Philanthropist recognized for Cottey donation

Saturday, March 31, 2012
Cottey Comet Kelly Spong presents a Comets jersey to Dr. Dorothy Vanek during the groundbreaking ceremony Friday afternoon for Vanek Family Memorial Field at Cottey College. Ralph Pokorny/Herald-Tribune.

Groundbreaking on a new softball field for the Cottey Comets took place Friday; and philanthropist and P.E.O. member Dorothy Vanek was there.

The Vanek Family Memorial Field is so dubbed in honor of her late husband, and in particular daughters, Debbie Butler and Nancy Vanek, who also are both deceased.

"So I gave it our family name," Vanek said. Both daughters played sports. "I just thought, 'OK, this is something they really would have approved of.'

"They kinda played everything."

"I'm the only survivor of the family, and I felt it would be good to do this as a memorial to the whole family."

Vanek's mother, two aunts and two cousins also are P.E.O.s.

The P.E.O. Sisterhood has owned Cottey College since 1927, and is the only non-sectarian college owned by women and supported by women, for women.

Vanek said it's important for P.E.O. members to take an interest in what's going on at Cottey, to ensure its future as a women's college.

"Girls can concentrate on school. And they have a ratio of 10 students to one teacher, and you just don't find that ... It's also owned by women and run by women. That's an advantage over other schools," she added.

Now living in the Tucson, Ariz., area, philanthropy's a part of her life. Growing up in Webster Groves, St. Louis, Vanek had role models who set examples for her. One was her mother; another her grandfather, and another was William H. Danforth, founder of Ralston-Purina, where here grandfather and two uncles worked.

At a youth camp Danforth owned, "We used to sit on the sand dunes and watch the sunset; sit and talk. He used to tell me things about my grandfather that I didn't know. It was very special."

William H. Danforth established the Danforth Foundation, a national educational philanthropic organization that focused primarily on education through 1996, when it expanded its scope.

Vanek's own altruism has been in support of a variety of aspects, including education, music and community-based efforts.

She's contributed to performing arts at the College of the Ozarks, where she was presented with an honorary doctorate in 2010; and she is a big supporter of the Tucson Symphony, the Southern Arizona Symphony and the Tucson Chamber Artists. Family members and Vanek herself had a great interest in music and art, so she supports these efforts along with other needs as she sees fit -- from the Red Cross and Interfaith Community Services.

When she heard about Cottey's need for a softball field at last fall's P.E.O. convention in St. Louis, she thought, "That's silly; I could do (that), so I did," contributing $125,000 to the effort. The school already had the land and the groundbreaking was arranged for Friday, timed for when the alumnae would be in Nevada for Founder's Weekend.

Even prior to Friday's event, members of the Comets softball team had been commemorating the occasion.

"I've got a big picture of them. All the members of the team signed it," Vanek said.

Team members attended the groundbreaking as well -- and presented her with a Comets softball jersey of her own.

Vanek said friends who made the trip to Nevada had run into some of the players at Cottey's library, already in uniform in preparation for the event.

Vanek says she'll be back for the first game played at the new field -- no doubt about it.

Meanwhile, she'll have no trouble staying busy. She travels extensively and hopes to spend more time with her three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Boards and committees keep her busy as well.

Vanek also will be honored as a "Friend of Cottey College" as part of other scheduled Founder's Weekend activities. Cottey President Dr. Judy Rogers noted that she contributes to scholarships at Cottey and recruits students for Cottey, as well.

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