Susan Kennedy’s experience with the Spokane Symphony didn’t begin very glamorously.
It started with an opportunity from “godmother of the arts” Katherine Gellhorn to handwrite concert invitations.
Kennedy and her husband, Paul, moved to Spokane shortly after from the Bay Area for his work for Old National Bank ( now U.S. Bank), and Paul was asked to be a member of the Connoisseur Concerts board.
Gellhorn, who died in 1997, invited members of the board and their wives to write out invitations for an upcoming Viennese ball.
“Labels were considered tacky back then,” Kennedy explained.
The invitation-writing session took place in an office lit by one bare lightbulb. Kennedy recalls the room was so cold that everyone kept their winter boots on and wrote while wearing mittens.
“Not all the board members showed up and so she thought we had spunk,” Kennedy said. “She said, ‘Well, (opera singer) Marilyn Horne is coming to perform with the symphony and I’d like to have you as our guests and introduce you to her at the reception afterward.’
“Marilyn Horne was long gone by the time Katherine had introduced us to everybody.”
After that concert, Gellhorn asked Kennedy to help her with the tree she was organizing for the Spokane Symphony Associates’ big fundraiser, Christmas Tree Elegance.
That tree started it all, and Kennedy has volunteered for the symphony for the past 33 years as a member of the Spokane Symphony Associates and as a trustee for the Spokane Symphony Board.
Spokane Symphony development director Jennifer Hicks, who has called Kennedy a friend for more than two decades, nominated her as a Woman of the Year.
“She’s such an inspiration,” Hicks said. “I always tell her, ‘I want to be just like you,’ because she’s so positive and so passionate about what she does.”
Kennedy grew up around music – her father loved show tunes and her mother attended a music college in Texas and played cello and piano.
Kennedy played the piano herself until the age of 12.
“I truly think music does something for the soul,” she said.
It was an easy decision then for Kennedy to join the Spokane Symphony Associates.. She especially enjoyed getting to see the behind-the-scenes of organizing and putting on a concert.
“When we had the Opera House (now the First Interstate Center for the Arts) as a venue, we in the symphony associates would give tours to people,” she said, recalling that she told guests, “When you sit in your seat, you can look onstage and go, ‘I helped do something for that. I made that happen.’ ”
Kennedy said the other symphony associates she’s worked with are just as enthusiastic about helping the symphony, be it financially or through making connections in the community.
According to Hicks, making connections is something the Kennedys do very well.
“They have so many friends they’ve met through the orchestra or the board or the symphony associates. It’s really been a big part of their lives,” she said. “She and Paul have been tirelessly inviting friends and new people to the symphony.”
Hicks said she and the Kennedys have a special connection themselves. Yes, they work together to raise funds for the symphony, but they’ve developed a friendship over the years.
Hicks worked for the symphony from 1996-2000, before leaving the area for 14 years. During that time away, she kept in touch with the Kennedys. When Hicks visited Spokane, Susan would host a luncheon for Hicks and make sure she was still connected with the community.
“She’s a very good friend, and I’m really grateful to know her,” Hicks said.
Kennedy enjoys her work with the symphony because of that familial nature, which she said exists between the symphony office staff, members of the orchestra, the symphony board, the Spokane Symphony Associates board and volunteers, and the Christmas Tree Elegance organizers.
“Everybody seems to really get along and really value working to do something that really helps the community and the individual and children,” she said.
Kennedy was previously on the Spokane Symphony Board of Trustees, in a variety of roles, and on the volunteer council board of the American Symphony Orchestra League, now called the League of American Orchestras.
But the symphony is not the only organization Kennedy has dedicated her time to over the years. She was a member of the board of Wampum, YWCA, Connoisseur Concerts, Spokane Art School and the Spokane Chamber Music Association.
She has also volunteered with the United Way and the American Cancer Society, and is on the Campbell House Committee of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
Looking back on her time with the symphony, it’s difficult for Kennedy to name memorable moments, simply because there are too many to remember.
She was excited that the symphony associates made its largest donation yet to the symphony after the 2018 Christmas Tree Elegance, and she and her husband enjoyed getting to know symphony musicians and staff, guest musicians and each new conductor who led the orchestra.
She also enjoyed hosting parties after the Labor Day weekend concerts to thank the musicians, a tradition which ended a couple years ago, and getting to see the symphony transition from the Opera House to the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
“It’s been 34 years worth of wonderful memories and friends,” Kennedy said.
If both the Kennedys and the symphony have their way, there will be even more wonderful experiences to come.
“In Spokane, we have something very, very special, because I feel like in general, most people try to be kind to others,” Hicks said. “I think Susie would be iconic Spokane about being warm and friendly and loving to everybody, overlooking people’s mistakes. … Susan is someone that appreciates beauty and seeks to have it in her life but also share it with others. … She’s a great ambassador for our symphony. We’re really lucky.”
“I really do believe in music, what it does to the human spirit,” Kennedy said. “That’s my goal, really, is to help further that both in the community and elsewhere.”
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