J.W. “Bill” Fisher (July 30, 1914 - Oct. 11, 1990)
Dorothy Fisher (1914 - 1998)
Known as a major force in opera in the United States, the Fishers pledged funds to finance the creation of what was at the time known as “the Little Theater” on campus, and later named in their honor.
Jasper William (Bill) Fisher was born into the family-founded valve company, Fisher Governor Company, in Marshalltown, Iowa. Despite being the grandson of the inventor of the constant pressure pump and son of the company president, Fisher was more inspired by his mother Edna, also known as “Gramma,” who sang professionally before she was married. As a youth and artist in his own rite, Fisher studied harmony and composition, along with both the saxophone and pipe organ in preparation for a career in music.
Opting to follow in the family footsteps, a young Bill Fisher decided to momentarily forego his career in the arts and instead enroll in engineering at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University), where he met his future wife, art major Dorothy Meyer. Both Dorothy and Bill were members of the class of 1936 and were married in 1941. Just a year prior to his marriage, Fisher’s father and elder brother were killed in a car accident and at the youthful age of 28, Fisher assumed his role as next in line for ownership of the Fisher Governor Company. He worked in the finance department until 1954 when his mother stepped down as president and he inherited the spot as head of the company. In just 15 years, Bill took the Fisher Governor Company from a $2 million a year business in 1954 to a company worth $100 million in 1969 when the company was bought by the Monsanto Co. and became Fisher Controls.
Bill used the success of his company to become a major benefactor of the arts, particularly opera. Fisher, along with his two sisters Martha Ellen Tye (for whom an auditorium in Simon Estes (Music) Hall is named) and Emily Cartwright founded the Gramma Fisher Foundation, in honor of their mother, to support dance companies, theater groups, opera companies and the arts. The foundation is now known worldwide in the opera community. By 1960, Fisher had given over $10 million to finance 45 operas around the country, making him the single largest benefactor of opera in the United States at the time. He composed opera and musical scores and has backed productions in England, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. He also served as one of the Board of Directors for the Metropolitan Opera Association. For all his contributions to art and opera in the United States, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1987 from President Ronald Reagan. “He is best known as the Midwestern Medici,” said First Lady Nancy Reagan about Fisher.
Fisher’s national and international recognition and fame in the world of opera did not stop him from ensuring the arts were brought to his hometown of Marshalltown, his alma mater, Iowa State University and the state of Iowa. Fisher served as the first president of the Iowa Symphony Society and was instrumental in bringing major performing artists to the state. Both Fisher and his wife Dorothy donated land and money to the Fisher Community Center, the YMCA and the Fisher Art Collection in Marshalltown. They stocked the community center with works from French Impressionist painters including Monet, Degas, Cassatt, Bonnard and Matisse, to grant access to high art and culture to residents of Marshalltown. One group Fisher was particularly interested in “culturing” was his own engineers at the Fisher Governor Company. One of his most passionate convictions was that opera should be brought to as many people as possible, often encouraging communities and companies to share productions as well as requiring his regionally sponsored works to do at least two performances in English to allow “less cosmopolitan” audiences to enjoy the works as well.
Finally, some of Fisher’s greatest contributions were to Iowa State University and the Iowa State Center. He served as a member of the Board of Governors of the Iowa State University Foundation and participated in the decision to make the construction of the Iowa State Center, a dream of then-president James Hilton, the primary objection of the Foundation. He served as chairman of the corporate gifts committee as well as chairman of the Foundation’s planning and construction committee for the Iowa State Center.
Fisher gifted the ornate and distinctive hand woven stage curtain, Silver Code, to Stephens Auditorium before its opening in 1969. Originally designed by the Japanese sculptor Ryokichi Mukai, the curtain was woven at the Kawashima Textile Mill in 1969. It took seven people, four months, working on what was then the world's largest loom to weave the tapestry in time for shipping to the United States. In 1969, Silver Code was much more than a $20,000 donation; it was a monumental, internationally significant textile. It was Fisher’s way of crowning Stephens Auditorium so everyone would know that with the Iowa State Center, Iowa State was truly heralding a new era.
He is also responsible for underwriting the Chicago Lyric Opera Company’s performance of “Madame Butterfly” at Stephens Auditorium, one of the highlights of the opening season. Shortly after the completion of Stephens Auditorium, Fisher pledged $325,000 to finance the creation of what was at the time known as “the Little Theater”. In 1973, the State Board of Regents approved the naming of the Little Theater in his honor, and in 1974 Fisher Theater opened its doors. Fisher has been awarded the Alumni Merit Award by the ISU Club of Chicago as well as the Alumni Recognition Medal.
The Fishers are interred in Riverside Cemetery, Marshalltown, Iowa.
J.W. “Bill” Fisher’s Papers and Iowa State Center Papers in Special Collections, Iowa State University, Ames.
Additional material located in Iowa State Center files.
For secondary sources, see “The Fisher Story: 125 Years of Process Control Experience,” from Fisher Controls International LLC, p. 18-52; Narvaez, Alfonso A. “J.W. (Bill) Fisher Is Dead at 76; Industrialist and Arts Supporter.” New York Times 13 Oct. 1990. Web. 28 Aug. 2013.
Central Iowa Arts Association: https://sites.google.com/site/theartcentermarshalltownbytvs/ciaa-history-and-collections?mobile=true