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)