The roster of past winners of the J. Erik Jonsson Ethics Award is an impressive one, including such names as Curtis W. Meadows Jr. (1997), Stanley Marcus (’99) and Mike Boone (’08). That high-powered lineup—and the prestige that goes with the award—were both on the mind of Bobby B. Lyle when he addressed the 2015 Jonsson awards luncheon at The Pavilion at the Belo Mansion.
Lyle was chairman of the April 2 event, which is presented annually by SMU’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility to recognize “those who exemplify moral leadership and public virtue.” In his remarks to the big crowd, which included previous winners Gail Thomas (2014) and Roger Staubach (’06), Lyle disclosed that several of the past awardees had been honored at a private dinner at McGuire’s house the night before. At that dinner, Lyle recalled Staubach remarking about the Jonsson award: “This is better than the Heisman Trophy!”
This year’s Jonsson award went to Dallas native Lyda Hill, as anyone who looked around the room might have guessed. The color orange—which famously is Lyda’s favorite—was everywhere, from the cloths on the tables and the roses in the centerpieces to the smart jackets worn by Hill and Nicole Small, CEO of LH Holdings, Lyda’s real estate, tourism and venture investment firm. Hill also is the eponym of the Lyda Hill Foundation, which is dedicated to making “transformational advances” in nature and science research and improving local communities.
In her remarks introducing Hill, Small recalled that when she applied for the chief executive position at LH Holdings, her wardrobe consisted entirely of blacks, greys, and browns, and she drove a white car. Small, a quick study, said she “convinced myself that orange is the new black,” and proceeded to go out and buy the orange jacket she was wearing at the luncheon “so that I could keep this job!” She went on to call Lyda fun and adventurous, with a penchant for world travel (she’s been to 180 countries) and dark chocolate.
Hill herself then took the podium and soon had the audience—it included the likes of Gerald Turner, Jennifer Sampson, Cary Maguire, Forrest Hoglund, Caroline Rose Hunt and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings—alternately laughing and applauding. “My name and Erik Jonsson’s in the same sentence,” Hill began. “Whoa!” She then recalled having volunteered years ago with the Junior League of Dallas for the opening of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, a signature accomplishment of then-Dallas Mayor Jonsson.
According to philanthropist Peter O’Donnell, Lyda continued, Jonsson’s two most memorable attributes were, “He had vision—and he had money.” Well, Lyda said, referring to her father, Al Hill Sr.: “My dad had vision, and my grandfather [H.L. Hunt] kind of passed down the money sense, too.” H.L. used to play gin rummy with Eric Jonsson, Lyda went on, and H.L. invariably won because he had a photographic memory. “It really helps with gambling,” Hill added. “And probably also with oil deals, too.”
After beating breast cancer in the late 1970s—the doctors gave her a 50 percent chance then of lasting five years—Lyda has gone on to become a world-class entrepreneur and philanthropist, investing in early-stage life sciences and supporting a variety of environmental and community-oriented causes. “Hockaday educated me, and the Junior League opened my eyes to the needs” of the less fortunate, Hill summed up. “And I’ve always been proud to be from Dallas. This city is on a high. … But, no great city is ever finished. Eric Jonsson said, ‘The past is interesting, but the future is what’s important.’ We have an obligation to make Dallas better. If we do it, this can-do city can keep on doing.”
Putting an exclamation mark on the thunderous ovation for Hill that followed, Bobby Lyle had the last word. “Thank you for what you are going to do, Lyda,” he said. “That’s what we can’t wait to see.”
* Photos provided by SMU’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility