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by Bill Cherry
George P. Mitchell was born on Galveston Island 90-years ago May 21st. And for all 90 of those years, he’s been making history, and with a good portion of that history he has made life better for other people and for future generations.
Mr. Mitchell, my dad William W. Cherry, and my close friend of more than 50-years, Victor J. Damiani, share an unusual trait, one that completely goes against what evidence shows as the norm.

All three of them started with very little and because of family circumstances were pretty much left to raise themselves. Amazingly, they had uncanny noses for usually reasoning out the right thing to do.
George P. Micthell
Photo courtesy GPM, Inc.

And it was the result of that one attribute that let them rise to the top, let them be positive leaders to those who associated with them.

J.R. McConnell was the opposite kind of person. In the mid-80s, and in a matter of a few months, out of nowhere he became one of the most talked about people in Houston and Galveston. He threw millions here and millions there toward real estate development.

Banks lusted for his business, real estate brokers figured he was their financial deity, and all but fell at his feet to worship. Interestingly, I chose not to do business with him. I’m not sure why.

No one could explain the source of McConnell’s personal wealth. The speculations were endless; most sounded to be at least bordering on outrageousness.

But in reality, people didn’t really want to know for fear that they would find the truth, a truth they wouldn’t like.

In Galveston, McConnell bought the huge Black Hardware building on Strand, and began turning it into his vision, an eclectic retail market he’d name “Old Galveston Square.”

He started another Strand area building from scratch. It was designed by a young architect who, some said of his designs, that so far only one, a garage, actually had been built. It seems his plans were so specific and voluminous that contractors found them nearly impossible to bid, and difficult to build.

McConnell bought acres and acres of land from the East Beach Corp. and announced plans to develop them into a beachfront resort city. Within moments tractors began pushing around sand to make room for roads.

But then his house of cards began to catch up with him.

Ticor Title Co. filed a lawsuit claiming McConnell had bulked them out of $50 million. McConnell quickly filed for bankruptcy and showed debts of $427 million.

No one really knew what the real debt number should be, not even McConnell.

Then Mc Connell fled to Mexico, apparently because he knew he would be charged for committing fraud, and would have to defend himself.

When the federal authorities located his Mexico whereabouts, they sent word through a messenger that if he would come back to the U.S., it was not their intent to charge him with any thing, they just wanted to talk with him, and then he’d be free to go.

McConnell believed them, and they sent him a plane ticket for his trip back to Houston.

As soon as his plane landed, however, he was handcuffed, read his rights, and taken off to jail. It wasn’t as he had been promised. He knew that he had been tricked.

Now all but friendless, McConnell called Mr. Mitchell from jail, and told him he had no money for bail and no money to pay an attorney to defend him. His wife had no money for food, not even for minimal living expenses.

The government had seized all of the assets in McConnell’s name pending adjudication.

The following Saturday morning, Mr. Mitchell and I were walking along the sidewalk adjacent to the Phoenix Bakery.

“I hired Percy Foreman’s old sidekick, Dick DeGuerin, today to get J.R. out of jail on bond and to defend him,” he said casually to me.

I couldn’t believe what he had said.

“Mr. Mitchell! Do you realize what people are going to think about you? J.R. has allegedly misappropriated many people’s savings for fraudulent purposes. The title companies think he has double-closed purchases using funds from more than one lender,” I said in horror.

“Bill, this is America. We have nothing if our legal system doesn’t choose to treat everyone equally and fairly. It looks to me like the Feds may have lied to J.R. They may have tricked him.

If they did, they’ve put the scale of justice out of balance. It’s not morally right for me to let them get away with that.”

“But Mr. Mitchell!” I was going to try one more time to reason with him. He interrupted.

“Bill, if you were ever tricked like it looks like J.R. was, I’d be there for you, too.” And then he added, “And I know if something like this were ever to happen to me, you’d do what you could to help me.

“I know that because you and I share the same values. It’s why we’ve been friends for so long, and it’s one of the primary reasons why you are Cynthia’s and my Galveston real estate consultant, for what…twenty years now?”

Good grief, what a great benefit I have had with my dad, Mr. Mitchell and Victor there to show me the way by their examples.

Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories June 1, 2009 column
Copyright William S. Cherry. All rights reserved

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Galveston | Texas | Online Magazine |

Bill Cherry, a Dallas Realtor and free lance writer was a longtime columnist for "The Galveston County Daily News." His book, Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories, has sold thousands, and is still available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com and other bookstores.

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