Lasting Legacy

The reason Joe Whisenhunt is a huge supporter of the arts at the University of Central Arkansas is not only because he’s a Board of Trustees member, but because of a much more personal connection. The Conway businessman is working to continue the efforts started by his mother more than 40 years ago.
Last year, the Whisenhunt family dedicated a $250,000 gift to UCA in memory of Margaret Whisenhunt, who helped establish the Friends of Music, an organization that works to enhance the student experience in the Department of Music.
The gift will help the university become an All-Steinway campus, which means that at least 90% of the pianos are Steinway or Steinway-designed pianos. There are only 179 all-Steinway schools worldwide, and 98% of all piano artists choose to perform only on Steinway pianos.
The donation allowed the upgrade and equipment purchase for a practice room suite made up of five practice spaces that now bear Margaret Whisenhunt’s name.
“I’m trying to improve the student experience on campus. I’m invested in the fine arts. I’m invested in the theatre program, the [Arkansas] Shakespeare Theatre and the music program,” Whisenhunt said, representing the Whisenhunt family.
Four of the small rooms have been equipped with K52s, the finest Steinway upright pianos that are made. The fifth room is larger and holds a refurbished Steinway Model M, which is a medium grand piano. All of these spaces were also equipped with bookshelves, updated locks, and forthcoming security cameras.
In addition, the donation made it possible to purchase the East Indian Rosewood grand piano that had previously been in the President’s House. It has since been moved to UCA’s Fireplace Room, where it is used for events there and in McCastlain Hall. It was the centerpiece of music for the recent Night of Distinction and the UCA Testimonial Dinner to honor retired music faculty.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson expressed his gratitude in a letter to Whisenhunt, “With the first phase of the Steinway Project allowing students to have new practice pianos in a new suite of rooms, Friends of Music is showing its support to heart and soul of UCA—the students! On behalf of the State of Arkansas, thank you for your continued support and service to UCA, to your community and to your fellow citizens.”
The donated funds also allowed the purchase of a soprano saxophone, a suspended cymbal, brass mutes, and two horns. The department was also able to refurbish a cello and provide Apple TV access for two classrooms. A small Steinway 1098 piano was also purchased a few months later for use in a classroom.
Friends of Music and Whisenhunt were also behind the renovation of the Recital Hall stage in Snow Fine Arts Center. The wood, once so squeaky that it interfered with concerts and recordings, is now a dark rich finish with no extraneous sounds. The original gold curtain from the 1960s was also replaced with a new black drape from Bevy’s. Additional practice rooms that fell victim to flooding and contained original carpet were also given new paint and carpet. The total cost of these renovations was around $30,000.
“Friends of Music has made the impossible possible for us,” said Department of Music Chair Paige Rose. “With rising costs of music, instruments, and equipment, we could never afford even one piano or a much-needed renovation of this cost. Our budgets cover our operating costs, travel, sheet music, some lower-cost instruments, and other year-to-year staples, but without Friends of Music, we could never forge ahead with large scale purchases. Joe Whisenhunt has revived what is so vital to the music program at UCA, and his impact and thus, his mother’s impact, will be felt for generations to come.”
That impact has inspired more and more Friends of Music to support the Department of Music, and those benefits are showing. In the fall of 2016, the department held a Fall Gala that featured classical selections from strings, opera, and chamber groups during dinner and a full jazz band dance following the meal. The event featured a new portable dance floor that Whisenhunt donated to UCA for events. With Friends support, the department also began its SoundScapes concert this spring, which featured show-stopping performances from all areas of the Department of Music. The night began with a Friends of Music reception and was the culmination of several recent social events specifically for Friends of Music members.
Whisenhunt has also been instrumental in supporting the Community School of Music, which is a part of the music department. His children have been involved in Voices of Central Arkansas, the award-winning children’s choir, for several years. When the group and its audiences became too large for concerts in the Recital Hall, they moved to performing in Ida Waldran Auditorium. Whisenhunt secured funds to purchase sound shells, which are used in auditoriums to project sounds outward to the audience. VOCA, as the group is known, continues to flourish under the direction of Dr. Sheri Cook-Cunningham.
“We so appreciate Joe Whisenhunt and his family for their ongoing commitment to UCA, and their desire to make the UCA Music Department the very best,” said UCA President Houston Davis. “His contributions enable us to stand out above the competition. On behalf of the entire university, we express our sincere gratitude and appreciation to Joe and his family for their generous gifts. They are transformative for our music program.”