Cultural Catharsis

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The adage that time heals all wounds should be updated. For philanthropists Eric and Maria Groten, theater helped heal their wounds in the midst of tragedy.

In 1999, before they’d met but when they were attending the same church, Eric’s identical twin brother, Kurt, was visiting from Houston to support him through the end stages of a tough divorce. Maria happened to meet and chat with Kurt at the end of a service with her children in tow.

A couple of weeks later, Maria heard through the church grapevine that the nice fellow with whom she’d been chatting had been killed. At the end of Kurt’s trip to Austin, his wife and three children, ages 1, 3 and 5, picked him up at Hobby Airport in Houston, and en route home, a speeding and drunken semi-trailer truck driver tipped his vehicle, which was carrying paper, onto theirs. Kurt survived the collision but was trapped in the car, along with his wife and three kids, buried with paper in the back. His wife, Lisa, stayed with him as long as she could, but she could not get him out when the car caught on fire, so she ended up watching her husband and three children perish. Maria responded to the news with a heartfelt note of condolence.

“It started out as a very incredible friendship,” she said, gazing across the table at her husband. “I admired how he handled everything.”

“Maria, as is her usual way, decided to reach out and touch someone,” Eric said. They tied the knot on October 8, 2000.

In May of 2001, they’d gone to see a one-woman show starring Meredith McCall about a woman named Jouet; in it, the protagonist dies in a plane crash. The following Monday, which was just after Mother’s day, Eric received the phone call that is every parent’s worst nightmare.

Eric’s children, Andrew, 10, and Grace, 5, were with their mother and her new husband. They’d taken a light plane from Austin out to Leakey in the hill country. In the course of trying to land the plane on what was a very short runway, the plane clipped a tree and went into the highway, instantly killing everyone on board.

“Maria came into my life and we had about 18 months of her being a wonderful mother to her two kids and my two kids,” said Eric, still shaken, as any parent would be, by the recollection. “In some respects, you never forget that phone call. It sucked the light and life out of the room.”

Eric, who works in environmental law for Vinson & Elkins, has been on Zach Scott Theatre’s board of directors for eight years. The couple described the organization, which is on the cusp of putting shovel to ground in its multimillion-dollar expansion, as their place of connection for all these reasons and more. It’s where their friendships, civic commitment and their children’s lives all intersect. “We fell in love with Zach when they were there for us during a really difficult time,” Eric said.

“The arts give us a place to go, a safe place to let it out. it’s a great place to laugh, a great place to cry,” said Maria, emphasizing that they’re very grateful for everything they have–in particular their time as a family, comprised now of Maria’s children from her previous marriage and the children they’ve had together: Ruel, 15, Emma, 12, Grayson, 8, and Lily, 6.

“It’s such a privilege to watch them grow up,” Maria, who has also co-chaired Austin’s dancing with the Stars to raise money for the Center for Child Protection, said. “All four of our children are the most loving and compassionate. I have a zero tolerance policy. We don’t treat anybody different based on color, race, sexual preference. We’re all equal.”

The Center for Child Protection is the first non-arts organization that Maria has given to. It’s a safe space for children who have witnessed a crime or been abused. Last year, the dancing with the Stars fundraiser brought in $650,000. She’s organizing this year’s event as well, which is slated for December 5 at the Hilton.

Maria’s the kind of person you immediately feel at ease with. She’s a great listener and she enjoys learning other people’s stories, no matter how complicated they might be. “I don’t judge people and I don’t expect them to judge me,” she said, citing this as a reason why she’s drawn to her gay friends. “I know that has not been an easy life. I went through a divorce, which I know is different, but there was a lot of controversy and it was judgment.”

Eric and Maria are exceedingly open-hearted considering everything they’ve been through. “It’s helped us help others,” Eric said. “You immediately look for the flowers growing out of the dirt.”

“I just look at my children, every day, and think what a gift I’ve been given.”

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