Happy Baggett, the driving force behind Renaissance Square, a massive development at Berry Street and U.S. Highway 287 that is changing one of the most underserved and poorest areas of Fort Worth, has died at age 67.
Baggett had announced more than six months ago on social media that he had terminal cancer.
Baggett lived right up to the day he died.
That’s not an oxymoron. It is the fulfillment of a decision he made when he was diagnosed with terminal liver and colon cancer.
He had a kind of oddball sense of humor, and that plays into what he says was his greatest fear as he awaited his diagnosis. When he learned that he had liver cancer, he was afraid the doctor was going to tell him no more scotch.
If you knew him, you know that scotch and fine food were a central part of his life.
But Baggett lost weight at a rapid rate during his illness because he could not eat solid food. As he made his farewell series of meetings with friends, people would ask where they could have a meal.
He’d tell them it didn’t matter because he couldn’t eat anything except dessert.
“I can have dessert. Ice cream and protein mix. And everything is chocolate and vanilla in my protein mix. I'm living off chocolate and vanilla. I'm so tired of chocolate and vanilla, I don't know what to do,” Baggett said.
He tires easily, he said in an interview but there is no pain. But, in a bit of good news, his oncologist, Dr. Mary Milam, told him that he has no jaundice.
“I said ‘Oh doc, I'm so excited. Do you know how hard it is to match yellow with your eyes when you've got jaundice?” Baggett said.
“I approach everything that I'm going to run into that same way. It's not a joke. Look I'm OK and I can look at this and laugh at it.”
“You know I go home and cry at night though, too,” he said.
He told Milam before their first visit that it the diagnosis was really serious, he didn’t want any treatment at all.
“If it's something that I'm going to be in chemo and radiation for one year or two years and I'm going to be out of everything. I'm just not going to do that,” he said. “There's a quality of life I want to maintain and I'm not going to subject myself to that because I want to live what life I have left.
“I've watched aunts and uncles and nephews and cousins go through that, and every one of them toward the end they go, ‘I would never do it again,’ ” he said. “I'm not going to waste the money. I'm not going to waste the time. I've got my family that I love. I have my friends. I'm going to spend my time rejoicing with them and seeing them.”
In his most recent interview, he said he wanted to live at least to November because of unfinished business.
The real date was Oct. 16 when Child Care Associates held its 2nd Annual Investor’s Luncheon and honored him with the individual North Texas Early Childhood Leadership Award. Baggett was the chairman for the event.
He’s also launched the Happy Baggett Early Childhood Development Fund (Happy Fund), targeted to help secure $12 million over the next several years to improve the quality of the 23 existing CCA early childhood campuses, as well as build new campuses in Fort Worth and Tarrant County. Currently, those CCA centers serve approximately 2,300 low-income children per year.
“I have developed properties across 1,500 acres in Fort Worth and the Alliance Corridor for the last 26 years. However, I can’t get away from the feeling that I need to be doing more specifically for babies, for our very youngest children in high need neighborhoods,” Baggett said when the renaming of the campus was announced.
“I just want to give to babies in my final days and make sure they are taken care of,” said Baggett.
His unfinished business in southeast Fort Worth is Renaissance Square and the surrounding. Development.
“When I saw that place 10 years ago, and I started reading the statistics and stuff, I wanted that with my heart,” he said in an interview. Eight years ago, he decided that was what he was going to do for the rest of his life.
“Those are the type of deals I've been concentrating on. My unfinished business is my babies. I want to make sure my babies are going to be OK,” he said.
That’s more than grandkids. It included children in Head Start, at Cook's Children, the kids at ACH, kids with autism or in foster care or in YMCA programs in the Renaissance Square area.
Money from the Happy Fund will help defray expenses for parents with children for whom there is no insurance coverage.
“Inside that fund, we need to create a school for the kids who are learning their basic skills. But there's no place for them in the Fort Worth Independent School District or any place else, because they're not trained to carry these kids to the next level. So, hopefully there will be in the plan. We're going to say we're going to be doing a school, and I think that will happen,” Baggett said.
"Happy was a truly inspiring individual, he was always finding a way to positively impact our community. Most recently, Happy truly lived what God would want us all to do – he celebrated life to the fullest and gave back to the community he loved most,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price.
“Happy’s investment and dedication to bettering early childhood education and quality childcare will benefit our community for years to come. Happy was a dear friend, and he will be remembered as a courageous leader with a servant’s heart," Price said.
Harriet B. Harral, executive director of Leadership Fort Worth and a member of the Renaissance Heights United board of directors – the neighborhood association formed around Renaissance Square – said the “community has lost a lovely human being.”
“For many years he contributed as a developer and a person with unbounded enthusiasm. But since 2005, Happy’s energies have been focused on Renaissance Heights, a development that he freely says changed his whole way of thinking,” Harral said.
“In 2006, because of the economic downturn, it was not practical to start actually developing, so Happy started getting to know this new community. And he committed himself to making sure that his upcoming development would meet the needs the residents told him they had — that it would go beyond material goods to provide healthcare, education, parenting guidance, exercise and an overall sense of community, and that always it would respect the voice of those who live there,” Harral said.
“I had the unique opportunity to lead the representatives of all these initiatives in strategic planning for the new planned community. Over and over, I heard these business leaders say how glad they were that Happy had brought them into this venture because it was transformative for them. They were committed beyond any financial gain they might make.”
Since then, when Leadership Fort Worth had a class on collaboration and/or on community trusteeship, Baggett was asked to tell the story of Renaissance Heights.
“I can’t think of a more impressive collaboration to use as a case study on how to do business for the benefit of all participants — on how to do well by doing good, Harral said.
“This October, our Leadership Class was talking about their real life heroes, people who demonstrate a commitment to the good of all. The very first name that was offered was Happy Baggett,” she said. “I agree.”
Happy Baggett had a permanently reserved place right inside the lounge at the restaurant Grace, and for a very good reason.
He was owner Adam Jones’ Angel investor when Jones was wanting to leave Del Frisco’s and open his own concept restaurant in Fort Worth.
“We would spend the next several months together putting together ideas with meetings at his hang out in the City Club. Hap’s pledge of support allowed me to put together my Private Placement Memorandum along with architectural design to go out and raise needed capital,” Jones said.
On what Jones calls the first big event, Baggett sponsored a dinner for Jones with potential investors at the city club.
“We raised $1 million that night,” Jones said. “We went on to gather a total of 28 Investors for Grace for which I will always be thankful for and for Hap’s initial jump start,” Jones said.
After Grace opened, Baggett moved “his spot” from City Club to the table right inside the Lounge at Grace.
“His ‘table’ was saved for him every night for the past 11 years,” Jones said. “Many great conversations and beverages past this table nightly with Hap holding court for all his guests.
Happy Baggett is a true treasure for being my mentor and Angel and friend.”
Dale Fissler, a former Fort Worth city manager, remembers Baggett as a bright point as the country was entering a recession when he was appointed city manager.
“We had to make some very tough decisions about city priorities and eventually made some very difficult cuts in city services and staffing,” Fissler said.
“One of the bright spots during this time was the redevelopment efforts in Southeast Fort Worth. Hap and his team went to work on the redevelopment of the old Masonic Home property at East Berry Street and U.S. 287. This had been a priority for the city for years and we finally made some progress with his experience,” Fissler said.
“I know that he was proud of the project and I was proud to know him and work with him. I also borrowed several of his one liners over the years because he always made me laugh. He finally agreed to let me have them. He will be missed,” Fissler said.
Baggett’s vision for Southeast Fort Worth showed others the way on revitalizing communities.
Baggett pushed development of retail in Southeast Fort Worth but a residential housing component was always in the plan, being executed by Columbia Renaissance Square, part of
Columbia Residential, founded in 1991 to develop and manage multifamily affordable housing communities in locations that are underserved by the affordable housing industry.
The master planned community around Renaissance Square encompasses a number of community assets that will be available for residents and is clearly a turning point for the neighborhood and its future residents.
Larry Tubb, retired senior vice president of planning for Cook Children’s Health Care System and chairman of the board for Renaissance Heights United for three years beginning in 2014, said it was clear from his first meeting with Baggett that he was the spark, the driving force and catalyst for the development.
“A typical developer – unquenchable optimism, constant promotion and action oriented – but he also had an amazing connection with the hundreds of people involved in Renaissance. That connection included a deep concern and respect for those who would benefit most from the project,” Tubb said.
“I will miss Hap but he made a major impression on me and everyone he encountered with his genuine care for others. I’m comforted by the fact that his influence will be felt and remembered for generations,” he said.
And a major part of that impact will be because of the Cook Children’s community-based Neighborhood Clinic on Berry Street at Renaissance, bringing care for children closer to the need for residents who may not have transportation to other locations for well-child visits, vaccines, illnesses and dental care services as well as after-hours access.
Baggett’s vision and impact was spread beyond the intersection of U.S. 287 and Berry Street.
“It was an invitation from Happy Baggett that resulted in me looking at how appropriate development can transform a community,” said District 5 Council Member Gyna M. Bivins.
“That was important to me as it helped me understand how Cavile could be a lovely place. I have that hope because of Hap. He freely gave of himself at community meetings I would host in an effort to educate the public on how challenging it is to attract positive development to neglected communities. He was a gem,” Bivens said.
He also had great impact on District 8 Council Member Kelly Allen Gray.
She says she has lost three very important people in her life over the last few months and is not dealing well with loss.
“As I reflect back over my relationship with Hap, I have these words to share: ‘Thank you for the life lessons you so freely taught me,’ ” she said.
Wayne Carson, the chief executive officer of ACH Child and Family Services, which is headquartered on the old Masonic Home site, said Baggett brought passion and a dream to the Renaissance Heights project.
“He envisioned a project that made sense for the owners, but also made sense for the community. A project that gave families and children a place to live that they could be proud to call home, and one that made the surrounding community better by its presence,” Carson said.
“Hap played an influential role in bringing in the Purpose Built Communities model, to ensure that this project would be a powerful force for building strong community. East Fort Worth will benefit from Hap's commitment and vision for decades to come,” said Carson.
“Happy was an incredible man. His enthusiasm and zest for life was contagious. He made me want to be part of the team and contribute what I could. Any day that I got to spend with Hap was a good one. I'm going to miss Hap,” said Evan Smith, vice president at Purpose Built Communities, a non-profit, pro bono consulting firm that works with local leaders to implement a holistic approach to revitalizing distressed neighborhoods.
Texas Wesleyan University President Frederick G. Slabach presides over a campus that has worked diligently to revitalize its surrounding neighborhood and is a former chair of Renaissance Heights United.
“Hap was an enlightened entrepreneur who understood Benjamin Franklin's admonition to 'do well by doing good.' The visionary work he has done for Southeast Fort Worth on the grounds of the Old Masonic Home will live on for generations as a memorial to him. He built more than a development; he built a community,” Slabach said.
Baggett might have been a Broadway musical comedy star.
In the 1960s Odessa High School was to music what Odessa Permian was to football, and Baggett was offered a scholarship to study music at what was then West Texas State in Canyon.
High school classmates included Larry, Rudy and Steve Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers.
“We started a little trio. You might've heard about Rudy, Rick, and Happy,” Rudy Gatlin said. “We were kind of the Peter, Paul, and Mary without Mary, and then we added Karen Loe. She was a hummingbird.”
Might have been something in the water in Odessa, he said, “because looking back on it now, we had some incredible musicians.”
Rick Brooks was the “Rick” in the group, and they would gather at his house to play.
“I remember Hap had a brand new gut string guitar that I coveted, and I think he paid a couple of hundred dollars for it. And I went, ‘I ain't got a couple of hundred dollars.’ My first car only cost $300,” Gatlin said. “So I went and bought me a $50 Stella Harmony 12-string. And he taught me G, C, and D, and Rick taught me E minor, F, and B. And we were off to the races.”
Knowing five or six chords meant you could play Bob Dylan’s “Ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe,” he said.
“Rudy, Rick and Happy went triple dating one time. Oh yeah, we did. In a '55 green and white Chevy of his. And the parking brake wouldn't work, so by golly, we took care of that. We got out that spare tire and put it under the back tire to keep it from rolling off the hump at the drive-in theater,” Gatlin said. “I don't know what it was, the movie. It didn't matter. Man, we were kissing on our girlfriends. We were smooching away. … Kept sliding off the hump at the drive-in theater.”
Gatlin wanted to stress how much he appreciated the way people in Fort Worth were helping Baggett deal with his illness.
“I got a little dose of it, and I've seen it on Facebook, but I got a good look-see for myself of all the wonderful people there that are helping take care of my buddy. Not just his family, but friends. His close friends that are taking care of him through this hour, and I'm appreciative,” Gatlin said.
But as great as Baggett’s heart was for those less fortunate, family was always a primary focus for him.
Survivors include his mother, Mickey Baggett; a brother, Pete Baggett; a sister, Wynama Sharp; daughter Maggie Shori and her husband, Raj, and grandchildren Jackson, Piper Madison and Eleanor; and son, Richard Baggett and his wife, Dondi, and granddaughter, Sophia.
Baggett also wanted to list his former wife, Deborah Suder. They married in 1971 and were married for 37 years.
“To this day she's my best friend and we talk to each other all the time. She's helped take care of me right now,” he said. “When we did the divorce, we didn't want to do anything that hurts the kids or grandkids.
“In those years, we'd been apart from each other maybe two weeks. We built a business together, we raised kids together, we traveled together,” he said.
“She was my high school sweetheart,” Baggett said. “I proposed to her by saying ‘How'd you like to marry a choir director?’ That's what I wanted to be.”
She is now married to Eric Suder.
“I adore him, my kids adore him, my grandkids adore him. We have a very happy family. There are no broken relationships right now with me, with anyone,” Baggett said.
After his official diagnosis, Baggett met with his grandchildren.
“I said. ‘Here's the deal. I've lived 67 years being Happy Baggett. And I've taught you guys about what to do in bad situations. … I'm been really good at being Happy Baggett for 67 years and eight months. And I'm going to be Happy Baggett until the day I die,’ ” Baggett said in an interview in August in preparation for this obituary.
The journey started during spring break on a ski trip to Ruidoso back in April.
If you knew Happy Baggett, you knew that fine food was a passion for him, but during that trip, biscuits and gravy just didn’t taste good.
He scheduled an appointment with his personal physician, Dr. Muhammad Siddiqui, for a checkup. He said the doctor told him that while things looked great, he wanted to do a full workup and order an ultrasound examination of what might be “a little hernia on the top of your stomach.”
The ultrasound was a week later at 2 p.m. That took an hour and Baggett headed for Central Market. At about 3:30, Siddiqui called.
“Dr. Siddiqui says, ‘I need to see you right now.’ And I go. ‘Oh, that ain't good.’ "
The exam had raised questions about a kidney and the liver, and Siddiqui set him up for a CAT scan and also referred him to Milam.
“She's absolutely a doll and she wanted the best. So a week later I went and got my CAT scan. So Mary is having them send a scan to her, as they're doing the CAT scan,” he said. “I'm there at two o'clock, I have Maggie with me. I get up, get dressed.
“It's 2:45, I'm walking out the door and the nurse stops me up front, ‘Your oncologist is on the phone.’ And I had to stop and think, do I have an oncologist? Oh yeah. So her office says ‘Can you be here in 45 minutes?’ And I went ‘Well, that ain't good.’ "
Milam ordered a biopsy. It was scheduled a week away and he was told getting the results might take a week.
Her office closes at 4 p.m. on Thursdays, and she called on Tuesday and asked if he could be at her office at 3:15 p.m. on Thursday.
“And I go, ‘Oh that ain't good,’ ” Baggett said.
He took his daughter Maggie Shori and son Richard with him. They are twins, with Maggie being older by two minutes. There are four grandchildren.
Baggett quotes Milam: “OK, here's the deal. You have colon cancer, you have liver cancer. You're at stage four in both. You have six months to live. My advice to you right now, anybody you want to see, anything you want to do, you need to do it ASAP."
He took her advice to heart – in spades – and launched a series of trips, meetings, lunches that would exhaust a well man, let alone a sick one.
“I've lived a blessed life. God made me, he shaped and formed me in the womb. I believe he sang over me as I was conceived. He gave me this life,” Baggett said in a recent interview.
“I love the life he gave me with all the ups and downs and everything else. I'm not mad at God. This is not a raw deal. I'm not a victim. This is not a raw deal. This is part of the process. And I know where I'm going.”
He said he didn’t bother thinking about death after the diagnosis except as a separation from family.
“That's a big deal. But death and dying? I don't know all the details but I know where I'm going. This life is a blink of the eye. And at 67, I go, ‘Man that blink is really, really true.’ Where did all those years go?” he said.
So that part ends, Baggett said.
“I've been blessed in this having time and knowing what I've got. I've got to see all my old friends. All my business partners. Everybody. And I get to tell them I love them. I get to look them in the eye. They get to tell me, they love me,” he said.
He sees it as a transformation rite.
“I'm transforming from one life to the next. That's my prognosis – I'll get tireder and tireder. Then one day I'll go to sleep and I won't wake up anymore,” he said.
But if he gets to choose, “I want to go out on one of my projects and in my Jeep with two crying blondes.”
They may not all be blondes, but there are plenty of people crying today.
But they also are giving thanks for a life well lived and a role model for dealing with the final end that all human life faces.
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