From University of Houston to the Stage

How Grace Givens’ love of travel and performance inspired her husband and daughter to give back

Robert Givens and his daughter, Jessica Givens (’02), are proud of the late Grace Givens who performed at her wedding and her funeral. Both were held at the University of Houston chapel. She sang “One Hand, One Heart” to Robert at the altar at their wedding, and her family played recordings of her singing three songs at her funeral in celebration of her life. 

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“Everyone said it was the most beautiful service they'd ever been to,” Jessica shares.

Grace and her family’s special connection to the University of Houston inspired Robert and Jessica to create the Grace Givens Travel Abroad Endowed Scholarship at the Moores School of Music.

“We felt we owed University of Houston,” Robert explains.

The fund is intended to support the travel for a voice major’s study abroad. They chose this specific cause because music and travel were two of Grace’s greatest passions.

A Houston native, Grace started performing in local theater as a 13-year-old and remained a fixture in the city’s theater scene for 66 years. When she graduated high school in 1961, she enrolled at UH. She had to work her way through school, but she balanced her work schedule with a busy performance schedule. After contracting mono, she decided to drop out and move to New York City to pursue her Broadway dreams.   

She moved back to Houston in the mid-60s to be closer to family. Back in her hometown in the late ’80s and early ’90s, she returned to UH to finish her degree. This time around, she was in her 40s, but her avid participation in the theater department hadn’t changed. She relished studying with Sidney Berger, Cecil Pickett and Edward Albee. She performed in everything from the Shakespeare Festival to experimental student plays. She went on to perform frequently at Ovations with Paul Hope Cabarets, as well as Theatre Under the Stars and The Country Playhouse, to name a few.

However, she didn’t sing and dance through all of her classes. Robert and Jessica remember that one challenge she faced was passing algebra. She bribed the professor by bringing him delicious food and wine.

“She told him ‘Look at me, do I look like I have time to take this class? Do I look like I’m good at math?’” her husband Robert recalls. She managed to get a passing grade in that class. Then, she failed logic. Although she never finished her degree, she used everything she learned at UH when she performed.

“She would do whatever role she was cast in. She played love interests. She played moms as she got older. She sang in her church regularly. She sang at everybody's funeral and wedding,” Jessica describes.

Even when her breast cancer returned and she relocated to Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for treatment, she didn’t let that stop her from getting up on stage. During the day, she underwent chemotherapy. At night, she performed songs like “Bésame Mucho” at Birdland Jazz Club, a Broadway delight in Manhattan. She continued performing up until two to three weeks before she died.

Givens performing in Showtime in 1984 at Jones Hall

Givens performing in Showtime in 1984 at Jones Hall

Givens and Marvin Zindler at Jones Hall

Givens and Marvin Zindler at Jones Hall

Givens singing

Givens singing

“She was the most sparkly, most glittery, most interesting person on the stage,” her daughter shares.

The Givens feel immense gratitude for everything the University gave, not only to Grace, but also to their family.

“I wouldn't have my business and my life if I hadn't gone to the University of Houston,” Jessica shares. She graduated with degrees in Classics and Spanish. “We owe it our success.”

Already, the Grace Givens Travel Abroad Endowed Scholarship has received many generous donations. The Givens hope their endowment will continue to grow, and they can use it to empower another UH student to enjoy the same happiness and success they have.

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