Fort Worth

August 14, 2014

Obituary: Susan Bagby Tilley, former Cliburn, Mayfest chairwoman

Susan Tilley was the first chairwoman of Mayfest and head of the Cliburn board from 1985-1994. She died Tuesday in a Dallas hospital. She was 76.

In 1985, Susan Bagby Tilley dressed up her oldest child, ordered a limousine, and took her and her friend out for a night on the town in New York City and a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

From the campy cult classic to the loftiest classical music, the elegant philanthropist was willing to try anything, the daughter, Marisa Hammond, recalled Thursday night.

“She was very adventurous. She did crazy things that a lot of people didn’t,” Hammond said.

Ms. Tilley, the first chairwoman of Mayfest and of the Van Cliburn Foundation for nine years, died Tuesday.

She was hospitalized in Dallas after a sepsis infection led to a heart attack, Hammond said. She died listening to a recording of a friend, pianist Van Cliburn, playing Rachmaninoff.

Ms. Tilley was chairwoman of the Cliburn foundation’s board from 1985 to 1994 and oversaw three Van Cliburn International Piano Competitions.

She helped set up the Van Cliburn performance at the White House in 1987 for then-President Ronald Reagan and his guest, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

“It was a time that was really uniting for the country,” said Carla Thompson, current chairwoman of the Cliburn board. “That was one of the really major performances.

“Van performed a piece called Moscow Nights. It was a real tie for the United States and Russia.”

Passionate about classical music

Susan Bagby was born Jan. 31, 1938, in Dallas to Roxye Nugent Bagby and Nathe Parks Bagby.

She played piano from a young age and was passionate about classical music, her family said.

In 1959, the 5-foot-10-inch brunette won the Miss Dallas title and later a $500 prize as Miss Texas runner-up.

In June 1960, she married Rice Tilley at Southern Methodist University, where they met while she was earning her journalism degree and he was in law school. Ms. Tilley was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and was editor of the college newspaper.

Anna Jean Walsh, 75, who moved across the street from the Tilleys’ Westover Hills home in 1968, said the two raised their children together.

“She always had good ideas about fun things to do,” Walsh said, adding that Ms. Tilley coached their two oldest daughters’ youth soccer league to a city championship.

Both belonged to the Junior League of Fort Worth, which with the help of Ms. Tilley’s cousin-in-law, Phyllis Tilley, was responsible for the first Mayfest in 1973. The family-oriented festival began as the Trinity River Festival and was chaired by Ms. Tilley.

It was at Mayfest where she met John Giordano, now the retired musical director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and longtime jury chairman of the Cliburn competition.

Orchestra performances became a popular Mayfest feature, and that led to Ms. Tilley joining the Cliburn board of directors.

While on the board, she traveled with Cliburn to the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, the contest he famously won in 1958. Cliburn wanted an enormous arrangement of flowers placed in front of a statue of Tchaikovsky. The arrangement was so big that they wouldn’t fit in a limo, so Ms. Tilley somehow managed to rent a bus, her daughter said.

“She was a beautiful, intellectual, articulate, warm and caring person,” Giordano said. “She was always a lot of fun to be around. She was extremely witty, but her intelligence always astonished me.”

Giordano recalled a 1989 competition where she delivered the opening speech and pronounced the names of the 35 worldwide competitors perfectly from memory.

“Nobody does that,” he said.

A Renaissance woman

Ms. Tilley lived in the Westover Hills home until she and her husband divorced in the late ’90s. In 1997, she moved to Florida to work as the regional arts administrator at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.

Lee Bell, senior director of programming at the Kravis Center, said everyone lit up when Ms. Tilley was around. The booking agents “adored her,” he said. She also had a fondness for big trucks.

“She could mingle with anyone, including truck drivers. She had a thing for trucks. If there was a big truck parked out in the loading dock, she would want to go look at it,” he recalled. “She was a Renaissance woman.”

In 2009, in “typical Susan fashion,” Ms. Tilley moved into a Dallas high-rise to be near two of her daughters, Hammond said.

“The average age there is about 28,” Hammond said of The Vista Dallas Apartments in Victory Park.

She stubbornly stayed there when her children asked her to move where she could be cared for and there were more people her age.

On Saturday, she checked into Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas after trying to treat an infection at home. In the hospital, she had a heart attack but refused a ventilator.

“She just didn’t mess around,” Hammond said.

Survivors include three daughters, Hammond, Angela Tilley Crates and Lisa Tilley Leonard; a son, Matt Tilley; and nine grandchildren.

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