Search

Piano Prodigy Turned Patron of the Arts

Isobel DegnanIsobel Degnan, BM '48, began playing the piano at the age of three imitating the music she heard at a concert she attended with her father. Degnan still practices every day and performs a couple of recitals a year. Isobel Degnan is creating her own Mizzou Legacy

When entering Isobel Degnan's great room, the concert piano is the first thing you see. The Steinway sits prominently beneath a massive mirror in a room of equally generous proportions-a suitable venue for a recital.

Taking her seat in front of the keys, Degnan begins to play. Suddenly the lumbering wooden beast awakens, its strings giving voice to the silent notes on a sheet of paper.

For almost 80 years, Degnan's fingers have been drawn to the piano as though she were born to it. According to her, she almost was.

When she was 3 years old, her father took her to the Municipal Opera in St. Louis. The next morning she headed next door to the neighbor's piano. To everyone's astonishment she started playing everything she had heard the day before. So began her lifelong love affair with music.

After years of instruction from local teachers, Degnan studied for two years after high school with Rudolph Ganz, conductor of the St. Louis symphony orchestra.

At MU, Degnan studied piano with music professor Elsworth McLoud, earning a bachelors degree in music performance in 1948. But school for Degnan was not all rehearsals and recitals. She came to MU because she was tired of going to an all girls' school in St. Louis.

Her sorority sisters at MU thought her given name, Isobel Robinson, was too long. They shortened it to "Robin"-and the moniker stuck!

Degnan recalls with a twinkle in her eye the many friends-especially boyfriends—from her days at Missouri. One in particular was a singer who left Columbia after graduation to perform on Broadway with Mary Martin in the production of "South Pacific."

Degnan met James Degnan, the love of her life, after college. The couple married and eventually moved to Pasadena, Calif., where he made a fortune building shopping malls around the country and Mrs. Degnan began her career as a patron of the arts.

Throughout her lifetime, Degnan has maintained the discipline of practicing and playing her beloved instrument. At 82, she still plays a couple of recitals a year.

The piano prodigy is making her mark as a patron of the arts by supporting the local symphony and sacred music at her church. Working with her advisers, Degnan also created a bequest from her estate that will provide $1 million to the musical arts at MU. The legacy she is creating will help other young prodigies become accomplished musicians at MU.

Return to Mizzou Legacy Stories.