Science Story June 2022

Henry and Sandra Estess

Honoring a Legacy

For decades, RMBL has hosted world-renowned scientists, supporting their research with field sites, lab facilities, housing, technological and logistical assistance, and access to historic data. We have achieved this as an independent, nonprofit field laboratory, not affiliated with an academic institution or the government. What keeps RMBL in operation is philanthropy. From the work of volunteers to seven-figure donations, we celebrate all the philanthropic acts that sustain us and acknowledge the donors behind them. Some givers relish the public attention. Sandra Estess is not one of those.

She’s not interested in seeing her name in lights. Yet she and the Estess children — Elizabeth, Catherine, and Blake — are making a $2 million gift to RMBL to purchase the land for a year-round campus at Mt. Crested Butte. The gift is made in honor of their father and Sandra’s husband, Dr. Henry Estess, who died in 2018 at the age of 80.

Dr. Estess was an obstetrician/gynecologist in Dallas, Texas, from 1970 to 1997. He and Sandra were married in 1961. After he graduated in 1964 from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, the couple moved to Dallas.

It was a 1980 vacation in Crested Butte that introduced the Estesses to RMBL, and it was Henry’s introduction to Dr. Ian Billick that began a decades-long friendship between the two. The book Explore Discover, authored by Dr. Billick, was dedicated to his friend.

Dr. Estess’s passion for the natural environment was part of his DNA, according to Sandra. A true renaissance man, “He always tried to understand the whys and why nots of almost everything,” she says. In his youth, he began raising and racing homing pigeons and continued for nearly 40 years. The Estess home in Dallas is filled with trophies from his racing victories. He earned his undergraduate degree in zoology at The University of Texas at Austin before going to medical school. Then, after an illustrious career as a physician, he purposely retired at age 59, early enough that he could spend his remaining years as a naturalist. His affinity for RMBL grew out of his core drive to advance science for the benefit of mankind.

The Estesses bought a home in Crested Butte in 1982, and approximately 10 years later they purchased Eagle’s Nest Ranch, a 2,400-acre plot of land along the East River between Crested Butte and Almont. Sandra says that local ranchers were skeptical of the newcomer from Texas, expecting him to come in with plans for commercial development. But instead, Dr. Estess spent the next 20 years improving the land’s natural environment. He maximized the fish and wildlife habitats, adding a meandering side channel, self-sustaining ponds, and wetlands. As a result, the increased boom in the property’s biodiversity created an ideal habitat for scientists. RMBL researchers conduct scientific studies there today.

Sandra, too, has followed her passions. She says that because she’s had the luxury of time and opportunity, she has devoted herself to the causes she holds dear: improving education for young children and access to healthcare for children and the disadvantaged. She remembers that one of her favorite volunteer occupations was during the 1970s at the hematology and oncology clinic at Children’s Medical Center (now Children’s Health) in Dallas. Two physicians there asked her to help raise money to start a Ronald McDonald house. Lacking fundraising experience, she reluctantly agreed, and the first Ronald McDonald House in Dallas opened in 1981. It was the 12th in the United States, and today there are more than 377 Ronald McDonald Houses operating in 45 countries. The House Sandra helped found has served over 40,000 individuals. She also co-chaired the Campaign for Children in 1999, which raised $160 million for Children’s Medical Center.

Dr. Estess and Sandra were of one mind when it came to making a positive difference. They simply pursued the goal through different avenues. The aspiration was passed down to their children, as well. Their daughter, Elizabeth Hughes, is not only a clinical psychologist but a devout nature lover who sits on the RMBL board of directors.

What inspires Sandra are the examples set by such renowned agents of change as Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, who said, “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”

Sandra herself lives by a philosophy that asserts, “We have to make the most of ourselves because there are very important things that need to be done, and if we don’t do our part, then ultimately some things may remain undone forever.”

Her world view may also have been influenced by her upbringing. She hearkens back to a saying her grandmother repeated often: “To be successful, you don’t have to be interesting; you just have to be interested.” Sandra may demur from describing herself as interesting. But at 82, she has been interested for a long time. And she’s not resting anytime soon.

While it may be impossible to adequately express our appreciation for the Estess Family’s gift, we can say with certainty that it not only keeps her husband’s legacy alive. It does the same for RMBL.


Sandra Street Estess grew up in Graham, Texas, and graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with degrees in Education and Speech Pathology. While her husband, Dr. Henry Estess, was a medical student at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Sandra taught elementary school. After moving to Dallas in 1964, she began her career as a community volunteer and civic leader — activities that she continues some 50 years later. 

Sandra has been involved in many organizations and has served as a board member of The Ronald McDonald House of Dallas, Educational First Steps, The Child Care Group, Carter Blood Care, The Episcopal School of Dallas, The Dallas Woman’s Club, Children’s Medical Center, Children’s Medical Center Foundation, Southwestern Medical Foundation, The Senior Source, Educational Opportunities, and Lovers Lane United Methodist Church. She has three children and nine grandchildren.