The man often called “The Father of the University of Houston,” grew up on his father’s farm in San Antonio. He left school at age 12 to make $3 a day working in a candy store. Later he worked in the cotton and oil industries. Hugh Roy Cullen became a wildcatter, or oil prospector, best known for drilling deep wells. He formed the Quintana Petroleum Company.
According to a story in the book Eat ‘Em Up, Cougars: Houston Football by Jerry Wizig, during a UH football banquet in 1948, Mr. Cullen stood to say thanks for inviting him and his wife, Lillie. He also announced that he was giving UH $1 million. His wife tugged at his coat and whispered in his ear. Mr. Cullen then stood up and said Mrs. Cullen told him he had made a mistake. Instead of $1 million, he was giving $10 million to the university.
In 1938, Mr. Cullen gave money to UH for a liberal arts and cultural center named after his son, Roy G. Cullen, who died in an oilfield explosion in 1936. The Cullens later established the Cullen Foundation to give grants to UH, Baylor University, the Texas Medical Center, Texas Southern University, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and various other organizations. The foundation’s largest benefactor was the University of Houston, with grants totaling between $50 million and $60 million. Mr. Cullen was one of the world’s greatest philanthropists of his day.
After Mr. Cullen’s death in 1957, Dr. Hyman Schactel of Congregation Beth Israel said, “Mr. Cullen was a man who made philanthropy a religion.” The UH athletic director at that time, Harry Fouke, added, “They never asked for anything but gave a great deal.”