Philanthropist and retired lawyer Franci Neely is honored to chair Rice University’s James Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s upcoming gala on Oct. 26, 2023. “We’re going to have secretaries of state galore, Secretary Henry Kissinger, and Secretary Hillary Clinton, and Secretary James Baker, of course, who lives in Houston. They’ll be in a conversation moderated by CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell,” says Houston-based Neely.
The Baker Institute for Public Policy is a world-renowned university-affiliated think tank. It’s home to over 200 of the foremost global experts from the academic community, private sector, and government. According to the Baker Institute, “Our fellows provide the highest quality research and analysis on critical foreign and domestic public policy issues.”
As of 2018, the institute has hosted every living former president of the United States since its inception in 1993. The upcoming gala is sure to foster essential conversations. “I imagine they will be talking about what we all talk about — the importance of the past when people were able to compromise across party lines without demonizing each other, to have different viewpoints on policy issues, but share common knowledge of the facts, which is so sadly absent these days,” says Neely. “It’s going to be a thought-provoking evening. And one in which we’ll be celebrating the Baker Institute’s 30 years in existence.”
If it feels like déjà vu, that’s because Franci Neely co-chaired the institute’s 25th-anniversary gala. That event was attended by more than 1,000 guests and raised $5.4 million for the institute.
“As a member of the Baker Institute’s board of advisers, Franci Neely serves with distinction,” stated Ed Djerejian, retired director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “Of particular value to me are her important contributions to the subcommittee for the Center for the Middle East and the subcommittee for Presidential Elections, as well as her generous support of our overall mission.”
Djerejian also recognized Neely and the co-chairs for offering guidance and fundraising to support the work ahead. He said, “We owe this enormous success to all our loyal supporters, and we are deeply grateful for each one of you. You can take pride in what we have built together, for is it not true in life that we are what we build?”
Memories of Meeting Barack Obama
Franci Neely has many precious memories of galas past. “I was honored to co-chair the gala when the Baker Institute was 25,” she says. “That’s when we had the pleasure of seeing President Barack Obama in Houston in conversation with Secretary of State James Baker and moderated by the wonderful historian Jon Meacham.”
Neely has been in Obama’s company twice. She says she’s come to understand “that the presidency was of unrelenting gravity,” Neely found the 44th president of the United States to be humorous and down-to-earth — and she was most impressed that he acted with consummate integrity. “He was not at all self-important, and I admire him so much,” she says.
During their first meeting, Obama touched on his experiences balancing the demands of being a dad to two daughters with the global problems that come with being the president of the United States. The former commander in chief shared how he didn’t sweat daughter Malia going on dates since she was accompanied by a Secret Service detail 24/7. Neely says, “His wit and warmth envelop those around him. He is a man of singular perception.”
Even though Obama was relatively young when he won the 2008 presidential election, he admitted that the job is extraordinarily taxing. “He gave the example of Ronald Reagan, about whom he said nothing at all bad. In fact, President Obama spoke about Ronald Reagan very positively,” says Franci Neely. “But he said if Reagan had been president now, in this day and age, when the news cycle is 24/7, he doesn’t think he could have survived because it is so taxing. You have to be on all the time. It is not for the faint of heart. If you’re treating the presidency as it should be treated and dealing with all the issues that confront you on a daily basis seriously, it will wear you down.”
Franci Neely: From Trials to Travel
Empowered by new experiences, Neely was the first female partner at her law firm, which became Susman Godfrey. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, she spent more than two decades practicing corporate law. “There weren’t that many women trial lawyers then,” she says. “I was sort of one of the first in that arena.”
Neely adds she was one of the first six lawyers at the law firm. Susman Godfrey now has more than 150 trial lawyers in four offices. Neely says she “was one of the most outspoken lawyers at the firm when I practiced there, as my colleagues will readily acknowledge.”
Since retiring from a successful law career, the trial attorney has traveled the world to pursue her dream of visiting every country. It’s an incredible learning experience for Neely.
“I love to explore other cultures, other areas of the world, ways of living, and history. I’m very curious about that,” says Franci Neely.
Neely believes that when someone experiences different people and different cultures, they gain a greater understanding of the universal humanity everyone shares. She says, “None of us are strangers if we look at each other in an open, accepting, nonjudgmental way. And it’s very life-affirming to me to do that.”
Neely has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and has been deeply involved with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s Art of the Islamic Worlds gala for the past 16 years, co-chairing the subcommittee for the event. She says, “In traveling to Saudi, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, the Emirates, and beyond, I have experienced the rich tapestry of the desert and sea, and the warm and welcoming embrace of the people who live there, who share their stories with me, and whose lives, enriched by their art and culture, enrich and expand my worldview and understanding.”