How Frans and Diane Gillebaard prospered in the restaurant business and decided to leave a $6 million bequest to UTMB
By Chris Comer
When entrepreneur-turned-investor and UTMB Development Board member Frans Gillebaard was young, now and then his father would ask him to close his eyes. Next, the elder Gillebaard-a successful Dutch businessman-would place his hands on Frans's shoulders and give him one or two gentle spins. He would then ask his son to open his eyes and describe what he saw.
Frans Gillebaard invariably saw possibilities. His ability to see the ordinary as opportunity and to make promise come to pass has shaped his life. Growing up in Holland, he knew nothing about the world-class reputation of the Bugatti sports cars in the garage down the street. But even after his family moved to the United States and he disembarked, at age twelve, at the Port of Galveston, he had no trouble envisioning himself behind the wheel of a speed machine and threw himself into becoming a professional racecar driver.
In fact, it was during a pre-race signup forty years ago that Diane Gillebaard, a lifelong Houstonian, met her future husband. Their brief introduction involved no more than "hello" and "goodbye," but that didn't keep her from announcing to her mother later that afternoon, "He's the man I'm going to marry."
Three days later, Frans Gillebaard arrived in Galveston for the annual July 4 race-"a real big deal in the fifties and sixties," he explains-towing a C-Jaguar behind a green "hot rod" Chevy truck. The only empty seat at dinner the night before the race was next to his future wife. The Gillebaards began dating that weekend and married little more than a year later. "I was on my way to Italy to drive racecars," Gillebaard says. "I had no intention of getting involved in a relationship. But I'm still here."
Fast-forward twenty years. Gillebaard had long since discarded professional racing as too risky, had recently retired from the family's international building supply business, and had found himself "kind of at loose ends." Driving by a dilapidated building on the Kemah waterfront one day in 1980, he wondered why nobody had developed what he considered a potential goldmine. When Gillebaard learned the low asking price, he decided to go into the restaurant business.
"I'd conducted business in upscale restaurants throughout my career, so I knew a lot about the kind of experience patrons expect and how they want to be treated," Gillebaard says. "I thought it was going to be easy," he admits. "I quickly found out that I needed to know a whole lot more than everything I'd ever learned." Says Diane, a journalism major, "I just grabbed onto his coattails and hung on."
But lack of experience didn't hamper the couple's success. The Flying Dutchman was merely the Gillebaard's first successful restaurant. Then came the Brass Parrot, followed by the Kemah Cantina. All became Kemah landmarks and regional weekend destinations. The couple sold the restaurants in 1997.
One aspect of the business that particularly appealed to Diane was sharing the special occasions-birthdays, anniversaries, engagements-in some of their patrons' lives. Both Gillebaards also took a strong personal interest in the people who worked for them.
One in particular touched their hearts and, in the late 1980s, triggered their involvement with the University of Texas Medical Branch. Young, married, and the father of a small child, Ambrosio worked in the kitchen at the Flying Dutchman. Unbeknownst to the Gillebaards, he also had been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. "We knew he was ill," Diane explains, "just not how ill." When he failed to report to work for several days running, a co-worker explained that Ambrosio couldn't find anybody to relieve the pain, which had become unbearable.
Diane Gillebaard called everyone she knew and eventually connected with somebody at UTMB who said, "Sure, send him on down."
"He had no money, no insurance," Diane says. "When I went to visit him, he was in a private room with a television and a comfortable place for his wife to sleep. It was as nice a room as any in the hospital. He died a few days later, but I was so glad that at least at the end of his life he had good and compassionate care. I thank UTMB for that."
The couple shares a deeply ingrained sense of social responsibility. "My father and Diane's mother were both unusual characters," Frans says. "Both were smart, take-charge people and both had the strongest influence on our lives. They instilled in us the feeling that you have a responsibility to your fellow man. That's the example Diane and I want to follow."
Diane's mother, Jacqueline Steele, helped found Houston's March of Dimes chapter, launched some of the first telethons in the area, headed the city's Girl Scout organization, and took her scout troop to local hospitals to visit victims of polio (which was rampant in the late 1940s and early 1950s) on weekends.
"My mother taught me that if there's a problem, you've got to do something about it," Diane explains.
That philosophy is at the heart of the Gillebaards' $6 million bequest to UTMB, the largest single planned gift to date and among the largest non-foundation commitments in the history of the institution.
"We have been blessed financially," Frans says, "and the hundreds and hundreds of people who have worked for us over the years-people with no money, with no health insurance-helped us achieve that.
"There are a lot of worthy programs at UTMB," he explains. "We chose to support existing programs or to create new ones in areas that have special meaning for us."
The Gillebaards' support of Hispanic health, a direct outgrowth of their experience with the care Ambrosio received at the end of his life, will provide funding for people who come to UTMB seeking care but don't have the money for a meal or a room-people who can't afford the price of a bus ticket back home or the cost of sending a family member who has died home for burial.
The bequest also will establish the Mimi Gillebaard Endstra Migraine Headache Research Endowment, named for Frans's late sister, who suffered crippling migraines throughout her life. The endowment will support research on the little-known disease and seek more effective pain management strategies for migraine sufferers.
The Gillebaards' gift will create another endowment that will fund research on the causes, treatment, and prevention of dyslexia, a condition another family member struggles with.
And the couple's bequest will establish the Jacqueline B. Steele Alcoholism Research Endowment in honor of Diane's mother, who died of the disease. The Gillebaards hope their support ultimately will advance understanding of the causes and effects of alcoholism and lead to breakthroughs in treatment and prevention.
"We have no children," says Frans Gillebaard, "but at UTMB we have found a place to park our blessings. We wanted what we have to go where it will do some good."