Friend: A well-wisher, patron or supporter.
When Birmingham arts patron Patty McDonald attended a Samford School of the Arts student ensemble performance in the spring of 2008, she was immediately smitten.
“I was impressed with the number of students in attendance, and the rapport between the audience, the performers and the faculty. It was enchanting,” recalled McDonald, who had been invited to attend by her close friends-- and longtime Samford supporters--Harold and Elouise Williams.
That evening, a friendship between McDonald and Samford Arts was born.
“I went home and thought about it during the summer, and called to ask if they would be interested in my offering a sponsorship,” recalls McDonald, who sponsored six performances during the 2009-10 season. For the 2010-11 season, she upped her sponsorships to nine.
Samford is among a Who’s Who of arts organizations and community agencies that appreciatively count Patty McDonald as a friend.
The university is happy to comply with McDonald’s request that all of her sponsored arts events have an educational component, such as master classes given by visiting artists. That was the case last October, when Boston Symphony Orchestra principal tubist Mike Roylance performed with the Samford Wind Ensemble. The McDonald sponsorship enabled the guest artist to extend his Samford presence to include master classes for student instrumentalists.
“In a university setting, students may never have another opportunity to learn from that level of professional performer,” reasoned McDonald.
“I’ve been told that my sponsorships make a difference,” continued McDonald. “I am thrilled because I’ve been involved around the city, and know that the Samford student body supports events. Knowing that they’ve got homework and other activities, it is rewarding to know that they will spend one and a half hours at a performance.”
Another request is that her name be attached to promotion related to her sponsored event. “People who know me know that if I support something, it’s worthy of their attendance and support,” said McDonald.
That rationale makes sense.
For decades, McDonald has been a respected patron of arts organizations and community civic causes. Groups that treasure her leadership and guidance include: Alys Stevens Center for the Performing Arts, Red Mountain Theatre Company, Birmingham Festival Theatre, Birmingham Area Theatre Alliance, Opera Birmingham, Birmingham Area Theatre Alliance, Virginia Samford Theatre, Magic City Actors Theatre, Birmingham Aids Outreach, VSA Arts of Alabama, Arlington House Museum, Oasis Women’s and Children’s Counseling Center, Seasoned Performers, Women’s Committee of 100 for Birmingham and the Salvation Army.
She is also on the executive council of the 150-member Friends of Samford Arts, a collection of supportive faculty, staff, students, alumni and others.
McDonald, who delights in introducing people to the Samford arts experience, recalls bringing two of her friends to their first Samford show last year.
“They were blown away by the quality of the student performance,” said McDonald, who immediately could see another link between Samford and the Birmingham arts community.
Soon after, the couple sponsored the School of the Arts’ lavish production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which played to enthusiastic audiences in Wright Center. They have since underwritten several other shows.
Staging a work such as Millie, which showcased the talents of both music and theatre students, notes McDonald, may draw area artistic directors and other professionals to the audience. That can translate into jobs down the road for the student performers.
“In this economy, students are often challenged to come up with tuition and living expenses. Knowing that there are opportunities out there for them is a good thing,” she said.
After attending a spring 2009 Bells of Buchanan concert, McDonald asked to sponsor the handbell choir’s next Christmas performance. She then supplied Samford staff with a list of friends to invite.
The hall was standing room only, reports a delighted McDonald. “I received notes from people saying that it was a most glorious way to start the holy season.”
She is equally excited about a new collaboration between Samford and Opera Birmingham, which will stage six performances at Samford during the 2010-11 season. A longtime Opera Birmingham board member, McDonald sees the relationship as a good way to engage opera fans who may make their first visit to campus and become new friends of the school.
In November, she will co-sponsor the Opera Birmingham performance of world-class coloratura soprano and 1985 Samford music graduate Elizabeth Futral.
McDonald’s interest in the arts dates to her childhood in Colorado, where the young singer, dancer and actress starred in the Denver Children’s Theatre. She has been performing for audiences and the camera ever since. From age 8 to 24, she was a magazine model who appeared in such publications as The Saturday Evening Post.
As her late husband’s military and corporate career took the couple to 38 locations before they settled in Birmingham in the late 1970s, she always found ways to be part of the local arts community.
She has performed with many Birmingham groups. In August, she opened the 2010 Virginia Samford Theatre season with a musical revue, “Patty McDonald and Her Circle of Friends.” The cast list included Samford music faculty member G. William Bugg and Samford alumna Carol Armistead.
Her interest in the arts extends to all levels, including public schools. “Exposure to the arts has to be reinstated, and that requires a new look-see nationwide by school boards and superintendants,” she said. “They must understand that through the performing arts is the future of what we want ourselves as a nation to be.”
McDonald’s initial connection to Samford began soon after she moved Birmingham. Wanting to learn more about decorative arts and the southern way of life and history, she took various courses of interest, including Samford After Sundown antiques classes that were taught for years by the late Margaret Sizemore and more recently by alumnus Dan Brooks.
She has also been a Samford parent. Her daughter, Patricia, holds a bachelor’s degree from Samford and a juris doctor degree from Cumberland School of Law.
“Now, I’m finding new adventures at Samford,” said McDonald. “And all of these things grew out of Harold and Elouise Williams inviting me to a performance.”
McDonald’s relationship with Samford is a story of friendship in the best fashion, says School of the Arts dean Dr. Joseph Hopkins.
“She was invited to Samford by a friend; she became involved in our program; she saw opportunities to support and become a friend; she accepted a place of leadership and service among our Friends of Samford Arts, and she continues to bring many more friends to join with her,” said Hopkins.
“We will tell the story of Patty’s influence in this place for many years to come.”