Creating a Vibrant City
An Interview with Lowell’s Nancy Donahue
Nancy and Richard Donahue moved to Lowell more than six decades ago, in 1953. They raised a family and became ardent benefactors of the arts and other community organizations. Richard, a lawyer, former president of Nike and an assistant to President John F. Kennedy passed away last year at the age of 88, but Nancy carries on their work. We sat down with her to talk about the ways Lowell has evolved since she and her husband arrived in 1953, and her longtime efforts as a volunteer and philanthropist.
In the 63 years you’ve lived in Lowell, how has it evolved?
Lowell has changed dramatically. Back then, there were department stores, movie theaters and grocery stores downtown, but it was in a difficult time economically because the mills had moved out. It perked up when Wang [Laboratories] moved downtown and other high-tech companies located in the area. When they hit hard times, so did Lowell. The building of the Burlington and Pheasant Lane malls didn’t help.
A vibrant city depends on having a variety of arts and cultural organizations. Businesses locate where employees want to live and play as well as work. Thanks to the creative economy, Lowell is now a culturally vibrant, thriving midsize city.
Why have you been so passionate about building the arts scene in Lowell?
I didn’t start out to build the arts scene. John Duff, a good friend, neighbor and president of the University of Lowell [now UMass Lowell] asked me to be the executive director of a cultural foundation he started. To raise money, we held events with world-class artists like Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Benny Goodman. I had never done anything like that before; I just jumped in. Our success indicated interest in this type of event.
A local woman and two young actors came to talk to me about starting a professional theater in Lowell. I set up a board and ended up as president. It was a tough go, but the Merrimack Repertory Theatre is now a nationally recognized theater, in business for 38 years.
One thing led to another. Some women approached me about starting a quilt museum in Lowell, another great idea, so I helped them get it going and have been on the board since the beginning. At the same time, I was on the board of the American Textile Museum in North Andover, and the board decided to move that museum to Lowell, which had recently [launched] a national park.
Lowell City Manager Brian Martin, Councilor Grady Mulligan and I went to see Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci about Providence’s cultural district. When we returned, the Lowell City Council designated its own downtown cultural district. Now, hundreds of artists of all kinds live and work in Lowell. We offer galleries, musical events, poetry readings, theater, museums and more. Artistic expression is important because it can be interpreted and shared by everyone, no matter what the language, educational level, age, ethnicity or gender.
How do you choose which nonprofits to support?
I choose groups that I feel are making important contributions in Lowell, and whose leaders are passionate about what they are doing. My major emphasis may be in the arts, but education and social programs are also critical. So many people are doing so much good work that I am happy to be able to support them.
What part of volunteer work do you enjoy most?
All of it! I love licking stamps, polishing silver and brass, cleaning up, setting up or whatever! Also, whenever I get the chance, I do brag about Lowell and all it has to offer. I’m not crazy about fundraising, but you have to remember that you are not asking money for yourself, but for a very worthy and important organization. I happen to be lucky that I now have the ability to financially help many organizations. Before that, it was time and effort that I gave, and anyone can do that. Every little bit makes a difference.
What benefits have you felt from your life of philanthropy?
There are too many to count. The amazing people I have met, friends I have made, the incredible art that has been produced, the many social programs that have started and improved many people’s lives, and how Lowell has changed so dramatically for the better. It has been wonderful to see and play a small part in these changes.
What are your dreams for Lowell’s future?
I dream that the next generation will make Lowell an even better place to live, work and play, and that our children will be educated in top-ranked public schools from preschool through high school and beyond.
I would also like to have the bridges across the Merrimack River all lit up differently. They do this in Portland, Ore., and it is beautiful and connects the different neighborhoods in a lovely way. We’ll see.
How do you hope to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered for having raised, along with my husband, a wonderful, large family. That really is my greatest accomplishment, and I am blessed. I also hope to be remembered as someone who was good to others, treated everyone with respect and contributed to helping others and my community.