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A Texas Legend: Sue Trammell Whitfield

Sue Trammell Whitfield, a fifth-generation Texan and an imitable force in philanthropy and civic leadership, was born in Houston in 1933 to Susie Ella Fondren (1904-1977) and Wash Bryan Trammell (1901-1988). Over the course of generations, the Trammell and Fondren families have left a lasting impact on communities across Texas and throughout the country with their work in education, healthcare and business.

Sue attended The Kinkaid School and graduated in 1950 at the age of sixteen. She went on to attend Southern Methodist University (SMU) for two years before transferring to The University of Texas at Austin (UT), which her father also attended, to major in Fashion Design and Textiles. She graduated from UT in May of 1954.

In a 2005 interview conducted by Joan Gosness, the archivist for SMU, Sue fondly recalls her time at the school studying subjects as various as costume design, business, and languages including German and Spanish (she was fluent in Spanish and conversational in French and German). Sue nurtured a sense of curiosity in her children by encouraging them to pursue their own interests in the same manner that she had explored hers as a young woman.

An active member of her Pi Beta Phi Sorority, Sue met her future husband, West Point cadet William Franklin Whitfield, at the Pi Phi house at UT while he was visiting friends who had transferred from the military academy. Later, when William was stationed at Ellington Air Force Base outside of Houston, Sue asked him to be one of her escorts during her debut season. Love was in the air and the couple married on May 29, 1954.

In the early years of their marriage, the couple lived in Salina, Kansas, and Austin and Houston, Texas, eventually moving to New Mexico with their three young children. Bill “Whit” Whitfield was engaged in ranching, oil and gas businesses and several automobile dealerships. By the time their fourth child was born, they had moved to Albuquerque, where they lived until 1988.

By the early 1990s, Sue and Whit often returned to Houston, splitting their time between the two cities. Active in both communities, they enjoyed their memberships in the Albuquerque Country Club, Albuquerque Petroleum Club, The Houston Country Club, and the Bayou Club. Sue was a member of The Junior League of Houston, The Junior League of Albuquerque, and The River Oaks Garden Club helping to plan many fundraisers and creating designs for the flower shows.

A Lifelong Learner with an Eye for Beauty

Sue’s artistic abilities and innate curiosity fueled her passion for collecting. She had traveled the world with her parents and grandparents, and this helped develop her deep appreciation for art and design. While her mother was an avid collector of Asian arts, Sue was drawn to European antiques. With an eye for beauty and a love for history, she appreciated the workmanship and artistry behind each piece, and was fascinated with the stories behind them. Sue and her husband shared this passion for travel and collecting, taking frequent trips together. Each July, Sue and her husband rented a home in Switzerland for the family and would venture to France, Northern Italy and other surrounding areas to explore and, of course, go antiquing. Over the years, Sue amassed an impressive collection of antique furniture, silver, fine art and everything in between.

Her fascination with fashion and costume design was also a lifelong hobby. Sue enjoyed attending the Santa Fe Opera to see the costumes the company would create for each show. After attending a show, she would often come home and sketch the pieces that had caught her eye. While her children were young, she would draw costume ideas for Halloween and, upon their approval, would go to the fabric store to bring her ideas to life. Sue even created custom outfits for her daughter’s figure skating competitions; her sketchpad was never far from her, which is a testament to her creative spirit.

A Legacy of Giving

Sue’s grandfather, Walter W. Fondren, Sr., was a legendary businessman and a founder of Humble Oil Company, which later became ExxonMobil. Her grandmother, Ella Fondren, met Walter while working as a young woman at her family’s boardinghouse following her father’s death. The prominent couple were a force to be reckoned with – Ella not only advised Walter in business decisions such as key oil acquisitions, but the couple also worked together in their philanthropic pursuits, a shared passion that Ella carried on even after his untimely death in 1939. Sue learned many valuable lessons from Ella that she carried throughout her life and passed to future generations, most especially the importance of giving back to the community.

Ella established the Fondren Foundation in 1948, which provided crucial grants that helped to expand Methodist Hospital and shape it into the world-class facility that it is today. Through the Foundation, she also helped to develop Baylor University College of Medicine and St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital. Ella served on the board of Methodist Hospital for more than three decades, as well as on the board of Baylor University. The countless initiatives that Ella contributed to during her lifetime set the stage for Sue’s own charitable efforts. A believer in the outstanding care that she helped to foster, Ella ended up living the last years of her life in a suite at Methodist Hospital.

Sue perpetuated the philanthropic activities of her grandmother and her parents in countless ways, including serving on Southern Methodist University’s Board of Regents, the University of Texas’s Library Board, the Methodist Hospital Board, the Advisory Board of the Fondren Library at SMU, the Fondren Foundation and the Trammell Foundation. She was passionate about the missions of The Women’s Fund and the John P. McGovern Museum of Health and Medical Science and served as Board President of each organization and remained an enthusiastic supporter for decades.

Aside from her prominent philanthropic achievements, Sue loved to attend events and entertain family and friends at her home. Her meticulous attention to detail and magnetic personality always made for an enjoyable gathering.

Texas Roots Run Deep

Fascinated by her familial heritage and inspired by her love of family and respect of her parents, grandparents and great grandmother, Sue spent many years in genealogical research, spending hours tracing family lines and even traveling with her eldest daughter, Susan, to visit historic family homes or to seek out old cemetery markers. These endeavors, combined with her lifelong interest and love of history, culminated with Sue authoring a beautiful book, titled Aunt Mary’s Scrapbook, based on her aunt, Mary Trammell.

Sue and her mother were both members of many patriotic organizations that included Mayflower Compact, Daughters of the American Revolution, Magna Carta Barons, Daughters of 1812, Colonial Dames of the 17th Century, Colonial Dames of America, Jamestown Society, and Founders and Patriots.

Her great-great-great grandparents were among the earliest Texas pioneers; remarkably, her great-great-great grandmother, Harriet Shipp Wyres (1816-1888), arrived in Texas from Alabama in the 1820s. She married Robert Wyres (1804-1888), who emigrated from Virginia in 1830, in 1834 near Nacogdoches.

The couple had fourteen children together, all born on the same farm located on land near an abandoned Comanche Village, which later became the city of Waco. However, political upheavals were so frequent at the time that their first child was born a citizen of Mexico, their next six children were born citizens of the Republic of Texas, and the seven youngest were born citizens of the United States.

The couple moved to Falls County, Texas ca. 1856, where they remained until their deaths in 1888. Harriet and Robert died within two weeks of each other – an obituary in an Abilene newspaper dated August 20, 1888 recognizes the couple as among the “old pioneers” and interestingly notes that, “Mr. Wyers [sic] claimed to have been in the battle of San Jacinto. After that he moved to Houston and made the first brick ever made in that village and erected one of the finest cabins.” Later generations moved near Abilene, and eventually to Houston, where they engaged in various businesses, but primarily ranching.

Sue had immense respect for the tenacity and grit of her forbearers that settled in Texas. She was extremely proud of her family’s Texas heritage and this reverence undoubtedly influenced her deep love for her home state.  

New Orleans Auction Galleries is honored to offer a range of antique furniture, paintings, decorative objects and more from the Collection of Sue Trammell Whitfield.

 

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