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Amid competing memories, one alumnus says he has proof his class bought Benton painting

An article in the May 17, 1957, edition of the Shawnee Mission High School paper, The Mission, says a painting by Thomas Hart Benton was a gift from the senior class of 1957.
An article in the May 17, 1957, edition of the Shawnee Mission High School paper, The Mission, says a painting by Thomas Hart Benton was a gift from the senior class of 1957. Courtesy of Ron Abbott

Ron Abbott has a word for the long-running dispute over just which graduating class bought a Thomas Hart Benton painting for Shawnee Mission High School.

He calls it “Benton-gate.”

But he also says he has proof that it was his class of 1957 that made the purchase.

Members of two classes — ’57 and ’58 — both have clear memories of buying the painting. They recall meeting with Benton’s wife and agent, Rita Benton, at their Kansas City home. They remember paying $750 — a dollar per student — for “Utah Highlands,” a work now worth $700,000 or more.

A Star story Jan. 26 raised questions about the whereabouts of the painting, which district officials produced days later, saying it had been stashed in a vault for safekeeping. They now are working with an entity that can securely exhibit valuable artwork.

But the story only fanned the flames of Benton-gate.

Documentation was no help in determining which class bought the painting. A ledger that Rita Benton kept notes the sale of the painting in 1957 but doesn’t say which class made the purchase. District officials said they had no official papers to settle the debate.

“It has gone on for years,” said Marsha Pachter, a 1958 graduate who says her class bought the Benton. She remembers being at the artist’s home the day his wife pulled out the painting for the students to buy.

Likewise, Waverly Anderson Lewis, a member of the class of 1957, said she was at the Benton home the day her class bought the painting. As a member of the school art club, she recalls, she went along with her art teacher and other students.

Lewis said she doesn’t remember Pachter. Pachter said she doesn’t remember Lewis. Neither remembers money changing hands, nor does either remember walking out with the painting.

“I wish I knew something more conclusive,” Lewis said. “I wish I could say we took the painting in the car … but I can’t say that. It has been a long time. We went and picked it out, I know that. I clearly remember it sitting on a chair or leaning against a piece of furniture.

“It is quite possible that we raised most of the money. It’s possible that we initiated it and the class of 1958 helped pay for it.”

Abbott contacted The Star after the earlier stories to point out a story in the May 17, 1957, edition of the school newspaper, The Mission. It states that the painting had been presented the day before as a gift to the school from the senior class.

“The fact of the matter is that the painting was purchased by the Class of ’57 as the senior class gift to the school,” Abbott wrote in an email. “This is CLEARLY spelled out in the article in THE MISSION, an official publication of the high school.”

Case closed, he said.

Pachter and Lewis seem ready to move on.

“The bottom line,” Pachter said, “is the school has a nice painting, and I’m thrilled.”

Said Lewis: “To me, it really doesn’t matter anymore who gave the school the painting. Just that they have it.”

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.

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