'She was just a normal person': Countless Valley institutions benefited from Priscilla Payne Hurd's generousity
At Moravian College, there is a Priscilla Payne Hurd Academic Complex and the Frank E. and Seba B. Payne Gallery. There is a Priscilla Payne Hurd Pavilion at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem. Student nurses at St. Luke's study at the Priscilla Payne Hurd Education Center.
But Priscilla Payne Hurd's contributions to those and countless other institutions in the Lehigh Valley went far beyond the bricks and mortar edifices that bear her name. And those who remember Hurd, the philanthropist who died last week at 93, remember a woman who was not only smart, generous, accomplished and a trailblazer for women, but who was down to earth, funny and unpretentious.
In short, she was, in the words of Moravian College President Christopher M. Thomforde, "a great, great human being."
Thomforde, who counted her as a close personal friend, talked about how she loved to go to Bubba's Potbelly Stove on Route 309 for hamburgers. "She was equally at home in that setting and at Saucon Valley Country Club," he said.
"She was fun to be with … had a great sense of humor," Moravian College mathematics professor Kay Somers recalled.
"She was just a normal person," said Russell Jackson, organist at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity, where Hurd was a longtime member. "She didn't act like she was rich or privileged."
Nativity was one of the many beneficiaries of Hurd's largesse. She donated funds for a new organ 15 years ago, Jackson recalled. But her contributions to Nativity, as elsewhere, were much more extensive and hands-on.
She was instrumental in starting the Sunday concert series that is still ongoing at Nativity and helped create a scholarship for students from Moravian who sang in the Nativity choir. At least 20 or 30 of these "choral scholars" have been helped by this program, Jackson said.
Moravian College was a particular beneficiary of not only her generosity, but her time and energy.
She was the first woman chair of the College Board of Trustees, having served on the board since 1974.
That was where Somers, who served as a faculty representative on the board during Hurd's chairmanship, got to know her. Somers remembers her as an outstanding leader.
"She injected humor" into the board proceedings and "asked really insightful questions," Somers recalled.
She also had a great memory for personal details of the lives of the people she came in contact with, Somers said. She was both "very accessible and very professional."
Somers called the Priscilla Payne Hurd Academic Complex at Moravian "just a wonderful place to teach."
Hurd's contributions to Moravian are legion, ranging from the creation of the Priscilla Payne Hurd Center for Music and Art to establishing the Ervin J. Rokke Endowment for Student Research and the Comenius Scholarship program.
During her tenure as board chair, she spearheaded major improvements in both the infrastructure and programs, including construction of the new academic complex and townhouse style student residences.
In a statement, Thomforde said, "I am not aware of any individual other than Benigna or Nicholas Zinzendorf who singlehandedly has had such a profound influence for good at Moravian."
She was also a trustee at St. Luke's Hospital, serving as that board's first woman board member and first woman chair as well.
Richard Anderson, president and CEO of St. Luke's, said in a statement, "She consistently demonstrated strong, imaginative and, when appropriate, courageous leadership in her role."
But Anderson also stressed her humanity.
"She was as comfortable in a soup kitchen as she was graciously acknowledging the naming of two major buildings at the Bethlehem Campus in her honor. Her kindness and empathy for the women and children in our community, and those others at risk, was infinite."
She was also the first woman board member and first woman chair of the National Museum of Industrial History, whose president and CEO, Stephen Donches, called her "a cherished friend, who loved a good joke and enjoyed laughter."
Countless other organizations, both in the Lehigh Valley and beyond, were also beneficiaries of grants from her foundation. DeSales University, WLV-TV, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the Bethlehem Area Public Library, Center City Ministries, Meals on Wheels and Touchstone Theatre were just some of the local organization to benefit.
Elsewhere, the Foundation donated to the Global Hunger Project, the National Merit Scholarship Corp. and the United Negro College Fund, among others.
Hurd's commitment to public service dates back to her childhood in Chicago. She was greatly influenced by Jane Addams, who founded Hull House in that city to provide social and educational opportunities for the disadvantaged.
In a 2008 interview, Hurd remarked, "Jane Addams was ahead of her time, and I was in awe of her."
In a sad coincidence, Priscilla Payne Hurd's death came just one day after that of Linny Fowler, another outstanding Lehigh Valley philanthropist.
Both women donated time and money to countless local organizations, not only educational and community-service oriented, but also supporting the arts.
"What's going to happen to the arts now?" Russell Jackson asked.