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Legendary Houston Developer Welcome Wilson Sr. Dies At 95


Welcome Wilson Sr., who played an instrumental role in developing Galveston County, progressing the University of Houston, integrating Downtown Houston and supporting two U.S. presidents, died Friday. He was 95.

Welcome Group Chairman Welcome Wilson Sr. in his office in 2018.

The University of Houston System, of which Wilson was chairman emeritus, announced his death Saturday. 

“Welcome was a pillar of the community who exemplified the heart of a leader,” UH System Chairman Tilman Fertitta said in a statement. “He had an incredibly successful business and service career and, while he could have sat on his laurels, he used his success to support education and the university he loved.”

Wilson was chairman of Welcome Group, a conglomerate of companies that owns more than 7M SF of commercial real estate valued at $1B throughout the country, according to its website. His sons lead the company, with Welcome Wilson Jr. as CEO and Craig Wilson as chief operating officer.

Much of that was acquired well into Wilson’s 90s, according to a 2018 interview with Bisnow when he had less than half that portfolio. He told Bisnow then that he had no plans of slowing down and went to the gym at 4:30 each morning.

“Welcome Wilson was a true titan whom I was honored to work with and humbled to call a friend,” Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of the University of Houston, said in a statement. 

Wilson earned his bachelor of business administration degree from the University of Houston in 1949. During his time there he met his wife of 74 years, Joanne. The two had five children, 16 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

Wilson’s accomplishments went well beyond real estate. He served in the executive offices of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy in the 1950s and '60s, selected Renu Khator as the president and chancellor of the University of Houston system in 2007 and owned 10% of the Houston Astros baseball team in the 1960s and '70s.

Welcome Wilson Sr. with President John F. Kennedy at Rice Stadium when JFK formally announced the manned spacecraft center in Houston.

In 1957, after being drafted into the Korean War and serving in the Navy, Wilson found about 300 acres of available land on west Galveston Beach to build a resort-style subdivision. With financial support from his friend R.E. "Bob" Smith, he went on to develop the master-planned communities of Jamaica Beach and Tiki Island, which are now cities in Galveston County.

Wilson then began building in Houston. His projects included the sixth Marriott hotel ever, near the Astrodome, and the 300-unit Fox Hall Apartments off Katy Freeway, which he later regretted selling for $750K.

“The reason we don’t sell anything today is because of Fox Hall,” Wilson told Bisnow in 2018. “If I would have kept it, the mortgage would have been paid off twice. The cash would be falling in right now. And, the people I sold it to still own it today.”

His significant societal influence led former Houston Mayor Lewis Cutrer to ask him to solve a problem in the ‘60s when eight downtown lunchroom owners refused to serve students from Texas Southern University, formerly the Texas State University for Negroes. Wilson met and talked with the restaurant owners, convincing them to integrate and promising to suppress media attention in order to prevent potential protests. 

In his book “Always Welcome,” released in 2018, Wilson shared his passion for God, family, country and the University of Houston. 

In an interview with Bisnow at the time, Khator called Wilson “a man of integrity and action.”

“Even while managing a wildly successful career in commercial real estate — constructing, owning and operating millions of square feet of commercial property over the years — he has always made championing the University of Houston a priority,” Khator said. 

He was committed to the city and unafraid to find solutions to its greatest challenges, she said.