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Gay Donnell

Meet Gay Donnell, president and CEO of Lee Park & Arlington Hall Conservancy, a nonprofit formed more than a decade ago to oversee these two historic areas of the Dallas parks system. Donnell, who has been in the leadership role for two years is committed to restoring Lee Park and Arlington Hall and hopes everyone will enjoy the beauty and history of these, "Timeless Treasures". The Conservancy has raised and invested more than $2.5 million in private fund to restore and expand historic Arlington Hall, and almost $3 million in gifts for new garden and features in Lee Park. 

Donnell's passion is connecting people to their community. She has a lenghty career in advertising, public relations and broadcasting. After graduating from Texas Tech University, Donnell signed on with CBS affiliate KLBK in Lubbock, managing the station's promotion and public service, while hosting daily programs. She has also worked in business development for OrgSnyc, a Web 2.0 platform and social network for higher education.

Donnell is also active in numerous community nonprofits. She co-chaired the Walk to End Alzheimers earlier this month that included about 5,500 participants. She is also involved with The Family Place and the Dallas Public Library. Donnell credits her mother for instilling in her at a young age the desire to give back through volunteerism. She is now passing along that same spirit to her own two children. We wanted to know more about Donnell and her efforts at Lee Park & Arlington Hall Conservancy and she was kind enough to answer a few questions: 

Dawn Tongish: Please begin by telling us about the approaching anniversary of Arlington Hall Conservancy and nearby Lee Park.      

Gay Donnell: Friday, October 24th at noon will mark the date and time that Arlington Hall was dedicated 75 years ago.  We will host a luncheon at the Hall with a notable member of the National Park Service who will share the history of Arlington House in Virginia, the inspiration for our own Arlington Hall.  The women of the Dallas Southern Memorial Association, who helped raise funds for the Hall to be built, still meet there monthly and many are descendants of those who were present at the dedication in 1939. To further commemorate this historic milestone, I’m pleased to share the Hall’s history and memories with the community, when we open its doors to the public on Sunday, October 26th from 1:30-4:30 p.m.  We’ll have refreshments and tours to give the community a better understanding of the rich history of the Hall and why so many people have fond memories of it.  

DT: How did you become involved with Arlington Hall Conservancy and the efforts to preserve and renovate the historic building?    

GD: The Conservancy was formed in 1998 by five different organizations that had the common objective of seeing the Hall not only restored, but elegantly rejuvenated into an event venue that would help generate revenue to help care for it.  I’ve been with the Conservancy for two years now; I take pride in my role to continue the preservation and conservation of Lee Park and Arlington Hall, while also guiding the thoughtful development that is responsive to the needs of this growing Turtle Creek Corridor. Lee Park is like Dallas’ Central Park, so we are also very mindful of our role with regard to helping define the culture of our city.

DT: For those who aren't familiar with the building or the park, what kind of enjoyment does it provide citizens?  

GD: Lee Park is a beautiful green space in the heart of Dallas adorned by rolling lawns, gorgeous trees and a peaceful creek.  These landscape features are apparent as you drive down Turtle Creek Boulevard.  If you come into the Park, you’ll find many hidden treasures like a waterfall and overlook, some mini-forests with natural pathways through smaller trees and wood ferns, and even shuffle board and roque courts, which we will work to restore in 2015.   Arlington Hall is part of Dallas history but it is also a good place to learn more about American history.  Inside you will find a number of historic pieces including a Robert E. Lee signed report card from Washington College and a ribbon and program from his funeral.  That is why we are excited to open Arlington Hall for an open house on Sunday, October 26th, so the public can come inside and take in the beauty of the Great Hall and its crystal chandeliers while hearing more about the Hall’s history from the Dallas Southern Memorial Association docents.

DT: How can the people of North Texas and beyond help meet your needs for 2014? What are your biggest needs?

GD: First, they can come to Lee Park! I’m certain that once they do, they’ll share their experience with others.  Next, they can share that it’s the Conservancy that helps take care of the Park and Hall, and that we need the support of those who use and love the Park to help us do so.  They can join the Conservancy and take part in many fun, social and historical events that members can attend. They can join at www.leeparkconservancy.org.

DT: Why is it so important to maintain this historic building for future generations to enjoy?

GD: Many memories have been created at Arlington Hall and Lee Park.  We have actually hosted several 50th wedding anniversary parties for couples who were married at the Hall!  I’ve heard of gentlemen who remember the Hall as the first place they asked a girl to dance, and from those who proposed on one of the terraces or front steps of the Hall.  And for some, it’s simply a nice spot to have a picnic or read a book.  It’s a magical place for many, and we want to take good care of it so that people can keep creating memories here for years to come.

DT: It took an army of volunteers to bring the historic structure back to life. Can you describe the effort? 

GD: In the late 90s, the Hall and Park were in sad shape. It’s a real testament to that Dallas spirit we all know, because several organizations approached the Park Board and City of Dallas to express concern and they offered to take action.   A public/private coalition began to form, with the objective of adding capacity to the Hall and helping it to “save its own life” as an intimate, first-class event venue.  The Lee Park and Arlington Hall Conservancy was formed and, in 1998, the City of Dallas authorized the Conservancy to manage the project, operate the Hall and spearhead fundraising. City of Dallas bond funds were combined with resources from corporate and private sources.  In addition, the number of talented volunteers who lent their time and expertise was vast, from engineers and architects to designers and historians.  We have members on our advisory board today who remember painting the Dallas Room themselves in 2002 when funds were running low.

DT: What has been your most memorable moment as head of Arlington Hall Conservancy?   

GD: Being part of the construction of the ramp linking Lee Park to the Katy Trail. When it opened on Sunday, October 12, it allowed the 15-20,000 people who use the Trail each week to easily move into Lee Park East and take in the beauty of the trees, creek and fountain. Many people don’t know that Lee Park spans across Turtle Creek Boulevard, but they certainly will now! I already know my next memorable event here.  It involves the Park and I hope to announce it before the end of the year.

If you'd like to nominate a local resident for a BubbleLife community profile, contact Dawn Tongish at dtongish@yahoo.com or find her on Twitter at @DawnTongish.

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