A generous spirit makes a happy home in Houston
The voice is so pure and the scene so memorable that it spawns three generations of opera lovers. Picture a young boy, about five years old, playing in the streets of New York City in 1920. It is evening. Suddenly, Metropolitan Opera star Enrico Caruso gives an impromptu performance from the back of a carriage. It is so spellbinding that the young boy is mesmerized and becomes a lifelong opera fan. That young boy, Tommy Coohill, is the father of Houston opera lover Eileen Hricik.
“My father loved opera, though he never got to see one.” Tommy just didn’t have time, with trying to earn a living and raise two young daughters. Then, at age 49, time ran out. Tommy died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Eileen reveals that it happened, “two months before my wedding — quite an awful shock for all of us.”
Besides her father’s love of singing, records and the retelling of how fabulous Caruso was that long-ago evening, there is another event that solidified Eileen’s love for opera. “Another vivid-beyond-belief memory is of sitting at one of my cousin’s houses on a Sunday night, watching ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,'” she says. “Ed introduced a singer who had just had a major triumph at The Met. As she sang, I had chills and remember thinking that the human voice couldn’t possibly make the beautiful sounds she was making. She was, of course, Joan Sutherland, singing the mad scene from ‘Lucia.'”
Fast forward to the mid 1980s, and the story gets better. She is asked by the Houston Grand Opera to be Joan Sutherland’s host. “My husband followed me to the airport when I went to meet her plane, as he thought I might faint,” she says. “Joan and her husband, Ricky Bonynge, are now treasured friends.”
Eileen, a Houston Grand Opera board member since 1986, and her husband, George, will chair the Oct. 21 Opening Night Gala. The theme is “Benvenuto, Anthony!” It is designed as a welcome for HGO’s new executive director, Anthony Freud. Eileen is enthusiastic about the opera company’s future under Freud.
“He has a vision that is fascinating, a resume that is overwhelming, a connection with everyone in the world of opera and an excitement about being here in Houston that I find delightful and infectious,” she says.
Eileen is adding a new feature to the Opening Night Gala, a reduced ticket price for members of HGO’s Young Professional Group (age 40 and younger). Eileen knows that generation well, as her three opera-loving sons are all in their 30s.
A woman of distinction
Eileen understands Anthony Freud’s excitement about becoming a Houstonian. She and George moved here in 1966. Her love of Houston was, admittedly, not instant. “I was terribly lonely,” she remembers. “George worked incredibly long hours.”
But, Eileen was not foreign to being the new kid on the block. She attended seven different elementary schools, as her parents jostled back and forth, living in New York City, where her father worked, and in the ‘burbs of New Jersey, as her mother, Rita, wanted. Finally, the suburbs won.
Putting her degree in education from Montclair State College in Montclair, N.J., to work, she taught at Houston’s Sherman Elementary. The job was instrumental in helping her get over the “moving blues,” and her career changed from teacher to mom as Eileen and George welcomed three sons in fairly rapid succession.
“I was always very involved volunteering in their schools — I chaired the St. John’s Book Fair when my oldest was in the fourth grade and have just gone on to organize lots of events since then,” she says.
So many, in fact, that in 1996 Eileen’s volunteering was honored when she was named “A Woman of Distinction” at the 1996 Winter Ball, a major fundraiser for the Crohns and Colitis Foundation of America.
Baseball and history
Eileen has two more passions — baseball and historic preservation.
When she was 10 years old and living in Brooklyn, the Dodgers won the World Series — and she witnessed the celebration first-hand. “It was very exciting, very joyous,” Eileen says. “I so wish that my father could see Minute Maid Park and know that we are very involved with the Astros.”
Her love of historic preservation comes from her maternal grandfather. “My grandfather was a ‘pied piper,'” she says. During summers in the Berkshires, he would gather as many of his 27 grandchildren as were around and take them on a walk.
“We all followed at his heels because he was so much fun,” she recalls. “His stories about the history of New York were incredible — probably why I am so interested in historic preservation to this day.” Eileen currently serves as president of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.
Becoming a Houstonian
Eileen realized she wanted to make Houston her permanent home seven years after they had moved here. In 1973, she and George had to make the decision to stay or return to New York. Thankfully, they decided to stay.
“I thought then, and still do today, that Houston is probably the most welcoming city in the world,” she says. “If you care about Houston, if you want to become involved, you are welcomed with open arms. People who visit here seem to enjoy Houston — but only people who move here realize this extraordinary warmth.”