Commissioner El Franco Lee
Currently serving his seventh term in office, Harris County Precinct One Commissioner El Franco Lee has been an active and passionate public servant for more than 30 years. He recently sat down with Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon to reflect on the mentors who helped shape his career, and how his own childhood inspired the thriving youth programs he has built in his three decades in office.
Q | Can you tell us about your formative years?
A | I was born in Houston, and spent my formative years in Houston near the northeast side, what is known as the Fifth Ward. I was born in St. Elizabeth Hospital and became extremely familiar with Ben Taub Hospital. I was born in 1949, and the Harris County Hospital District started in 1966. I used it quite a bit in the first 18 years of my life. The public system was my go-to. It was my insurance. I graduated from Wheatley High School and later attended San Jacinto College and Texas Southern University, where I received my bachelor’s of science degree from the School of Technology.
Q | What was Houston like at that time?
A | Well, my experience was pretty rich. I was in kind of a protected environment with a lot of business folk. It was a pretty small community, but it felt large, and it felt like the Southern or Texas version of Harlem. Lyons Avenue was more of a main street than Main Street itself. My mother had a business and we lived behind the business. So my circulation, my movements in that small radius that was the Fifth Ward, was pretty protected. You could compare it to Spanky and ‘Our Gang.’ You could compare it to the Boys and Girls Club or the YMCA. I came up through the Julia C. Hester House program, which was my version of the Boys and Girls Club and my introduction to organized sports. It was where I learned how to swim, became a certified water safety instructor, and swam competitively. All of those pieces and segments of my development from elementary school, middle school, high school—which were Atherton, E.O. Smith and Wheatley—were layered with all of the stuff that you see now in what we call the Harris County Street Olympics.
Q | Why swimming?
A | Swimming had a rich history back then. Even under a system of separate but equal, Houston was a driver. Every inner-city high school had a natatorium.
When I went to the state championship swim competition, we traveled to Prairie View A&M University until ‘67, and white schools went to Austin until ‘67. There were separate competitions for white and black students. So I was in this interesting cross between having competed in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grade in swimming and track. I was a pole vaulter and went to state championship in swimming and track. And then in ‘67, they first integrated the extracurricular activities such as sports. The schools phased in integration. They integrated the teachers from prominent black institutions all over the district and infused them across town.
Facilities-wise, we had a pretty potent voting, civic-minded activist black population. The Fifth Ward, Third Ward and Fourth Ward pockets of communities demanded such. They kind of progressively saw to it that the facilities were as close to equal as possible. So the facilities were never a problem.
The late U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland and I kind of interpreted the civil rights activism of that time by doing these programs—breakfast programs and free health care clinics—and so the origin of this stuff that I do now grew out of the activism of the day. I am almost doing the same identical thing now that I was doing 45 years ago.
Q | Tell us about your early days in your calling to service.
A | It was completely out of indifference. I didn’t want to be elected to anything. I enjoyed the hobby of managing people’s races, managing offices, and playing with numbers—civil technology was my area of study and my pursuit was civil engineering. I had this eclectic kind of exposure—athletics, numbers, swimming— so I was and still remain pretty curious about a whole range of things. And so it manifested itself into these programs. I helped Mickey several times run for state representative. I had never been to a ceremony, and Mickey had served about three terms in the statehouse in the seat to which I ultimately was elected. I had no interest; I didn’t even want to become interested in that arena. I got a job, and I was married. My focus was to take care of my family. I had already spent a number of years taking care of my mother, who was chronically ill with Parkinson’s disease. That was how I became partly familiar with the inner-workings of the Texas Medical Center and the public hospitals, because I was sitting in those waiting rooms with my mother on a number of occasions, more occasions than you really should—11 hours at a time. I kind of started that trend in junior high school. So that, in a subliminal way, molded me. When she died in 1970—I got married in ’71—those things kind of molded what I did. I didn’t have a whole lot of room for anything other than taking care of the house, taking care of the family, that kind of thing.
I was not that adventurous, and I was pretty shy. I didn’t like public presentations. And my brother was just the opposite. Mickey was just the opposite. He said, ‘You need to run!’ And Mickey was pretty persuasive, and he was pushing the political envelope a lot. He had the capacity, he had the contacts, and he was pretty gregarious about it. He kind of viewed me as a little brother. Mickey said, ‘Go ahead and run because it will look good on your resume.’
So, the running was more fun for me and more interesting to me than the service because I didn’t know anything about service. What I saw and observed about service, Mickey made it seem really hard, because he was always broke. And I thought, ‘I can’t do that! I have to feed three other people.’ I was extremely reluctant about going down that track because I just didn’t have a need to be elected. But I had this other life that nobody knew I had—a job. And then I had this hobby in my home environment, in my community, and it was just fun to do. You know, get the ditches cleaned, complain about something, play with these numbers…and get some streets done. So I kind of backed into this by trying to get my ditch cleaned.
Q | Did you find that you had a natural propensity to run programs?
A | Yeah, that kind of evolved out of that. I came back to Texas Southern University because I was being exposed to marketing with the Bloom Engineering, and then pursued understanding public agencies. So I took organizational development, public administration, and accrued about 15 hours and it was boring. But that helped me understand the personality of public agencies, departments and subsets. So then I just kind of fit that in, and that becomes so theoretical when you are in a classroom. Then you are over here doing it in real life by volunteering your time. It just wasn’t realistic. The late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan retired, her seat became vacant and Mickey decided to run for it. He was then trying to get me convinced to run for his seat in the statehouse. I said, ‘I will help whoever you want to help, but I don’t want to run.’
And the guy who considered running was in Mickey’s class. He was a good guy, a lawyer, but he was not well connected to the community. So I started to try to promote him to these precinct judges, with whom I had some rapport. They weren’t feeling it at all, so they were looking at me as the one they really wanted. And I said, ‘That’s not the answer!’
So Mickey brokered this meeting, and said, ‘I can only support one of you.’ By that point it had piqued my interest, and my competitive juices were flowing. I started with about a $400 check, and I spent it well. From January to May were the primaries, and I ran from January to May. There were six people in the race, and I spent $400. Not one political ad ran.
I tried to file by petition to save the $400. I led the pack with 39 percent of the vote going into the runoff with a female lawyer. And they were all kinds of inexperienced.
Q | Even with the incredible medical center that we have, there is still significant room for improvement in the health of Houstonians. What are your thoughts on that?
A | You have the best health care facilities in the world—world class. And in the shadows of it, you have problems equivalent to Third World countries—especially infant mortality, low-birth-weight babies, communicable diseases, lack of knowledge of how to access the health care system. My antenna is always up because I know and appreciate the Medical Center’s presence. But I also know that I am the shepherd and I am the overseer of the public hospital system. And the public system is not a major part of the center itself unless you continue to work at forging that meaningful relationship.
Q | Can you tell us about your programs over the last 28 years?
A | There were the Street Olympics Summer Games, which was first, and from that grew the teen clinic and other programs. It was the Northeast Adolescent Program that grew into the partnership with Baylor College of Medicine Teen Clinics. Then the Harris County Aquatics Program came online as we planned and could afford to do it. And what that meant was that the first major partner was HISD Houston Independent School District. In order for the Baylor Teen Clinic to work, and the Northeast Adolescent Program to work, we had to have a buy-in by HISD in this region, in the northeast pocket, where the highest incidents of infant mortality occurred.
Q | Can you tell us more about the Aquatics Program? I know that one is near and dear to your heart.
A | My real good friend Johnnie Means, who is director of the program, had been a lifelong swimmer and aquatics director. He worked 40 years at TSU as a competitive swimming coach and strength coach. He’s nine years older than me. I backed into this, out of frustration, trying to find a place for my son to go swimming. We taught him how to swim, and I was trying to catch him at the right age. By the time I found a program, he was almost too old and disinterested, and too focused on his own things. So the fledgling program I saw may open or it may not. You can’t run a good swim program like that. I thought no other parent should go through that.
By the time I caught him, he thought swimming was drudgery. It was a lot of work; six days a week you’re in the water two or three hours. So, that first group that we started the swim team, we spent a lot of time scribbling on napkins, thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice?’ And I was trying to close the gap between what I did in ‘67/’68. That was the last competitive swim team in my area. It just died. Because when they integrated in ‘67, coaches, principals, and administrators thought that now they would get quality coaching and quality training. But in reality, it died. Swimming took a big hit. From ‘68 to ’86, there was no competitive swimming. TSU discontinued competitive swimming. When TSU stopped, many of the others did, too.
What I was trying to do was promote the history, reconnect the dots and rebuild the sport, because it hadn’t just declined in black neighborhoods, it had declined period in this Gulf Coast region. It was very strange to see a decline, because of water safety in the Gulf Coast region and major floods. The whole issue that we were embracing in the early years, in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, was just starting to slide into oblivion. You had these major floods, hurricanes, and so then you are getting these summer drownings. And they started spiking much higher. I started talking to the Coast Guard and different interested parties. There was a decline in Red Cross. Red Cross taught Learn to Swim classes. You got a decline in YMCA competitive swimming. All of this started happening around the same time, which made it even more relevant to what we were trying to reclaim.
Q | So it wasn’t just the programs, it was also the facilities?
A | Yes. We started really basic. I knew of, and had competed in, at least six HISD natatoriums. My pitch was: let me use your pool and help maintain it to a healthy level, chemical balance. They were obsolete pools. They weren’t conditioned to host a meet or anything like that. That is how I got the buy-in from the school district. They were letting me use their pools, and we would go to elementary schools and ask them ‘Do you want to learn how to swim?’ and raise money to do that. Then USA Swimming joined the cause. They say that we had predominantly minority swimmers, but not all were minority swimmers. We have some tough, tough swimmers, period. And they started to give us grants for Learn to Swim.
Q | How did the Street Olympics come to be?
A | Well, it was all of the things that I did at the Hester House, for the most part—jacks, hula hoop, skating, swimming and piano. We kind of defined 11 things to compete in, and we weren’t looking for hardcore major sports. We were looking for things that people liked to compete. So we captured that nostalgia with jacks, hula hoop, hopscotch, jump rope and basketball obstacle course. Those were just carrots to lure kids to come and do this free play while they interact socially. You have all of these groups of people together, and just let them meet police and firemen. And then we have this hundred-booth Bright Futures Fair, an educational opportunity for youth to learn about health, safety and careers.
I really didn’t want parents there at first. I wanted the kids to be uninhibited. I wanted the parents to feel safe enough to send them, knowing they will be safe and have fun. It’s a children’s day, and when the parents come, they get competitive. You have to win that medal!
And 90 percent of the people who are driving this are volunteers, and they don’t care who wins. They’re volunteers! It’s a distinct difference between the attitudes of those kids and their uninhibited nature when they are with their parents versus when they are without them.
Q | How long have you been doing this?
A | We’ve been doing this for 28 years. We have about 10,000 children and young adults who participate annually in all the Street Olympics programs— the Summer Games, Discovery Camp/Traveling Naturalist, Aquatics Program, and the Northeast Adolescents Program.
Q | Looking back over your career, what are the things that you are most proud of ?
A | It’s not just one thing. I guess I’m most proud of the response of the public to each one of those venues of activity. We didn’t talk about seniors, but that program has had the same result. You can kind of study and assume how relevant something is, but you don’t really know until after you do it. I am proud of the relevance of what has been done, and the embracing of it. It is almost a staple. It is almost automatic. It is seamless to the point that there is a generation of people who can’t envision not having it. So that lets me know that it’s working.
Q | What is the significance of the Texas Medical Center, from your perspective, through the years and actually looking forward?
A | My angle to the center was always through the public health care system. Being a shepherd of the resources for that system, I have to try to achieve some balance. You still have some people in high levels of authority who think that the hospital district or the public health care system is better than it needs to be. And that is a very recent thought that was put to me.
I experienced that when I first started. The floors are clean and it doesn’t look like squalor. You don’t have blood splattered on the walls. So the concept of what a public system is supposed to do and how it is supposed to function and who it is supposed to protect, that is still not known well enough on the informed side of the community, let alone the uninformed. I’ve seen that we have a little work to do.
It’s like voter registration. The more you do, the more you need to do. But it is really needed.
Q | Any closing thoughts?
A | All the Precinct One programs were put in place to fill a void in various communities. We are providing social, health, educational, and recreational services for our youth, young adults and seniors. The Street Olympics, for example, has an athletic component. But the main purpose is to implement and sustain programs that provide training, support, and resources that lead to healthy and productive lives for Houston-area youth.
Within our seven senior centers, we provide exercise, swimming, nutrition, educational, drama, and other programs to keep seniors active and healthy.
It’s just the Precinct One way of providing vital, free services that otherwise would be difficult to find.
HARRIS COUNTY PRECINCT ONE PROGRAMS
Street Olympics | From aspiring athletes to future environmentalists, Street Olympics programs have something for everyone. Street Olympics provides comprehensive, community-based initiatives that are funded through the joint efforts of many private and public entities. Because of this collaborative model, Street Olympics has grown from a recreational summer program to an organization with four major components that address the various needs of Harris County’s youth.
Summer Games | The Summer Games program has grown into one of the most popular events of the season. The program provides organized activities centered on the games that young people traditionally play in the streets. These games are redesigned into positive, rewarding Olympic-style competition. Events include kickball, jacks, hopscotch, basketball (dribble and free throw), Frisbee accuracy, softball throw, hula hoop medley, jump rope marathon, shuttle relays, and 50- and 100-yard dashes. Participants must be between the ages of six and 15, and must be registered with one of the participating agencies. For a list of these agencies, visit www.streetolympics.org.
Bright Futures | The Bright Futures Fair—which emphasizes health, safety, and environmental awareness—is an integral part of the Summer Games. The fair is held during the Summer Games Final Event and features interactive booths and hands-on activities, which provide opportunities for children to receive important health care services and safety information.
Discovery Camp | This fun summer program is aimed at children ages six to 13 and uses educational activities, games, crafts, and projects to help campers gain a better understanding of nature and everyone’s role in preserving our environment. Discovery Camp is the perfect summer setting for exploring everything from insects and birds to fish and forests.
Traveling Naturalist | The year-round Traveling Naturalist Program brings nature to life for grade-school students by giving them hands-on experience with living creatures. The Traveling Naturalist Program is an excellent enrichment activity for science and social studies classes. Supported by technological visual aids, presentations include live animals and natural artifacts. These sessions help children connect with the world around them and are arranged according to class sizes, ages and schedules.
Aquatics Program | The Harris County Aquatics Program (HCAP), created in 1992, teaches discipline, leadership and teamwork skills for youth through the sport of swimming. In 2009, Precinct One opened the Harris County Aquatics Center, a 22,000-square-foot indoor pool with eight 25-yard competitive swimming lanes and three practice/training lanes. HCAP, which is led by Head Swim Coach Johnnie Means, operates programs at local schools and community facilities.
Each site is staffed by coaches, water safety instructors, and lifeguards certified by USA Swimming and American Red Cross. HCAP offers instructions and lessons for beginning swimmers, swim stroke development for intermediate swimmers, and competition for advanced swimmers. HCAP’s award-winning team, the Mighty Dolphins, competes all year in local, regional, and national meets.
The Northeast Adolescent Program | For more than 15 years, this program has provided valuable educational, social, and medical services to area teens. Designed to combat infant mortality, teen pregnancy, and other health and social issues in inner-city neighborhoods, the Northeast Adolescents Program (NEAP) is a collaboration of Harris County Precinct One, Houston ISD, Aldine ISD, Baylor College of Medicine, and the Harris County Hospital District. NEAP helps teens make smart and healthy choices. The program includes a male-outreach component that focuses on the role of young men in addressing the problems young people face in our society. For more information about NEAP services, call 281-820-6341 or 281-847-3901.
— Information provided by Harris County Precinct One