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Gilbert M. Denman – Social Entrepreneur and Philanthropist
Jacqueline Beretta

May, 2004

Quietly he encouraged and nurtured the arts and education in San Antonio. Gilbert Denman died in San Antonio at 83 on Sunday May 16, 2004.

He was bigger than life and a mentor to many of us who had the privilege to spend time with him. Inspiring so many of the families of San Antonio to join forces and give to our community in order to create beauty in the arts and strength through education - his thoughts always focusing on improving the quality of life for the citizens of San Antonio.

A powerhouse of ideas coupled with his connections throughout the world, Denman's creative spirit celebrated the perception of a true social entrepreneur. Like the Florentine dreamers during the Renaissance, he was convinced he could broaden and enlighten the cultural experience in San Antonio – and he did just that by exercising his talents as a rare kind of person who could connect people who had the potential to make something happen, maximize their ideas, and relate it to the whole community by various means.

His colleague in philanthropy, Bob Washington said, “Years ago Gilbert Denman commented to to me about what a poor town San Antonio was in terms of resources. He then explained this idea he had for economic development by employing the arts as an economic magnate.”

Washington continued, “26 years ago when I first came to San Antonio, the city had a symphony, an opera, and a ballet. Now we have none of those things, but I see a rise in the literary arts because composers, writers, and poets are moving to San Antonio and a community is forming.  San Antonio now annually hosts the Inter American Book Fair,  which attracts prestigious authors from across the world."

Think about it – increasing the value of San Antonio was his mission

Denman's touch enabled the creation of one of the top collections of Greek and Roman art in the world which he gifted to the San Antonio Museum of Art; the Botanical Center became a major San Antonio destination and location of one of the most beautiful Conservatories in the world; the historic Missions were saved in a win-win situation for the church and city; and the city had a once in a lifetime chance through the San Antonio Festival, to bring the finest ballets, opera, theater and music from all over the world to this city. These are just a few of the plethora of things Denman did for San Antonio.

By attempting to support the cultural arts in San Antonio, in the roundabout way that things happen, Denman brought in tourists. The visitors who ultimately came for the cultural destinations probably attracted business that San Antonio wouldn't have had otherwise.

You see, creating value in ones community brings people to visit because they can see verdant Botanical Centers, take their children to zoos full of awesome animals, visit interesting art and cultural museums with exhibits that are unique and priceless, attend major sporting events, and witness beautiful cultural events that are unique to a city, and yet reflect the best of the world. Exciting cities with lots to do and see draws visitors.

And, if perchance the right people come to see a city in all of it's glory, like what they see, and find the community pleasant and culturally inviting for their employees, they just might decide to move a Toyota plant right smack dab in the middle of your city. Imagine that! The Toyota plant might employ many citizens and circulate dollars into the system – and so it goes.

Denman - His Life

Gilbert Denman graduated from the University of Texas and the University of Texas Law School. He was a third-generation member of the law firm Denman, Franklin & Denman, founded by his grandfather, Judge Leroy G Denman, a Texas Supreme Court justice. Gilbert Denman's legal practice included client and family friend Ewing Halsell, in whose name was founded the Ewing Halsell foundation. Denman served as chairman of the foundation, which long has been a strong supporter of wide range of local initiatives, among them the now-vital San Antonio Medical Center.

Denman's mark on the community included his service on the boards of the San Antonio Loan & Trust Company and the First National Bank. Denman sustained an ongoing involvement with the San Antonio Museum of Art, the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, the San Antonio Festival, and the San Antonio Symphony, San Antonio Arts Foundation, George W. Brackenridge Foundation, Beretta Foundation, and the Blaffer Foundation of Houston, among other philanthropic endeavors.

His support for Trinity University included many years as a trustee and his role as board chairman from 1970-73. He endowed teaching chairs, sponsored speaking programs and backed the Trinity University Press. But I remember the many rare and indigenous trees he planted on the campus so that joggers could have a beautiful and shaded place to walk or run in a pleasant surrounding. This was all part of creating beauty and serenity with nature which he enjoyed all of his life.

Denman participated in negotiating an agreement that made it possible for the Catholic Church to retain ownership of the interiors of San Antonio's historic missions, while allowing the U.S. Parks Department to have possession of the exteriors. A win win situation for both groups.

In the 1980's he devoted himself to creating the San Antonio Festival, a vision influenced by his long-term patronage of the Salzburg Festival in Austria. Through several seasons, San Antonio experienced music, ballet and opera performed by such renowned performers as the Berlin Opera and Ballet. Underwritten by arts patrons, and attended by people form across the world, the Festival was meant to be a destination event for art patrons from across the world, did not continue after the resignation of Denman in 1983.

Denman was instrumental in helping design, develop, and fund the 33-acre Botanical Gardens in San Antonio in the mid 1970's. The gardens of Europe inspired his desire to establish and architecturally significant structure at the Botanical Gardens through the Lucile Halsell Conservatory, which won national acclaim when it opened in 1989. The Ewing Halsell Foundation funded $5 million (of the $6.8 million raised) of this project. Designed by Argentinean Emilio Ambasz & Associates, it's forward thinking design contains 18,000 square feet under magnificent glass and consists of five earth-bermed, crystalline structures around a central courtyard and pool.

As a young man, Denman began collecting a collection of old Roman coins – a hobby that led to the creation of one of the most important collections of Greek and Roman art in the United States. Denman donated his extensive collection of Greek and Roman
artifacts to the San Antonio Museum of Art. The collection, among the finest of its type in the nation, is housed in the Denman Gallery of the Ewing Halsell Wing at the museum.

Denman was instrumental in the hiring of Carlos Picon, former curator of ancient art at SAMA, who later became curator in charge of the department of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A later donation by Denman made it possible for SAMA to establish its Oceanic collection. Denman began the collection while serving in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy during World War II, where he served as a personal aide to Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

His support extended into research and science. Several years ago $1 million was awarded to the San Antonio Health Science Center to endow a chair for the study of aging at the San Antonio Center for Longevity and Aging studies.

Gilbert M. Denman - philanthropist, visionary, arts enthusiast, world traveler, Godfather, friend and mentor – a true Renaissance man we will greatly miss.


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