Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series exploring VAA’s plans for a new performing arts center.
For the past three decades, Kay White — a woman known and admired by a select group of friends who share her interests in gardening and choral music — has enjoyed a largely private and quiet life on Vashon.
But now, with a singular philanthropic gesture — pledging millions of dollars in support of Vashon Allied Arts’ efforts to build a new center for the arts — the longtime Islander has found herself thrust into an unaccustomed spotlight.
White, who was named Grand Marshal in this year’s Strawberry Festival in large part because of her support for VAA’s plans, said she still can’t believe she’ll occupy a place of honor in the festival parade.
“This isn’t something that I ever thought would happen,” she said recently, as she sat in her Maury Island home, a sprawling but still understated two-story residence surrounded by 10 acres of manicured grounds and lush gardens.
The house — filled with some of the same sleek mid-century furniture White brought to Vashon with her from California when she and her late husband William White built the retirement residence in 1980 — seems to belong to another era. Shelves filled with glass figurines line one wall, and two stuffed animals perch on either end of a low-profile, 1970s-era couch.
White, a petite, vibrant woman who will soon celebrate her 91st birthday, has grown comfortably old in the house, surrounded by her pampered dogs and a small household and grounds staff that tends to her needs. But for White, a wealthy, childless widow, her impending mortality was definitely a factor in her taking on a role as visionary and key supporter in VAA’s push for a new, state-of-the-art facility.
“As I grew older, I thought, what else am I going to do with the money?” she said.
White has been acknowledged since 2009 as the lead donor for what VAA officials have dubbed the Vashon Center for the Arts — a 20,000-square-foot complex, designed by the blue-chip Seattle firm LMN Architects, that will include a 300-seat performance hall, exhibition and event space, classrooms, outdoor space and more.
But VAA officials have only recently made public the full extent of White’s gift — $3.5 million in cash as well as a charitable trust now valued at $7 million that VAA has earmarked as a reserve fund to sustain the $16.5 million facility.
The size of the gift has stunned many in Vashon’s arts community and beyond.
“To be approached by someone with that kind of extraordinary generosity was just overwhelming,” said Molly Reed, VAA’s executive director. “I would doubt there has ever been an act of philanthropy like that on Vashon, and even in Seattle it is unusual. It doesn’t happen all that often at that kind of size.”
Charlie Rathbun, who manages the arts program for 4Culture, a King County agency that has provided a $75,000 grant for VAA’s new building, agreed with Reed, adding that it was especially significant that the bulk of White’s contribution has been set aside for the arts center’s long-term viability.
“To want to create a temple for art that can last into the future — I don’t find that to be an unusual impulse in giving,” Rathbun said. “But for her to have considered the long-term operating needs of the project is very wise.”
White’s role in the construction of the new building goes far beyond being a mere funder. Since the project has gotten under way, she has sat on the building committee for the new facility and attended many meetings with planners, architects and others involved in the effort. She has also provided large infusions of cash at crucial moments along the way, such as when VAA purchased the McFeeds building and adjacent property behind it — clearing a path for VAA to double its footprint on the corner of Vashon Highway and Cemetery Road where the new building will be situated.
But beyond that, the new arts center was in fact White’s idea — though many on the Island have long wished for a bigger and better place to present concerts, plays, dance productions and other events.
White first approached VAA in 2007, unsolicited, to let officials there know she wanted to help get a new theater built on Vashon. Her impulse, she said, was simple — it came from her involvement in Vashon Island Chorale, an 80-voice group that she joined after her husband died in 1990. In recent years, the chorale has presented concerts at St. John Vianney Church and Bethel Church.
“I liked singing in the chorale very much,” said White. “I kept going to the chorale, and after a while I realized that there was no place on this Island where the chorale could really perform. I thought they needed their own performance space.”
Music has always been a part of White’s life — she attended opera and symphony performances in Seattle with her late husband — but she only rediscovered her passion for singing in the years after her husband died.
“I had sung as young girl at Northwestern University,” she said with a small smile. “I was a soprano then, but now I’m a tenor.”
Gary Cannon, who conducts the chorale, said White is one of the group’s most devoted and enthusiastic members.
“She’s always one of the first people there. She always helps us set up the chairs, and she sits in the front row, and it’s so nice to see her there,” Cannon said. “She’s so caring about everything that goes on and everything she undertakes. She does it with a very full heart and that’s a very precious commodity these days. The fact that her dedication to the chorale led to her generosity to the project impresses me to no end.”
For the past couple of years, White has also been an avid supporter of Vashon Opera — another group that she is excited to see perform in VAA’s new theater.
White’s life provides few clues to her ultimate decision to donate so much to build a new arts center on Vashon.
Born in 1920, she grew up as an only child in a middle-class home in Chicago that was shaped by the Great Depression. Her father was an advertising man and struggled to make a living during the 1930s. Still, White was able to attend and graduate cum laude from Northwest University in 1943.
She then headed to Los Angeles, where she toiled in a variety of jobs before landing a position in 1949, working for William White, the man whom she would marry in 1971, when she was 51 and he was a decade older — a match that was made after the death of William’s first wife.
William White and his first wife had one daughter, a woman now in her 70s, who is herself a childless widow, with homes in Huntington Beach and Palm Springs, Calif. Kay White said she has a close and warm relationship with her stepdaughter.
William White was a businessman who made his fortune at the helm of a company that brokered and cleared merchandise through customs for importers and exporters. Later, he branched into the freight-forwarding business, working with clients that included such giants of industry as Sears, Montgomery Ward, Mattel and Chrysler.
Kay White’s proudest moment while working with her husband, she said, was when she passed a tough examination given by the U.S. Treasury Department to become a customs house broker herself.
The elderly arts patron, however, is self-deprecating about her philanthropy, noting that her husband’s success made her contribution to VAA possible. “All the money I have to put into it was made by Bill, so Bill gets the credit as much as I do,” she said.
Reed, who has come to think of White as a good friend in the years since she first expressed interest in building a new arts center, has heard the same from White. “She’s expressed a real humbleness to me, saying, ‘It was Bill that made this possible,’ and I’ve said, ‘Give yourself more credit!’ She was right there, helping him build that business. She’s a very sharp cookie.”
Reed said that she hopes others on Vashon and beyond will step up and help make White’s vision for a new arts center on the Island a reality.
“We’ve got to build this building,” she said, her voice catching. “We have to let Kay be there when the doors open, we have to let her see the results of this gift. That’s one of reasons I get upset at any roadblocks to this. … Let’s get this thing built in honor of this woman.”
For her part, White also hopes her gift will inspire others to give to the VAA’s campaign — a multi-million dollar fundraising effort that many are already calling ambitious in light of the region’s tough economic situation.
“I think it is important for people to feel hopeful,” she said. “I think a defeatist attitude is bad, and I can’t do more than try to add my assurances that things will get better.”