Friends used words like “unassuming” to describe the woman known as the Grand Dame of Dallas.
Margaret McDermott bestowed millions upon institutions linked to the arts, science, and education, but refrained from conversations about her life and brushed aside requests for interviews.
(ABOVE: Margaret McDermott’s passion for the arts and education was the focus of her philanthropic efforts. Photo by Tadd Myers)
“The more you stay out of the headlines, the better off you are,” she once told a fellow journalist.
In celebration of her legacy of serving and giving to the community, People Newspapers has named McDermott, who died last May at the age of 106, its 2018 Person of the Year.
“By her example, Margaret has led the vision that Dallas should and would be a city where higher education would be at the forefront and where world-class performing art centers and artwork would stand,” publisher Pat Martin said. “That’s the spirit we want to celebrate.”
Kern Wildenthal, president emeritus of UT Southwestern Medical Center, described his friend of more than 40 years as “interested and interesting,” someone who always wanted to know more about a range of topics and people.
“She wanted Dallas to be a great city.” -Karn Wildenthal
“If it was you; it was you,” he said. “If it was who was running for president; it was politics. And if it was about sports; it was how are the Longhorns doing?”
McDermott’s inquisitiveness was often seen in her philanthropy and elsewhere.
She didn’t just write checks; she studied causes and found out everything she could.
If she was buying a piece of art, she didn’t just want a Matisse. She wanted an important Matisse. And she didn’t just go unprepared to an opera about Moby Dick.
“Not too many 97-year-olds decide to tackle Moby Dick from start to finish, but that’s the type of person she was,” Wildenthal said.
Gail Madden, former mayor pro tem for the Highland Park Town Council, said people didn’t just sit at McDermott’s table and idly chat.
McDermott would instead steer conversation to such topics as what her guests thought Dallas needed to do in the next five years that would be most important for its future.
“Margaret always wanted to know about everyone else,” said Mary Templeton, who is chairing the United Way campaign with her husband and Texas Instruments president, Rich Templeton. “She rarely talked about herself.”
Templeton said she learned more about her friend from reading McDermott’s book, Reflections, than the 50-plus lunches they had.
McDermott gave an early copy to Templeton, who nearly died in a body surfing accident in 2013.
The book, released after McDermott’s death, tells of her life, her late husband, Eugene McDermott, one of the founders for TI, and their personal art collection, which was given to the Dallas Museum of Art.
In the years after receiving an early copy of the book, Templeton said she unsuccessfully tried to pry from her friend more information about McDermott’s fascinating life.
“She’d never confirm or deny any of my questions,” Templeton said.
Born before the start of World War I, McDermott began her post-collegiate years writing about debutante balls and charity events during the gloom of the Great Depression.
At a time where she may have been expected to serve as a wife, the Highland Park native became a correspondent for the Red Cross and traveled to Europe and Asia during World War II.
After the war, she stayed abroad, living in Germany and Japan.
She was “doing exciting things other women weren’t doing at that time,” Wildenthal said.
McDermott, who didn’t grow up with wealth, remained frugal, her friends said.
She didn’t fly first class.
She didn’t like waste, and she ate sparingly, a sign of respect for food she took after seeing others starving.
She liked to surround herself with interesting people.
And she loved her city.
“Her interest transcended Dallas for sure,” Wildenthal said. “She wanted Dallas to be a great city.”