Richard Connor: Ben Fortson’s friendship a timeless bond

Kay and Ben Fortson with Renzo Piano (Photo courtesy Kimbell Art Museum)

Ben Fortson had a quiet, reserved elegance, a gentleman’s demeanor punctuated by an infectious laugh and an inviting sparkle in his eyes. His kindness knew no limits; his wire-edged intelligence and warrior’s will knew no barriers.

Ben died this week at 91, leaving a legacy of business accomplishment, civic engagement and philanthropy along with a permanent gift to Fort Worth and the worlds of both architecture and art in the marriage he arranged between the Kimbell Art Museum’s original Louis Kahn-designed building and the addition of the Renzo Piano Pavilion.

Fortson worked tirelessly to oversee design and construction of the Pavilion. He attended to the smallest of details of the building even after its completion in 2013. My wife and I were fortunate to be given a private tour of the Pavilion by Fortson in 2015. Approaching the front entrance, my wife tripped slightly when the heel of one of her shoes caught a crack in the walkway.

“Oh, no!” exclaimed Ben. “We’ll fix that this afternoon.”

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Overseeing the Pavilion so that it fit esthetically with the original building and allowing it to be its own architectural work of art was not important to Ben for his personal legacy. It mattered to him most as a continued reflection on the accomplishments of his wife, Kay, and her stewardship of the Kimbell.

Foremost among Ben’s many admirable traits were the love and pride he showed toward Kay. His adoration of her was palpable. Beautiful, kind and gracious, with an inquisitive mind and indomitable spirit, Kay made the Kimbell what it is, a worldwide symbol of architectural creativity that is home to an unmatched collection of art treasures.

Both Fortsons, Ben and Kay, have been remarkable in their loyalty to their friends and to Fort Worth.

I met both almost immediately when I came to Fort Worth as a 39-year-old president and publisher of the Star-Telegram. My first friend here, fortuitously, was Dee J. Kelly and he was prominently at the center of a group of influential business people, among them the Fortsons.

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Most of those in the group were 15 to 20 years my senior but all quickly welcomed me. No two people were more welcoming than Ben and Kay.

I soon learned that the refined and unfailingly polite Fortsons, if provoked, could fight like wildcats, especially in defense of a friend.

The Kimbell had an executive director with a fondness for Dallas and the Dallas Morning News, at the time a fierce competitor of the Star-Telegram. He announced that the Morning News would be a major sponsor of an upcoming show at the Kimbell.

I met with him to voice my objection to the absence of the Star-Telegram in the sponsorship. He informed me, not so delicately, that the Morning News was a major newspaper and there was neither room for nor interest in the Star-Telegram’s involvement.

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I went to Ben and Kay to complain. They stopped me mid-complaint, told me to calm down, and said this was a misunderstanding that would be immediately corrected.

Less than an hour passed before I received a phone call from the director, outsized ego and all, welcoming the newspaper as a sponsor. He told me in no uncertain terms he had objected strenuously to the change, and he clearly never forgave me for going over his head.

This would not be the only time I needed help and support from Ben and Kay, and they always delivered. As with most of Dee Kelly’s close friends, friendship and loyalty trumped all else.

Ben Fortson was a quiet and forceful leader, a wise confidant, a successful risk-taker and oilfield wildcatter, but most of all a trusted friend. When he offered his hand in friendship, it was a lasting bond.

It may seem natural, as we age, to speak wistfully of the old days when a man or woman’s handshake was firmer than a lawyer-written contract but that would be looking backward and Ben Fortson, with wildcatter’s optimism and hope, did not look in the rearview mirror. Nor did he disparage the young or criticize the generations to follow. He marched with humility and determination forward and with an image of the next gusher reaching to the sky.

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