Ima Hogg ranks among the best-known and most admired philanthropists in the history of Texas. For much of her life, she was affectionately known as the “First Lady of Texas,” owing to her family’s long tradition of public service. Her grandfather helped write the Texas state constitution and her father, James Stephen “Big Jim” Hogg, went on to become the Lone Star State’s first native-born governor. Her service to Texas was principally philanthropic—made possible by the discovery of large oil deposits beneath her family’s plantation.
Born in 1882 in Mineola, Texas, Ima Hogg would spend most of her life contending with wisecracks that she had sisters named “Ura” and “Hoosa.” (She didn’t.) She had one older brother, William, and two younger ones, Michael and Thomas. At the age of 13, she cared for her mother as she died of tuberculosis, and ten years later nursed her father as he struggled unsuccessfully to overcome injuries sustained in a train accident. After her mother’s death, she took over her father’s household and cared for her younger brothers. The Hoggs were a tightknit family, and, for nearly 70 years, she was its head.
The inheritance Ima received upon her father’s death in 1906 made her financially independent; he had made a small fortune through his work as an attorney, as well as investments in land and oil. But the Hoggs’ philanthropic activity was greatly accelerated by the discovery of oil on the West Columbia property left to them by their father. In 1919, a supply of oil that would yield his children $225,000 per month was discovered.
Ima’s first philanthropic efforts centered on fostering an appreciation for the arts in Texas. Early in her life she had fostered hopes of becoming a concert pianist, and spent two years at the National Conservatory of Music in New York and two more in Vienna and Berlin studying piano. But she returned to Houston in 1909, where she began teaching piano instead. Increasingly her interests centered on being actively involved in civic life. In 1913, she helped to found the Houston Symphony Orchestra, organizing a subscription series of three concerts over the course of a year. In 1917, she became president of the symphony’s board. She continued to support the symphony for the rest of her life and worked to increase public exposure to music and the arts; when elected to the Houston Board of Education in 1943 she arranged symphony concerts for public school audiences, and increased the offerings of music and art classes.
The Hogg family’s philanthropic efforts centered on their home state. An avid collector of early American antique furniture and decorative art, Ima declined to lend the pieces she acquired to east-coast exhibitions, saying, “They’ve got plenty of these things up there.” She placed much of her collection at Bayou Bend, a house she built in 1927 as a home for herself and her brothers Will and Mike in the River Oaks neighborhood of Houston. Nearly 30 years later, after the deaths of both brothers, she decided to give the house to the Houston Museum of the Fine Arts, along with a $750,000 endowment. It opened as the MFA Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens in 1966.
But of all the causes Ima supported, the one closest to her heart was probably the promotion of mental health. She had a lifelong concern for those who were then called “mentally disturbed,” and, at a time and in a place where it was not especially popular, she promoted the study and treatment of mental illness. Her first major effort took place in 1929, when she founded the Houston Child Guidance Clinic. Open to people of all races and income levels, it represented a real advance in the field of child psychology. She would later say that, of all her endeavors, it was the one that satisfied her most.
When her brother Will died unexpectedly in 1930, he left $2.5 million to the University of Texas, but he was unclear about how the money ought to be used. In response, Ima and Mike put forward a plan for the Hogg Foundation for Mental Hygiene, which came into being in 1940. Administered by the University of Texas, its initial purpose was to provide mental-health awareness and education campaigns, particularly to the citizens of small towns. In 1964, she founded the Ima Hogg Foundation, also administered by the University of Texas, to fund projects benefiting children’s mental health in Harris County; it would eventually prove to be the primary beneficiary of her will.
Ima also contributed to the preservation of elements of Texas history. In 1953, she helped to found and was appointed a member of the Texas State Historical Survey Committee, which became the Texas Historical Commission. She lovingly restored and donated to the state of Texas several properties owned by her family, as well as a 180-acre farm in Winedale with buildings dating from the 1840s, which she gave to the University of Texas at Austin.
Ima Hogg died in 1975 at the age of 93. A woman of unfailing poise, she once caught a burglar in her bedroom—and gave him the name and telephone number of a man who would give the thief a job. (“He didn’t look like a bad man,” she would later say.) A woman of great generosity, she devoted her life to preserving and enriching the cultural life of her native state, and to improving the education and mental health care available to Texan children and their families.
~ Monica Klem