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Giving Locally, Thinking Globally

Posted on: May 14th, 2015


By Joelle Jameson

Houston Public Media Foundation’s three main concentrations, or “pillars,” are arts and culture, education, and news and information. Talking to Barrett Sides about his priorities and activities, it’s easy to see why he’s a board member there: each of those areas play a huge part in his life and giving. Education, news and information, and arts and culture? “Those are headstone things,” he laughs.

“You can go through life paying as much attention as you want: that’s what we say about media these days,” he says from his home near Memorial Park in Houston. “You tend to choose what you want to hear and stick with it, because there’s so much out there, you can’t take it all in.” Sides’ choice is clear; he advocates for all three Houston Public Media (HPM) platforms — KUHT Channel 8, News 88.7 FM and Classical 91.7 FM — as often as possible. “The information is broad, credible, thorough and unbiased. It’s like a coffee table full of great magazines.”

Sides has been a consistent supporter throughout the years and a fan of weekend and evening radio and television programming, but increased his involvement after leaving his long finance career in international investments at Invesco in Houston. “My relationship with the news at that point was all about information, whether it was the market, geo-politics or economics,” he explains. “It was very academic. But the natural curiosity of wanting to learn persisted, and HPM filled that void.” The platform nearest and dearest to his heart is News 88.7. “When I started to take in more of the daytime news radio and realized what was there, I saw how much it enriched my life,” he says. “During one of the station’s pledge campaigns, I realized that I was the person they were talking to. Giving to HPM, for me, is almost a matter of fairness.”

Born in New Orleans, Sides lived in Chicago before moving to Houston during his high school years. He attended college at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, but soon made his way back to Houston to begin his career at Invesco, and also earned his M.B.A. from the University of St. Thomas. His philanthropic focus is on the city and its residents, whether it’s cleaning up litter in Memorial Park, supporting Houston’s artistic institutions or helping to found an innovative new middle school. He has also created a scholarship at Bucknell University, and served on their alumni board. His first experience with philanthropy goes back to childhood: “My weekly allowance was 50 cents; in the interest of instilling good values, my parents encouraged us to save ten cents, and give another ten cents to a charity or church,” he recalls. “Both saving and giving were imprinted on me at an early age.”

Currently, Sides also serves on the board of Healthcare for the Homeless – Houston. “It’s a nice bookend, in a sense, to HPM involvement,” he says. The organization operates a series of clinics, mostly in downtown Houston, serving homeless men, women and children with basic and advanced healthcare, including mental health and dental. “It serves many purposes, not least that it is a more personal and patient-centric environment than the emergency room, and it also unburdens that system,” he explains. Sides is excited about their current expansion to a new building, which they just purchased and will now begin to renovate. “It’s a different way of giving back to the Houston community to contribute to the quality of life here.”

Caring for residents most in need is only one measure of quality of life in a city, in Sides’ view. Besides green public spaces, libraries, parks and other standards, “I think that one of the measures of quality of life in a city is often what kind of public radio and television they offer. HPM is a jewel for Houston.” He also names the University of Houston — which is the license holder and home to Houston Public Media — as a point of pride. “The University of Houston is ascendant,” he says. “It’s a short list of cities that have great city universities, and Houston is on it.” Although he earned his degrees elsewhere, Sides has appeared in Dr. Charles Guez’s classroom at the C.T. Bauer College of Business to lecture on international finance in evening classes, and also mentored one of their undergraduate business students.

He tries whenever possible to take an active approach to philanthropy and community involvement, and that activeness is reflected in his love of travel. With family in Colorado, California and Costa Rica, great destinations are never too far away, but Sides also recently fulfilled a childhood dream of traveling to Antarctica. “My fascination as a kid reached a point that I wanted to be a scientist, because back then they were the only people who got to go!” he laughs. Their modest boat held about 100 passengers and included scientists and experts who explained the various aspects of the ecosystem, wildlife and history of Antarctica. “I call it my Antarctic Safari,” he says. “It was about the wildlife and adventure of it.” Adventure was certainly a promise, especially since, the year before, a similar ship had gotten packed into the ice while docking overnight. Thankfully, no such complications arose during Sides’ 25-day journey; just pristine wildness to be explored in hiking, penguin and albatross rookeries, and even a polar plunge when they reached the Antarctic Circle. “I purposefully didn’t try to imagine too much of what it would be like,” he recalls. “I wanted it to unfold as a surprise.”

That high level of involvement — and sense of adventure — is something he appreciates in his role as a board member at Houston Public Media Foundation. “We get to hear about some of the station’s plans as they’re being formed, strategies, and decisions as they’re being made,” he says. “It’s not a huge time commitment, but I consider it a privilege to be mixed into such an interesting group — not only the other board members, but the management and on-air staff.” Sides is especially passionate about Houston Public Media’s unique local programming, such as Houston Matters. “Life is local,” he says. “Life is global, but on a day to day basis, you have to be in touch with your community.” He may have literally traveled to the ends of the earth, but Barrett Sides’ reality is planted in Houston — and probably has 88.7 playing in the background.

Growing Up Together

Posted on: May 11th, 2015


The early 1950s were a transformative time for native Houstonian Ouida Jo Hembree (’49). She had recently graduated from the University of Houston, started her first job and moved into her own apartment. That was the same time that KUHT, Channel 8 — now operating under the name Houston Public Media and TV 8 — became the nation’s first public television station in 1953. “I was just getting started into my big life. I started when it started,” she recalls. TV 8 has been her preferred channel ever since. “I didn’t even care about cable. I did finally get it, but I still watch TV 8 most of the time.” Hembree, in addition to her annual gifts to TV 8, has further solidified her bond with the station by establishing a charitable gift annuity to support Houston Public Media and its public broadcasting service that has grown with her over the years.

Owning a television in 1953 made her especially popular among friends. “I was the first one in my group of friends to get a TV; I got a TV before I got a car,” she says, describing the 12-inch screen on the black and white set. “I was in a one-room efficiency apartment and about seven or eight people would come over — some of them would have to sit on the floor. It was a social thing.” Now, she enjoys TV 8’s documentaries, the annual Fourth of July broadcast and Rick Steves’ travel commentaries on Europe. Her favorite shows, however, are the classic British comedies that play on TV 8 on Saturday nights, such as “As Time Goes By” and “Keeping Up Appearances.” “You can’t find those anywhere else,” she says. “English humor can be a kick.”

Hembree remarks on the educational value of the station, as well as her viewing choices when she first bought her TV, which may be perceived as odd to some: “I’d watch the school board meetings with my mother — people must have thought we were crazy!” she laughs. “But they were comical to us because our company did a lot of construction on schools.” Hembree’s first job after graduating from the University of Houston was as the receptionist and errand runner at Marshall Construction Company, Inc. — still in business today — where her mother was the office manager. One of her jobs was to drive to construction sites to distribute payroll, and she also chose to get her commercial license so she could transport construction materials.

It was her mother who paved a path for Hembree to attend the University of Houston, in addition to leading her to that first job. “I hadn’t given any thought to going to college when I was in high school,” she says, although she did have many extracurricular activities, such as working on the yearbook and assisting athletic coaches. Her mother learned about a full scholarship from her doctor’s wife, who was a member of the Houston Assembly of Delphian Chapter, and Hembree was granted a scholarship from the Delphians after applying. But she found that she had not taken the right courses in high school to qualify for most college entrance standards, since college hadn’t been in her plans. “I hadn’t had any foreign language, and I had bookkeeping instead of algebra and geometry,” she explains. “But back then, UH didn’t have the same requirements.” UH had not even been operating for 20 years yet and was dedicated to providing training to Houston’s workforce, many of whom were recently-returned WWII veterans.

That type of student body made “the college experience” very different from what the phrase typically means today. When Hembree attended UH, the Science Building and Roy G. Cullen Building were the only permanent structures on campus at that time, and most of her classmates were veterans who were working to provide for their families. Students like Hembree, however, enjoyed Cougar mainstays like Frontier Fiesta and basketball games. The classroom environment was very different, too. “We had to team up with a partner in our statistics class because they didn’t have enough machines to go around,” she recalls. Given her lack of algebra training at the time, she lucked out with her partner assignment: “He was one of the math teachers who was taking the course because he was going to teach that course in the fall. So, I was good on the calculator — these big, 1940’s machines — and he could do the more involved algebra. We were a good team.” Hembree graduated with her bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1949, with her tuition, books and campus activity fees covered by the Delphian chapter for her entire tenure. “I felt obligated to them to study hard and get good grades, and I’m still in touch with the chapter,” she says.

Hembree stayed at her first job for five years — “the only advancement would have been to my mother’s job, and I couldn’t do that!” — before starting at Exxon Mobil (then Humble Oil) in 1955. Her aunt had married a manager there, so it was almost a family institution at that point, but Hembree applied independently to the company and began her career as a statistician in the geology department. “But statistics requires so much estimating,” she says, “and having been trained in accounting, where you have to account for every penny and keep everything in balance, it bugged me to work only in estimations.” She ended up moving to the marketing department at Exxon’s headquarters, where she could work with hard numbers on pricing oil products, such as gasoline and heavy fuel oil to power factories and plants. She retired in 1983, after 28 years of service, citing traffic as one motivator, a sentiment all Houstonians can understand.

Exxon matches Hembree’s gifts to Houston Public Media, as well as the Tier One Scholarship Endowment she established to provide scholarships for incoming freshman students at the University of Houston. “Since I got my education on a scholarship, I wanted to help someone else do the same thing,” she says. She encourages her friends at Exxon and at other companies to take advantage of matching programs. Her dedication to Houston Public Media echoes that desire to keep the programs she loves on the screen, and continue the tradition of excellence: “We’ve got to keep them going!”