Exploring the complexity, the simplicity, and the infinite impact of George P. Mitchell as felt by his up-close-and-personal friend, Larry Kriticos
By Sara G. Stephens
One thousand. That’s the number of meals George P. Mitchell ate with Larry Kriticos, owner of Olympia Grill, before Mitchell died on July 26, 2013. “He ate with me five, six, seven times a week—easily we shared 1,000 meals,” Kriticos says. “I always left with more than just a full stomach,” he adds.
That’s because these experiences were about more than food. Between Mitchell and Kriticos there gelled an impenetrable bond of mutual respect and friendship—one that transcended their age difference of roughly 30 years. “I cooked food for him that reminded him of his childhood,” Kriticos says. “He used to tell me, even before we really knew each other, that my food was authentic. It’s the best compliment a person could pay me.”
Heritage was a formulative component in the men’s relationship, both being first-generation Greek Americans. Mitchell grew up on Galveston Island as the son of Greek immigrants and was “raised as a child of meager means,” his family said in a prepared statement on the day of his passing. Mitchell’s parents instilled in him a rock-steady work ethic and appreciation for the value of education. He powered this foundation with an intellect that was nothing short of genius to become a billionaire developer, philanthropist, and pioneer in the oil industry. Mitchell’s sphere of influence was wide. Locally, he restored Galveston’s historical buildings and breathed new life into the island as both home and tourist destination. Academically, he repeatedly dipped deep into his coffers to become Texas A&M’s greatest benefactor, and he worked tirelessly to bring about hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), a concept credited with driving the renaissance of the continental U.S. domestic oil and gas industry.
Mitchell was 94 years old when he took his last breath from within his residence at The Tremont Hotel, just one of several Galveston properties he owned. Around the world, media reported the passing of the famed “wildcatter” with stories enriched by official statements from the bevy of organizations, governments, and industries he influenced. Economics-oriented columnists penned op-ed pieces that paid tribute to the extraordinary entrepreneur and “Texas gentlemen.”
But back in Galveston, close friends like Kriticos mourned the loss of an inspirational mentor and irreplaceable companion. Kriticos doesn’t talk about money or fracking when he speaks of his longtime friend. He talks about his laugh. “He used to have a wonderful laugh to him,” Kriticos says with a smile in his voice, “a very quiet, wonderful laugh.” The laugh reflected Mitchell’s subtle sense of humor. One day, Kriticos recalls Mitchell’s coming to the Olympia saying his car had been stolen. Kriticos told Mitchell not to worry about it. “Your people will get you another car,” he told his frustrated friend. “’But they don’t make cars with keys anymore,’” Kriticos says Mitchell bemoaned. The following week, Mitchell again entered the restaurant, announcing that the sheriff’s department had found the stolen car. A young man had stolen the vehicle, but his girlfriend called the police, and the man was arrested. “I said, ‘That’s great! You’re a lucky man!’” Kriticos recollects. “And George said, ‘Yes I am. But that young man needs a new girlfriend.’” Kriticos laughs heartily at the fond memory. “He was truly a genius among men.”
Kriticos also talks about Mitchell’s unique, paradoxical demeanor. “He could reprimand people and tell them where they were making their mistakes without hurting their feelings,” Kriticos marvels. “He didn’t want to hurt them, he just wanted to help get them on the ball.”
But mostly Kriticos talks about an intangible “realness” to Mitchell that kept him centered, grounded, and approachable. “More astounding than that type of money was that type of intelligence,” Kriticos says. “George knew the answer to any type of question you could ask him.” And yet, Mitchell was not fazed by the fact that his friend’s academic career ended after one year of college. “We were friends anyway,” Kriticos says, explaining that George strongly believed in the value of a good education, but he never measured people’s intelligence by their education.
It was not unusual for Mitchell to dine and socialize with strong thinkers. Nor was it unusual for Mitchell to invite his friend to join the group. “He’d say, ‘Hey, I’m having dinner with two Nobel Laureates tonight, would you like to join us?’” Kritcos recalls. Although one would think he might feel like “the weirdo in the pack,” Kriticos says Mitchell made him feel relevant and a valued member of the group, as someone who made his own way in the world, first by serving in the Navy, then by building his businesses. It was a common point of distinction for Kriticos that Mitchell was his landlord, but not his employer. “He always bragged that I never worked for him,” Kriticos says.
It was in being with regular people that Mitchell enjoyed true growth. Kriticos does not recall his friend ever flying first class. “He always said, ’You never learn anything in first class,’” Kriticos muses.
Perhaps the “regular people” reminded Mitchell of his origins. And perhaps, for this same reason, he always demonstrated a strong belief in, and respect for, the potential of even the most common of ordinary men. Kriticos recounts multiple occasions of this tendency. In one such instance, the two men were dining and a busboy approached to bus the table. Mitchell asked how the boy was doing, but before he could really get into his response, the busboy noticed a situation in the restaurant that needed his attention. He left the table, took care of things, then returned, apologizing to Mr. Mitchell for having left so abruptly. “No need to apologize,” Mitchell said. “That’s your job.”
The Mitchell children were raised to be equally unpretentious. “They’re top quality, smart, very nice people,” Kriticos remarks. “Very much like their father, they are nicely groomed, and wear nice clothes, but not thousand-dollar clothes. They never throw their weight around. He raised them all like that.”
Kriticos recalls one night, as Mitchell was dining at the Olympia Grill, some doctors from MD Anderson entered the restaurant. They were regulars who dropped in for a meal every Saturday. One of the men was the head of oncology and happened to be from Athens. Kriticos began talking to him, and the conversation turned to a large project upon which the hospital was embarking. “Have you ever heard of George Mitchell?” the doctor asked. “He’s funding the whole project.”
“Really, Doc?” Kriticos replied. “Do you want to meet him? He’s sitting right over there.”
“Their jaws dropped,” Kriticos says. The doctors approached Mitchell, who sat eating his food, his napkin tucked in his collar, as was his custom. The grateful group expressed with exuberance their gratitude for Mitchell’s generosity. Mitchell took the napkin off his collar, shook their hands, and responded to their appreciation with a sensationally sincere and simple, “It’s nice to meet you. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do help you.”
The exchange was nothing short of biblical, according to Kriticos, relating Mitchell’s humility to a passage in the Bible, Matthew 6:13:
So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
From Kriticos’ accounts, Mitchell is now enjoying his reward. As for Kriticos, his reward was in a friendship he will never forget. “One Greek family meets another, and it just goes from there. That’s the Greek community. That’s family.”
Locals Remember George P. Mitchell
“Since I arrived to the U.S. from Nicaragua, Mr. Mitchell was a mentor to me and my greatest supporter. I met him in 1979 at the Plaza Club in Houston through his brother, Johnny, who brought me to Galveston to work. I joined Mr. Mitchell as an employee at the San Luis Hotel in 1983. He was very supportive. He was like family.
When I left the company to open my own restaurant, he always supported me through business and friendship. He came to my restaurant every Friday for dinner. He was always willing to help, asking, “How’s your business? When do you want to buy your next building?” He advised me on how to run my work. He was a mentor to me, an outstanding man and an icon for Galveston. He touched many hearts and helped many, many people. There are no words to stress the way he helped Galveston and helped me and my family.
He will be in my memory forever.” –Paco Vargas, owner, Rudy & Paco, 2028 Post Office St, Galveston
“His story is a true testament of what the American dream is all about. For him to build such an amazing legacy is inspiring, not just because of what he accomplished, but because he never lost sight of the big picture. He was committed to Galveston, he loved this island, and the tourism industry here would not be the success it is today if it were not for his vision.”
–Leah Cast, Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau
“Mr. Mitchell is the sole reason for the Galveston Strand District’s continued growth. We are a non-Mitchell-owned property, but are lucky enough to be surrounded by all of his investments. We have ridden his coattails the entire way. The presence of The Tremont House and Saengerfest Park have provided the momentum for Yaga’s Cafe to grow and the Strand to host events like Mardi Gras! Galveston and the Lone Star Rally, amongst many others. The initial investment made by Mr. Mitchell to Mardi Gras back in the 80s continues to fuel a great event for the City of Galveston. We are honored to present each year the George P. Mitchell Mardi Gras Award. This award bearing his name is presented to those individuals who were and continue to be a vital part in fulfilling Mr. Mitchell’s vision of Mardi Gras! Galveston.” –Mike Dean, President Yaga’s Entertainment, Inc, Owner Yaga’s Café, Strand St., Galveston
“George Mitchell was the quintessential Renaissance man, performing brilliantly and innovatively in so many different fields. He was a man who never experienced the confines of time, for he never really lived in this moment. He always belonged to the future, and Cynthia [Mitchell’s wife] was a guiding star in that universe.
George and Cynthia were my dear friends and mentors, who added wings to my career by allowing me to share their extraordinary vision over many decades.” –Dancie Perugini Ware, longtime publicist for George P. Mitchell
“Mr. Mitchell was an early leader in the revitalization of the historic Strand Mechanic Historic District. His commitment to first-rate preservation of buildings set a standard that continues today. Mr. Mitchell also had an incredible vision for Galveston Island. He never stopped thinking about the next project and ways to make Galveston a better place. You often hear of men or women who are inspirations for others. Well, that was Mr. Mitchell. It was a pleasure to know him and be able to see some of his dreams come true.” –Dwayne Jones, Executive Director, Galveston Historical Foundation
“…Galveston lost one of its most precious treasures and visionaries with the passing of our owner Mr. George Mitchell. His vision and passion for the preservation of Galveston has been a gift for both visitors and residents alike. Mr. Mitchell played a pivotal role in the revitalization of Galveston’s historic downtown and seaport, the revival of Mardi Gras, the development of the West End, and in Galveston’s hotel and cruise industry. These contributions and his various philanthropic projects have improved the quality of life for this city and will continue to benefit generations to come.
— Steve Cunningham, Complex General Manager, Mitchell owned hotels Hotel Galvez & Spa and The Tremont House, both Wyndham Grand® Hotels, and Harbor House Hotel & Marina
“We had the pleasure of working with Mr. Mitchell’s team on the “Lemonade Day Galveston” program. The program teaches Galveston students how to become entrepreneurs by taking them through the process of building their own lemonade stand business. It also teaches the young entrepreneurs to give a portion of their earnings back to the community, something Mr. Mitchell lived well. Mr. Mitchell approved for his team to not only donate funds to the program, but also their time. He was always supportive of education and empowering the local youth. We admire Mr. Mitchell, and as a family-owned company, we appreciate the values that he and his companies live every day. His passing is a great loss to the community, but he will forever be ingrained in the fabric of Galveston Island and his legacy will continue.” – Winter Prosapio, Schlitterbahn Galveston