$2.5 million proves it: Good manners matter

Personal thank-you notes from symphony chairman inspire a donor's largess

November 18, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

DETROIT -- Peter Cummings' mother insisted that her son write thank-you notes. The multimillionaire real-estate developer hasn't forgotten the lesson.

When Cummings, now 52, became chairman of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra last year, he began writing personal notes to anyone contributing $500 or more to the orchestra. He was petrified that the DSO might misspell a donor's name on a form letter or send a close friend a card with his stamped signature.

He had no idea that his mother's wisdom was about to inspire one of the largest windfalls in DSO history.

Or that an 80-year-old native of Detroit would teach the DSO profound lessons about the importance of saying thanks and the power of community and building relationships.

Mary Webber Parker was born in 1919 into one of Detroit's leading families. She is the daughter of the late Richard Hudson Webber, nephew of the original J.L. Hudson and president and later chairman of Hudson's department store from 1912 to 1961.

She grew up in Grosse Pointe Farms; the family doings were chronicled in society columns. She attended Bennington College in Vermont, returning home to live with her parents in 1940.

She often heard the DSO at Orchestra Hall in those days, and she remembers the concerts as thrilling.

She married in 1942 and moved to California. Now widowed, she lives in Bloomfield, Conn. It's been 57 years since she left Detroit, and in the past 20 years, she has returned only twice.

One day in late 1998, a $50,000 check from Parker came across Cummings' desk. Who is this woman? he asked.

Told of her Detroit connection, he crafted a thank-you note on Jan. 12, 1999, including details about Orchestra Place, the DSO's construction project along Woodward Avenue.

The project, he wrote on DSO letterhead, "has led the way in the revitalization of downtown Detroit."

Two weeks later, Parker wrote back, promising the DSO an additional $50,000.

Cummings responded with another thank-you, noting that he was planning a trip to Connecticut in the fall when his daughter registered at Trinity College in Hartford.

"I hope you will allow me to call on you," he wrote.

Cummings didn't hear from Parker for months, until a letter arrived, dated June 13. She first granted Cummings' request to visit.

Then she wrote, in graceful cursive on modest stationery: "I would like to make a donation to the DSO of $500,000 a year for five years."

That's $2.5 million in all.

Cummings was flabbergasted. "I can afford it, and I want to do it," Parker said when he telephoned to express his gratitude.

For decades, Parker had followed the national news reports documenting the decline of Detroit, the city she had been so proud of as a girl. She saw the decay up close when she returned to Detroit in 1982 when her mother died at age 97.

But last June she came for another visit and she was amazed by the rebuilding of downtown.

"We could see the changes that had been made and those that still needed to be made," she says. "I got very interested in the revitalization of Detroit. I'm not only interested in the symphony itself, but its role in the revitalization of the city."

In August, Cummings dropped his daughter off at college and made his way in a rental car to Bloomfield, Conn.

He expected his journey to end at a well-appointed estate. Instead, he found Parker, an elegant woman of dignified carriage, waiting for him at a nursing home -- a "very nice nursing home," he says.

Weeks later, Cummings told the story to his friend Gov. John Engler.

Engler's response: "You ought to take a group out to Connecticut and play a concert for that woman."

On Dec. 8, a quartet of DSO musicians will fly to Bloomfield and perform for Parker, her friends and the nursing home residents.

"We're very excited," she says. "We've had musical performances before, but never a group from an orchestra. It's very special."

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