“I never wanted to be the richest man in the graveyard,” declared oilman Perry Richardson Bass in 1991. And in terms of the legacy he and his family created, its proverbial wealth is as near immeasurable as their fiscal fortune.
A wildcatter as well as philanthropist, keen investor, conservationist, supporter of and confidante to presidents and Texas governors, competitive sailor and much more, his last and middle names are attached to cultural and charitable institutions throughout the Lone Star State and beyond. Born in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1914, Bass was taken under the wing of his uncle, wildcatting pioneer Sid Richardson, after his father died when Perry was 19. At the time a geology student at Yale University, Bass and Richardson hit big pay under the dirt of West Texas in 1935 with their strike in the rich Keystone field. That same year he also won an international championship competition racing snipe sailboats.
The Richardson and Bass partnership, based in Fort Worth, was a major force in the state energy industry in the two-decades-plus that followed. When Richardson passed away in 1959, he left his nephew $12 million. Bass declined the bequest other than about a half million dollars in cattle. His uncle also gave the four sons of Perry Bass – Sid, Ed, Bob and Lee – $2.8 million.
Rather than calculate their worth, the Basses focused on giving their money to deserving and worthwhile causes and endeavors
The following year the family consolidated its holdings as Bass Brothers Enterprises, and in later years exponentially increased their fortune, valued at $50 million in 1959, with canny investments. As the price of crude oil multiplied in the 1970s, the Bass family reaped rewards not just from that windfall but later investment yields in Marathon Oil (a reported $160 million profit) and Texaco ($450 million). They diversified by investing $360 million in the Walt Disney Co. in 1984. It was worth $12 billion some 16 years later when Disney stock soared to its highest value.
Forbes magazine estimated Perry Bass’s wealth at $1 billion not long before he passed away in 2006, and last year it valued the family fortune at $9.1 billion. “I don’t count it,” he once said of his net worth, and he and his wife Nancy Lee Bass eschewed the media spotlight. He may have lived in a mansion, but Bass would also be seen shopping at local stores and Wal-Mart, once commenting, “I don’t buy things I can well afford, because I think they’re overpriced for what you get out of them.”
Rather than calculate their worth, the Basses focused on giving their money to deserving and worthwhile causes and endeavors. To celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 1991, they donated $1 million each to 50 different charities.
They were a prime force in revitalizing downtown Fort Worth, including the redevelopment of Sundance Square and the city’s Cultural Center with the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall as its stunning centerpiece plus two office towers as commercial ventures. (The University of Texas at Austin also has a Bass Concert Hall.) Fort Worth’s Kimball Art Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth were also beneficiaries of Bass largesse. Perry’s Yale alma mater along with schools, hospitals and even Little League teams are among the numerous recipients of Bass family generosity.
Perry Bass is said to have been proudest of his work as Chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. He was a contributor to the presidential campaigns of both Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican George H. Bush and a key trusted advisor to Texas Governor Bill Clements.
During World War II Bass served in the military as a designer of PT Boats. In the early 1970s he served as navigator on Ted Turner’s American Eagle racing sailboat, which won the Sydney to Hobart yacht race in 1972.
All of the above is just some of what could be described as a truly rich life. On his passing, Perry Bass’s family noted how his 91 years were filled with “remarkable accomplishment and joy.” His Forth Worth neighbor and superstar classical pianist Van Cliburn noted at the time, “He was a legend. He was a giant.” Few if any other wildcatters showed that a great man’s life is not simply measured by how much money they earn, but more importantly what they do with it.