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The Culture of Service and the Service of Culture

By Nancy Donahue, 2019 Governor’s Awards in the Humanities Honoree

Virtually my entire life has been spent in New England manufacturing cities made up of hard-working, diverse immigrant groups living in harmony for the most part, who are making tremendous contributions not only to the economy, but also to the less fortunate in the community, and to an exciting, vibrant culture.

I grew up in New Britain, CT, at the end of the Great Depression and into World War II. My father was an engineer who ended up having to make his living selling ten-cent insurance policies door to door, while my mother raised my two brothers, sister, and me. All the while she volunteered to help families who weren’t faring as well, through the church, Red Cross, and other organizations.

The war had started when I entered junior high, and I joined the Victory Farmerettes. All the boys—including my uncles—had been drafted, and the farmers were left with no one to do the labor. So, we girls spent our days working the soil on farms around New Britain, with my group being headquartered in an abandoned country club. Everyone took part in the war effort in big and small ways: each family had their own Victory Garden; we all saved and rolled the tin foil used to wrap chewing gum. In high school, I was a Candy Striper at the hospital and involved in many church and school organizations.

After I graduated from Lasell College, I was lucky enough to land a job as one of five female salespeople at IBM around 1950 – there were two young sales women in New York, one in Los Angeles, one in Chicago, and me solo in Boston. The company was refining its innovations on the electric typewriter and management thought women would be better at persuading schools and colleges to buy them, as typing was considered “a woman’s job.” That was the time of the Korean conflict, and I volunteered to work Air Patrol night shifts at the top of Hancock Tower, watching for enemy planes. Why they ever thought enemy planes would be coming over Boston, I don’t know.

I met my dear late husband Dick while I was working in Boston and he was attending law school. We were married a short time later, and little did I know that fifteen years later I would be mother to eleven children. I had always thought that six children sounded like the right number of blessings to count, but I ended up with many more.

Nancy’s grandson Kyle Donahue, her son Philip Donahue, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Nancy Donahue, Nancy’s grandson Dylan Donahue

Before we were married, Dick and I both volunteered for John F. Kennedy’s campaign when he ran against Senator Henry Cabot Lodge for the U.S. Senate in 1952. After we were married, Dick continued to volunteer with the Kennedy organization, eventually taking a leave of absence from his law firm to work on Kennedy’s attempt at the vice presidency in 1956 and then, most importantly, on his 1960 presidential election campaign.

When President Kennedy asked Dick to serve on his administration, we moved the growing family to Washington, DC. I was raising six, soon to be seven kids essentially by myself; Dick worked from dawn to long after dusk, so he was no help. When we had number seven, we hired a young woman from Panama whose mother was an indigenous Panamanian and whose father was French of African descent; she looked African American. She had no understanding of the discrimination in this country, and neither did I.

Once, she had a toothache and we sent her to a dentist who, unbeknownst to me, refused to treat black people. She was turned away. We were shocked. Another time, she tried to take the kids to a matinee movie, but wasn’t allowed in. For me, the evils of the country I was born into were being revealed; for her of course, it was much worse. She stayed with us for many years, went on to work in a hospital, married and moved to Brooklyn. We kept in touch for the rest of her life.

Over the years I was fortunate to have found a series of au pairs who not only were terrific caretakers, but also taught the family and me about the world outside of DC since they all were immigrants. Our friendships lasted many years.

November 15, 1963 was Dick’s last day with the Kennedy administration. He had been working for 3 years in the White House and another year before that on the campaign, and he thought it was time to get back to the law and to Lowell. Seven days later, on November 22, President Kennedy was assassinated. That was a horrible time—more evil revealed. I remember flying to the funeral with the rain pouring down the plane window and how it matched our tears.

In the following years, Dick served on the board and then as president and COO of Nike in Oregon. The arrangement was that I would fly to Portland and stay for two weeks, then fly back for two weeks in Lowell, as I had many commitments in Lowell as well as some of the family who hadn’t yet flown the nest. I became more involved with the Lowell community and served on various boards, first in the area of human service with agencies such as the United Way and the International Institute, and then with more arts-oriented organizations.

In the early 1990s, the president of UMass Lowell, who was a neighbor, wanted to start a foundation for the university in order to gain support from private sources. He asked if I would help with the fundraising to get it going, so we started a series of events, twice a year, where we would bring in musicians and other performers from around the world: Yo-Yo Ma, the Moscow Pops, Bennie Goodman, and Marcel Marceau, to name a few. We were flying by the seat of our pants, but it was great fun and very successful. At last, Lowell had some top quality cultural events!

Nancy at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre when it acquired the building formerly known as Liberty Hall, 1983

As I had this new reputation in the performing arts, a couple of actors from a summer theater in New Hampshire came to me to talk about opening a professional theater in Lowell. We assembled a board, UMass Lowell offered their auditorium, and the Merrimack Repertory Theatre was born. The Theatre soon acquired its own space and has gone on to produce wonderful shows that are influenced by the diverse perspectives of the Lowell community, also serving as a showcase for new works. It is now a nationally recognized theater attracting actors, directors and designers from across the country. I served as the first president of the board and for the next forty years served on the board in many different capacities; I’m currently chair of the board.

Dick served for many years on the board of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and my family has been pleased to support the work of the Kennedy Library in promoting civic education, hosting naturalization ceremonies for new immigrants, and offering free public forums on an array of issues that resonate with President and Mrs. Kennedy’s vision for the future of our country. Our relationships with the Kennedy Library, Caroline Kennedy, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy are associations of which the Donahue family has always been quite proud.

I serve on many other boards and advisory boards in the arts, the humanities, and education. I have learned over the years that culture and human services go hand-in-hand to meet peoples’ needs. Social and creative enrichment are just as important as food and shelter for a thriving community. It’s also amazing to see the leadership in Lowell diversify over the years. I look forward to watching Lowell blossom into the future.

–September 2019

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