Isabel Brown Wilson, philanthropist, businessperson, journalist, and patron of the arts, was born Isabel Anne King Brown, the daughter of Alice Nelson (Pratt) and George Rufus Brown, in Houston, Texas, on June 13, 1931. She had two sisters—Nancy (born in 1927) and Alice Maconda (born in 1930). At the time of her birth, her father was a successful paving contractor, whose construction company Brown & Root, Inc., became one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the world.
In her youth, Isabel attended St. Mary’s Hall, a college preparatory school in San Antonio. In 1952 she served as the debutante representing Houston in the “Court of Make-Believe” for the San Antonio Fiesta Queen’s Coronation. The following year, she received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Smith College, with a major in art history. Following graduation, she enrolled in a management-training program in Manufacturer’s Trust Company in New York City, and she is credited as the first woman member in the program. After completing the training program, she worked in the Credit Department in the Garment District in New York. Soon, Isabel Brown took a job as a reporter for the Houston Post.
In 1955 she moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a research assistant on the policy committee staff of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson was a close friend and associate of George Brown and his brother Herman Brown, and the three men’s political and business successes were closely intertwined. The families often spent time together as well; the Johnsons often stayed at the Brown’s country home called Huntland, in Middleburg, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. It was there in 1955, when Isabel Brown happened to be present, that Johnson suffered a near-fatal heart attack. After Johnson became president of the United States, the Browns often visited and sometimes stayed in the White House, and on March 28, 1967, for example, Lady Bird Johnson held a dinner in honor of Isabel and her then husband James V. Mathis. Lady Bird described Isabel Brown’s position on the government staff in a 1994 interview and stated, “She was as smart as she could be and a pleasure to have in our facility.”
Sometime after leaving Johnson’s staff, Isabel Brown returned to a position at the Houston Post. Years later former Houston Post and New York Times writer Campbell Geeslin reminisced about their time at the paper, “Charlotte Phelan, Isabel Brown, David Westheimer and I had a regular luncheon club in a cleaning closet. We pushed aside the brooms, ate our sandwiches, and gossiped about books, movies, staff affairs and the Houston social scene.”
On May 11, 1963, Isabel Brown married James Vernon Mathis, also of the Houston Post, and the couple soon bought a number of weekly newspapers and the Edinburg Daily Review, the latter for which James served as editor and Isabel as assistant editor. The couple had two sons, Travis Allison Mathis in 1964 and William Nelson Mathis in 1966, and divorced in 1967.
On April 3, 1971, Isabel married her childhood pen pal, best friend, and college sweetheart—Wallace Stedman Wilson. Soon, the couple threw themselves into philanthropic work and “became one of Houston’s most well-known couples and generous philanthropists.” Their dedication to civic responsibility was not surprising. Her father, George Brown, grew up in poverty in rural Texas and emphasized the power, importance, and expectation of philanthropy. In 1951 this core belief led George and Alice Brown along with his brother and sister-in-law, Margarett and Herman Brown, to establish the Brown Foundation of Houston—a nonprofit charitable foundation and one of the state’s leading benefactors. Both couples passed the dedication to philanthropic work to their children and grandchildren who serve as members of the board of directors for the family’s foundation. Isabel Brown Wilson served as life trustee and former chair and president of the Brown Foundation.
Further, she served on the boards of Texas Commerce Bank, Republic Bank of Texas, First City Bank, the Methodist Health Care System, Smith College, Davidson College, Deerfield Academy, Southwestern University, the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Planned Parenthood, the Houston Annenberg Challenge, and the Board of Visitors of University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was also past president of the Philosophical Society of Texas, and in recognition of her philanthropy, Isabel Brown Wilson received an honorary doctorate of law from Southwestern University.
Isabel Wilson’s dedication to the arts, a love she inherited from her mother, was one of her lifelong passions, and Isabel cultivated this passion during her time at Smith College. Years later, she reflected that, “Majoring in the history of art was one of the cleverest things I ever did,” she noted. “It has given me a great deal of pleasure.” She served on the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities for the National Endowment for the Arts and as chairman and later life trustee and chairman emeritus of the board of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). Isabel and her husband, Wallace, enormously aided the expansion of permanent collections at the MFAH, to an extent that most galleries at the museum list their names as patrons. One of the major exhibits and attractions at the MFAH, the Wilson Tunnel, was named for Isabel and Wallace Wilson because of their role in conceptualizing and securing its funding. The underground tunnel, which connected the museum’s Caroline Wiess Law Building with the Audrey Jones Beck Building after the Beck Building opened in 2000, allows visitors to seamlessly transition from one of the museum’s spaces to the other. Funded by Isabel and Wallace Wilson, The Light Inside exhibit by James Turrell created an experience for visitors that is a draw unto itself.
In 1997 Isabel Wilson, her sister Maconda O’Connor, with their cousin Louisa Stude Sarofim, all Smith College graduates, donated $14 million to Smith College through the Brown Foundation. One of the largest gifts in Smith College’s history, the majority of the funds provided for the substantial renovation of the college’s museum and connected art library, galleries, classrooms, and storage. Subsequently, the college named the complex the Brown Fine Arts Center, and it is considered one of the premier college art museums in the world.
Following Isabel Brown Wilson’s death in Houston, on March 27, 2012, a memorial service was held for her on March 30, 2012, at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas. She was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston. At the time of her death, she was survived by her husband, Wallace Stedman Wilson; two sisters, Nancy B. Negley and Maconda B. O'Connor; cousins Louisa Stude Sarofim and Mike S. Stude; her sons, Travis A. Mathis and his wife, Bettina, and William N. Mathis and his wife, Lisa; her grandchildren: Maria Mathis, Madelline Mathis, William Mathis, and Nelson Mathis; stepdaughter, Ellen Wilson and husband, Andy Hewes; stepson, W. Barry Wilson; and step grandchildren: Brooke Wilson Hewes and Victoria Spielhagen; and numerous nieces and nephews.
At the Texas State Historical Association’s annual meeting in Fort Worth in March 2013, the membership passed a resolution in memory of Isabel Brown Wilson, and the resolution was subsequently published in the July 2013 issue of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly.