Denver Art Museum benefactor Frederic Hamilton dies at 89
A career in the oil and investment industries paved way to his charitable impact.
By Kevin Simpson
The Denver Post
October 1, 2016
Frederic C. Hamilton, who left a legendary trail of business and philanthropy reflected by the shining Denver Art Museum building that bears his name, died Friday [September 30, 2016] following a brief illness just days after turning 89.
Though a native of Columbus, Ohio, Hamilton carved a path from the Texas oil fields to his adopted home of Denver, where the Hamilton Brothers Oil Co. became a global force in the industry. That success, and later business ventures in the investment field, fueled philanthropic interests that ranged from youth programs to education to art.
In 2014, Hamilton was named Citizen of the West, the award sponsored by the National Western Stock Show that honors the pioneering spirit — and as much as anything seemed to encompass the man and what he stood for.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who recruited the Republican donor as finance co-chair of every campaign he ran, recalls Hamilton as a man in the tradition of Cowboy Ethics — the popular code of courage, pride and principle.
“He epitomized that — all those Western values,” Hickenlooper said. “You’re a part of a community, and community matters.”
Hamilton also had a backstory with the kind of twist that captures the imagination. Lacking direction early in his adult life, his mother cut off his allowance and told him to get a job. He learned the oil business as a roughneck and derrick rigger in Texas, and eventually learned other aspects of the industry that culminated in a new enterprise.
He and his late brother, Ferris, started a contract drilling company.
“This is the piece of it we all loved, because it’s what you want to believe in life,” said Lisa Ireland, Fred’s business partner with The Hamilton Companies, the investment firm he created in the 1990s. “He and his brother weren’t the best behaved young men, they didn’t always graduate at the top of their class — much less graduate. But they were at one time told by their mother that it’s time you make something of yourself. With a $5,000 loan from her, they basically built Hamilton Brothers.”
When they moved their company to Denver in 1962, business really took off with a venture that two years later found them tapping an oil field in the North Sea that proved a key element of their success.
“I’d like people to remember me as hardworking and that I worked all my life,” he told The Denver Post for a 2014 profile. “I’d like to be known as someone with integrity. That I had understanding and sensitivity to people. And as someone cognizant that you have to give back to the system when you’ve been successful. You can’t just take. You have to give back.”
For the last 25 years, he focused on his investment company and on philanthropic work, particularly with the Denver Art Museum, where he chaired the board for many years and remained chairman emeritus — and intensely involved with operations — until his death.
Lanny Martin, the museum’s current board chair, remembers Hamilton for his sophistication as well as his roughneck beginnings, and knows of no one who has had a greater influence on the direction of the institution over the last 20 years.
Hamilton lent a businessman’s careful eye to a museum he insisted operate in the black — something illustrated by his approach to the $110 million Frederic C. Hamilton Building, the museum expansion that opened in 2006.
Upon learning that the project could receive support from revenue bonds issued by the city and county, Hamilton maintained that the museum must at least match that amount in an endowment to support its operation. Hamilton helped raise far more than the amount of the revenue bonds — further testimony to his touch as a philanthropist who not only committed his own funds, but brought other supporters along with him.
“He didn’t ask people for money unless he really believed in a project and was putting his own money in,” Martin said. “People responded when they got a call from Fred, because they knew it was important, that it was something good for the community. And almost no one ever said no.”
Martin recalls that when the museum launched competition for architects to design the building that would bear his name, Hamilton had a conservative, traditional approach in mind. But after interviewing several architects and visiting their works around the world, two of the three finalists represented a more avant-garde approach — and in the end, Daniel Libeskind’s distinctive design won out.
“Through that whole process, people were thinking Fred would never go along with this design, but he did,” Martin said. “It was the right thing for the right time.”
Hamilton’s support of institutions and causes ran wide. He was involved with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Graland Country Day School and even the eastern prep school that expelled him early in his life. He also has been involved with Children’s Hospital Colorado and the Anschutz Medical Campus, where he donated to cancer research and study of macular degeneration, which impacted his own vision.
He loved the outdoors, an affinity reflected in his appreciation — and collection — of French Impressionist landscape paintings. He bequeathed 22 works to the Denver Art Museum in 2014, marking the largest gift of art in its history — something museum director Christoph Heinrich calls a “pivotal moment” that suddenly gave Denver one of the best such collections in the country.
“I think in terms of the art, he just collected what he loved,” Heinrich said. “He loved landscapes, and when he’d show them to you, he’d tell you stories about them. It would be clear it was a painting that he lived with. It wasn’t only decoration, it was a part of his life.”
Hickenlooper calls that life “rock solid.”
“He didn’t grow up in Colorado, but he cared about his adopted state as much as anybody could,” the governor said. “He invested himself financially and culturally in making Colorado the best place to be.”
Hamilton is survived by his wife, Jane, and their four children, Christy H. McGraw, Fred Jr., Crawford and Tom; and 10 grandchildren. A service has been scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, October 6 at the Denver Art Museum.
From the Hamilton Family:
Frederic C. Hamilton (September 25, 1927-September 30, 2016) Died peacefully after a brief illness in Denver, Colorado. He was born in Columbus, Ohio and spent much of his childhood in Springfield, Illinois. He attended Millbrook and Lawrenceville Schools in high school and Babson College. Fred served in the U.S. Air Force.
Hamilton Brothers became one of the most successful small oil and gas companies and was ultimately sold to BHP in early 1990 with a spun-off company, Tejas Gas sold to Shell Corporation shortly thereafter. Fred continued to invest in business his entire life, creating an investment office called The Hamilton Companies in the 1990’s that invest in all forms of private equity and alternative investments as well as in operating companies and in real estate. Over time, he devoted an increasing amount of time to philanthropy. One of his greatest contributions to the Denver community was encouraging institutions to create independent foundations that would provide support to charities far into the future. He gave generously of time and money to the Denver Art Museum, including an art bequest of significance to the Museum’s Impressionist collection. He also served on the Council of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He supported many local schools, including Graland Country Day School and Denver University where his wife Jane was a longstanding Trustee. He also supported St Paul’s School as well as Millbrook School, New York, and Babson College’s Entrepreneurial Program. Fred gave generously to the medical community including Children’s Hospital and a variety of research programs at Colorado University/Anschutz Hospital in Denver, including macular degeneration and endocrinology. Earlier Fred endowed a Chair in Cardiology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
Fred was an avid sportsman; he liked to fish and to hunt birds in particular. He enjoyed golf his entire life, belonging to many of the most illustrious and challenging golf institutions in America.
Fred leaves Jane, his wife of 64 years and his four children, Christy H. McGraw (Ted), Fred, Jr. (Emory), Crawford (Sue) and Tom (Eugenie) as well as ten grandchildren. Service is at The Denver Art Museum at 5 pm October 6, 2016. Memorial donations may be made to The Denver Art Museum Foundation or Ducks Unlimited.