Nancy Knowles Gives Record-Breaking Bequest to Lyric Opera
SEPTEMBER 07, 2007By Press Release, Lyric Opera of ChicagoLyric Opera of Chicago has received a $10-million bequest from Nancy W. Knowles, General Director William Mason announced today. The bequest is the largest gift in the company’s 53-year history. “It is especially noteworthy that a gift of this magnitude comes from one extraordinary woman who is a consummate professional and an outstanding philanthropist,” Mason said. Knowles joined the Lyric Opera Board of Directors in 1998. She was a member of the company’s Guild Board 1993 through 1999, having first become a Lyric Opera donor in 1990. In 2001 she joined Lyric’s Overture Society as a Bel Canto Benefactor. In 2004 Knowles was a diamond-tier sponsor of Lyric’s 50th-anniversary gala. Knowles’s support for the revival of Verdi’s La traviata, which opens Lyric’s 53rd season on September 29, marks her debut as a production cosponsor. “We are immensely grateful to Nancy for this demonstration of her outstanding commitment to Lyric,” Mason said. “She is a remarkable person of great strength and character, and is passionate in her devotion to the arts. Her gift to Lyric will leave a magnificent legacy, and all of us in the company are thrilled by it. As a unique tribute to Nancy, we have named the Civic Opera House’s lobby in her honor.” The Nancy W. Knowles Lobby, at the corner of Wacker Drive and Madison Street, is the elegant entrance to the Civic Opera House. This lively reception area, where the bronze bust of Lyric’s founder, Carol Fox, is displayed, leads to the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Grand Foyer. Nancy Welch Knowles is president of The Knowles Foundation, which was established in Illinois in 1955 and which supports the arts, education, health, international development, and social services. She is chairman emeritus of Knowles Electronics, a world leader in subminiature electronic components and the largest manufacturer of microphones today. The company was founded by her late husband Hugh Knowles (one of the nation’s leading acoustical researchers and engineers) in 1954 near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (to facilitate overnight shipping, long before Federal Express). Nancy Knowles shared control of the firm with her late husband’s son and two daughters until 1999, when 90% of the stock was sold. Knowles Electronics is now owned by Dover Corporation.
In 1994 The Knowles Foundation donated an assistive listening system for the refurbished Ardis Krainik Theatre of the Civic Opera House as part of the “Building on Greatness” Capital Campaign. The system continues to benefit many thousands of Lyric ticket-holders each season. (The Knowles Foundation is a private foundation established by Hugh Knowles and his family, not by Knowles Electronics.) As a philanthropist, Nancy Knowles has maintained a relatively low profile. Not even her closest friends knew that a portion of the education and acting center at London’s fabled Shakespeare Globe Theatre, The Nancy W. Knowles Theatre, has been named in her honor. Increasingly, however, Knowles appreciates the recognition that comes with making leadership gifts. “One of the things I absolutely enjoy about giving as a woman is when the majority of the people in the room who are giving are men,” Knowles says with a twinkle in her eye. “It’s an absolute thrill!”
For much of her professional life Knowles has been one of the few women in the room, if not the only one! A native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, she earned her bachelor’s degree in languages from the State University of Iowa (in Iowa City), and returned to her home town as a Spanish translator for Fort Dodge Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company. She subsequently worked for Pickands Mather, a mining-related firm in Cleveland, and then came to the Chicago area in 1974 at the invitation of Hugh Knowles.
With no knowledge of the sub-miniature electronic hearing instrument components manufactured by Knowles Electronics for hearing-aid manufacturers, Nancy started in new product development, “surrounded by engineers and physicists.” Charged with being a set of “new eyes,” she proceeded to learn the business through listening, observing, and questioning. Knowles recalls that she initially encountered “a bunch of men who were stubborn as hell! I had no voice for a long time. They didn’t understand me and they didn’t hear me. I had to earn the right to speak and be heard and accepted.” Knowles’s hard work and cheerful persistence eventually won her colleagues’ respect. She found the learning process exhilarating, and ultimately she found the job “wonderful. I absolutely loved it. It was a fabulous company. We were truly global. We were manufacturing, selling, and distributing in foreign countries, with an incredibly accurate and reliable shipping and delivery system. Eventually the management team created a living document to assist the managers in long-range planning, and I was involved with that process. I love strategic planning! To be able to help millions and millions of people with hearing around the world is astounding.” Knowles Electronics is best known for making the subminiature microphones and receivers used by hearing-aid manufacturers internationally, with an enormous market share and an astonishing failure rate of less than 1% after a year. “Ours are much more durable and much stronger than the competitors – the ear is a hostile environment, so the components have to be really strong and resilient,” Knowles says. A high point, Knowles recalls, came when NASA “came to us and said, ‘We’re going to the moon and have to have communications – here are the specifications.’ They gave us several months to develop a system, but we had a suitable product on the shelf! When you heard Neil Armstrong say, ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ that was on our microphone!” Several years after joining Knowles Electronics, Nancy Welch Knowles married Hugh Knowles in 1979 (Welch is her middle name, and her mother’s maiden name). He was chairman and she was vice-chairman of the firm. He suffered a serious stroke in 1980 and was homebound; she continued to work and “would bring home the issues of the day to discuss with Hugh, and would bring back the answers the next day,” she recalls. “Over time, we finally reached the point where he would say, ‘What do you think we should do?’ and eventually he said, ‘You can do this.’ He’d trained me for a long time.” By the time Hugh died in 1988, at the age of 84, Nancy says she “had a voice – I was part of the team. I had as much input as anybody.” She became Knowles Electronics’ chairman after her husband’s death, a position she held until the company was sold, in 1999. She retains leadership of The Knowles Foundation. Of her career trajectory, Knowles says, “I’m a woman who did it myself. I had some help, had a good mentor, and I took advantage of that. I learned and I grew. I paid attention, and not only grew the business but grew in my personal life and my ability to give back. It’s very exciting.” Nancy Knowles’s father (an orthopedic surgeon who invented the Knowles Pin, which is used to set broken bones) had a huge collection of 78 rpm records, many of them operatic. As a child, “it was a big deal to go to Des Moines to go to the opera, then drive home afterwards – it was a hundred miles away!” she recalls. As an adult, she enjoys “the costuming, the wigs, the staging, and of course the music! And I enjoy the people – the cross-section of people who come to the opera. I enjoy what they wear, and how they chose to present themselves at Lyric.” She names Plácido Domingo as her favorite artist, and Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, and Bizet as her favorite opera composers. Says Knowles, “Giving back to the community is important and very personal to me. The projects I have supported over the years are worthwhile, and the people involved have become particularly special. When I have a significant personal relationship with an organization, I support it at a higher level.”