The Libassi Fund for Innovation

See how Peter and Mary Fran are making a difference

“From the typewriter to the computer and the propeller to the jet engine, from insurance to financial services and the bicycle to the electric car, our nation has thrived because of innovation”, says Peter Libassi when speaking about The Libassi Fund for Innovation, an endowed fund that he and his wife, Mary Fran, have created for The Bushnell. “We can’t talk about our gift without putting it in this context”. Mary Fran adds, “It is fundamentally our desire to participate in the future of Hartford by supporting innovation which will continually enliven and enrich our region”.

It doesn’t take much time with the Libassis to realize that they are innovators themselves; they have lived their lives open to possibility, embracing opportunity and creating solutions through their own innovative spirits. “We were born at a time when the country was ripe for innovation”, they say, explaining what has been a way of life for them. And while they don’t see their personal history as particularly exceptional, we view it as quite extraordinary…

Mary Fran, a Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work from 1977-1994, was a pioneer in bringing psychopharmacology to the field of social work in the treatment of mental health disorders. During the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, she observed that social workers treated people with mental health disorders through psychotherapy only, which was of limited benefit to many patients. She became aware of Jerry Hogarty, MSW, whose work was showing the positive effects of using psychopharmacology to treat various conditions and she imagined how great the impact might be if social workers across the country could be taught how to incorporate psychopharmacology into their practices.

With a grant she obtained from the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), Mary Fran was able to hire the video team at The Travelers, where Peter was Senior Vice President at the time, to film a three-part series of presentations to teach social workers about this breakthrough in treatment. Working with Mr. Hogarty and Dr. Robert Butler (a gerontologist, psychiatrist and the first director of the National Institute on Aging), Mary Fran found an innovative way to share this “game-changing” information with health care providers nationwide long before the days when YouTube made “going viral” a regular occurrence.

Throughout her career, Mary Fran was a volunteer, Board member and, for a period of time, Chair of the Board, for Wheeler Clinic, a leading non-profit service provider in primary and behavioral health. It’s no surprise that the Libassis have created an endowed Fund for Innovation at Wheeler Clinic as well! “While Wheeler Clinic and The Bushnell serve our community in different ways, they are kindred spirits in their innovative cultures”, the Libassis say. “We couldn’t be happier to support both organizations in this way.”

In the 1960’s, Peter served as Deputy Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and, then, Director of the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education & Welfare in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. One of his most memorable accomplishments came in 1965, when Medicare was being enacted. At that time, 2,400 hospitals across 17 southern states were segregated. Peter and “five key members of my team” argued (in accordance with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965) that no segregated hospital should receive a single dollar in Medicare funding, convincing President Johnson to embrace this strategy for desegregating the health care system in the South. This brave and innovative move led to the peaceful desegregation of all 2,400 hospitals in just 18 months and a transformation in the quality of health care services provided to the African American community. In Peter’s words, “Babies who had died in segregated hospitals, because the same medicines that were given to infants in ‘white’ hospitals were not made available to them, suddenly were not only surviving but were thriving”.

What does all this have to do with the Libassis’ decision to create an endowed Fund for Innovation at The Bushnell? They always have seen The Bushnell as a place with an innovative spirit and a culture that was perfectly in sync with their own values. From stories of the first Managing Director, Bill Mortensen, pushing for The Bushnell to be designed with a sloping, “raked” floor to make it easier for patrons to see the stage (not the norm in 1930) to the creation of what is now a nationally respected arts-in-education program, to the bold decision to build a second theater and the creative vision, not only for the Center, but for the neighborhood of CEO David Fay – “we just love The Bushnell”, says Mary Fran.

Mary Fran and Peter recall the days when, as supporters, they would park right next to the building when they came to performances. In 1998, they were told that their parking space would be going away…to make way for the construction of the new building. “It was wonderful to drive right up to the door and park, but when that changed it was okay because it made way for the new Bushnell – both the physical building and all that The Bushnell now represents in our community”, says Peter.

Both recall the creation of the new building as one of the most exciting, innovative times in their history with The Bushnell. A Trustee at the time, Peter was part of the leadership for Fund for the New Bushnell, the campaign that provided the funding for the new building and new programs. At a breakfast he had convened for corporate leaders to garner support for the $45 million campaign, Peter recalls being seated next to JP van Rooy, then President of Otis Elevator. At one point during the breakfast, JP leaned over to Peter and asked if he thought The Bushnell would like a Chihuly for the new building. Peter enthusiastically responded that this was a very interesting idea. He then quietly made his way around the room to tell Executive Director, Doug Evans, “I told JP that we might like to take him up on his offer to provide a Chihuly for the new building, but…what’s a Chihuly?” Fortunately, both Evans and the planning team were enthusiastic about this offer and Ode to Joy, the stunning glass sculpture created by Dale Chihuly and given to The Bushnell by JP and Marie-Claire van Rooy, has become the signature architectural icon of the new Bushnell. Mary Fran vividly recalls watching the sculpture being installed, piece by piece, and being impressed that the installation was led by one of Chihuly’s lead artists, a woman. Peter says, “I tell this story, which pokes a little fun at me, to make the point that being open to new ideas is an important hallmark of an innovative culture”.

Both Libassis speak of David Fay’s tenure as CEO as a period of great innovation for The Bushnell. “Without David’s vision, we might not have moved in the direction of producing which, as part of FiveCent Productions and Elephant Eye Theatricals, already has created two Broadway musicals, The Addams Family and this year’s Tony Award winning production of An American in Paris”. Additionally, they see the iQuilt plan, conceived during David’s tenure, as an initiative with the power to transform our community.

The Libassi Fund for Innovation, a permanently endowed fund, will support the exploration, design and development of new ideas from their earliest stages to the point of implementation by The Bushnell. The Fund will enable The Bushnell to interpret and fulfill its mission to be “a center for the benefit of the public” in a manner that is relevant and appropriate to the times.

“We are giving this money to a Bushnell that has not yet fully emerged”, they say. “It gives us great pleasure and joy to be part of The Bushnell’s future in this way”. At The Bushnell, we could not be more grateful for the Libassi’s thoughtful and generous gift, and the extraordinary example of lives well lived.