Obituary: Harry Drake's generosity to the arts bloomed over lifetime

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2012 - 9:29 PM

Despite lifelong deafness, St. Paul native was highly social, and used his privilege and talents to benefit many people and institutions.

Harry Drake

Harry Drake, whose roots in privilege blossomed into generosity that benefited art and educational institutions in the Twin Cities, died July 3 while working in his yard in Mendota Heights. He was 86.

Drake's highly social personality, philanthropy and accomplishments were all the more remarkable because he was born almost entirely deaf, family and friends said.

He was the third of three sons of a physician and his wife who lived on Portland Avenue in St. Paul. At "quite a young age," he was sent to the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, where he learned to read lips , said his nephew Jonathan Drake of St. Davids, Pa. "He never learned to sign, being of mind that the deaf should adapt and integrate," Jonathan said.

Around age 10, Drake came home to attend St. Paul Academy, then spent a year at Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., before returning to St. Paul. He majored in art at Macalester College, graduating in 1950, and for the rest of his life "bled plaid" out of love for that school, Jonathan said.

He studied further at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, then moved to New York to work as a graphic designer for Frank Gianninoto & Associates. After two years, he moved back to St. Paul for good, joining the advertising firm of MacManus, John & Adams for 15 years and designing and decorating the home he'd live in the rest of his life.

Drake retired early to devote himself to painting, collecting art, and doing historical research and philanthropy, as well as to skiing, golfing, reading and socializing, family and friends said.

In the 1970s, he developed a passionate interest in photography while attending lectures at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, including a slide show by Ansel Adams. He began to purchase photos, including works by Adams and Paul Strand. Eventually, he would acquire a major collection of Minnesota native Minor White's photos, said David Little, the museum's curator of photography and new media.

The MIA benefited greatly from Drake's love of art, Little said. He helped fund purchases, publications and research, and he hosted fundraisers at his home. In 1997, some of his acquisitions were displayed at the museum as "The Poetics of Vision: Photographs from the Collection of Harry M. Drake."

"Harry was so courageous -- he never let deafness affect engaging with people," Little said. "He was gracious and generous, with high energy and old-world manners."

Among other beneficiaries of Drake's largesse were Macalester College and St. Paul Academy and Summit School.

Andy Overman, who is the Harry M. Drake Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and Fine Arts at Macalester, a chair Drake endowed in 1998, said he "had a great way with people and a fantastic sense of humor."

"And he was a person with big vision," Overman said. "Whenever we got together, he would ask, how did I think Macalester was doing? How about St. Paul? And the state? And he would say, 'Tell me about the students, the young people.' I think all the history and tradition in his family led to a keen interest in the other side of the coin -- the future."

Dorothy Goldie, director of development at St. Paul Academy and Summit School, said Drake served as the school's archivist "because he was more passionate about the history of our institution than he believed anyone else could be, and he was right."

"He had strong opinions and good taste, and managed our archives accordingly," she said. "The archives were up these creaky stairs in this tiny garret on the third floor of an old Tudor building on Goodrich Avenue. Harry had it all organized in a way only he could understand. But if I said we needed something on a student who graduated in, say, 1947, within hours he'd have it all."

The school's art gallery is named for Drake.

"I think his overcoming deafness as a kid led to his tenacious, indomitable streak," Jonathan Drake said. "He was determined to contribute, to achieve, to connect. He was, above all, resilient."

Graveside services will be private, but a reception for friends will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Aug. 5 at Somerset County Club in Mendota Heights.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290

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