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State Honoring Lowell's Nancy Donahue as Cultural Philanthropist

Enterprise Bank Chairman George Duncan, left, Nancy Donahue, and her now-late husband Richard Donahue. Photo by Lowell Sun/Julia Malakie
Enterprise Bank Chairman George Duncan, left, Nancy Donahue, and her now-late husband Richard Donahue pose near her portrait  photographed by Kevin Harkins outside a room named for her at Enterprise Bank in September 2015.

Lowell Sun
By Grant Welker

LOWELL -- For decades, Nancy Donahue has given countless hours and considerable financial support to Lowell's arts community, schools and other groups.

In the Lowell area, that work by Donahue and her late husband, Richard, has long been well known. Now, it's being recognized statewide.

Donahue has been chosen to receive a cultural philanthropy award by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which lauded her for "her instrumental role in creating and nurturing the arts across the Merrimack Valley."

The awards will be presented Feb. 15 at the Statehouse.

Anita Walker, the council's executive director, said "it was no contest" for choosing Donahue for the award, with her decades of commitment, both financially and with her time.

Walker served on a panel with Donahue and others during a Lowell Plan program in Lowell in October. Walker said she noticed "all the energy and warmth focused on Nancy" at the event.

"I learned that it wasn't just the financial resources she provides, but also that she volunteers," Walker said. "The combination of those two things are what really make her an exemplar for our philanthropy award."

"It's not a flash in the pan," she added of Donahue's longevity. "It's commitment, it's persistence, it's coming back every day. She absolutely never relinquished her role in giving back to the community. Honestly, she's a star."

Donahue called it a "great honor" to be chosen by the Massachusetts Cultural Council for the award.
"I was blown away when they called me," she said, "I really was."

It isn't the first time Donahue's been honored for her work, of course.

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre's main venue and offices are named after her, and so is the collection room at the Quilt Museum. She received a community service award by Enterprise Bank earlier this year and the March of Dimes gave her a charitable leadership award in 2012.

The MRT nominated Donahue for the cultural council award.

"She is a total powerhouse, and I don't think there's anyone that says no to Nancy," said Elizabeth Kegley, the MRT executive director. "Her enthusiasm and dedication are contagious and you can't help but want to join in on whatever she's doing."

Donahue, 86, first started giving back her time and effort in ways that related to her young family, including her 11 children, serving on parent-teacher organizations or teaching Catholic youth classes.

"As time moves on, it gradually changes," she said.

It did, and Donahue's focus soon evolved to culture and education. In 1979, she helped found the Merrimack Repertory Theatre and served as its first board president. She was also instrumental at the New England Quilt Museum and Whistler House Museum of Art.

Through the decades, Donahue has remained involved with the MRT but has also given to the local YMCA and Boys & Girls Club, the Coalition for a Better Acre, Project Learn and others. She and Richard have also given generously to UMass Lowell and to her alma mater, Lasell College in Newton.

The Donahues have been among the largest donors at UMass Lowell. Richard was once a trustee, and Nancy served on the board that chose Jacqueline Moloney as chancellor last year. Both have received honorary degrees.

A $1 million donation from the couple created the Donahue Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility in the Manning School of Business starting this fall semester. There's also the Nancy Donahue Endowed Professorship for the Arts, only one of seven such endowments at the university.

"She's one of the most inspiring people I've ever met," Moloney said, crediting Donahue for "elevating the arts" both at the university and across the city.

The native of New Britain, Conn., also donates her time: as president of the Lowell Art Association and serving on the board of the local United Way and other organizations including, still, the MRT.

Richard Donahue was a well-known figure in Lowell and beyond as an aide to President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s and as a top executive at Nike. Richard Donahue, who was involved in the founding of the Greater Lowell Community Foundation, died in September 2015 at age 88. 

City Manager Kevin Murphy, who as a state representative long worked alongside Donahue in obtaining funding for the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, called her "one of the stalwarts" in working to improve the city.

"She's been a key player in bringing culture to the city," he said, "and I've always been impressed by her activities."