Although members of the Missouri Symphony Society were aware of Mary Nell Porter’s philanthropy, they had no idea how much financial help she would provide the organization.
David White, executive director of the symphony society, announced on Monday that Porter had left $500,000 for the society’s efforts to renovate and restore the historic Missouri Theatre and make it an arts center.
“We did not know that we were a part of her estate plans, so to receive a gift of this magnitude from her was a wonderful surprise,” White said. “But it’s not surprising that this was her passion.”
The society said $250,000 of the donation will go to restoration and renovation of the theater. An additional $233,150 will be used to pay off the theater’s mortgage, and the balance will be put into an endowment for future operations.
Porter’s early role with the symphony society was with its auxiliary fundraising group, the Women’s Symphony League. She also organized ushers for many years and served on the society’s board.
Her contributions to Columbia’s arts and community organizations included Meals-on-Wheels, Friends of Music of MU, MU’s Chancellor’s Residence Preservation Society and the university’s Arts & Science Alumni Association Board.
Ellen Roper, a retired judge who serves as a board member for the symphony society, said Porter would give motherly advice to those in need and remembers her close ties with artist Paul Jackson.
“She put her money where her heart was,” Roper said. “You could not tell by her outward demeanor, by the way she lived, that she amassed so much.”
Shortly after Porter’s death in April 2005, MU announced that she had left $1 million to the university for a new performing arts center.
“Mary Nell’s first love was students at Mizzou,” said Nancy Moen, communications director at MU’s College of Arts and Science.
Porter had no grandchildren and served as a mother figure to many students, Moen said, recalling that Porter once accompanied a group of MU student opera singers to New York City and made sure everyone would be able to watch an opera by purchasing their tickets.
According to the symphony society, Porter began volunteer work at the beginning of World War II in a blood-drawing station in Washington, D.C. After the war, she moved to New York City and worked as a personnel manager for American Cyanamid and Alexander’s Department Stores.