OXFORD, Miss. – The story of Sam Haskell III and Mary Donnelly Haskell is a typical University of Mississippi love story, and now it has been immortalized at their alma mater with the naming of the main theater at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts in their honor.
The talented duo became college sweethearts at Ole Miss in 1976 and were married in 1982. They soon moved to Los Angeles to take on the entertainment world, an ambitious move that landed Mary at the top of the charts and Sam in a leadership role at the renowned William Morris Agency.
UM officials recently joined more than 100 guests, including Miss Mississippi 2012 Marie Wicks, to dedicate the Sam and Mary Haskell Theatre in recognition of their careers, service, contributions and continuing leadership roles to the university, the state and the world.
“Sir William Osler of Johns Hopkins University said a university’s greatest treasure is its names,” Chancellor Dan Jones said. “This great building we are in today bears the name the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. And just as the Grisham Library in the Robert C. Khayat Law Center adds luster to that Khayat Law Center, we believe the naming of the Sam and Mary Haskell Theatre at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts adds gravitas to this great center and to our university.”
Provost Morris Stocks praised the Haskells’ community leadership and support of Ole Miss.”This ceremony is not just about naming this wonderful theater, but it’s about celebrating the vision, commitment and support of the Haskells,” Stocks said. “It’s about their willingness to be mentors and help guide our students. Their leadership inspires us to think grander thoughts, and I am so glad they are a part of our community again.”
Mary, who has performed in some of the country’s most storied venues, said she is humbled to have “this amazing hall” named in their honor.
“I tell people that the Ford Center on every level – from the aesthetics to the sound to the stage – is truly stellar,” she said. “What a wonderful opportunity for Ole Miss students to be able to learn and grow on a campus with this top-notch facility.”
Sam said he was likewise “humbled and honored,” then added, “I could not be who I am and do what I do without Mary. She is the great life partner, mother, and woman who’s crossed my life’s path. We share everything, including an appreciation for the arts.
“The arts are so important. Yes, sports and education bring you to Ole Miss. That’s the cake, but the arts are the icing, the decoration. The arts make life extra-special.”The Haskells are widely respected for their philanthropic endeavors, including leadership of “Mississippi Rising,” a three-hour MSNBC special hosted at Ole Miss by Morgan Freeman that raised more than $30 million for victims of Hurricane Katrina. As chairman of the Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell Scholarship Foundation founded in his mother’s memory, Sam’s biennial “Stars Over Mississippi” benefit concerts in Amory have raised millions of dollars in college scholarship funds for Mississippi youngsters in need of financial assistance to further their education. Sam also serves as chairman of the board of trustees of the Miss America Organization and executive producer of the Miss America Pageant telecasts.
Originally from Beaumont, Texas, Mary was crowned Miss Mississippi in 1977 and graduated with distinction from Ole Miss in 1981. She has starred in television episodes of “Touched by an Angel,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Sisters,” “Diagnosis Murder,” “Days of Our Lives” and more than 20 movies for television. An accomplished singer, Mary has performed at the Kennedy Center, the White House and with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. A popular children’s recording artist, she has released four CDs through her company, My Songs. Mary continues to perform with various symphonies and at churches across the country and plans to star next summer in the Oxford Shakespeare Festival’s “Hello, Dolly!” in the Haskell Theatre. An Amory native and 1977 graduate of Ole Miss, Sam began his career in fall 1978, when he moved to Los Angeles and got a job in the mailroom of the renowned William Morris Agency.
By May 1980, he was promoted to agent in the TV Variety Department, where he packaged specials starring Lily Tomlin, Lynda Carter, Debbie Allen, David Frost and Diana Ross. In 1990, he became the agency’s youngest senior vice president, and, in 1994, was elevated to West Coast Head of Television. In 1997, he was named executive vice president and a member of the agency’s board of directors. In 1999, he was appointed to the esteemed position of Worldwide Head of Television. Sam oversaw the “packaging” of all agency-represented network projects, including such mega-hits as “The Cosby Show,” Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Mad About You,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Lost,” “Murphy Brown,” “Sisters,” “Suddenly Susan,” “Live with Regis & Kathie Lee,” “Diagnosis Murder,” “King of Queens,” “Las Vegas” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
In 2007, Television Week Magazine named Sam “One of the 25 Most Innovative and Influential People in Television of the Last 25 Years,” an honor he shared with Bill Cosby, Ted Turner, Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, Walter Cronkite and other television legends.
By Deborah Purnell, UM Communications