Gave Lyric Opera $ 10M
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.