Originally published Nov. 26, 2006
By PAUL HORSLEY
Jane Chu lost her father to stomach cancer when she was 9, but she said he taught her as much in those years as many parents do in twice that time.
"He taught me that everything is an opportunity, and how discipline is a joyful thing to have, and what delayed gratification feels like, " Chu said.
Most of all, she said, Feng Ming Chu -- an economics professor whose American friends knew him as Finley -- taught his only daughter to be a lifelong learner.
"Sometimes we fall into a rut of thinking that what we know is what we know. Just saying I dont know opens up so much to us, " Chu said.
Chus skills as listener and learner might meet their most vigorous challenge starting this fall.
On Nov. 1 the 49-year-old daughter of Chinese immigrants became executive director of the $326 Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a position from which Chu is destined to be one of Kansas Citys most powerful cultural leaders.
Its quite an arrival for a shy, Oklahoma-born girl who went from being the only Asian in her public schools to winning second runner-up in the Miss Arkansas pageant -- and who later became an accomplished pianist, childrens book author and crack fundraiser.
"Its difficult for me to separate work and play, " Chu said.
Friends call her a workaholic. She sees it more as liking your work so much that its like play.
To say that Chu has hit the ground running at the Kauffman Center would be to understate. She and the centers board are already interviewing candidates to head the centers operations, and by mid-2007 she intends to have a staff in place that includes a programming director and a head of development.
Chu remains a learner, literally: Shes still working on a doctorate in philanthropy at Indiana University, specializing in how performing arts centers function around the United States and how we can make them better.
"Can a performing arts center leverage social change?" she asks, adding that a center as vital to a citys identity as the Kauffman Center promises to be can be "a place for the community to believe in itself."
Chus ambition is no less than to make the center a "third place" that urbanist Ray Oldenburg writes about in The Great Good Place -- the one other than the places you work and play, "a place that gives you a sense of belonging."
A sense of belonging and place has been a vital thread in Chus life. Her parents, both from the coastal province of Shandong, were both torn from country and family by communism in the late 1940s.
Her mother, Shu-Fang "Rosemary" Yang, took a perilous train ride as a teenager, her money stuffed into her underwear, and miraculously made it to Hong Kong unscathed.
"I come from a family that has experienced much upheaval, " Chu said, adding that she grew up with the sense that "you can stand in the middle of ambiguity and not shrink back" and "living in the moment is about all you can do."
Her own childhood in Shawnee, Okla., and Arkadelphia, Ark., could not have been more different from that of her parents. She was a sensitive but gregarious kid who used music as a nonverbal outlet in her bilingual world.
Her parents often spoke Mandarin at home but raised their daughter with a vigorous belief in cultural assimilation.
Jane became so American that "nobody knew I was Asian, " she said with a smile. "When you look at someone, you see the whole person. It was more about building relationships."
When school chums came over, mom served corn dogs. (Now, of course, "people are breaking down her door for the chance to eat her Chinese cooking, " Chu said, especially her famous "potstickers, " the rice-flour-wrapped bits of pork or chicken you eat at dim sum.)
Eventually she majored in piano and music education at Ouachita Baptist, where Feng Ming had taught earlier and where her mother is still a beloved dorm mother.
Janes beauty was not the only reason she competed well at pageants: She also had quick, smart answers to the silly questions about the future of the world, and she played piano like a whiz, including Ravels demanding "Alborada del gracioso, " for Miss Arkansas.
"It was kind of fun, " she said, adding that pageants taught her much about "being confident in front of thousands of people."
She moved to Kansas City originally to work for the school district. Soon after, she was hired at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, where she met Jan Kreamer -- who would become one of several mentors in her life, people she calls her "personal board of directors."
"You find mentors who have a need to give. Philanthropy, too, is really about connecting people to things that they care about."
In fact, if she hadnt gone into philanthropy she would have been a translator, "for the same reasons that I do what I do, for the opportunity to be an interlocutor, " Chu said.
It was through her work at the Community Foundation that she became known to the arts community, again as someone who knew how to connect needs with those who could provide those needs.
In recent years, though, she has felt her own need to reconnect to her Chinese heritage, and her trips to Hong Kong and Taiwan are filled with little shocks of recognition.
Shell hear a new word but knows what it means. She recognizes certain values, like the reverence for "wisdom and gray hairs, " she said, which she recognizes were part of her Chinese upbringing.
"I came away saying, Thats why I do what I do. "
Meanwhile she enjoys solitude at her home in Gladstone, having recently lost a beloved 12-year-old basset hound, whose long ears and enormous nose caused one passer-by to remark that he was "created by a church committee."
She cooks rarely, reads avidly and watches little TV -- though she admits to liking "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" A favorite movie is "Babettes Feast" because of its portrayal of a woman who "elects to give her all for one pure quality moment, " and, in the process, transforms the lives of all involved, she said.
A metaphor, perhaps, for someone who is about to embark on a journey like Chus?
She welcomes the challenge.
"Were not in a world that is homogeneous, " she said. "You want to put yourself in situations that are complex."
ABOUT JANE CHU
Born: Shawnee, Okla.
Raised: Arkadelphia, Ark.
Education: Ouachita Baptist University, Southern Methodist University, Rockhurst University, Indiana University
Former posts: Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, Van Cliburn Foundation, Union Station Kansas City