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Couple's generosity nurtures kids' love of theater, music

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  • Don and Mary Doctor

    Age: Both are 56.

    Family: They wed at 19 in Indiana and have two sons. Jordan, 28, lives in Durham; Landon, 25, lives in Texas.

    How they met: Mary’s boyfriend in the mid-’70s worked with Don at a gas station. He warned her to avoid Don, who wanted to date her. So she dumped him for Don.

    Education: He has a B.S. in accounting (1981); she has a B.S. in marketing (1986) from Indiana University-Fort Wayne. “Don went first while I worked, then we switched,” she says. “We’d charge a semester on a credit card, paying it off (that term), and we did that for 10 years. We thought it would never end.”

    Arts experience: He’s a spectator, mainly of theater. She took up flute in fourth grade – “I was told girls did not play drums” – and went on to timpani in high school.

    Main business interests: He’s chairman and CEO of Systems Maintenance Services, headquartered in Charlotte and Beijing; it offers information technology support at a lower price than companies that make the gear. (Think of an independent mechanic, who may service a car more quickly and cheaply than a dealer.) She runs Armstrong Athletic Club in Gastonia, designed for men and women over 30.

  • How the Doctors help

    •  Paying for musical kits sent to schools that are starting shows from scratch.

    •  Supporting Broadway Junior, a Blumenthal Performing Arts celebration at Knight Theater in April.

    •  Backing the Broadway Experience, sending students and chaperons to New York City.

    •  Underwriting an online theater curriculum, Broadway University 101.

    •  Aiding Family First, which admits needy folks to Broadway Lights touring shows.

    •  Giving renewable, need-based scholarships each year to a local boy and girl seeking a performing arts career.

CRAMERTON Had Don Doctor been a better guitar player 40 years ago, you might not be reading this.

Members of the next generation of theatrical stars and teachers might not have been boosted into college through life-changing scholarships. Struggling kids might never have gotten a neon glimpse of Broadway. Some schoolchildren across this region might not have experienced drama’s creative power.

But he wasn’t, and you are, and all of them did. Because Don and wife Mary are on a path toward million-dollar donor status with Blumenthal Performing Arts’ education department, including a series of four-year performing arts scholarships in her name.

As a boy in the farm town of Monroeville, Ind., Don couldn’t master an A major scale. “I took lessons for three years and still wasn’t playing chords,” he says, smiling. “I learned there’s a difference between having a passion for something and being able to do it well.”

What he could do well was math: He posted A’s on every test en route to college. Skill and business acumen propelled him and Mary (the musician in this duo) to financial prosperity over the next three decades, as he bought and sold technology-based companies.

Eventually, shared passion impelled them to ask a crucial question at a time public schools were cutting kids’ exposure to the arts.

“I was the teacher’s pet in math, and that carried me through,” says Don. “But what happens if you’re really good at music, and it’s not available to you? You can’t take away the things in schools that drive people.”

They formed the Doctor Family Foundation in 2007. Don met Blumenthal president Tom Gabbard soon after that and committed to a broad philanthropic effort.

And the odd thing about this success story is that it sprang from a grand failure.

A dream deferred

By 2005, the Doctors had spent five years trying to get Hope Lutheran School started in Gaston County. It would have blended the Montessori system (teaching self-understanding and social awareness to produce a whole child) with a Christian environment.

When the Doctors realized Hope wouldn’t float, they wondered if the creative components they had planned for it might be adapted to a public school environment. Gabbard was happy to suggest ways the Blumenthal could assist.

Elizabeth Austin, a vice-president at Family Dollar, had talked Don into making a $5,000 contribution to a Blumenthal corporate campaign. Gabbard builds relationships over meals with significant new donors, so they met at Capital Grille.

“In a 60-minute lunch meeting, I outlined about $100,000 worth of projects,” Gabbard recalls. “Afterward, we’re standing at Fifth and Tryon streets, and he said, ‘Y’know, I have another idea: What if we identify a dozen high school kids who’d never in a million years have a chance to go to New York City and take them up?’ I said, ‘Don, what a beautiful idea!’ ”

The Doctors, who grew up in humble circumstances, have given $100,000 a year for four years to Blumenthal’s youth projects.

They underwrite what Mary calls “musicals in a box: play kits that have everything from music to choreography to T-shirts and go to local schools on demand. All they need is a principal with an open mind who’s willing to ask.”

They help pay for Broadway Junior, an annual program where schools bring reduced versions of musicals to Knight Theater in April. New York-based iTheatrics sends staffers to provide professional advice to kids – and to teachers, who then have to perform in front of their students.

For the Broadway Experience, the Doctors pay for a two-night stay in New York for 12 students and three adult chaperons from their high schools; they attend shows and meet with professional actors or directors to hear advice.

The Doctors financed an online curriculum, Broadway University 101, which theater classes use to study Broadway history and business. They support Family First, which gives orchestra seats to three plays in the Broadway Lights series to about two dozen needy families and lets them meet casts afterwards.

The crowning gift

Their most lasting legacy may be the scholarships awarded annually in Mary’s name: Those $10,000 grants, one for a boy and one for a girl, are renewable for four years, if the recipients get good grades and continue toward a career in the performing arts. (Not just theater, either; they sent a ballerina to Boston.)

Devante Lawrence, a Porter Ridge High School grad in his third year at New York University, says the grant is the reason he can remain in its famed Tisch School of the Arts.

“The (yearly) cost is around $64,000. I have a single parent, so attending this institution is no easy feat. If it wasn’t for their great charity, I’d likely be forced to drop out, because trying to cover that in extra loans would be too much.

“I have found solace knowing my (acting) training is important, even though it’s not in math or science. It helped me have faith to know there are people … who see the viability of the arts as a career.” (He’s double-majoring in psychology, which will make him a better performer.)

Nor do gifts go only to actors. East Gaston High grad Mandy Wagoner, a sophomore at UNC-Greensboro, wants to teach theater. The scholarship not only kept her from needing a gap year to raise money, she says. It showed her family she was serious about her passion.

“This was proof that anyone, even a theater-loving, average young lady like myself, could do what I wanted to do. Their whole view on my future career changed. To this day, they brag about how proud they are of me and all the hard work I did to get this scholarship.”

Mary Doctor meets applicants herself; they audition and, equally importantly, provide a business plan. The Doctors love the arts and kids who pursue them, but this love is not blind.

“One reason he (said yes) initially is that he felt comfortable with our stewardship,” Gabbard says. “I made a business case as to what we would do with his generosity; and he appreciated the way we thought.”

Says Austin: “When Don and Mary are engaged in something, they’re fully committed. They don’t just lend their name. And one thing they appreciate about the Blumenthal team is that they are so creative and responsive to new ideas.”

Art, business intersect

The Doctors have supported other projects since moving here in 1986, when Mary’s dad and Don bought the manufacturing firm Sherrill Industries. (Don has since sold it.) They usually do so through their Doctor Family Foundation; most of the other recipients are noncultural, from a food kitchen to Lutheridge + Lutherock Ministries Inc., faith-based summer camps in the N.C. mountains.

The Doctors always think as business people; Systems Maintenance Services, Don’s fourth technology firm, has grown under his guidance from 100 to 1,000 employees worldwide.

But maybe he’s doing himself an indirect favor by supporting the arts, too.

“Schools can create very intelligent human robots. They silo students into areas where they do well,” he says. “When you put them in a business dynamic, they can’t function, because the human element is involved.

“I’ve run technology companies for 20 years, and more and more of my programmers are musicians. They think quickly and creatively. They know how to communicate with people. The arts have that effect.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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