Mary Nell Porter’s friends have a daunting set of tasks.
They are trying to figure out a woman who was involved in everything but who kept each part separate. They are trying to pinpoint telling moments of a woman who was always organizing her next activity.
They are trying to remember the past of a woman who always lived in the moment.
Even after her April 15 death, Porter reminded her friends and the community of her passionate advocacy for the performing arts and MU. On Thursday, Chancellor Brady Deaton announced Porter’s gift of $1 million — the first contribution toward a performing arts center, the first significant piece of an arts village on campus.
“This is the best thing that could have happened for us,” said Tom O’Neal, director of bands. “The condition of the fine-arts spaces is so limiting. This gives us the opportunity to level the playing field with the rest of the schools in this state.”
The arts center, which is slated to be built at Stadium Boulevard and College Avenue, will be the cornerstone of a fine-arts complex consisting of five performance sites and other academic spaces.
The details of the complex, such as costs, are far from ironed out. Michael Kateman, executive director for arts development and planning, said they will have a better idea in June and wanted to wait to make this first announcement, but the circumstances of Porter’s illness — she had cancer — and her death at age 83 precluded this. Kateman said Porter, prior to her death, helped plan the announcement event on Thursday.
“She never looked for recognition, but she saw the value in talking about the gift to encourage others to donate,” said Kateman. “This gift will really propel the project forward.”
“You know, there will come a day when a performer will take the stage for the first time in this magnificent place,” he continued, “and everyone who had been involved will pause, get a lump in their throats, and remember how much this meant to Mary Nell.”
Alicia Miles, a senior at MU, sang at the event Thursday. She said later that she wanted to say something after her song, but decided not to because she could feel her throat closing with emotion.
“Every time I saw her she would give me a huge hug with her ‘Kung Fu’ grip,” Miles said. “She just always made me laugh.”
People close to Porter say that her deep passion for the arts was surpassed only by her love and support of performance students. She wanted to give students every opportunity possible to experience great performances, such as one New York trip where she offered tickets to the Metropolitan Opera to any MU student who wanted them.
“She just saw the potential in anyone who was young,” said Nancy Moen. “She realized the freshness and the possibilities in every student.”
Moen met Porter through Moen’s job as communications director in the College of Arts and Science.
Both were part of what became unofficially known as “the groupies” — people who followed MU productions and theater students around the country for performances.
New York, Memphis, Charlottesville, Washington, D.C. — whether going to watch an individual MU student or following “Corps of Discovery,” an MU-commissioned opera about Lewis and Clark for which Porter gave the initial gift — Porter loved to travel and stay near the students.
And the students loved her. Porter became the hostess of cast parties during these trips. Moen remembers one party where students didn’t leave Porter’s room until 4 a.m. Despite the fact Porter was in her 80s, she stayed up until the last one left.
“I couldn’t keep up with her,” Miles said. “She would stay up into the wee hours of the night, and then be just fine the next day.”
Sue Troutner, a friend of Porter’s, also remembers how students gravitated toward Porter. Troutner was the usual hostess of a domino club, formed from a widow support group that played dominos twice a week. Troutner said she never knew who was going to come to her door.
“Students would just show up, asking if they could play dominos with us,” she said.
Although MU students benefited from her generous donations and advice to theater programs — such as an internship program in New York — knowing that they could call and ask her to attend their performances that was most important. There she would be, friends in tow, sitting in the audience when family couldn’t make it.
Her involvement with performance arts at MU will already leave a lasting impact in Columbia. The fact that this was only one of her interests amazed the people who tried to recall the breadth of her pursuits.
Above all was music. Her involvement extended beyond MU, sitting on the board of directors of the Missouri Symphony Society and volunteering at the Missouri Theatre, the Columbia Entertainment Company and the John William “Blind” Boone Ragtime Festival.
Porter was also involved with civic activities, volunteering at the polls on voting day, participating in the League of Women Voters and always on the prowl for elephant accessories to represent her political party. Her volunteering ranged from big events, such as helping in the stadium boxes during MU football games, to reaching out to individuals through programs such as Meals-On-Wheels.
Bev Yarger didn’t get to know Porter until a New York trip in 2002. Their friendship grew as both went through cancer, sharing doctors and support.
“Mary Nell once told me that we are put here on this Earth and there’s a price you need to pay for that,” Yarger recalled. “Whatever you do, you need to give back to the community or the church or the college that gives you so much reward.”
Journalism student Domenica Bongiovanni contributed to this article.