Ryan J. Rusak

If you love Fort Worth, you need to see this play on how Amon Carter boosted the city

Amon G. Carter Sr. is having a moment.

The great benefactor of our city has been gone long enough, and Fort Worth has changed enough, that most residents know him only by the art museum, highway and TCU stadium that bear his name.

But an entertaining one-man show will introduce you to Carter, and two new books will expand your knowledge.

You’ve got three chances left Friday and Saturday to catch the play at the W.E. Scott Theatre. “If you love Fort Worth, you need to come see this show,” said Kelvin Dilks, who portrays Carter.

He’s right. It’s a great introduction to all Carter, who died in 1955, did to build the modern Fort Worth.

“Like most people, I didn’t know much,” said Dilks, 55. “I had heard the name and knew he was a benefactor of Fort Worth, but I had no idea to what extent.”

The aircraft manufacturing plant that still fuels our economy? Carter’s personal lobbying led to that. The jointly owned airport that helps make the area a top five national market? Carter’s idea, even if his efforts to give Tarrant County the slightest edge over Dallas delayed it a few years. The presence of American Airlines, even now debuting a gleaming new campus? Carter did that.

His sales prowess built this newspaper into the largest Texas paper of its day. That gave Carter influence in business and politics throughout the state and in Washington. Starting WBAP radio and the state’s first TV station (now Channel 5), made him a full-blown media baron.

The play’s title, “Amon! The Ultimate Texan,” hints at the larger-than-life character at its center. Writer Dave Lieber, a Dallas Morning News columnist (and Star-Telegram veteran), crafted the show as what he calls his “love letter” to the city. The stories take on more depth, thanks in part to historic photos, in Lieber’s companion book of the same title.

It fell to Dilks to bring the man back to life, though. And it wasn’t easy. There isn’t a ton of video or audio for an actor to study.

“Amon was such a big force,” Dilks said. “He had to be portrayed with power, charisma. He had to come into the room and control the situation. When you hear what he accomplished, he couldn’t have done that as a mild-mannered person.”

From the moment Dilks strides on stage and bellows Carter’s famous cheer, “Hooray for Fort Worth and West Texas!” he makes clear how big the man’s personality was.

Dilks, a Birdville school district trustee, spent decades as a social studies and theater teacher. That experience shows up in the play. Like any good teacher, he makes his presentation interactive, striding out into the audience, calling on viewers to answer questions, gently chiding those who say they don’t subscribe to the Star-Telegram. (We thank him for that.)

“My motto as a teacher was, always get the last word,” he said. “I always know how to come back at” teenagers in the classroom.

It helps propel the show. After all, other than a few visual aids and props, Dilks noted, “my acting partner is a hat.”

The show jumps around the major events that defined Carter’s life, including the death of his close friend Will Rogers and the harrowing imprisonment of his soldier son, Amon G. Carter Jr., during World War II. Dilks illustrates how Carter’s persuasiveness, temper, generosity and energy helped him win most of the battles he waged.

Carter’s flaws don’t get much attention. There’s no mention of the racism that marked his era, which Carter didn’t challenge much, and little on his failed marriages and strained relations with his children.

For that, and more detail all around, check out the deeply researched biography “Amon Carter: A Lone Star Life,” by Brian Cervantez, a Tarrant County College history professor. You’ll learn a ton about the man and the dual Southern and Western roots of our city.

We could all use the history lesson. Richard Blair, co-founder of the Artisan Theater Center in Hurst, which brought the play to the stage, told the crowd during Friday’s intermission that we need a campaign for Fort Worth and Texas schools to teach Carter’s life.

For now, let’s hope the play continues to spread the word. Dilks said there’s talk about taking it to West Texas. One possible stop is Lubbock, where a plaza at Texas Tech in named for Carter.

After all, without Carter’s influence in state government, that university might not even be there.

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Ryan J. Rusak is opinion editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He grew up in Benbrook and is a TCU graduate. He spent more than 12 years as a political journalist, overseeing coverage of four presidential elections and several sessions of the Texas Legislature. He lives in east Fort Worth.
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