Nancy Lee Bass was the "first lady of Fort Worth"

Posted Friday, Mar. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Nancy Lee Bass, 95, the “first lady of Fort Worth” and the matriarch of the city’s most prominent family, died Thursday night at her home, according to a family spokeswoman.

She was married for 65 years to Perry Bass, a legendary oilman and philanthropist who died June 1, 2006, at age 91.

The couple had four sons — Sid Richardson Bass, Edward Perry Bass, Robert Muse Bass and Lee Marshall Bass — who have carried on their legacy of community involvement and support of the arts, education, human services and health care through the donation of millions of dollars.

“Our mother passed away last night peacefully in her home, seven days shy of her 96th birthday,” read a statement from her sons. “Her life spanned ten decades of exceptional love, affection and joy.

“We were blessed to have shared in such a long and rich life, and we know she would want us to express to all our friends her gratitude for their friendship to her family over the years.”

Longtime friends said Friday that Mrs. Bass was as gracious as she was generous.

“Nancy Lee was the first lady of Fort Worth. She was a remarkable woman, and she loved the community so much. She loved her family. She was the matriarch and the mother not only to her family, but to all of us, the whole community. She helped all of us somewhere along the way,” said Kay Fortson, president of the Kimbell Art Museum Board.

Fort Worth attorney Dee Kelly called Mrs. Bass “a star of an all-star family.”

“She never let the success of her husband or sons change her. She was always the same sweet Nancy Lee. She was the same way with everybody she met,” he said.

“A special bond”

Mrs. Bass died just one day after her close friend and next-door neighbor Van Cliburn, the acclaimed pianist.

Alann Sampson, the former chairwoman of the board of the Van Cliburn Foundation, said the neighbors shared a special bond.

“They would often exchange things as neighbors. Nancy Lee would bring over Van’s favorite chocolate cream pie. They were just precious neighbors. They would come and sit at each other’s tables and enjoy their times together as sweet neighbors.”

The two friends will remain linked at the jewel of downtown Fort Worth, the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall.

Naming the innovative $65 million hall after the couple was first suggested by Van Cliburn, according to Bass family spokeswoman Terrell Lamb.

The performance center, which opened in 1998, includes the Van Cliburn Recital Hall.

“This is a double shock, a double dose of grief,” Fortson said. “You don’t lose two people as prominent and loving and giving as those two in the same year, much less in less than 36 hours.”

The hall was built on land owned by the Bass family, and Ed Bass was chairman of the project, said Patricia Schutts, vice chairwoman of the board of directors and director of development at the hall.

“They were so thrilled to have it named for them. They said they didn’t deserve it, but it was well-deserved,” said Schutts. “Fortunately, she lived long enough that we spent lots of evenings there enjoying the hall.”

Mrs. Bass and Van Cliburn, 78, shared many similarities, friends said.

“Both Nancy Lee and Van were very humble people. They had a sense of humility about them that was very attractive to everybody,” Kelly said.

John Giordano, former conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony and longtime jury chair of the Cliburn International Piano Competition, said Mrs. Bass was the “quintessential elegant lady.”

Mrs. Bass never wanted any public accolades or attention, he said.

“She just wanted to see that things got done,” Giordano said.

Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement that Mrs. Bass “touched the lives of countless people in Fort Worth, throughout Texas and across the nation:

“As the matriarch of a legendary Texas family, she all too often found herself in the spotlight, when she vastly preferred quietly giving generously to the causes she and her late husband, Perry Bass, believed in. Texas has suffered the loss of a true philanthropist. Anita joins me in offering our deepest condolences to her sons, her extended family and her many, many friends across the state.”

Mrs. Bass was a friend who could be counted on, said Fort Worth philanthropist Anne Marion.

“We’ve been friends since I was born. She was really like a second mother to me. She and Perry were a big part of my life,” Marion said.

“I went to her for advice many, many times, and she was very wise counsel. I knew I could always count on her to be there,” she said.

“Whenever I was in trouble or having any problem, she would call and chat.”

Mrs. Bass’ willingness to help causes ranging from the arts to education was extraordinary, Marion said.

“An example of her generosity was that Perry asked her what she wanted for their 50th anniversary and she said, ‘I want to give $50 million away.’ And so they sat down and decided what charities in Fort Worth and elsewhere to give to,” she said.

A Fort Worth native

Nancy Lee Bass was born March 7, 1917, to Ewell H. Muse and Roberta Maddox Muse in Fort Worth.

She learned to love classical music while growing up and taking piano lessons. She graduated from Central High School (now Paschal) before attending the University of Texas at Austin, from which she graduated in 1937 with a degree in English.

She met Wichita Falls oilman Perry Bass at a dance in Fort Worth, and they married at the First Methodist Church in 1941.

Perry Bass turned his early oilfield ventures with his uncle, Sid Richardson, into a diversified family empire that is today valued in the billions of dollars.

Keenly interested in politics, Perry Bass hosted five U.S. presidents — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — at his resort home at San Jose Island on the Texas coast.

Mrs. Bass had a wide range of interests, Schutts said.

“She was busy. My lord, the list of things she was involved with is a mile long,” she said.

Mrs. Bass served for three decades as vice president and director of the Sid. W. Richardson Foundation. She was on the boards of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Smithsonian Institution National Council, the University of Texas at Austin Development Board and the advisory board of the Van Cliburn competition.

In addition, she was a member of the Junior League, the Jewel Charity Ball, past president of The Assembly, a member of the Fort Worth Garden Club and a longtime member of the First United Methodist Church.

She was the first recipient of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame Gloria Lupton Tennison Pioneer Award. She also received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Texas Ex-Students Association and the Golden Deeds Award from the Exchange Club of Fort Worth.

The Bass family became one of the richest in America, but never pulled up its Fort Worth roots.

“She was a Fort Worth native, and that’s the reason for her great love of the city. All of the Basses could have lived anywhere they wanted to, but all of them chose to live in Fort Worth. I think that has been a great thing for our city,” Kelly said.

Giordano said Mrs. Bass told him that she felt one of the responsibilities of her family was to support the community.

“She said, ‘We’ve been fortunate and we feel like it’s important for us to give back as much as we can.’ And they’ve done it. She set the example.

“She said that was one of the things they tried to instill in their children, that there is a responsibility to the community. And, if you think about it, it really has happened.”

A memorial service for Mrs. Bass will be held at a later date. The family suggests that donations in her memory be made to the Children’s Education Program of Bass Performance Hall or to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

Besides her four sons, Mrs. Bass is survived by 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Schutts said downtown Fort Worth would not be what it is without Nancy Lee and Perry Bass.

“There are two angels in front of the Bass Hall, and every time I look at them, I am going to think of those two people,” she said.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

Staff writer Tim Madigan contributed to this report, which also contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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