Harris Masterson, III (1914 - 1997) Icn_world

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About Harris Masterson, III

Harris Masterson, III, native Houstonian and well-known philanthropist, was born July 9, 1914 to Libbie Mary Johnston and Neill Turner Masterson. He attended San Jacinto High School, the New Mexico Military Institute, and Rice Institute during the 1930s and later returned to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1955. Masterson was an intelligence officer during World War II and served as an instructor during the Korean Conflict. In 1951 he married the former Carroll Sterling Cowan. Among Masterson's better-known business interests were Westmoreland Importers, an antique and interior design studio, and "Houston Presents," which brought touring theatrical and orchestral groups to Houston. Harris Masterson served as board chairman or president of all major Houston arts organizations, and among his philanthropic interests were Houston area hospitals, charitable and cultural organizations including Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Center, Houston Ballet, Houston Symphony, Society for the Performing Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, Alley Theater, and several preservation societies. His honors include the 1996 Friends of Fondren Honoree [Rice University], and, along with his wife, the National Medal of Arts recipient [1990], and Cultural Leader of the Year [1974]. Masterson died on April 7, 1997 in Houston.

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Harris Masterson III

The arts in Houston lost a godfather with the death of Harris Masterson III on April 7, 1997 at the age of 82. However, his death did not end the generosity of the lifelong philanthropist who, with his wife Carroll Sterling Masterson, led the movement to raise the Houston arts scene to a par with other major U.S. cities. As a magnificent gift to the city and art lovers everywhere, Harris Masterson III bequeathed his palatial River Oaks home-Rienzi-and the surrounding gardens to Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. It was a final grand gesture from 2 couple who devoted their lives to enhancing Houstonians's quality of life.


The son of local businessman Neill Turner Masterson and his wife Libbie Johnston Masterson, Harris Masterson III attended Kinkaid School, San Jacinto High School and the New Mexico Military Institute. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from Rice University. During World War 11, he served as a captain In Army intelligence and was called back into service during the Korean War. He was an investor and art collector for much of his professional life.


In 1951, he renewed his acquaintance with Carroll Sterling, a former Kinkaid classmate. Carroll Sterling, who died in 1994, was the daughter of Isla Carroll and Frank Sterling, a founder of the Humble Oil Co. She and her two children moved back to Houston from Mexico City in 1950 after her husband was killed in an airplane crash. Following a whirlwind courtship, she and Harris married in January 1951, Later, in an interview in The Houston Post, Carroll Masterson said, "It took us about five days to decide to get married. Of course, it wasn't like we had to got to know each other." In the ensuing years, their names were inexorably linked with philanthropic bequests.


In the early 1960s, he produced plays and theatricals in New York City and was a cofounder of Houston Presents, an organization that brought major performers, orchestras and touring companies to the city. Although he and his wife traveled widely and even maintained residences in cities such as London, Houston was his home and first love.

He dated his philanthropic urges to his youth. "My mother, sister, brother and I would take baskets to people at Christmas for the Christ Church Cathedral guild in the late teens and early '20s in Houston," he told The Houston Post. "Carroll and I are both native Houstonians, and we have been strong Houston supporters all our lives. We feel you have to share what you have."


Perhaps Harris Masterson's finest contribution to Houston was the Gus S. Wortham Theater Center. In 1977, he began the 10-year private fund-raising effort that built the $72 million opera/ballet complex, serving as head of what was then the Lyric Theater Foundation. "Harris was the focus of everything during the first five or six years," Houston Grand Opera general director David Gockley told The Houston Post at the Center's opening. He remained a central element until the Wortham Center was handed over to the city in 1987. His oversight of the project was legendary. Houston Chronicle art critic-at-large Ann Holmes remembered that one of the stages at the Wortham Center was inadequate for ballet, and he gave the $300,000 needed to bring it up to par.


In 1987, the Wortham Center Foundation of which he was president handed the center over to the city of Houston. The center was to become its most stunning cultural asset. The Green Room at the Wortham is named in his honor. At various times in his life, he headed the boards of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Miller Outdoor Theater and the Lyric Theater Foundation. He was honorary &airman of the Houston Grand Opera and a major contributor to the Houston Symphony and the Alley Theater, He was one of only a few lifetime trustees of both the Houston Ballet and the Houston Grand Opera. In 1988, the Houston Grand Opera named its "Masterson Award" in honor of him and his wife. The awards go to individuals who have given distinguished service to the organization.


Both Mastersons were known for their service as well as their generosity. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston benefited from the tendency early when the pair was named to its board in 1953. The Masterson's gifts made expansion of the museum possible. The Masterson Junior Gallery features exhibitions for the younger generation. There is also a Masterson Galley and the Frank Prior Sterling Galleries, dedicated to the memory Carroll Masterson's father.


The couple's 700-piece collection of Worcester porcelain was donated to the museum 1984. The collection was considered the finest outside of England, Over the years, they also loaned portions of their fine art collection for exhibitions at the museum. Friends recalled that Harris Masterson III once delivered his collection of ornate Faberge eggs to the museum in a shoebox.


The perfect setting for the jewels of their collections was Rienzi, named for Harris Masterson's maternal grandfather Rienzi Melville Johnston. founder of The Houston Post. Well-known local architect John Staub designed the home. The gardens, designed by landscape architect Ralph Gunn, cover more than four acres and were frequently spotlighted during the city's annual Azalea Trail. Rienzi served as an elegant center for the many parties and dinners hosted by Harris and Carroll Masterson over four decades. In 1988, the couple hosted Princess Christina of Sweden, her husband Tord Magnuson along with a group of Houston notables at a reception and private dinner. In 1989, Sarah, then the Duchess of York, enjoyed Southern cuisine at a luncheon hosted by the Mastersons and attended by several of their older grandchildren. Rienzi itself adjoins Bayou Bond, the estate of Ima Hogg that was also donated to the local fine arts museum. Harris Masterson himself served as coordinator of Bayou Bend's transformation from Miss Ima Hogg's private home to the decorative arts wing of the Museum of Fine Arts. Rienzi's decor, however, is mainly 18th century and reflects British style, making it a fine foil for Bayou Band. The bequest also contains funding for the estate's upkeep as well as the couple's collections of 18th century English furniture and silver. Some of the art that Harris Masterson III collected during his lifetime went with the house as well, Carroll Masterson once said, "Mr. Masterson really did all the collecting.'


Harris Masterson III was a unique presence in the city. Airways accoutered in the latest of European tailoring, he was readily identifiable by his white hair, his cane and his Rolls Royce. Known as an avid card player, he was also a fond father to his wife's two children and a mentor to the youngsters in his family-including well known director Peter Masterson, who credited Harris Masterson with encouraging him to go into the acting trade. He had no biological children of his own.


When he was feted at a benefit for the University of Houston Moores School of Music, organizers were at a loss when it came to choosing a gift. Finally, they called the International Star Registry and renamed the star Aquila Harris Masterson III.

While the fine arts dominated much of the Masterson's attention, they gave to other aspects of Houston society as well. They were known as mainstays of the Center for the Retarded, whose board Harris Masterson headed for 16 years, and were frequent contributors to St. Joseph Hospital, the only hospital in downtown Houston and DePelchin Faith Home. When the Van Lawrence Voice Institute in the department of otorhinolaryngology was named at Baylor College of Medicine, the Mastersons made certain that it was the recipient of a major gift. Dr. Richard Stasney, who oversees operations of the institute, said, "Mr. Masterson's help was Invaluable." His gift continues to fund a study of how larynxes age, a work that will be provide key answers as to why voices change as people get older. "Harry was a good friend," said Dr. Stasney. "He was one of the treasures of Houston.'


Through a family foundation, he and his wife were also major contributors to the study of geriatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, the state's only private medical school.


When Carroll Sterling Masterson was named "woman of the year" by the local chapter of the YWCA, it was no fluke. The Carroll Sterling Masterson Branch of the Houston YWCA at Memorial Drive and Heights Boulevard is named for her. Her involvement with the YMCA was a Masterson family tradition, Harris's grandmother helped found the Houston YWCA in 1907. Carroll Masterson served on the organization's board for many years. In an article in The Houston Post, she explained that she had "two children, 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren (at the time), so I'm rather interested in any organization that helps women and children," a sentiment echoed by her husband. That devotion to family and humanity was honored also by the Anti-Defamation League in 1987 when they gave the pair a Torch of Liberty Award at a gala that drew 900 guests.


For more than four decades, Harris Masterson III held firm to his vision of a livable city enhanced by an infusions of visual and performing arts. He did not limit his efforts to signing a check. Instead, he gave large chunks of his life to building an arts community that graces the Houston of today and will continue to do so in the centuries to come. His leadership was crucial to establishing the city as a regional center for performing arts and art appreciation. His death marked the end of an era in Houston. D.C.A.

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