The Rest of the Best: The 10 Most Awesome People Buried in Houston

Olivewood Cemetery
Olivewood Cemetery
Photo by Patrick Feller

Houston has some really kickass cemeteries, everything from lovingly maintained pastoral settings of dignity to overgrown, forgotten, and probably haunted as hell boneyards with nothing but rusting signs to identify them. Trust me, a cemetery tour in Houston is a lot of fun.

While we're not overly burdened with celebrities, we do lay claim to some extremely awesome people who chose to make their final rest here in the city. Today we salute the ten most amazing folks you can visit in the cemetery to leave flowers, pour out a drink, and aspire to the same level of accomplishment.

Protests over the proposed shutting of Ben Taub's pediatrics unit
Protests over the proposed shutting of Ben Taub's pediatrics unit
John Nova Lomax

10. Ben Taub (1889-1982) Buried: Congregation Beth Israel Cemetery

Odds are if you live in Houston, you probably need to go thank Ben Taub at some point. An incredible philanthropist, the list of things he accomplished for this city is miles long. The land that the University of Houston sits on? He donated it to provide a more stable educational opportunity in Houston. He helped bring Baylor College of Medicine to the city, ran the United Way, and served as head of the Texas Medical Center. Though never married, he was instrumental in running the DePelchin Children's Center, which still aids more than 20,000 kids a year with mental health issues and welfare services. You'd be hard-pressed to find a man who affected us in a more benevolent way.

9. Kathryn Jewel Thorne (1936 - 1999) Buried: Forest Park East Cemetery

When you bear the nickname of the Swamp Boogie Queen, you'd better damn well live up to it. Thorne did. She grew up the daughter of a reformed ragtime pianist turned Pentecostal preacher who was so worried about the evils of demon music infecting his daughter that he locked up the family piano to keep her away from it. It did no good, and Thorne became infamous for her skills as a blues vocalist, organist, and harmonica player. She made her name as a session pianist on more than 500 albums until Otis Redding personally requested she work with him. She toured with Redding until his untimely death on a plane crash in 1974, and retired for much of the '70s out of grief. She staged a successful comeback, and was once again a prolific musician until a stroke ended her career.

8. Gino Hernandez (1957 - 1986) Buried: Memorial Oaks Cemetery

The pro-wrestler known as "The Handsome Half-Breed," got his start working for the one and only Sheik in Michigan, and went on to hold an astonishing seven titles more than 20 times in NWA Big Time Wrestling/World Class Champion Wrestling. He was a thorn in the side of the legendary Von Erich family, teamed with a young Jake "The Snake" Roberts, and more or less invented the concept of cutting off an opponent's hair after a successful match. His sudden death at the young age of 28 cut short one of the most promising careers in wrestling history, and though it was ruled a drug overdose, to this day rumors abound that something more sinister was at work behind the loss of the rising superstar.

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7. Mollie Arline Kirkland Bailey (1844 - 1918) Buried: Hollywood Cemetery

Mollie Bailey had a life right out of a popular novel. At the age of 14 she fell in love with a trumpet player who worked in a traveling circus, and when her father refused his permission for the couple to marry she stole some horses, a cart, and a sibling or two to run off and start a circus of her own with her beloved. She father disinherited her. When Gus Bailey joined the Confederate army, Mollie tagged along as nurse and occasional spy infiltrating Union camps posing as an old woman selling cookies.

After the war she and her husband ran one of the most popular circuses in the South, and gave free admission to any war veteran regardless of what side they fought on. Texas governor James Stephen Hogg personally presented her with a wild boar tooth mounted in gold and inscribed with her name. Though her exact burial place isn't known, a marker was erected in her honor in Hollywood Cemetery by the Texas Historical Commission.

Howard Hughes standing in front of his new Boeing Army Pursuit Plane (Boeing 100A) in Inglewood, California in the 1940s.
Howard Hughes standing in front of his new Boeing Army Pursuit Plane (Boeing 100A) in Inglewood, California in the 1940s.

6. Howard Hughes (1905 - 1976) Buried: Glenwood Cemetery

Probably the most famous person buried in Houston is the one and only Howard Hughes, our renaissance man who was inventor, aviator, film maker, tycoon, and genius. He won the very first Academy Award for Best Director, and even invented a special bra for actresses to wear with revealing costumes to get around censors. He was himself a prolific pilot, and broke world records in an endless loop of newly designed aircraft that came right from his own pen. Despite popular legend, his innovative wooden cargo ship Hercules (Nicknamed "Spruce Goose") did actually fly and was a technological achievement dampened only by the fact that by the time it was completed it was no longer needed for the war effort.

Gene Tierney in Laura
Gene Tierney in Laura

5. Gene Tierney (1920 - 1991) Buried: Glenwood Cemetery

Not far from Hughes' grave lies his livelong friend, actress Gene Tierney. Tierney is best remembered for the lead role in the noir classic film Laura, which remains one of the finest mystery films ever produced and served as the inspiration for much of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. Leave Her to Heaven and Heaven Can Wait are also among her resume, as well as a host of Broadway and other roles. Mental illness preyed on her as her career grew, and after a stay in a psychiatric hospital she became an outspoken critic of shock therapy. She eventually staged a comeback as a character actress until she retired in 1980.

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4. Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins (1912 - 1982) Buried: Forest Park Cemetery

Hopkins grew up surrounded by the blues, and thanks to a chance meeting at a church picnic with Blind Lemon Jefferson he managed to become a legendary bluesman whose like isn't seen in the world anymore. Based in the Third Ward, he caught the attention of Aladdin Records, and went to Los Angeles to record the first of what some estimate to be as many as 1,000 original songs. He still holds the record for more blues albums recorded than any other musician in the history of the genre, and is arguably the most influential popular guitarist of all time. Yet he never really wanted to be anywhere other than at home in Houston, and that's where he lays to this day.

Antioch Missionary Baptist Church
Antioch Missionary Baptist Church

3. Jack Yates (1828 - 1997 1897) Buried: College Park Cemetery

John Henry Yates was born a slave in 1828, but fate dealt him a better hand when his mother was tasked with caring for the children of their recently diseased mistress, who subsequently taught Jack to read and write despite the illegality of such an action. He would go out in the dead of night and read his Bible by the light of a burning pine knot. After emancipation, Yates brought his family to Houston where he was ordained as a Baptist preacher and began a tireless quest to minister to the souls of Houston's African-Americans as well as ensuring their educations. Organizations founded by him exist to this day, and in 1991 Queen Elizabeth II visited the church he built and served as first pastor of, Antioch Missionary Baptist.

2. Paul Neal "Red" Adair (1915 - 2004) Buried: Forest Park Cemetery

When it comes to measuring badassedness, having John Wayne play a character inspired by you is almost impossible to beat. Adair was a legend in the field of fighting fires that no one else could fight. Oil wells and natural gas wells were his specialty, and he traveled all over the world like a flameproof gunslinger, even battling the oil field fires in Kuwait set by the retreating Iraqi army in the First Gulf War. His role in extinguishing a brutal blaze in the Sahara in 1962 (Nicknamed "The Devil's Cigarette Lighter) was the basis of the film Hellfighters, starring John Wayne as Adair stand-in Chance Buckman. Adair served as a consultant on the movie.

1. Sarah Emma Edmonds (1841 - 1898) Buried: Washington Cemetery

You will not find bigger balls than the ones Sarah Edmonds pretended to have in the Civil War. Inspired by Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain, Edmonds figured the best way for a woman to get into adventure in the 19th century was to pretend to be a boy as a her literary hero did. She was right. Enlisting as "Franklin Flint Thompson" she served as a male field nurse in the 2nd Michigan Infantry without ever blowing her cover, and was lauded by her fellow soldiers for her dedication and bravery in battle.

When Confederate forces in Richmond discovered a Union spy and executed him, along with killing her friend James Vessey in an ambush, Edmonds got metal and decided to aim for the spy post herself. She ended up sneaking into enemy territory after using silver nitrate to disguise herself as a black man (Because her life wasn't improbable enough as it was) and even as an Irish peddler woman just for the sheer ironic hell of it. Her work netted tons of helpful intelligence until she quit service in the wake of malaria.

Ha ha, no. After she got better she re-enlisted again as a nurse under her real name working at a Washington D.C. hospital. Then she retired again, wrote a bestselling book about her life that is still in print today, moved to La Porte, and became the only woman to successfully win a pension from the U.S. government for battle services rendered in the conflict. Truly, the most badass person buried in Houston so far.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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