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Opinion Richard Connor: Anne Marion always leaves a place better than she found...

Richard Connor: Anne Marion always leaves a place better than she found it

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Editor’s note: This column by Business Press president and publisher Richard Connor was orginally published in 2003, shortly after completion of the new Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth complex spearheaded by Anne Marion. We republish it now as a tribute to “Little Anne,” who died Feb. 11 at age 81.

Late in the afternoon on a November day in Hardin, Montana, the sun, bright since morning, almost seems to evaporate in the middle of a sky whose edges grow dim and gray. Suddenly it is dark and a cold wind blows.

Traffic at convenience stores quickens at this hour in places such as Hardin, a small community one hour outside Billings. As the temperature drops and night falls, men hurry into the store from their parked trucks, blowing on their hands, looking for a six-pack and cigarettes, maybe a quart of milk for Momma and the kids.

Hardin is as about as far away as one can get from Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum and surely you’d have to bet that virtually no one has ever heard of Tadao Ando.

They know of Anne Marion, though.

Around Hardin and probably most of Montana, she’s known as the boss of the Four Sixes (6666), a new ranch with an old brand she and her husband John have bought and rehabilitated. Around Hardin they refer to her as Mrs. Marion. In Texas, it’s Little Anne – and the home base ranch in Guthrie is simply “The Sixes.”

Hardin is like many small towns all across this country. There’s not much happening there. It’s home to an Indian reservation, small farms and small businesses. Small everything.

Except the hunting and fishing. They’re big.

Sportsmen come there because of bountiful trout fishing on the Big Horn River, and the deer hunting, and a plentiful supply of birds: ring-necked pheasant, Hungarian partridge, grouse.

It’s at this time of day, dusk to early evening, that they run into one another, turning from the beer cooler, six-pack in hand, or waiting in line at the counter to pay for gas so they are fueled and ready to go the next morning. Talk turns to shotguns, Hun coveys, or maybe the nymphs they are using on the river. Today, it’s bird dogs.

All of a sudden, in the strange way that one sentence leads to another and then people and places who were distant just moments ago are now connected, the talk is of Brittany spaniels and a Texas dog trainer named Rick Smith.

There’s a Texan in line at the counter and he joins the conversation, says he knows the dog trainers Smith: father Delmar and son Tom, both of whom have trained for King Ranch, and Rick, too. Says he’s hunted with all three.

The Hardin boys only want to talk about Rick because they train Brittanys, too.

“I’ve talked to Rick on the phone, lots,” says one. “He’s invited me to Texas to work my dogs with him. South Texas, I guess.”

Then the young dog trainer says he wishes Rick could get him on a Montana ranch – legitimately, that is.

“He trains for the Four Sixes in Texas,” says the boy, “and they have a ranch here, too.”

He says he and his friends sneak onto the ranch occasionally, just to admire its beauty.

“It’s owned by Mrs. Anne Marion,” he says in awe, “and she’s turned it into one great ranch. There’s everything there – trout in the river, deer and lots of birds. Cattle, too.”

The Texan frowns and shakes his head.

“Good luck sneakin’ on the Sixes,” he says. “Don’t get caught.”

The boy laughs.

“They’ve got Texas cowboys on that ranch,” he warns. “They catch you, they’ll rope you and drag you to an audience with Ms. Marion and it won’t be pretty. She’s plenty tough just in general but especially bad on trespassers.”

The boy laughs – a nervous laugh, but a laugh.

“Well, she’s sure got a beautiful place and she’s made it a whole lot nicer than when she bought it,” he says, walking out into the cold, dark night.

There’s no chance for the Texan to tell the boy: “Of course it’s nice and of course it’s beautiful and of course the ranch is better than she found it.”

That’s Fort Worth’s Anne Marion. She’s a builder. She always leaves a place better than she found it. And just like the ranch she bought a few years back in Montana, she has left no uncertainty that she will leave Fort Worth’s museum for modern art better than she found it.

While she probably does not look kindly on trespassers and although she can have a stern demeanor, Anne Marion is among the kindest and gentlest people in Fort Worth. If she is not this city’s most generous giver, she has few equals. And no one matches her for understated graciousness. Much of what she does is done in private, behind closed doors and outside the glare of publicity.

Where others seek attention, she seeks privacy.

You may be certain that she will be only too glad to pass off the praise and plaudits for this new world-class museum to others, people such as Director Marla Price and the architect Ando.

But make no mistake about it. This new architectural masterpiece that will showcase the Modern’s fine exhibitions is all hers, right down to the last detail. She has not only the vision to imagine such a building, but also the eye for detail and the tenaciousness of will to see that everything is done exactly as she envisioned it, detail for detail.

There is no way to truly calculate the amount of time or money she and John have donated in giving Fort Worth this architectural jewel. Whatever the estimates are of their personal donation toward the $65 million project, you can assume they are being modest about their contribution.

And you can bet Anne consulted John, who worked with her hand in hand.

For many years she worked alone, overseeing the many business interests of her family: ranching, oil, investments, the Burnett Foundation and the Modern. Several years ago she married John Marion and he has become integral not only to her life and interests but also to the local community.

When Anne found John, she found the perfect complement to her personality, goals and style. He was chairman of Sotheby’s for many years and is highly regarded in the worlds of art and business. Self-assured in a strong, quiet way, he has been able to maintain his own persona while blending with hers and joining her among her small but loyal circle of friends. An East Coast man, he has become comfortable and readily accepted in Fort Worth. He’s shown he can transition easily from corporate boardrooms to sharing a cup of coffee around the cook’s shack with the cowboys of the 6666.

The Marions performed what could almost be seen as a dress rehearsal for the building of the Modern by overseeing a few years ago the concept and construction of a museum in Sante Fe, where they have a home, for the art of Georgia O’Keeffe. Referring to that museum as “practice,” however, seriously understates the importance of the O’Keeffe museum and its contribution to the art world.

Stories about Anne Marion inevitably start with the beginning of the famed 6666 Ranch in Guthrie founded by her great-grandfather, Samuel Burk Burnett. He had one son, Tom, who had one daughter, Big Anne, who in turn had Little Anne. Each successor to the Burnett heritage has felt a heavy responsibility to uphold the name, the ranching tradition and the commitment to community service.

Now the time has come to view Anne Marion as far more than the progeny of famous people. It is time for Anne Marion’s family to be known for her accomplishments. Instead of Anne, daughter and great-granddaughter to legends, we could describe Burk Burnett as great-grandfather to the “legendary Anne Marion.”

Blonde, diminutive and reserved, this attractive, blue-eyed woman has a fierce drive and determination to be the best and to set high standards of accomplishment. She is a fine businesswoman who does not spend her time jet-setting around the world. She most often can be found working, wielding a strong hand in running her ranches, her foundation and her museum.

She has a trained eye for art – that which graces the Modern and the many pieces in her home. A good horse does not miss her attention, either. She is sophisticated in her tastes but still knows how to two-step.

And perhaps more than any other quality she possesses, she is admired for her friendship. Birthdays of friends are not forgotten. When she is needed, she is there.

The legacy of the Burnett Ranches and the stories of the tough-minded people who began this storied history have been well known in Texas for years. Now, with the completion of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Anne Marion has spread the family’s good name and reputation for style and substance throughout the world.

They will know about her in Fort Worth and in Paris, as well as in Hardin, Montana.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at rconnor@bizpress.net

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