Walking into the Post Oak condo of Dene Hofheinz, daughter of former Harris County Judge Roy Hofheinz, is nothing short of a time-warp into Houston’s history.
On a board next to her computer, letters from five past presidents are pinned to a corkboard. On the floor, propped against a wall is a picture of Dene and former beau Frank Sinatra.
Another wall has photos of Dene with Clint and Lisa Hartmann Black, George H.W. Bush and Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Perhaps, no single family has had a greater influence in the past century on the development of Houston and its storied history than the Hofheinz family. After all, Roy Sr. served as a state legislator at the tender age of 21 and county judge at 24 before becoming mayor, and bringing the baseball Astros (then the Colt 45s) to Houston.
Fred, Dene’s brother, also served as mayor. Dene’s mom was president of the American Cancer Society. Dene was a county music singing, writing and producing sensation. She found and managed Black and wrote No. 1 hits, including, Saying Hello, Saying I Love You, Saying Goodbye and Even God Must Get the Blues. She was awarded a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars as a “singer-songwriter-actress.”
The public image and contributions of the Hofheinz family are well chronicled (perhaps overly so). But not the inner workings of Houston’s first family. Texas Parenting sat down with Dene for an insider’s look at Hofheinz family dynamics.
Milestone 1: A Rough Beginning
Being Hofheinz meant a life of fame, fortune and privilege for Dene, but also one of tragedy and challenges. Those challenges began at her difficult birth in 1942. Her dad, Roy Sr., then Harris County Judge, was on the road serving as campaign manager for Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Congressional run when Dene was born months premature, at a little over three pounds.
“Neither Momma nor I was expected to live,” she recalls. “The Texas Highway Patrol found Daddy on the campaign trial, and rushed him back to the hospital. Once it became clear that, miraculously, both of us would survive, Daddy spent days passing out his trademark cigars, visiting Mama (in and out of a coma) and me down the hall in an incubator (while holding court at the courthouse and praying in private at church).”
Decades later, Dene would lose her own mother at the tender age of 54 and her husband in a tragic house fire, which she herself barely escaped.
Milestone 2: The Importance of Public Service
Being Hofheinz meant a life of giving, helping, and family service. As a tiny child, Dene fondly recalls her dad serving as judge and then mayor, and then aiding the Lyndon Johnson campaigns.
This lesson was taught as strongly by her mother, who ran the American Cancer Society. Dene says she was “tied for life” to her mother since the day of her trying birth: “She had been our everything.
“She had balanced managing all of [Dad’s] campaigns … the glue that held the family together. She gave up her career as a lawyer, after graduating top in her class, to serve others. Even people who did not like Daddy, loved Mama.”
At the grand opening of the Astrodome, Roy made it clear that the stadium, funded by a multi-million dollar public bond offering, would be for all — rich, middle class and poor alike. In 1965, he told Sports Illustrated, “baseball is the great common denominator. So here we give the bleacher fan air-conditioned comfort for the same price he paid for an eight-inch board in the blazing sun or rain somewhere else.”
Hofheinz felt any citizen should be able to drive in, park for 50 cents, pay $1.50 for a bleacher seat with a great view and air-conditioning, and see as great a show as the wealthiest oil man.
Milestone 3: The Importance of Vision and Grand Thinking
Being Hofheinz, meant learning an appreciation for vision, grand thinking, and a can-do attitude. “Daddy thought Texans could excel and dream bigger than anyone else in the world,” Dene believes. “His vision, drive, tireless energy, patience at each and every task and detail were unmatched.”
This grand thinking led Roy to build the first, retractable roof stadium – the Astrodome became known as the “eighth wonder of the world.”
Dene still clearly recalls her role in helping her father begin the Astrodome project: “going to minor league games at Buff Stadium was my special time with Dad. I wasn’t allowed to go hunting with Dad and my big brothers and it was always disappointing when a bad storm came on and we had to leave the game – Daddy and I particularly loved baseball.”
One day, while riding in a thunderstorm in the family car, Dene recalls asking her Dad a question from the backseat: “Daddy, why can’t we play baseball inside?”
Six years later, the Astrodome became a reality.
The Hofheinz family penchant for grand thinking was not limited to just public life and politics. Dene recalls the family vacation house in Galveston Bay was called the Huckster House, and for good reason: “We had a circus room — with a juke box, player piano, and arcade game replete with a soda fountain. There was a Caribbean room, a Gay 90’s room, a country and western room … a buccaneer’s room and the French room, each with imaginative motifs.”
“He attended to every detail with Mama’s approval. At our house (in Houston) he (also) created a circus room with juke box and soda fountain and encouraged my friends to come to our house after school. The theory, I believe, was to make sure they knew where we were at all times.”
Milestone 4: The Ups and Downs of Politics
Being Hofheinz, meant politics, which meant meeting famous people and going to interesting places. It meant strategy, alliances, policy and political attacks. Dene learned this lesson at the age of 10: “Dad’s election as mayor was euphoric. We had all participated (in) knocking door-to-door, making speeches, handing out pamphlets and trying to dodge insults by, as mama would say ‘letting it roll off our backs like water off a duck’s back.’”
On a lighter note, Dene recalls that after her father won everyone immediately started calling him mayor and I asked, “can I still call you Daddy?”
Later, Dene recalls creating her own newspaper to promote and defend her father. “He was a controversial idealist and reformer. Mama and Daddy bought me my own Smith Corona typewriter and Jelly Roll Press because I wanted to have my own newspaper and endorse Daddy. It came out weekly, and I called it ‘The Scoop.’ Dwight Eisenhower was even one of my subscribers.”
Politics also taught her the important lessons of compromise, compassion, and working together with adversaries. She named George H.W. Bush one of her biggest idols, despite his Republican party affiliation:
Politically, George and Barbara made me more of an independent voter. Having been raised Democrat, adoring a Republican was both amusing and delightful to Dad. I joked and told both Dad and George I was going to start the Purple Party.
Later, George encouraged my country music career, and I always loved to hear what he thought about a song before I played it for anyone else. His heart was always in the right place. You only need to look to the late blooming relationship between Presidents Bush and Clinton working together … cooperation is the only way to accomplish anything at home, in politics, or out in the world.
It took Democrats and Republicans coming together to make the Astrodome happen.
Milestone 5: Lessons in Love and Dating
Being Hofheinz meant being the daughter of a judge, but Dene recalls that Roy Hofheinz usually did not lay down the law with her potential suitors all too harshly. He was more the diplomat, while her mother set the laws, and it was her father’s role to implement them. Most rules were designed to keep Dene in step with Christian biblical values.
Of course, every once in and blue moon, the implementation of the rules was not so diplomatic. Dene fondly remembers coming home one night, and spending an hour in the driveway talking with her beau outside the family home, before noticing the front porch light blinking. “Daddy kept blinking them on and off for minutes until I came in. Curfew was at 10 p.m.”
Decades later, after her divorce and the death of her mother, Dene remembers flying into Dallas for a concert late one night and running into her father at the stadium. Roy asked what she was doing there, and then asked, “What would your mother say?”
Dene felt that said it all. “She was already in heaven, but I guess she was still the boss.”