correction systems in the world.

In recognition of his many career accomplishments and contributions to the field of optics, Munnerlyn has been named a member of the Texas A&M College of Science Academy of Distinguished Former Students (2002), a Distinguished Scholar of the University of Rochester’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (2002), and a recipient of the University of Rochester’s Distinguished Scholar Award (2008). In addition, he is a Fellow of the Optical Society of America (2008) as well as a recipient of the Edwin Land Medal (2007), Design News magazine’s Engineer of the Year Award (2001) and the Stevens Institute of Technology Honor Award (2001).

Dennis S. Avery

Dennis S. Avery, born in Los Angeles in 1940, was married to Sally Tsui Wong-Avery, lawyer and Chinese court interpreter, owner of Chinese social services and language schools. In the 1960s, long before the unification of Germany, Dennis worked for the British Rail Transport Organization in West Berlin. In the 1970s he served as a prosecutor in San Diego and headed the City Attorney Consumer Protection Unit. He was a member of the Colorado, Washington DC and California bars and held graduate degrees in business and law. Dennis served on corporate and charitable boards and was an Honorary Fellow of Trinity Hall in the University of Cambridge. Dennis Avery passed away on July 23, 2012.