Simsbury resident Louise Wheelock Willson, who died last month at the age of 74, has bequeathed gifts totaling $25 million to various nonprofits and friends, with $16 million going to Connecticut arts groups, the Hartford Courant reports.
Willson, whose family had a role in creating Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a Des Moines-based seed-production company, was raised in Iowa, attended the Madeira School in Virginia, and graduated from Northwestern University. After settling in the East, Willson spent the rest of her life quietly promoting the arts in central and northwestern Connecticut. "Louise was a great friend and a cheerleader for the arts like no one I've ever met," said Sharon Dante, the artistic director of the Nutmeg Ballet in Torrington, which received a $5 million bequest, the largest gift in its history.
Beyond donating significant sums of money anonymously, Willson also handed out scores of tickets to friends and casual acquaintances in an effort to build audiences for performances. "She wanted the arts to be accessible to everyone," said Georgia MacInnis, a friend. "And she believed that arts made better people."
Beneficiaries named in Willson's will include the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, which received $3 million; the New Britain Museum of American Arts, which received $2 million; and the Hartford Symphony, the Connecticut Opera Association, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, and the Warner Theater, in Torrington, each of which received $1 million.
"It's going to be a big shot in the arm for organizations struggling to get to the next level of development, retire debt, or build endowments," said Ken Kahn, director of the Greater Hartford Arts Council.