Steadfast & Strong: Nina Johnson Hendee

In 1971, high school junior Nina Johnson faced a dilemma that would change her life forever. “It was absolutely unacceptable for the 17-year-old daughter of a fairly prominent family to be pregnant at that time in our society,” she said. But that was her reality.

Her parents sent her from the Dallas area to Houston, Texas, to live with her newlywed brother and sister-in-law and attend the Crittenton School for Unwed Mothers for six months. In June 1971, she gave birth to a baby boy, held him for 20 minutes and then turned him over for adoption.

“It was a tough road for a young woman,” Nina said. “I never regretted it. I knew it was exactly the right decision, no matter what I would need to walk through in the future.”

That future included her parents’ decision not to provide financial support for college. To pay for classes at Southern Methodist University, Nina worked as a server at Steak and Ale, where she met Edd Hendee. On their second date, Nina told Edd about the child she gave up for adoption. They married in 1975 and moved to Houston. In 1977, at ages 23 and 26, they opened Taste of Texas restaurant, which now employs 200 staff members and serves 1,000 customers a day.

Giving Back

As a result of their experiences as working college students, Nina and Edd began a merit-based scholarship program for their employees 40 years ago. College students receive $200 per credit hour per semester for each A, B or C. High school students receive $100 for each A, B and C. “Young people who have to work have a harder time keeping their grades up,” Nina said. “We have tried to relieve that yoke, that burden.” The restaurant’s special events, like Steak School with Edd, cooking classes with their chef and daughter Lisa, and wine tastings help fund the scholarships, which now total $90,000 per year.

Nina and Edd’s commitment to their community extends beyond their employees. They planned to publish a cookbook as part of the restaurant’s 40th anniversary in 2017. When Hurricane Harvey devastated so many lives in Houston, they earmarked the proceeds from the cookbook to hurricane relief. Nina gives tours of the restaurant’s Texas history museum and lunch to fourth graders from 125 schools each year. During the height of COVID-19, Taste of Texas provided lunch for a local hospital’s staff for 30 days.

Celebrating Family

The Hendees raised three children, Lisa, Edd K., and Kristin. Edd K. died in a skiing accident in 2010. Kristin attended University of Virginia where she became a ZTA at Gamma Nu Chapter, following in the footsteps of Ann Campbell Hendee (Kappa Chapter, The University of Texas at Austin), her grandmother and Nina’s mother-in-law. Through the connections she made by catering a Houston ZTA Mothers Club luncheon, Nina became a ZTA Special Initiate in 2006 and has been a steadfast Foundation donor ever since.

She has also been steadfast in prayer that one day she might find the son she gave up for adoption in 1971. She told her children about their brother when they were teenagers. Before his passing, Edd K. searched for his brother, but adoption records in that era were permanently sealed.

Shortly before Christmas 2019, Nina received a letter from Kyle Poulson. His adoptive mother, before she passed away, had encouraged him to look for his birth mother. Kyle’s search had included refusal from two judges to open the records, a third judge who opened the records with his mother’s name redacted, and then a private investigator who found that Nina was Kyle’s birth mother. They shared the story of the family’s sweet reunion at Nina’s church on Mother’s Day 2020.

Video: Mother's Day with special guest Nina Hendee

The Hendee family reunites with Kyle and his family in 2020.

Steadfast prayer and a strong belief in faith and family are the theme of Nina’s story. Her family has begun a ministry for adoptive families. “Adoption is such a sweet story,” she said. “Millions of women are unable to have children. And now both birth and adoptive parents can know the child. Our story is about life and redemption. It’s a powerful story that resonates with all of them.”

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