July 27--George P. Mitchell had hoped to see the edge of the universe.
When Texas A&M College of Science Dean H. Joseph Newton last spoke to the billionaire oilman and philanthropist in February at a ceremony honoring his accomplishments, the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) was on his mind.
"He was happy to see me and, in his usual way, said, 'Have you got all the money for the telescope yet?'" Newton recalled of his last conversation with the man credited with the invention of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial technique used to release natural gas from shale rock.
Mitchell, an Aggie from the class of 1940 and founder of Mitchell Energy and Development Corp., died of natural causes in his home in Galveston Friday at the age of 94.
Having donated more than $30 million toward the GMT, which is planned to sit atop a mountain in Chile with the capability to see light-years into space, Mitchell placed Texas A&M among the founding partners of the world's largest telescope.
That telescope "was one of his main passions," Newton said.
Mitchell never got the opportunity to use the GMT, however, as construction is expected to begin next spring with completion estimated in 2020.
While his donation toward the telescope was among the most recent to the university, Mitchell gave more than $95 million to his alma mater, making him the largest benefactor in the history of Texas A&M.
Those contributions made possible the Mitchell Tennis Center, the university's Galveston campus and the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.
A&M President R. Bowen Loftin credited Mitchell with the growth of the College of Science, particularly the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
"Students benefit immensely from having top faculty teach them," he said. "Mr. Mitchell's contributions enable us to bring the very best faculty in physics and astronomy."
The son of Greek immigrants, Mitchell was born in Galveston in 1919 and graduated first in his class at A&M with a degree in petroleum engineering. He went on to serve in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II and developed the community of The Woodlands north of Houston in the 1970s.
In 1943, he married Cynthia Woods Mitchell, and they had 10 children.
Those feats took time but Mitchell set goals and took "whatever time and whatever resources it took to make those things happen," Loftin said.
"Persistence pays off, that's what he's proven to me," he said.
Forbes lists Mitchell at No. 249 among American billionaires with a net worth of $2 billion, but he didn't act like a billionaire, Newton said.
In fact, the first time the two traveled together, they ate at a fast food restaurant.
"If you spoke to him, you would never have any idea the amazing things that he had done," Newton said. "He was very self-effacing. He was funny. He was friendly."
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