Gave Lyric Opera $ 10M

Chicago Sun-Times - - REMEMBERING | NATION BEAT - BY MAU­REEN O’DON­NELL Staff Re­porter

Nancy Welch Knowles, one of Chicago’s most gen­er­ous phi­lan­thropists, has died.

Among her do­na­tions, Mrs. Knowles gave $ 10 mil­lion to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the largest in­di­vid­ual be­quest in its 63- year his­tory. She also pledged $ 10 mil­lion to her fam­ily doc­tor’s hospi­tal — Loy­ola Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter in May­wood — and an “eight- fig­ure” amount to the Shirley Ryan Abil­i­tyLab, where she re­ceived ther­apy and treat­ment af­ter back surgery. Her con­tri­bu­tion to the re­hab hospi­tal was sec­ond only to a gift from Shirley and Pat Ryan, the founder of Aon.

Mrs. Knowles died Satur­day, ac­cord­ing to the Lyric. The long­time Hins­dale res­i­dent was 86.

She was “one of Lyric’s great­est cheer­lead­ers,” said chief devel­op­ment of­fi­cer Mary Se­lander. “What her gift does is help se­cure Lyric for the fu­ture and for fu­ture au­di­ences.”

At the Shirley Ryan Abil­i­tyLab, “Her spirit is im­bued within key spa­ces in the new hospi­tal, em­pow­er­ing and in­spir­ing our pa­tients, clin­i­cians and re­searchers alike,” said the hospi­tal’s CEO, Dr. Joanne C. Smith.

And at Loy­ola, Mrs. Knowles was “a gen­er­ous sup­porter and a friend to many,” said Larry M. Goldberg, pres­i­dent & CEO of the health sys­tem.

She is also be­ing re­mem­bered by of­fi­cials at Elmhurst Hospi­tal, where she be­stowed “the largest do­na­tion re­ceived in the his­tory of the hospi­tal,” said Mary Lou Mas­tro, sys­tem CEO of Ed­ward- Elmhurst Health. “She was pas­sion­ate about can­cer care, and the Nancy W. Knowles Can­cer Cen­ter will con­tinue her legacy of ex­cel­lence and com­pas­sion.”

In 1979, she mar­ried Hugh Knowles, a dis­tant cousin and founder of a com­pany she’d gone to work for about five years ear­lier. An en­gi­neer and in­ven­tor who held more than 50 patents, his work on the minia­tur­iza­tion of re­ceivers and mi- cro­phones helped shrink the size of mod­ern hear­ing aids. Dur­ing World War II, he did re­search on blas­tre­sis­tant loud­speak­ers and air­craft car­rier bull­horns. In 1978, he be­came the first Amer­i­can to re­ceive the Alexan­der Graham Bell award for his work on hear­ing aids.

Tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped by Itas­cabased Knowles Elec­tron­ics is used in cell­phones made by Ap­ple, Sam­sung and Mo­torola.

About a year af­ter they got mar­ried, Mrs. Knowles’ hus­band had a stroke. He came to rely on her judg- ment. She told the Lyric she’d “bring home the is­sues of the day to dis­cuss with Hugh and would bring back the an­swers the next day . . . we fi­nally reached the point where he would say, ‘ What do you think we should do?’ ” She rose to be chair­per­son of the com­pany.

Mrs. Knowles started in new prod­uct devel­op­ment, “sur­rounded by en­gi­neers and physi­cists.” She said she was met by “a bunch of men who were stub­born as hell! I had no voice for a long time. . . I had to earn the right to speak and be heard and ac­cepted.”

Ul­ti­mately she found the job “won­der­ful. . . . To be able to help mil­lions and mil­lions of peo­ple with hear­ing around the world is as­tound­ing.”

Her hus­band died in 1988 at age 83.

Young Nancy grew up in Fort Dodge, Iowa, the daugh­ter of Cather­ine and Dr. Fred Knowles, a sur­geon who de­vel­oped the Knowles pin used in treat­ing hip frac­tures. Her gen­eros­ity might have been in­flu­enced by the ex­am­ple of her fa­ther, who shared the in­ven­tion, said David Hill, her nephew by mar­riage. “He do­nated [ the Knowles pin] to mankind. He didn’t patent it or any­thing.”

Her fa­ther had a love of cul­ture, ac­cord­ing to an edi­tion of “Who’s Who in Ortho­pe­dics,” which re­ported, “He de­signed a fas­ci­nat­ing home on the banks of the Des Moines River in the out­skirts of Fort Dodge, with spe­cial ten­nis courts and bowl­ing greens. He= was a highly suc­cess­ful or­ganic gar­dener and grower of or­chids.” He used to drive 100 miles to Des Moines to at­tend the opera, ac­cord­ing to the Lyric.

Af­ter earn­ing a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in lan­guages from the Univer­sity of Iowa, she started work­ing as a Span­ish trans­la­tor for Fort Dodge Lab­o­ra­to­ries.

Mrs. Knowles loved the voice of Placido Domingo and the com­posers Puc­cini, Mozart, Verdi and Bizet. She en­joyed shop­ping at Neiman Mar­cus, es­pe­cially for Es­cada cloth­ing. She had a pil­low that said, “I don’t do fash­ion. I am fash­ion.”

A third mar­riage af­ter Hugh Knowles’ death ended in di­vorce, Hill said. She is sur­vived by her stepchil­dren Mar­garet and Kather­ine; a niece, Nancy Hill; eight step­grand­chil­dren, 11 great- grand­chil­dren and three great- great- grand­chil­dren.

A funeral Mass is planned for 10: 30 a. m. Thurs­day at Notre Dame Catholic Church in Claren­don Hills. Be­fore that, Lyric Opera artists are to per­form at 10: 15 a. m. She re­quested the songs “Over the Rain­bow” and “Ave Maria.” Burial will be at Mount Em­blem Ceme­tery in Elmhurst.


Nancy Welch Knowles was a gen­er­ous donor to arts and health causes in Chicago.

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