A lasting impression: Lee Dennison leaves a gift that keeps on giving

  • The late Lee Dennison (1952-2012) was a 1970 graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy, who left Interlochen a multimillion-dollar bequest.

  • Lee Dennison, pictured in lower right, in her camp cabin photo.

Just as the leaves started to change, the sound of bulldozers signaled the start of another project on the Interlochen campus: a new recreation center. The structure soon to stand in a wooded spot near Pinecrest Dining Hall will be a welcome addition to the Interlochen campus. It also serves as a tribute to Lee Dennison, an alumna and former Interlochen board member who believed that a healthy combination of mind and body was the foundation for a better life.

The Dennison Center for Recreation and Wellness will be a 23,172­-square­foot facility made possible with the posthumous contributions of Dennison. The new center will include a large gym that can be partitioned for basketball, volleyball, indoor soccer and archery, among other sports activities. The building will also include weight and fitness rooms, a climbing wall, a game room, a studio, separate locker and shower facilities for students and employees, a conference room, and offices for recreation and wellness staff. The facility will accommodate the entire Interlochen community year-round.

The late Lee Dennison (1952-2012) was a 1970 graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy, who left Interlochen a multimillion-dollar bequest. This donation, according to her wishes, was to be used for recreational facilities and equipment on campus.

Dennison’s commitment to Interlochen started at an early age and became a lifelong part of who she was.

“Interlochen proved to be a wonderful home for Lee,” says Beth Stoner, former associate vice president for advancement at Interlochen, and longtime friend of Dennison. “I think she spent, all told, about 14 years at Interlochen between camp and academy and working there. Basically, Interlochen is where she grew up. That’s why, in her estate plans, she was so gracious and so generous, because Interlochen really was something that, in her adult life, continued to have deep resonance.”

After her time at Interlochen, Dennison worked for many years at the National Endowment for the Arts, where she met Stoner in 1984. At that time Dennison had become an active woman, participating twice in the Washington, D.C., Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, where she walked 60 miles each time.

“I know that in Washington, D.C., she had a personal trainer, and when she left the NEA, she started traveling—a lot of international trips,” Stoner said. “And these were hiking trips, outdoors­oriented excursions. So exercise and wellness became important to her.”

According to Stoner, Dennison thought Interlochen students could use more involvement with physical wellness, as the connection between mind and body is a vital part of growing as a student, artist and adult. “I think she felt for young people to form the habit (of wellness) and for them to have the accessibility to it would be important, given how focused and structured some of the students and campers are on their art form,” Stoner said.

Dennison became a member of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1975, serving in a variety of increasingly important positions such as grants officer, assistant director of the Challenge and Advancement programs, and then as director of Organizational Capacity. She worked with programs that awarded grants to arts institutions for organizational development and the enhancement of their financial positions. In 1988 and 1999, Dennison received the Distinguished Service Award, the highest award offered by the NEA, and in 1991 she was named a Senior Executive Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She retired from the NEA in 2004, and joined the Interlochen board shortly thereafter. During these years she also served as a valued board member of the Interlochen
Center for the Arts.

After joining the Interlochen Board, Dennison was appointed to a task force of trustees creating a new long­range vision for Interlochen. It was there that President Jeffrey Kimpton, also a member of the task force, first heard her talk about wellness and recreation so passionately.

“We had meetings all over the country with alumni, and on campus with students and staff, and every time Lee would ask the question, ‘What are we doing about student wellness?’ She was relentless. It was Lee's vision that one day quality of life and personal wellness would be as important as quality of the artistic experience on our campus. How would we ever know that with her passing, that vision would be given to Interlochen?”

While the new facility is exciting, what is most exciting to Kimpton is the program it is creating. “We are creating an entirely new wellness program for our students, integrating daily recreation and activity, nutrition, stress and time management, lifestyle and social/emotional well­being into a complete curriculum to complement our world­class arts programs. The Dennison Center is a catalyst that Lee would be very proud and happy to know she created.”

T.J. Mackey, vice president for student affairs at Interlochen, is also excited about the Dennison program. “As someone new to Interlochen it is really exciting to come to a place and be told that you have a chance of creating a wellness component as part of a total student life curriculum, and by the way, you get a new state of the art building to help! As we work on focusing our attention on the ‘whole child’ philosophy, we are so blessed with this gift.”

The Dennison gift has already demonstrated its power beyond the new building. It has secured new bike racks; several boats and new motors; tennis, volleyball and basketball courts on the boys’ side of campus; new docks and rafts throughout campus, workout equipment for the Shed, including a treadmill, elliptical machine, recumbent bike, stair­stepper, and other items.

“The charity and generosity of Lee cannot be overstated,” said Kathleen Kasdorf, Interlochen’s director of planned giving. “She was a supporter of Interlochen throughout her life. She wanted to impact the students, and for the students’ experience to be enriched somehow through her generosity. “Gifts from wills and trusts show love, generosity, and a commitment to Interlochen,” Kasdorf said. “Remembering Interlochen with a final gift is deeply meaningful, and these gifts play a significant role in ensuring Interlochen's future. Lee’s gift is going to provide Interlochen students, faculty and staff with a friendly and safe environment for staying physically fit no matter the season or the weather.

The new recreation center will soon provide the entire Interlochen community a place to stay healthy and fit. For now, winter winds blow snow across the spot where its foundation is being built—a foundation upon which the generosity of Lee Dennison will grow along with the facility and program that bears her name.

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