New book and her family give insight into what inspired her to give back
One day, a decade and a half ago, on a tour of the University of Calgary’s music department, Lola Rozsa came across some students rehearsing on a stairwell.
It baffled Rozsa, a lifelong music lover, choir member and longtime supporter of the Calgary Philharmonic and other musical arts organizations in the city.
“She said, ‘Why are they (practising) on the stairwell?’” says Susie Sparks, co-author (along with Rozsa) of My Name is Lola, a new autobiography of Rozsa.
“(They told her it was) because it was the only place there was (to practise),” says Sparks. “So she knew she could do something about that.”
Sparks wrote the book by listening to Lola’s stories over the past two years of her life, writing them up, then reading them aloud to Lola.
As it turns out, Sparks read Lola the first draft of the final chapter of the book, which was launched in early November, the night before she died, in April 2012 at the age of 92.
She couldn’t breathe very well in her nineties, but still remembered every detail, says her daughter (and president of the Rozsa Foundation), Mary Rozsa de Coquet, including the story of what happened the day she got home from visiting U of C’s music department.
“She came home,” says Rozsa de Coquet, “and said (to her husband), ‘Oh Ted, the students have no place to practise and perform!’”
That was the impulse behind the drive to build the Rozsa Centre — or Lola’s Place, as it’s informally known — a state-of-the-art concert hall, where music students at the university now rehearse.
For Rozsa de Coquet, it’s not only a story of how her mother championed the arts and arts education in this city.
It’s also an example of what truly motivated, and inspired Lola more than anything else.
“Everything she did was about people,” says Rozsa de Coquet. “It was all about her care and interest in people.”
A childhood as the daughter of an Oklahoma preacher, and then as the wife of Ted (who died in 2006), a seismologist who was there at the dawn of the oil and gas boom in the 1940s, was spent moving — 40 times by 1949! — to towns around Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri and Louisiana.
“She was an exceptionally good listener. And when she was talking to somebody, or they were speaking with her, they commanded her full attention. She remembered every detail of the conversation.”
In 1949, Ted and Lola relocated from Baton Rouge to Calgary, where Ted played a huge role in the growth of the city’s oil and gas industry, at the same time he and Lola became passionate supporters of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1955, Lola became one of the founding members of the Calgary Philharmonic Society Women’s League.
Their first order of business was to raise some money to launch a series of schoolchildren’s concerts, which they did by collecting as many used books as they could, then holding a used book sale, which no one did in the 1950s.
“And they were so proud of themselves,” she adds, “that without speaking, they went into their purses, topped it up, and made it an even thousand dollars — and presented a cheque (to the CPO).”
Almost 30 years later, in 1984, Calgary Opera chairman Bob McPhee was a newly-appointed director of development at the CPO when his boss, the late John Shaw, called him in to the office one day to accept a cheque from Ted.
“Ted was sitting there with his chequebook open,” says McPhee, “writing a cheque for a million dollars!”
That was just one of many cheques the Rozsas cut for arts groups around the city, at a time when the tradition of private donations to the arts was a definite work in progressy.
“The orchestra became a part of the Rozsa family,” McPhee says. “She loved the musicians, and she knew all their names and treated them like friends and family. She was sort of the matriarch of the company.”
“They knew the significance of a symphony within your community,” says McPhee, “(and) the importance of it as a resource to all the other arts.
“If the orchestra wasn’t here, many of those people teaching those kids in the stairwells — the instructors — wouldn’t be here. All those kinds of things that are vital for a city to develop its arts.”
She was other things to Calgary, too, including a member of the Grace Presbyterian Choir for 32 years, and a prominent supporter and mentor to junior women’s golf in the province.
And she was the founder of the Rozsa Foundation, the Calgary arts management organization that has given more than $13 million to different arts organizations across the province over the years.
What, Sparks is asked, would Lola say to the company’s wealthy corporate community, about all those projects?
“Everyone knew she was as big a supporter (of the arts) as everyone else — and if she could do it, why couldn’t everyone else?”