June 16, 2020

Passings: Peggy Phelps (1926-2020), former trustee who supported arts preservation and HIV research

CAMPUS LANDMARK: Emerita Trustee Peggy Phelps gave her name to one of two galleries used by generations of MFA students to exhibit their works.

The CGU community mourns the passing of Margaret Taylor Phelps—known to all as Peggy—a spirited and generous patron, philanthropist, and former university trustee, who died late last month at San Antonio Gardens in Claremont. She was 93.

In his tribute to Phelps in the pages of the Pasadena Star-News, Larry Wilson—a longtime member of the Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Awards advisory board at CGU—praised his fellow board member and enduring friend for her varied roles and tireless efforts to support the arts.

Phelps served numerous cultural institutions, Wilson wrote, including the Pasadena Art Museum, MOCA, Pasadena Art Alliance, Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena Symphony, and ArtCenter and gave her name to one of the two primary art galleries at CGU.

Not only did she support art, Wilson added, “she owned a Stella, an Alberts, a Johns, and Jasper Johns himself used to say in her pool house.”

Phelps also devoted much of her energies to other important causes as well, in particular helping raise millions of dollars for HIV research and supporting organizations including the AIDS Service Center in Pasadena.

Leaving her mark on CGU

A native of Buffalo, Phelps was one of three children born to Reginald Taylor and Cecilia Evans; her great-grandfather was Moses Taylor, who controlled the National City Bank of New York — Citibank — from the 1830s.

Phelps lived in Pasadena for more than 50 years; she moved there in 1959 with her three small children and industrialist husband Mason Phelps. During those years, she established herself as an extraordinary leader in the cultural community.

After her husband’s passing, Phelps married chemist Nelson Leonard; the couple was married 14 years until his death in 2006. Phelps subsequently moved to San Antonio Gardens in Claremont.

TIRELESS PATRON: Former CGU Trustee Tufts Poetry Advisory Board Member Peggy Phelps (left) at a Pasadena event with curator Jay Belloli and attorney Julie Ward.

Despite the many claims on her time as a community activist and supporter, Phelps joined CGU’s Board of Trustees in 1982 and served for 16 years.

A friend of the late John Maguire, who served as CGU president for 17 years, Phelps was brought onto the board by Maguire and resigned when he retired from the presidency. In recent years, she had been recognized as trustee emerita of CGU’s board.

Phelps (right) talks with actor Robert Redford (left) in 1995 at John Maguire’s house.

Phelps successfully deployed her no-nonsense attitude and sense of humor to build philanthropic support for a variety of causes. She didn’t shy away from engaging potential supporters from all walks of life, including actor Robert Redford, who talked with her (pictured above with Phelps and development officer Tracy Stoll; former trustee Henry Duque is visible at Phelps’ right) during a gathering at Maguire’s house in 1995.

Phelps not only left her mark on the campus as a trustee but also with the gallery at 251 East Tenth Street in Claremont named in her honor, which has been central to the experiences of generations of MFA students.

Phelps also was deeply committed to the success of the Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Awards, said Lori Anne Ferrell, School of Arts & Humanities dean and director of the awards.

For many years, the two worked together in planning and promoting the awards, which provide one of the largest annual monetary prizes in poetry. Ferrell said Phelps urged her to think “strategically about poetry and the poetry world.”

“When I think of Peggy, somehow I always begin with her hands,” she said, “elegantly manicured, glittering with rings, and usually pointed in my direction as she advised me on how to build a larger audience for [the awards].”

Phelps’ candor and passion for the arts and cultural preservation made her a pleasure to be around, Ferrell added, and enlivened every conversation. “She was a hoot: there’s no better word for it,” she said.

Phelps is survived by her sister, Marion “Taddy” Dann, her two children, Mason Phelps Jr., and Evans Phelps; her four grandchildren, Miles Michelson, Erin Thiem, Megan Michelson, and Larissa Roelofs; her great-grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews.

Due to the statewide quarantine, a service will be planned for a later date at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, where Ms. Phelps was once a member of the vestry.