August 23, 2014

Kitty Gaston, local arts advocate, dies at age 78

Kitty Gaston was an arts advocate who, along with her late sister, was responsible for notable Charlotte projects such as artist Ben Long’s fresco at St. Peter’s Catholic Church and the Hugh Pharr McManaway statue in Myers Park. She died last week at age 78.

Kitty Gaston could remember a simpler Charlotte.

The rides on neighborhood streets in a goat cart with her brothers. The drives in the family Chrysler through Myers Park, where she saw an eccentric man who liked to direct traffic – or at least pretend to.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Hugh Pharr McManaway stood near the intersection of Queens and Providence roads waving a dish towel at cars whizzing by.

Kitty Gaston and her sister, Anne McKenna, appreciated his gentle ways, and years later decided he needed a memorial. They raised the money and commissioned the 4-foot-tall bronze statue of McManaway pointing and waving at traffic. Since 2000, it has marked the intersection, a favorite artifact of couples getting married at nearby churches who like to deck it out with hand-lettered signs, streaming veils and flowery bouquets.

A woman who combined a love of beauty with good business sense, Katherine “Kitty” Beatty Gaston of Belmont died Wednesday at Carolinas Medical Center after a long illness. She was 78.

An advocate for the arts, Gaston, along with her late sister, was responsible for other notable projects such as artist Ben Long’s fresco at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, which led to four other frescoes uptown.

Good negotiator

Kitty and Anne, known as the “Beatty Sisters,” were the daughters of Col. Francis Beatty, a well-known Charlotte community leader and Catholic layman.

On their mother’s side, they were descended from William Williams, whose “The Journal of Llewellin Penrose, Seaman” is thought to be the first American novel.

Gaston was founder and the first president of the Gaston Fine Arts Council. She was also a docent at the Mint Museum in Charlotte and a member of the board of trustees of the N.C. Museum of Art.

With her sister, she operated the G. McKenna Gallery in Charlotte through the 1970s, a time when the city had few art galleries. They also represented artist Ben Long, sold his work and secured commissions for him to paint portraits of prominent people throughout the state.

Anne, older by nine years, was tall, willowy and easy going. Kitty – shorter, a brunette – was more hard-headed, and often dealt with clients and negotiated contracts.

Both went to St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines, a Catholic school in Asheville.

The sisters, along with their brothers, raised money for a memorial garden in front of the St. Peter’s rectory on South Tryon Street. It is dedicated to their parents and grandparents who were active in what is the city’s oldest Catholic Church.

Former Bank of America executive Hugh McColl Jr. worked with Gaston on several projects, including financial support for the McManaway statue. They liked to talk about art and politics.

“She was a very outgoing and vivacious person and fun to be around,” he said.

Besides appreciating beauty, Gaston was thought to be beautiful by many. In a photo of her as a young woman wearing a bonnet and a dress puffed with petticoats, she resembled Vivian Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind.”

At about that same time, Gaston worked as a teller at an uptown bank and a young architect opened an account just to catch a glimpse of her when he deposited his paycheck.

On Saturday, Murray Whisnant remembered the pleasure of getting on her line at the bank. He recalled, too, it “tended to be the longest.”

A service will be held 1 p.m Monday at the Belmont Abbey College Basilica in Belmont. The family will greet friends afterward in the Haid Ballroom.

She is survived by son Harley B. Gaston III, called “Bo”; son Curtis Gaston and partner Catherine York of Belmont; also brothers Francis “Skipper” Beatty Jr. and Richard Beatty of Charlotte. Her husband, Harley B. Gaston Jr., a former chief district court judge in Gaston County, died in 2011.

Son Curtis Gaston said he admired his mother’s love of art, but even more, her care and advocacy for his brother, Bo, born with cerebral palsy and other disabilities.

“I was proudest of her constant fight to help my brother get what he needed, to be taken care of, even if she ruffled a few feathers,” he said Saturday.

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