Patron Magazine, February 2014

“He lives free who has the strength to.”  Isak Dinesen said that, and she might have been writing about this year’s winners of TACA’s Silver Cup—Holly Mayer and Lucilio Pena.  Both have the nerve of a high diver, the endurance of a thoroughbred and the imagination to pursue an original life.

I tracked down Holly first, at her condominium in the Ritz- Carlton.  What stuck me right away, aside from the woman who greeted me—slender, fit, indefatigable and clearly possessed of a thousand capacities—were the prints on the walls by R.C. Gorman and what they told me about her.  Holly Mayer, they said in their full-volume forms of women sitting alone in the silence of New Mexico, is a spirited person who saw in Santa Fe something that had stirred– no, calmed her in another setting.  It was, she explained, the same feeling she had had in Asia, “the stillness.”

Holly Mayer could use some stillness.  She and her husband, Tom, have been in motion ever since they met, at Columbia University in New York, where she was in nursing school, he in medicine.  They got married, then took off to Los Angeles for his internship (she worked in public health with L.A. County), followed by his residency in San Francisco and from there to Hawaii, for more training, and then a stint in the Navy, something she understood well, having been the daughter of a career Naval officer herself.  They were pushing ever westward to reach the East,  not unlike Columbus.

Of course, Holly found a teaching job in medicine and surgery in San Francisco  and taught at the University of Hawaii’s School of Public Health.  If idleness is the work of the devil, then Holly Mayer has been immune always to the temptations of Mephistopheles. 

But busy-work has never been her metier.  Concentrated in her energies, she is far-flung in her imagination.  So, as happy fate would have it, is Tom Mayer.  Once freed  from obligations to profession and the nation, they fled all things official to fling themselves into the work of medical missionaries, in Thailand and Indonesia.  With three-year-old son Eric in tow, they also trooped through India and Nepal, and spent a few weeks in Afghanistan before it was invaded by the Soviets.  They were “barefoot doctors,” she giving birth-control injections to women who wanted them, he, pursuing orthopedic surgery.

“It was a tough life,” Holly remembered.  “[Now]we’re spoiled, so entitled.  [But then] we were young and foolish, with no money, and only a book called How to Travel Without Being Rich.”  They did it, on trains, buses, boats, and what they found, she remembered, “were halcyon days.”

After such a bracing adventure, nothing pedestrian would do.  They were ready for a settled life, in a small community, but not just any small community.  Los Alamos seemed perfect.  Home of the Manhattan Project in World War II, it still was a national laboratory for critical research.  Tom started the Orthopedic Group and Holly managed it.  He proposed and she disposed.  Or was it the other way around? It’s hard to tell with these two so intertwined are they in so many ways.

Suddenly their fortune, so lucky for so long, lurched into reverse.  Tom came down with an autoimmune disease that affected his eyes, making it impossible to do surgery any longer.  Unsinkable, he got an appointment at UT Southwestern in Dallas to do research on back pain for a grant from the National Institutes of Health.  The proposal came in second, but out of the effort came also the Productive Rehabilitation Institute of Dallas for Ergonomics (PRIDE), Tom’s creation with Holly as president and CEO. Currently their daughter, Margareta, works with her father, the medical director, as a nurse practitioner.  Eric, true to the family ethos, is a doctor in physical rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic

The idea of PRIDE was to help workers with injured backs get back to work, without an 80 percent chance of re-injury which, without the Mayers, was the norm, making it hard for patients to be hired again.  Now, due to research, plus techniques to pinpoint and treat the real trouble in bad backs, chronically disabled people are able to make a living again.

All this happens in the old Easter Seal building, now refurbished at the corner of Maple and Harry Hines.  There I met Tom Mayer, a charming survivor helping others to do the same.  His office is more narrow than you might expect. That’s because Holly took part of it for examining rooms.  But the wall that’s left is lively with three posters of the Ring Cycle, done by the Dallas Opera under Plato Karayanis.  Tom Mayer, it turns out, is a committed Wagnerian.         

This brings us back to TACA’s Silver Cup.  It is for her passionate devotion to the Dallas Opera that Holly Mayer is being honored this year.  The company lost no time attracting her to its board when she moved to Dallas in the early 1980’s, and she has been vice president for development for the past twelve years, all the while, or at least part of it, raising money for the Arboretum as well.  At the same time she has practiced the habit of happiness despite losing Margareta’s daughter to a brain tumor when she was almost four.  Then the stillness Holly had cultivated in her own quiet places never was more crucial.   


But she was drawn, inevitably, back to action.  To understand this dynamo of medicine, music and the aesthetic of Asia rendered through the prism of Santa Fe, go back to her condo and find a sculpture that resembles a starburst in brilliant blue.  It’s from Seattle, a city, said Holly, that goes in for “producing, not just absorbing.”  “The energy of art,” she explained, “stimulates a great feeling of wanting to be productive.            

Lucilio Pena is nothing if not wildly productive, and always with an eye to elegance.  He thinks in architectural terms, backed up by degrees from the University of Florida and Cornell with a little Harvard and Berlin thrown in.       

Born in Cuba right after the Castro revolution, Lucilio and his family got out as quickly as they could.  One day his father left the office for lunch, saying no farewells to colleagues at DuPont International, picked up his wife and children and drove to the airport.  Once on safe ground in Miami, he called DuPont’s headquarters in Wilmington and immediately was  offered a job in Caracus.  There Lucilio grew up.   

Once credentialed as an architect, he worked for WZMH, a Toronto firm, which sent him to Dallas. Before long he joined the Trammell Crow Company and was assigned to Lucy Crow Billingsley.  They got along brilliantly but Lucilio couldn’t resist a call to Barcelona to preside over a major development for the Olympic Village that included a Ritz-Carlton Hotel designed by Bruce Graham of SOM and a retail center by Frank Gehry.   

Lucilio’s partner, Lee Cobb, went with him and started a business translating documents.  They thought they would be there a couple of years but wound up staying seven.  It became harder to leave, of course, when Lucilio was named president of his company, the Travelstead Group in Spain. Finally they did return.  “We would have been expats forever if we didn’t come home,” Lucilio recalled.  “[Then] you never belong.” 

Well, they certainly belong in Dallas today.  Lee Cobb is well established as a technical writer at AT&T , and Lucilio linked up again with Lucy Billingsley to help coordinate the development of One Arts Plaza, International Business Park and Austin Ranch, plus the master plan for Cypress Waters, with Two and Three Arts Plaza at some point to follow.

To be in Lucilio’s corner office in the first of those downtown towers is to be drawn ineluctably toward his dream of perfection.  Stacks upon stacks of papers cover his desk, neatly arranged by a purist who never allows a single detail to stray from the force of his magnetic field.  This is someone for whom the word random does not register in his vocabulary, for whom games of chance belong to theatre of the absurd.  On the wall there’s a master plan for Cypress Waters, a major project at the corner of LBJ and Beltline, that reiterates, in case you missed it, that it is the work of a planner who is radically hands-on, who rarely looks up to enjoy the view through two glass walls that offer continuing enchantment

“Lucilio and I have been partners for over 22 years,” said Lucy Billingsley.  “We finish each other’s sentences, we interrupt each other’s thoughts, we debate, we compromise, we cheer each other on.”  “Lucilio is a great pal,” she added, “a working pal, a traveling pal, a creative and design pal…”

Now they are pals in expanding their already considerable contribution to the Arts District, with two office buildings in the works, companions to the condos already there, in One Arts Plaza.  “I describe high-rises,” he told me, “as a neighborhood.  The W is for young men who love sports, the Ritz-Carlton for people from Highland Park who want services and One Arts Plaza for people who are interested in the arts.  You have to find people with a common interest.”

Lucilio Pena’s own interest in art is evident in the two corner condos he and Lee Cobb put together in One Arts Plaza. Deliberately done in black,  white and gray to emphasize the works on the walls, the ambience breathes modernity, urbanity, a distillation of the pared down inspiration of our own time, with nothing extraneous, nothing in excess, nothing that is not necessary to the harmony of the whole.  From Margo Sawyer’s colorful, powder-coated aluminum boxes to Andy Warhol’s trio of camouflage prints, also in color (no military drab for him) to the credenza in glass, stainless steel and lacquered wood designed by Lucilio, everything contributes to the notion that a city can be sane, serene and sensible, if the view and the viewpoint are congenial.

From Lucilio’s windows— these he relaxes enough to enjoy— he can see everything he’s worked for forever and for which TACA honors him this year—the Dallas Museum of Art where he serves as chairman of the board’s building committee; the Nasher Sculpture Center (vice-chair of program advisory); the AT&T Center (trustee), with its triumphant Winspear Opera House and Wyly Theatre; all informed by the Dallas Architectural Forum (he’s a director, of course).    

I asked Lucilio and Lee about the conceptual art in their apartment, the spare canvases I’ve long liked but not well understood.  What, I wanted to know, is conceptual art? Lee Cobb’s answer: “It’s the idea behind the painting.  It’s not just the physical.”     

So for Lucilio Pena and Holly Mayer, it’s the idea behind the reservoirs of energy they’ve poured into the arts.  It’s more than the physical–the buildings, the paintings, the productions.  It’s the essence of living deeply, and living free.