Myra Janco Daniels was motivated in life by asking herself this question: "What can I do to make my world a better place?"
An advertising pioneer earlier in life, Myra Janco Daniels believed she had a lot left to offer when she moved to Naples some 40 years ago.
And her second act was a rousing success: Daniels, who lived by advice learned from her grandmother, to “create something people want and need and you’ll be successful,” is widely considered a chief reason Naples, over the past 25 years, has grown into a nationally recognized arts and cultural destination. That started with Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts and culminated with the Naples Museum of Art, projects Daniels was instrumental in bringing to life. (Widely known as the Phil, the Philharmonic is now Artis-Naples, while the museum is the Baker Museum.)
Daniels died June 22 at home in Naples. She was 96 — three days shy of turning 97.
In addition to the cultural and arts scene, Daniels, who often described herself as a “cheerleader,” according to statement about her life, was a leading philanthropic presence in Southwest Florida. She was the driving force behind the creation of the Salvation Army Fran Cohen Youth Center on Airport Road and founded the Latchkey League fundraising group. She also consulted on arts projects at Ave Maria University and FGCU, where the building housing the WGCU TV and radio studios is now the Myra Janco Daniels Public Media Center. Daniels donated $3 million to WGCU Public Media’s “Fund Our Future” initiative in 2016.
In a book she wrote about her life, “Secrets of a Rutbuster,” Daniels stated she was motivated by a simple question: “What can I do to make my world a better place?” As she told Newsweek magazine in an article published shortly after the Phil’s opening, “Every private citizen has a public responsibility,” the release on her life states.
Daniels’ vision for the Phil was ambitious and unusual: combining world-class performing and visual arts in a single venue. But she thought there was a great hunger for the arts in the community, and she was proven correct. Then-First Lady Barbara Bush was in attendance on opening night in November 1989, the release states. The Wall Street Journal covered the opening. “Myra Daniels is a dreamer. But unlike most dreamers, Myra is a doer,” the late Muriel Seibert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, once said of Daniels.
Daniels was CEO of the Phil from its inception to her retirement in 2011, building it into a $100 million entity. The center helped change people’s perception of Naples, which had been known mostly for its beaches and golfing. In 2005, for example, Naples was named the Best Small Art Town in America in a book that singled out the Phil.
WGCU General Manager Corey Lewis says Daniels was quick-witted and charming. He met her last October, five months after starting the job with WGCU. Daniels invited Lewis into her home for lunch, and the pair had a two-hour chat. “It was delightful,” he says. “Her smile, the jokes.”
By the end of the lunch, he adds, “I felt like I knew her for years.”
Daniels was born in Gary, Indiana, raised during the Great Depression by parents who encouraged her interest in the arts. But her greatest influence growing up was her grandmother Sophie. Like Daniels, Sophie stood only 5 feet tall but dreamed big. “Sophie showed me what was possible,” Daniels wrote. Sophie ran her own real estate business and experienced some failures, “but she always dusted herself off and went back out there swinging. She wanted me to be that way too.”
Daniels’ first career was in advertising, where, in Chicago, she was among the first women to head a national firm. The National Advertising Federation named Daniels its Advertising Woman of the Year in 1965, the youngest woman to receive the award, the release states. That same year, she became president of a new national agency she formed with ad man Draper Daniels. Myra and Draper Daniels, who was responsible for many famous ad campaigns at the time, including the Marlboro Man, and inspired the Don Draper character on TV’s “Mad Men,” got married in 1967.
Myra Janco Daniels wrote about their unusual courtship and life together for Chicago magazine, in an article entitled “I Married a Mad Man.” When Draper wanted to retire to Southwest Florida, Myra reluctantly left Chicago and advertising. The couple settled on Marco Island. After Draper died of cancer in 1983, Myra turned her energies to the fundraising campaign that led to the Philharmonic Center Cultural Complex.
Myra Janco Daniels, known to work from early morning until late evening, was in her mid-80s when she stepped down as CEO in 2011. Shortly after her retirement, the street west of Artis-Naples was renamed Myra Janco Daniels Boulevard.
A memorial celebration of Myra Janco Daniels’ life will be held on a later date to be announced.