For decades, they helped to define Fort Worth’s cultural and philanthropic life as leaders of the arts and civic causes. Then, in less than two months early last year, three icons were gone.
On Jan. 6, Ruth Carter Stevenson, the youngest and only surviving child of legendary oilman and Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter, died at the age of 89. On Feb. 27, classical pianist Van Cliburn, 78, succumbed to cancer. And less than two days later, Cliburn’s neighbor, Nancy Lee Bass, died at the age of 95.
Bass, “the first lady of Fort Worth,” was the matriarch of a family that has led the city’s urban renaissance.
“We miss them, and I think the community will continue to miss them for a while,” Kay Fortson, chairwoman of the Kimbell Art Foundation, said of the three, all close friends. “Nancy Lee and Perry [her late husband] were always givers. Van was a giver but in a different way. And Ruth had her hand in whatever was going on.
“Things are different,” Fortson said. “I don’t know that we will ever have another society like that society.”
The loss of the three local giants has also raised questions about who in the next generations will assume civic leadership in Fort Worth.
“These are all people that I knew well, and I hate to lose them,” said Dee Kelly, a prominent Fort Worth attorney. “But don’t give up hope for the future, because I think there are a lot of people coming along who can make fine leaders for Fort Worth.”
Fort Worth became Cliburn’s adopted home in the mid-1980s. The pianist, who was born in Shreveport and raised in East Texas, had risen to international fame in 1958 by winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.
Cliburn moved to North Texas from New York, and his official local address was the exclusive suburb of Westover Hills. But Cliburn became a beloved fixture in Fort Worth social life, a familiar presence in local restaurants and a generous supporter of the performing arts.
The quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has been a cultural jewel in Fort Worth for decades.
Stevenson and Bass personified generational dynasties in the city, families that had come to enormous wealth, usually in the oil business, and adopted a philosophy of noblesse oblige, particularly where Fort Worth was concerned.
Perry Bass had joined the oilfield ventures of his uncle, Sid Richardson. The four sons of Nancy Lee and Perry Bass later diversified the family’s financial holdings into a fortune now valued in the billions of dollars. The sons have been leading visionaries and investors in the transformation of downtown Fort Worth. The family has also been major financial supporters of social service agencies, cultural organizations and the Fort Worth Zoo.
The family foundation, named for Sid Richardson, has also contributed millions of dollars to charitable causes over the years.
“One time I complemented Nancy Lee on all her family had done for Fort Worth,” said John Giordano, the retired music director of the Fort Worth Symphony. “She said, ‘We’ve been fortunate, and we feel like it’s important for us to give back as much as we can. We’ve tried to instill that in our sons.’ ”
In 1998, the new performing arts hall in the heart of downtown was named for Nancy Lee Bass and her husband.
Stevenson stepped out of her father’s shadow to create a world-class museum, the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, and in the process became a national figure in the American art world. She also helped lead the Amon Carter Foundation, another philanthropic giant benefiting Fort Worth and Tarrant County over the years.
“The dynasty is far from over,” Stevenson’s daughter, Sheila Johnson, said at the time of her mother’s death. “We will continue the legacies that he [Amon Carter] left her and she left us. There is no expectation that will change. There will just be different faces and different names.”
Yet a void remains, say friends of the departed icons.
“It was a different age, and you’re never going to get that other one back,” Fortson said.