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West of West Center is born

In my Sunday Spotlight column, I introduced Bee readers to local author Mark Arax’s ambitious plan to create the new West of West Center. He envisions the center as a virtual history museum — with a major focus on agriculture — consisting of recorded interviews with prominent central San Joaquin Valley historical figures. Another component is a book-publishing arm, as I explain in my column:

And then Arax thought: Why not broaden the West of West concept to make it a sort of virtual history museum? And then — those Arax wheels are always turning — why not include a regional book-publishing component? Some of the books could be underwritten by local figures with worthy stories to tell, and those funds and proceeds from sales could subsidize books — fiction, memoirs, histories — from other worthy authors.

The first major release from the center is Betsy Lumbye’s “Beyond Luck: The Improbable Rise of the Berry Fortune Across a Western Century” (West of West Books, $25). Lumbye, a former executive editor of The Bee, got to dive into the remarkable story of Clarence Berry, a poor Selma farmer who struck it rich in gold at the turn of the 20th Century in the wilds of the Yukon Territory, and then returned to the San Joaquin Valley to make a second fortune in oil. (Berry Petroleum in 2013 was sold for nearly $5 billion.) The story of the Berry family’s fame and fortune is bookended by the oldest living descendant of Clarence Berry’s grand-nephew, Peter Bennett, now 92, who received a big chunk of inheritance. Bennett lives in Fresno today and is a prominent local philanthropist, but he’s avoided the spotlight.

As for the book itself, I devoured it in just a couple of sittings: It’s a good and fascinating read. (And I’m not just saying that because the author is my former boss.)

The launch of the West of West Center will be 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13, at the Fresno Art Museum.

Pictured: Peter Bennett and Betsy Lumbye. (Bee photo by John Walker)

Larry Hagman interview almost didn’t happen

I wasn’t covering television when “Dallas” was such a huge hit during the ‘80s. That was ill-spent time covering sports which meant I found out “Who Shot J.R.?” through a radio report that I heard coming home from covering a Friday night football game.

That means I never had the chance to talk to Larry Hagman during the original run of the CBS prime-time soap opera. When I moved into entertainment writing on a full-time basis, it looked like “Dallas” was dead an gone thus eliminating any chance to talk to Hagman.

He would have ended up being one of the big interviews that got away had not TNT brought the series back. The updated version is suppose to be about the next generation of Ewings but the main draw in the first season was Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray. My chance to interview Hagman came when that trio showed up in January at the Television Critics Association tour.

Hagman was as spunky as ever fending off a question about why he would come back to the role after so many years with “How many people do you know working at 80?”

He was working on the show despite having to go through treatment for the cancer that would eventually take his life a few days ago. Hagman was able to work on the show because the producers grouped together scenes from several shows to make the best use of Hagman’s time.

As for his health at that time, Hagman said, “My treatment’s going along very well, and I’ve been fine. I worked yesterday. I had three major scenes yesterday and had a lot of fun.”

He’s one of a handful of actors who can say they made a career out of playing one of the best known characters in TV history. It was finally nice to get to talk with him about his days on Southfork Ranch.