By Bryant Boutwell and Charles M. Balch
Like clockwork, Monroe Anderson stepped out of the door of the Bender Hotel and beelined down a bustling sidewalk in downtown Houston. The year was 1915. In his right hand was his carefully wrapped lunch, as was his daily routine. As frugal as he was precise, Monroe had one vice, a new Cadillac he kept parked for use only on Sundays and special occasions. It was seven blocks from the ornate, 10-story hotel where he lived to his second-floor office at the Cotton Exchange Building. The Bender’s doorman, Oscar Collins, knew well the kind smile and sure step of the 39-year-old bachelor everyone called Mr. Anderson.
“All those years I thought Mr. Anderson was a mild-mannered shoe salesman or floor walker for a local department store,” Collins recalled years later, working at the River Oaks Country Club. “I had no idea he was one of the richest men in Houston.”
Monroe Dunaway Anderson’s story is essential to the birth of the Texas Medical Center — a medical magnet that would attract the best in medicine in the 1940s and decades to follow. Imagine you are in Jackson, Tennessee, and the year is 1900. That bank on the corner, People’s National, has a cashier known about town as the nicest young man around. Born in Jackson in 1873, Monroe is a perfect fit for his job — good with people and comfortable with numbers. He has watched folks make good and bad financial transactions in these post-Civil War years and learned from all.
He is especially proud of his middle name, Dunaway, which, as was common in the day, was his mother’s maiden name. His father, James Wisdom Anderson, married Mary Ellen Dunaway Jackson on May 8, 1861. Monroe was the sixth of eight children. His first name came from his mother’s father, William Monroe Dunaway, a Cumberland Presbyterian minister. In this way, the name MD Anderson came to be.
History proves it is remarkable that Monroe was even born. A decade before his birth, his father was a volunteer in the Confederate Army when General Ulysses Grant took Memphis, about 85 miles southwest of Jackson, and then set his sights on Jackson. While James Anderson was enjoying lunch at home with his bride, Union soldiers surrounded the house and took him north to a Union prison camp in Ohio. Thanks to a prisoner exchange, he was released back home. Monroe was born eight years later.
It was Monroe’s brother, Frank, who first had the idea to get into the cotton business and make a fortune. It seemed simple but was anything but. Cotton was king in those days, and Frank was a people person adverse to life behind a desk. He was outgoing, adventuresome and a dreamer. Monroe was quiet and a careful saver of his hard-earned money. In time, the doubtful Monroe bought in as a partner, given William “Will” Clayton and his family had moved to Jackson from Tupelo, Mississippi. The Claytons knew something about cotton, as he had worked for the American Cotton Company in New York. Will shared Frank’s vision of buying and selling cotton on a grand scale.
With $9,000 (a third from each), the men created Anderson, Clayton and Company in 1904 in Oklahoma City. Merchandizing cotton from the farmer’s field to the gin, warehouse and ports worldwide required international banking and distribution networks. Ben Clayton, Will’s younger brother, soon joined the trio, and together they were the dream team of cotton merchandizing. From Oklahoma they heard about Houston and talk of a new ship channel. Houston was booming on the heels of a 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston. In 1907, Monroe was sent to investigate. He came to Houston and never left.
Monroe set up shop for the company in the Cotton Exchange Building at Travis and Franklin. His partners eventually made Houston their home, and Anderson, Clayton and Company prospered beyond their wildest dreams. Cotton demand was on the rise worldwide. The company’s main terminal, Long Reach, was then the Houston Ship Channel’s largest terminal, and reach it did. In 1914, the company opened an office in LeHavre, France. Following World War I, its presence in England and Germany was dominant, with offices to come in Japan and China. Within 10 years, Anderson, Clayton and Company topped the global marketplace in cotton sales.
On Sundays Monroe could be found at Frank’s house. His nieces and nephews affectionately called him Uncle Mon. They teased him relentlessly for his bachelor status. It is said the love of his life was a beautiful young woman who rejected his proposal and broke his heart. No love letters can be found, but we do know that Monroe poured his heart and soul into the business. Years later Frank’s boys, James, Tom and Leland, would work closely with Dr. Clark and the cancer hospital named for their beloved Uncle Mon.
When Frank died suddenly of a burst appendix at age 57, Monroe was heartbroken and deeply shaken. Frank had married Will’s sister, Dessie Burdine Clayton, so the partners were family with an agreement to buy each other out if one were to die. Monroe was deeply troubled as to what would become of the company and nearly 800 employees if he were to die. He needed a plan for his personal fortune, which in the late 1930s approached $20 million, a value of $350 million or more in today’s economy.
He consulted his trusted attorneys John Freeman and Colonel William Bates of the Fulbright and Crooker law firm. In light of the complicated tax laws of the day, they advised creating a foundation. In 1904, the M.D. Anderson Foundation was created for the “good works” Monroe carefully outlined, including programs related to health care.
On a hot summer day in 1938, Monroe sat down for lunch with business friends at the counter of the Majestic Grill at Travis and Rusk and felt his left arm go numb. His nephew, Thomas D. Anderson, happened to be there and jumped to his uncle’s rescue. Monroe was taken back to his nearby hotel room. He suffered from kidney problems, and now his health was complicated by a stroke. Under doctor’s care, a nurse was hired and a house purchased on Sunset Boulevard for the recovery that never came. It was the first and last home Monroe owned. On Aug. 6, 1939, Monroe Anderson died. He was taken back to his hometown of Jackson to be buried in the family plot not far from the bank where he got his first job.
As trustees of Monroe’s foundation, Col. Bates and Freeman added Horace Wilkins, a respected Houston banker, to replace Monroe on the foundation’s board. The task ahead was to use Monroe’s vast fortune for good works. They needed a plan and met often on Col. Bates’ back porch kicking ideas around late into the night. Dr. Ernst Bertner, who conveniently lived down the hall from Freeman in the Rice Hotel where the partners frequently met, provided medical advice. They had heard about a forest behind Hermann Hospital, 134 acres owned by the city and likely to become an extension of the park George Hermann had given the city one year before his death in 1914. They were interested.
They also saw in the newspaper that a new cancer hospital for Texas was planned and that Dr. John Spies, dean of The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB), was consulting with Rep. Arthur Cato, a state legislator from Weatherford, Texas, to write the bill. Cato had lost his father to cancer and was pushing to create a state cancer hospital. His bill needed improvements, so Spies offered his help. There was a catch, however. Spies wanted Cato’s help to secure his UTMB budget, which was up for legislative review. Cato also suggested The University of Texas should run the hospital once approved. Spies assumed the new cancer hospital would be in Galveston, home of UT’s medical department since 1891. He was considered a cancer expert at the time and had helped build a cancer hospital in Bombay, India. It seemed a perfect fit for all parties. Or was it?
Bates and Freeman set a meeting with Dean Spies and UT President Homer Rainey to learn more and explore possibilities. Maybe, just maybe, if Cato’s bill passed, a gift of land and money from Monroe’s foundation would secure the hospital to be named for their late friend and client and placed in the forest they hoped to buy from the city.
Meanwhile in 1941, Dr. Lee Clark was growing his surgical practice in another Jackson (Mississippi) and had yet to hear of Monroe Anderson, his foundation or the idea in play to create a state cancer hospital. All that was to change very soon.
Next article: Creating a new state cancer hospital