I like to think that I would have gotten along with Thomas Hart Benton.
Sure, I’ve read that sometimes Tom (I think I can call him Tom) could be grouchy, and if someone said something stupid or acted like a jerk, he didn’t mind telling that person exactly what he thought of him. But hey, I grew up with people like that.
My Uncle Jim has an expression he uses whenever he hears someone say something he thinks is stupid. Jim will look around as if he can’t believe what he just heard, and then he’ll shake his head and say, “I wish I hadn’t heard that.”
When I say that I would have gotten along with Tom, I don’t mean that in a “let’s be best buddies” way. I mean it in a “one guy sitting on a bar stool chatting with another guy sitting on a bar stool” way.
The reason I think Tom and I would get along in a bar is because he apparently had the same taste in bars that I have. Tom, who died in 1975, spent most of his later life in Kansas City, and one of his favorite places in town to hang out was Kelly’s Westport Inn.
By the time Tom settled in Kansas City, he was pretty famous, and he likely could have chosen any bar in town to grace with his presence. I’m sure, because of his fame, that he would have been welcomed in some of the town’s more upscale joints.
But Tom mostly eschewed (it’s a word; I looked it up) the world of upscale joints in favor of places such as Kelly’s Westport Inn.
Kelly’s has always been an everyman’s bar, particularly in the daytime. I lived in Kansas City in the early 1980s. Because my shift at the radio station where I worked ended at around 2 p.m., I spent my share of afternoons in Kelly’s. I’ve said this before: At Kelly’s, it was possible to chat up a street person, a lawyer and the mayor pro tem at the same time, and each person would be treated equally by the late Randal Kelly, and his sons Kyle and Pat.
I think that’s why Tom liked Kelly’s, and it’s why I think he and I would have gotten along.
I thought about Tom and Kelly’s when I read the story in Tuesday’s Globe about the Thomas Hart Benton exhibit that went on display at Joplin City Hall. The exhibit is part of a larger celebration of the artist’s 125th birthday.
I first became familiar with Tom’s work when I was in college, and later when I used to hang out at Kelly’s. But it wasn’t until I worked as a TV reporter in Joplin in the mid-1980s that I really got to know about his work. As a City Hall reporter, I spent a lot of time cooling my dogs in the city manager’s secretary’s office waiting for a chance to talk to her boss. While I waited, I would often flip through her copy of “Thomas Hart Benton: A Personal Commemorative.”
It was neat to read Tom’s thoughts on his life and his work, and the more of the book I read, the more I regretted not getting to have a beer or two with him at Kelly’s.
I plan to see the exhibit before it closes on May 11.
In the meantime, I think later tonight I might open a beer and have a chat with Tom.
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