Chicago-area native Daniels parlayed her savvy for donor motivation and her love for the arts into a second career as founder and CEO of the Naples complex holding what was originally the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts and The Baker Museum. Its Daniels Pavilion was named for her and an adjacent structure, The Stabile Education Building, was added to the complex later on.
Under her leadership, the fledgling Naples/Marco Philharmonic developed into a professional symphony that fields Masterworks and Pops seasons. The center brought in entertainers from Donna Summer to Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Alice Cooper.
Naples became an arts destination
“She put Naples on the map. Without her and without her work, a large number of people who had elevated priorities for art and culture would not have considered Naples as a city to settle in,” said her friend, Ursula Pfahl, chief operating officer of Bigham Jewelers.
“I know that’s true for my late husband and me,” she said. “We had come down to Naples and happened to stop near the Phil and saw this building, and said, ‘What’s that?'” As former subscribers to their symphony in Kansas City, she said, they knew they had found the right place for retirement.
Daniels was recovering from the death of her husband, Dan Draper, owner of a high-power Chicago advertising agency and reputed model for the character of Don Draper in the TV series “Mad Men,” when she was offered the opportunity to spearhead the building of a philharmonic center. She threw herself into the challenge, and in 1989 the building, with a 1,400-seat main hall and the 225-seat small pavilion, opened.
First lady Barbara Bush attended opening night in November 1989. The Wall Street Journal covered the opening, according to a news release of her biography. Nine years later, she cut the ribbon on what was originally the Naples Museum of Art, now the Baker Museum, with the famous glass artist Dale Chihuly among the opening day crowd.
But her favorite audiences were schoolchildren, said both Pfahl and Corbin Wyant, retired publisher of the Naples Daily News.
“She was so proud of those yellow school buses bringing kids to see live music,” said Wyant, who played trombone in the first few years of the orchestra and then served on the Philharmonic Center’s board of directors.
“For many of them it was their first exposure to arts and culture,” said Pfahl.
Daniels’ single minded dedication occasionally led to charges of stubbornness, and she butted heads with a series of museum directors who were eventually gone.
“l think great people can accomplish great things because they’re stubborn. If they aren’t, then their vision is gone,” said Pfahl, who became fast friends with Myra after they met in 1997.
“Myra was a lifetime experience,” she declared. What impressed Pfahl was the force of her personality and her dedication to her vision. She was so much more than a creative spirt and talented business woman.
“From the worldwide known artist to her housekeeping staff, she cared for the individual,” she said, recalling that when her friends — down to housekeeping staff — were ill to the point of hospitalization, Daniels would visit them.
“She was a natural leader and an enormous intellect,” Wyant declared. “Her exuberance and her vision were very meaningful to this community.”
He remembered her devotion to the musicians of the philharmonic as well, even helping some of them buy homes here.
Katheen van Bergen, Daniels’ successor at what is now known as Artis—Naples, said she heard of Myra before she ever met her.
“I had known of her legendary nature for years,” she said. “Today is a day for great respect for a remarkable founder, but also of sadness because we have lost a pioneering woman who made arts and culture a great part of what Naples is known for.”
Because of Daniels’ dedication to making the art accessible and high quality, the Myra Janco Daniels Legacy Fund — created by the board when Daniels retired in 2011 — is earmarked for those needs.
“You’ll see it in the programs for major events that need support, like a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, or ‘Carmina Burana,’ or for Community Days. It’s used for things she would have wanted to spend money for.”
Myra Daniels learned arts at home
According to her obituary, she was born Myra Janco in Gary, Indiana, and raised during the Great Depression by parents who encouraged her interest in the arts.
Daniels earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Indiana State and later became an associate professor of marketing at Indiana University, the first woman to hold that position.
In her mid-20s, she started Wabash Advertising in Terre Haute, Indiana, and later became executive vice president of Roche, Rickard, Henri, Hurst, Inc. in Chicago. The National Advertising Federation honored Daniels as its Advertising Woman of the Year in 1965, the youngest woman to receive the award, according to the biography.
That same year, she became president of a new national agency with Daniels.
The one-time rivals married in 1967. Daniels wrote about their unusual courtship in her book “Secrets of a Rutbuster: Breaking Rules and Selling Dreams.” The two had retired to Marco Island when Daniels died in 1983.
A memorial celebration of Myra Janco Daniels’ life will be held on a later date to be announced.
Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.