Stella Stories: A Legacy of Philanthropy
By: Scott Carter, Public Affairs and Creative Economy Advisor for the City of Little Rock
When Stella Boyle Smith died at the age of 100 on July 9, 1994, she was well known for her love of music and philanthropy. It is a lasting connection of her to a building in which she spent so many hours as an arts patron.
Smith was a Little Rock philanthropist and founder of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. She lived to be 100 but ensured that her legacy would continue beyond her years on earth. In her lifetime, she donated more than $2.5 million to organizations in the music and medical fields. Since her death, the Stella Boyle Smith Trust has donated more than $5 million. One of its more recent gifts was the sculpture In the Wings which graces the front of Robinson Center.
Agnes Stella Boyle was born in Farmington, Mo., into a large, musically inclined family, which moved to Arkansas when she was two. She began singing at the age of three and graduated from high school at 14. In 1922, she moved to Little Rock with her first husband, Dandridge Perry Compton, who died in 1935. Her second husband, George Smith, held various business interests and extensive farms in Woodruff and Arkansas counties, which allowed them to engage in philanthropy. Mr. Smith died in 1946.
In 1923, Smith’s love for music inspired her to start The Musical Group in her living room of her residence at 102 Ridgeway Drive in Little Rock, where she lived until she died. Through several iterations, the group eventually became the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in 1966. When one group would fold, Smith and a hearty handful of supporters would simply start another group. The size and scope might change, but the mission of a Little Rock-based organization presenting live classical music would always remain.
Her initial aim was to establish the symphony as an educational tool for children, and, in 1968, she helped establish the Youth Orchestra. In 1972, the Symphony board of directors named her an honorary life member. Smith established a trust fund for the Symphony’s permanent endowment in 1985. A loyal friend of music and the Symphony, she attended nearly every performance and most rehearsals.
Smith was also a pianist. In 1988, she gave UA Little Rock a grand piano as well as an endowed trust of $500,000. When she purchased the grand piano for UA Little Rock, a Steinway, she later on the same day purchased a Steinway for herself. She remains the only individual to purchase two Steinway grand pianos in the same day. UA Little Rock renamed its concert hall the Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall as a tribute to her. That year the university also gave her an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Interest from the trust provides scholarships each year for music students studying string instruments, piano, or voice. After she died, her personal Steinway was given to UA Little Rock. The music faculty and students now lovingly refer to the two pianos as Stella and George (after her and her husband).
Smith enabled many students around the state to attend college through the more than 200 scholarships that she financed. Other organizations that have benefited from her generosity include the Arkansas Arts Center, CHI St. Vincent, Scott Plantation Settlement, and Historic Arkansas Museum as well as the University of Arkansas. In recognition of her talent as a musician and her steadfast and lengthy support of the arts, in 2016 the new outdoor rooftop plaza at Robinson Center was named in her honor.
Scott Carter is a long time supporter and friend of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. This article is a slightly revised version of his 2018 blog entry on Little Rock Culture Vulture.