Ode to Fort Worth: Renowned botanist moves on, but roots remain

Sy H. Sohmer

Our roots in Fort Worth had become deep indeed; we had never been in any one place as long, nor had we made as many really good friends as we did there. Those friends will be missed and remembered by us for as long as we live.

I will miss the friendly banter among the regulars at Eddie V’s; I didn’t go that often but when I did I could count on Phillip Poole and Peter Lyden being there. I will miss the repartee I had with Perry Parrigin, the general manager of the Blue Sushi on 7th, and his great staff. I often had something special for Perry, as he was an aficionado of botany and the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), where I was president and CEO. My botanical considerations were often reciprocated with an extra bottle of the excellent sake I always took with my meals at the Blue Sushi.

I took many people there, to Eddie V’s and to Casey Kha’s Shinjuku Station on Magnolia. I frequented other restaurants as well. Ellerbe Fine Foods had some of the best farm to table food in the city and co-owner Richard King is a fellow wine connoisseur. Adam Jones, owner/manager of Grace, ran a spectacular restaurant.

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At Grace I would always tell the tale that Adam, Sara and I were roommates when we first arrived in Fort Worth in 1993, about 20 light years and a billion miles ago. In downtown Fort Worth at the time there was something called the Artists’ Quarters attached to the Caravan of Dreams night club and entertainment complex (the site now houses the popular Reata restaurant). There were about nine rooms and three studio apartments, if I recall. It is now a bed and breakfast-style hotel called Etta’s Place.

After a month’s stay in a very sterile apartment unit on Overton Ridge Boulevard, we moved downtown when Kathelin Hoffman, who managed the Caravan complex, realized she did not have enough artists in residence to maintain a healthy cash flow and asked us to come. It was the best introduction we could have had to Fort Worth. Kathelin had these Sunday evening soirees at which we met many people from the city’s art, business and journalism communities – Bill Boecker, Ken Kahn, Mike Blackman … For a while, as I began hiring botanists for the botanical institute, it almost became “Botanists’ Quarters!” We learned a lot from our stay at the Caravan.

There were so many people who made Fort Worth a great place to live: John Stovall, my dentist, who was often disappointed that I never had cavities and so most times all he could do was a cleaning. My doctor at the Health Science Center, Darrin D’Agostino, is a real jewel, and there could not be a finer person or dermatologist than Scott Miller, nor as empathetic a veterinarian as Scott Melina. And, of course, the informal fraternity of my fellow directors in the Cultural District – Andy Walker, Eric Lee and Van Romans – is something I could never have anticipated; it was truly rewarding in both personal and institutional terms.

There was a great comfort level with those we dealt with around town, including the Twin Kell cleaners on Camp Bowie. We developed relationships with all of the people in that place, as they were around for years. Ruby was the one who could give as well as she got from my repartee.

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Our house on Crestwood Drive was wonderful, with a landscape we ‘created’ largely by nursing the live oaks through bouts with oak wilt and taking a long-term view by planting replacement trees. We were in a quiet, wooded neighborhood that was only two miles from the Botanic Garden, where BRIT is located. During the last year we had a little square patio built in the backyard amid the Asian Jasmine where (when mosquitos were not too bad) we would have a drink before dinner. I don’t think that we will ever have such a great house … or live in such a lovely and caring neighborhood.

We had not bought that house just for our comfort. Sara and I knew that to put BRIT on the map we would need to do a great deal of entertaining. I kept track. Over the 20-plus years that I ran the institute we had nearly 1,200 events that ranged from small wine tastings to large dinner parties to big receptions for visitors and donors. It was work, but it was good for the institution and good for us in that we met so many folks who became fast friends.

We were indeed surrounded by good people. And there are so many I would like to be able to touch and thank, time and again. Many of our most treasured friendships in Fort Worth were the direct result of being taken under the wing of the late Carroll Collins, a wonderful human being and one of the driving forces behind the success of the Botanical Research Institute. Some of the people we met through Carroll have become our most devoted friends and supporters (one of these folks has a garage half full of stuff she allowed us to store there until we can collect it on a return trip to Fort Worth). Many of the board members of my former organization are, and will remain, good friends. And I will certainly be back in Fort Worth on a regular basis as I am collaborating with Gerald Haddock of Haddock Investments, who has kindly provided the use of an office at his company overlooking the magnificent plaza in downtown Fort Worth

Life goes on even when it does not go exactly the way we thought and hoped it would, but wherever we are we will always remember the fine and vibrant city of Fort Worth.