Under the radar fits philanthropist fine
Nora McNeely Hurley likes to call herself a “stealth do-gooder.”
Few would argue against that being an apt description for the Summerland resident, who has been a generous benefactor through her family foundation, the Manitou Fund, to improve the quality of life in the community with very little fanfare.
Her contribution for the restoration of the Japanese Garden at Lotusland was the single largest gift in the fundraising campaign, enabling the renovation of key features including rebuilding of the reflecting pond, waterfall and the lotus viewing deck.
The gift also funded a new Japanese Garden Endowment dedicated solely to the perpetual care of the Montecito garden.
“I did it in memory of Ann Sasaki, a woman who was beloved by me and my family. We admired her grace, strength and courage. She was practically a second mother to me. I got to name the garden, which is called ‘Garden of Dancing Light, ’ ” Ms. Hurley told the News-Press by phone from Manitou Island on White Bear Lake in Minnesota, where her family has had a home for many years. She and her husband, Michael Hurley, go back there during the summers.
The Manitou Fund was created in 1966 by Ms. Hurley’s father, Donald McNeely, a Minnesota Vikings co-owner who was instrumental in bringing the Washington Senators to Minnesota as the Minnesota Twins.
Today, the fund’s board of trustees includes Ms. Hurley and her two brothers, Greg and Kevin McNeely, and Oliver Din, board president.
“Manitou means ‘Great Spirit,’ ” said Ms. Hurley, who became involved with Heal the Ocean after moving to Summerland from Montecito.
“Our home is on the beach, and we look out at three offshore oil wells. I wondered what could be done about the situation, and that’s when I met Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean. Now, I’m on the advisory board, and Manitou funds research projects for the organization.”
What few people realize is how much Ms. Hurley has done for those with hearing loss in this community.
The Manitou Fund has provided for the permanent installation of state-of-the-art technology for the hard of hearing at The Marjorie Luke, Lobero, Arlington and Riviera theaters; the Metro 4 and Fiesta 5 movie theaters; the Santa Barbara Bowl; and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.
“The hearing loop technology allows people with cochlear implants and hearing aids to hear the production as the sound is projected directly to their hearing devices using magnetic fields,” said Thomas Kaufmann, founder of OTOJOY, the company that installed the hearing loop.
“The device turns into wireless earphones that broadcast sound customized for the wearer’s hearing loss by flipping a switch on hearing aids or cochlear implants.”
Hearing loss was not something Ms. Hurley thought about as she was living a busy carefree life volunteering with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and opening the upscale Rooms & Gardens shop on State Street and later La Vie Boheme, an eclectic boutique on Coast Village Road in Montecito.
After growing up in Pebble Beach and graduating from Santa Catalina School in Monterey, she came to UCSB and earned her bachelor’s degree in communications, art history and film studies in 1982.
Then, at the age of 47, she was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, an inner ear disorder that causes episodes of vertigo or spinning. The condition can’t be cured.
“It came out of the blue,” said Ms. Hurley. “I began to have hearing loss. Three years later, I had lost most of my hearing. I was completely debilitated. I couldn’t leave my house. I didn’t have a life,”
In 2016, she had cochlear implant surgery, which bypasses damaged hair cells in the inner ear and sends electrical signals to the brain, where they are interpreted as sound.
“I had it done at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and it was a complete success. I have 80 percent word recognition. When the doctor stepped outside the room and told me to repeat what he said, I heard every word. It was a miracle. The surgery can be a real crap shoot. It doesn’t always work,” she said.
“For me, the doctor was a wizard, and the clinic was Oz. I call it the Wonderful World of Oz.”
Since that traumatic period in her life, her goal has been to have every public venue in Santa Barbara installed with hearing loop equipment to improve the quality of life for those who are hard of hearing.
“I want them to attend performances — whether it be the symphony, theater, ballet, the movies, concerts — they have been missing because of hearing loss,” said Ms. Hurley.
“Before my experience, I was not aware of how people struggle if they can’t hear well. I have become sensitive to their plight. Even though I went through a catastrophic situation, a silver lining presented itself.
“For me, it opened the door to advocacy. I am devoted to helping people with hearing loss improve the quality of their lives.”email: firstname.lastname@example.org