The MU School of Music is singing its praises of alumna Isobel “Robin” Degnan. The pianist recently announced her plans to give $1 million to the school from her estate when she dies.
Degnan graduated from MU with a bachelor of arts degree in piano performance in 1948. Degnan, now 82, recalls her time at MU with great fondness.
“I had a wonderful time there,” Degnan said.
Degnan was born and raised in Crystal City. At 3, she began playing the piano after her father took her to the Muny Opera in St. Louis.
“I played what I heard at the opera the night before with one finger on my neighbor’s piano,” Degnan said. “Then my mother started me on piano lessons.”
Degnan has always had a good ear for music — almost too good. When she took piano lessons as a child, she used to listen to her teacher play a song and then play what she just heard.
“My mother had to step in and stop my teacher from doing that,” Degnan said. “It took me a while to learn to read music.”
After high school, Degnan attended Webster University for two years before transferring to MU.
Degnan remembers how the music school used to be housed in a single building. After graduating, Degnan taught piano lessons to young children for several years.
Degnan married her husband, James, a successful shopping mall developer, in 1954. He died three years ago and left her a large fortune.
“He would want me to donate it all to education,” Degnan said.
Degnan left a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where her late husband was an alumnus of the School of Law. She also left money to her alma mater, Crystal City High School, to provide a scholarship for children who can’t afford college.
Her decision to leave $1 million to MU’s School of Music was great news to the school’s director, Melvin Platt.
“I’m delighted. It’s very exciting,” Platt said. “Mrs. Degnan is a gracious, generous woman who fondly remembers her years on campus.”
Platt said that the gift is unrestricted, meaning it will go toward whatever Chancellor Brady Deaton and other campus leaders see as being the most important needs within the school.
Platt said the school would like to construct a building that would house all of the school’s different programs and include a performance hall and rehearsal facilities.
Degnan said that she wants the money to be used where it’s most needed.
“Whatever pleases them, pleases me,” she said.
Platt said the School of Music’s recent success in national music competitions caught Degnan’s attention.
In the past 10 years, 15 students have represented MU at national music competitions, including those sponsored by the Music Teachers National Association and Broadcast Music Inc.
“Mrs. Degnan has been impressed with the accomplishments of our students in recent years,” Platt said. “We will continue to find ways to thank her and to let her know we are thinking about her.”
James Preston, the director of development in the Office of Gift Planning and Endowments at MU, said that he was stunned when he found out how much money Degnan decided to leave the school.
“We frequently have people let us know that they included us in their will, but the amount she left is just incredible,” Preston said.
“She had already put the plans in place to do this, to treat MU like one of her heirs.”
Mary Nell Porter, a 1969 graduate of the College of Business who died in April 2005, also left MU’s School of Fine Arts $1 million to help build a performing arts center. The two gifts are the largest ever received by the school.