A casual observer would think Forrest Fenn’s life was filled with derring-do, high-end art deals and a hankering for outdoor adventure.
Yes, it was. But there’s more.
The Temple native didn’t forget his Bell County roots. He donated a remarkable painting, “Hail to Peace,” to honor his mother, former nurse Lillie Gay Simpson Fenn (1908-1979), as a symbol of peace and selflessness service.
Painted by George Wesley Bellows, the masterpiece now hangs in the Texas A&M Medical Education Building, located due east of the Hospital Towers and the Special Treatment Center on Baylor Scott & White’s main campus in Temple.
Fenn, who died at his Santa Fe, N.M., home on Sept. 7 at age 90, gained notoriety in the last decade in his life for hiding a precious treasure and urging hunters to find it. “I’ve found so many wonderful things in my life, I just wanted someone else to find something,” he told the Temple Daily Telegram in 2010.
Beyond the hype and publicity of Fenn’s golden caper, the painting remains a permanent reminder of what he wanted most — inspiring beauty and transcendent harmony amid chaos.
He gained nationwide attention when he hid a $2 million treasure and salted his announcement with delicious poetic clues sprinkled through his website and his autobiography, “The Thrill of the Chase.” The mystery was featured on national news outlets as Fenn estimated 65,000 people trekked out to find the stash. Many came to Temple to search in Hillcrest Cemetery, where Fenn’s parents are buried, and at the former site of Fenn’s boyhood home on North Main Street.
Nope, it wasn’t here, but people looked anyway.
Finally, in June of this year, someone provided proof that Fenn’s clues had indeed led to the 40-pound treasure chest.
The truth is, his last most extravagant escapade added just another chapter to Fenn’s life story. He once described himself as living several lifetimes — 20-year Air Force pilot flying combat missions in Korea and Vietnam; owner of the prestigious Fenn Gallery in Santa Fe that became the anchor for the tony Canyon Road development; businessman; researcher of Native American antiquities; and planter of treasures.
Admittedly, he was a lackluster Temple College student in his youth. In a 1949 issue of the college newspaper, he asked for help: “I have taken freshman English for two and two-thirds semesters without a textbook, but now I need something,” he announced.
Of all his later accomplishments, his Santa Fe art gallery provided him a way to sell extraordinary art while entertaining some notable personages in his lavish guest house: Jackie Kennedy Onassis; former President and Mrs. Gerald R. Ford; Calvin Klein; Ralph Lauren; singer-dancer Ray Bolger; Larry Hagman of the “Dallas” TV series, among many others.
Beyond all those accomplishments was Fenn’s appreciation for the place where he started — Temple. His 1983 gift of the Bellows painting to the Temple medical center continues to honor all those who serve others. The artist created “Hail to Peace” and its companion work, “Dawn of Peace,” at the end of World War I; both were unveiled in 1919 as fundraisers for the American Red Cross.
In “Hail to Peace,” a nurse standing in a murky battlefield surrounded by children and a grieving mother as she reaches out to greet a descending dove. Known for his bold depictions of urban life, Bellows (1882-1925) was regarded as “the most acclaimed American artist of his generation.”
In “Hail to Peace,” vivid red roses strewn on the ground, symbolizing the blood of innocents, appear to glisten against a crystalline blue sky. “A certain luminosity gives both of these works an effect of fantastic unreality,” according to a 1919 New York newspaper.
A vociferous supporter of U.S. intervention into World War I, Bellows also created a series of graphic depictions of the battlefield atrocities. Turning away from the war’s ugliness, Bellows chose to honor Red Cross nurses, whom he idealized as heroines. Instead of raw colors depicting death and destruction, both canvases sparkle with vivid blue skies, pure white of the nurse’s uniform.
Fenn acquired both works in 1978. He began the process of the Scott & White donation in 1982. “Hail to Peace” was then appraised well into six figures.
In January 1983, the Fenn family and, especially the late Lillie Fenn, were honored at the Scott & White unveiling ceremony. Fenn’s father, Marvin (1903-1987), a former Temple school principal, told the assembled crowd that his wife would have appreciated the Bellows work because it portrayed the end of conflict and that she disliked any kind of discord.
“Every time I look at this painting, I’ll see my wife in this nurse’s face,” Marvin Fenn said.
In 2006, the two Bellows works were reunited for an exhibit at the Georgia Museum of Art titled, “Let Loose Upon Innocence: George Bellows and World War I.” Removing the massive painting became a feat of tricky engineering and sheer brawn.
The truth is the Scott & White gift was Fenn’s swan song — of sorts.
The next month, he announced he was selling his renowned gallery that had earned him $20 million in 10 years. Not bad, considering when he started he had an $800 monthly Air Force pension. He admitted the gallery grew, thanks to his publishing and real estate ventures. Add his public relations savvy, and he had a winning formula.
“I built this thing up. I’ve done all I can,” he said in 1983. “I can’t grow anymore here. I need to get into something else.”
“Something else” consumed Fenn’s next 37 years — writing, exploring, philanthropy, researching ancient Native American relics — and just being Forrest Fenn.
However, no one knows whether he ever found that Temple College English text.