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A Rallying Cry in A Bow Tie: George W. Connelly, Jr.

Past Chairman and Legacy Giving ambassador George Connelly wants you to get excited about the future of the Houston Public Media.

George Connelly will finish his ninth year on the board of the Houston Public Media Foundation on August 31, 2015, when he will have reached the maximum term limit. As a self-described “roar of the greasepaint, smell of the crowd kind of guy,” one aspect of board membership he’s enjoyed over the years is the opportunity to share his passion for public media, whether it’s face-to-face at events, or via on-air radio and television messages to the thousands of Houston Public Media’s listeners and viewers.

 

So when you spot George’s trademark bow tie and moustache, prepare yourself for an engaging conversation — or at least a few jokes. “I’m a frustrated stand-up comic,” he says. “The second most dangerous place to be in Houston is between me and a microphone.”

 

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His commitment to Houston and Houston Public Media Foundation, however, is no joke. One thing is clear after a conversation with George Connelly: environment matters, in more than one sense of the word. Over the years, George has supported many causes to benefit the natural environment, such as the World Wildlife Fund, Bat Conservation International and the Jane Goodall Institute. But “environment” also applies to the health of Houston, and since moving here with his family in 1986, Connelly has committed to the community. “When I moved here, I didn’t realize how many wonderful things there were about the city,” he says. “I consider public broadcasting part of the fabric of Houston. It’s one of the things that makes this a special place.”

 

As a long-time listener, viewer and board member, George has a unique perspective and insight into Houston Public Media, especially since he witnessed and participated in the merger efforts between the television and radio divisions. “I was also part of the group who interviewed CEO candidates,” he adds. That led to Lisa Shumate becoming Executive Director and General Manager. “For everything we did while I was on the board, I’m most proud of that process.” However, public television and radio didn’t become a major part of his life until adulthood. “Growing up in Chicago, we didn’t have public television,” he recalls. “My real engagement with public broadcasting didn’t start until the late 1960s.” It was then that he was finishing his graduate degree at Northwestern, after earning his undergraduate degree there as well. “Wall Street Week” and “Agronsky and Company” were staples in the Connelly’s household.  When the Connellys moved to Buffalo, NY in the early 1970s, the local PBS station introduced them to Monty Python: “It was at that point we really started paying attention to the TV guide.” Connelly also recalls listening to simulcast performances by the Buffalo Symphony on public radio. But it was moving to Houston that cemented the Connelly family’s support of public media. “The real epiphany came when I arrived in Houston, simply because there’s a lot more on public TV than I was used to watching,” George recalls. “My kids were also regulars, and their favorite was Mr. Rogers.”

 

The diversity of voices Houston Public Media hosts are the reason George keeps tuning in. “The more I’ve been involved with the board and the station, the more I’ve come to appreciate a variety of programs,” he says. “Sunday morning, I don’t watch the talking heads anymore. At 10 a.m., I’m turning on ‘Latino Voices,’ and at 10:30 ‘To the Contrary’ with Bonnie Erbe. It’s all about different viewpoints.” The weekend programming on News 88.7 FM is also required listening — George recently “became addicted” to “The Moth Radio Hour,” a storytelling series showcasing a variety of experiences. Even Classical 91.7 has a broad subject matter between classical genres and styles. “One of the things that I was really excited about was when we went from the split broadcasting to all-day news on 88.7 and all-day music on 91.7,” George recalls. “Because sometimes I’m just in the mood for classical music, and that station has introduced me to any number of composers and pieces that I didn’t even know existed.”

 

George brings that energy to his occasional television and radio appearances to encourage donors to give. Here’s a taste: “For a radio pledge drive, I said, what would happen if you tuned into 88.7 on a Saturday morning, and someone had to say, I’m sorry but because we didn’t meet our budget, we can no longer bring you ‘Car Talk.’ Instead, we have Bubba and Benny talking from their garage about car repair on a speaker phone . . . well, that’s never going to happen, but it emphasizes the importance of having the shows we rely on.” He also recorded a TV spot to promote HPM’s Legacy Circle, of which he is a part, and he encourages other listeners and viewers to consider committing to Houston Public Media’s future through bequests, trust and other planned gifts.

 

Interacting with donors face-to-face is a part of the job George loves, as well as the opportunity to meet well-known PBS and NPR personalities when they visit Houston Public Media, such as Burt Wolf, Rick Steves, Garrison Keillor, Susie Gharib, Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer. “It’s been fun to talk to these people, and realize that they’re real human beings,” he explains. “They’re not nose-in-the-air folks. It’s gotten me more excited about what’s going on at Houston Public Media.”

 

In addition to serving on the board, George practices tax law full time. “People think tax law is dull,” he says, “but when you put flesh and blood on it, when you put a real person in the picture who’s involved in a tax problem, or a company — it adds a great deal.” He began his career as a lawyer for the IRS, but came to Houston to join a private law firm, where he still works. “When you’re dealing with an IRS problem, people are so scared of the government. I’ve often joked that I’m saving souls; I’m able to make a difference in their lives. I don’t hit a home run every time I go to the plate, but there are very few cases when I can’t say I got the best result that was out there for them.” The beginning of his career also inspired the growth of his trademark moustache (the bow tie didn’t start making a regular appearance until the late 1990s). “I started growing it in 1971 when I was taking the bar exam in Illinois,” he recalls. “It made me look older, and added a little bit of credibility. Now, I’m afraid to shave it off — I don’t know what’s underneath!”

 

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The Connelly’s move to Houston may have been primarily career-based, but he and his late wife, Elaine, were also “getting tired of winter at age 40.” Now, George is a season-ticket holder for the Texans and Rockets, and can also be spotted at the Houston Symphony or Astros games. Elaine became a master quilter in Houston, and served as the president of the Quilt Guild of Greater Houston at one point. Connelly is also very happy with the education his children received in Katy. Between that and watching “Mr. Rogers,” they went on to college to form successful careers and families of their own: his daughter lives in Round Rock, Texas, and was a first-grade teacher before becoming a full-time mom. His son, an I.T. professional and former high school and college baseball star, lives in Suffolk, Virginia with his wife and two children.

 

Traveling to visit his children and grandchildren is one reason George plans to reduce his hours at the law firm in the coming years. It’s clear that he also plans to remain active with the Foundation. “I’m glad that I’m able to contribute the things I can, because I want the things that I watch and listen to continue, and I want more new things to watch and listen to,” he says. “Quite frankly, it’s selfishness; I want this operation to succeed.” Perhaps a better word than “selfishness” is dedication, which George has shown to Houston Public Media Foundation and the entire Houston community for years, and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

 

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