The City of Houston has lost a longtime civil servant and community leader, as Laurence J. “Larry” Payne passed away on November 26th, after a courageous battle with cancer. He was 73.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner released a statement highlighting Payne’s civic contributions and sacrifice of service to the Greater Houston area, stating:
“Larry was a civic leader, a facilitator, educator, mentor, and personal friend. Over the last 30 years, mayors have turned to him to lead various initiatives or assist in conflict resolution.
Immediately after the murder of George Floyd, when tensions were running high across the country, I asked Larry to Chair the Mayor’s Taskforce on Police Reforms. Very few people anywhere in this country could have successfully facilitated a consensus with 45 people representing community activists, police officers, labor, business, faith, and nonprofit leaders. The 104 reforms presented were broadly accepted and helped our City navigate challenging times.
Throughout this entire time, Larry was battling cancer, but he did not hesitate to say yes to the assignment when I asked him. This City will be forever indebted to Larry Payne for his unselfish service and his wife and family for sharing him with us. On a personal note, I shall miss my friend who left it all on the field.”
Judson Robinson III, President and CEO of the Houston Area Urban League (HAUL) expressed his deepest sympathies on behalf of HAUL and acknowledged Payne’s passion for community empowerment and his remarkable contributions to advancing social justice for many years.
“Laurence Payne was a beacon of inspiration and a driving force in our pursuit of a more just and equitable society,” said Robinson. “His legacy of compassion, integrity, and unwavering commitment to social progress will continue to guide and inspire us.”
Payne graduated from the University of St. Thomas-Houston with a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1972, then studied for the priesthood at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. After his ordination, Payne went on to work for the Catholic Church in various lay positions, including becoming the first African American to hold the title of vicar in any Roman Catholic church in the country.
From 1974 to 1980, Payne served as Director of Community Relations for the ArchDiocese of Galveston-Houston and served as Vicar of Urban Affairs for the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, from 1980 to 1983. In 1985, he was honored as the recipient of the Knights of St. Peter Claver Justice Award—a national award that is given to select individuals who exemplify outstanding community service.
After his work with the Catholic Church, Payne moved back to Houston in 1985, working as chief of staff for former Mayor Kathy Whitmire—the first female mayor in Houston’s history. He also served as Executive Advisor and consultant to former Houston Mayor Lee Brown on issues of diversity, education and community initiatives, and served as the City of Houston’s Deputy City Controller under former City Controller George Greanias.
Payne also served as the District Director for former U.S. Congressman Mickey Leland, where he managed the congressman’s Texas-based programs, pre- and post-election. He was also asked to serve as former U.S. Congressman Chris Bell’s District Director, where he oversaw all operations for the 25th Congressional District and offices in Houston, Pasadena, and Baytown.
After working for several years in the political arena, he decided to work in the non-profit sector.
Payne started off serving as the President and CEO of the Greater Houston Coalition for Educational Excellence for six years, where he coordinated and organized the City of Houston’s business, nonprofit, and religious communities to work collaboratively on education reform. In 2002, Payne went on to become the President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity, where he significantly increased affordable home production and personally secured an endowment from television personality Oprah Winfrey for 65 houses known as Angel Lane Subdivision for families impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Payne served in that role at Habitat for Humanity until he endured a stroke in June 2006.
In addition to those non-profit executive leadership positions, Payne also served as the chair of the Harris County Educational Foundation—an organization responsible for after-school programs for 26 school districts across Harris County.
Even while battling cancer, Payne stepped up to serve as the chair of Mayor Turner’s Taskforce on Police Reforms, which was established in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Payne also served as the former President of the Greater Houston Coalition for Educational Excellence and alliance of the Greater Houston Partnership and as the Adjunct Director of Community, Institutional, and Governmental Relations for the Institute for Urban Public Education at the University of Houston. In addition, Larry was a consultant for William H. Sadler Publishers, Inc. in New York as an advisor on multicultural urban education issues.
Payne helped bring the 1991 and 2002 National NAACP Conventions to the City of Houston, where he served as General Chairman with over 12,000 and 17,000 in attendees respectively from around the country. He talked about education and social justice issues on a weekly TV show on Houston Community College (HCC-TV) called “Dialogue Houston” where he dealt with challenges of leadership and the changing demographics in the Greater Houston area. The success of his TV show led to a weekly radio show called “Interchange” being launched on KPFT-FM (90.1).
In 2007, the University of St. Thomas-Houston bestowed the Vincent J. Guinan, CSB, Distinguished Alumnus Award to Payne, which is an award given to an alumnus in recognition of their leadership to the University and community. In 2017, he received the Center for Houston’s Future IMPACT Award, recognizing transformative leadership. In 2021, the University of St. Thomas-Houston bestowed the inaugural Laurence J. “Larry” Payne Leadership Award to Payne himself, in recognition of his tireless, ongoing efforts, vision, and civic leadership to promote equity in communities throughout the Greater Houston region.
Payne authored The Heart of HoUSton: Lessons in Servant Leadership, published in 2014, which explores how to create sustainable leadership, personal transformation, and authentic involvement for individuals and organizations.
On top of his many accomplishments, Payne actively participated in the following community organizations: American Leadership Forum (ALF); The Institute for Spirituality and Health; The Greater Houston Women’s Foundation; Houston Works; Children At Risk; The National Conference for Community and Justice; NAACP; Interfaith Ministries; Community Health Charities; Leadership Houston; Rice University; Center for Houston’s Future; Teach for America; The University of St. Thomas; The United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast; Education Foundation of Harris County; Greater Houston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau; Catholic Charities; and Ser-ninos Public Charter School.
Larry leaves to mourn his wife Regina Payne.