National Philanthropy Day’s Outstanding Philanthropists Suzanne and James Mellor are passionate about giving back
Suzanne and James Mellor both recall their first meeting as love at first sight.
“I fell in love with her the minute we met,” Jim says, and Suzanne adds, “I thought he was the nicest, most handsome man I had ever seen.”
Married 64 years, the two met in Detroit, where they were both born and raised. Jim was an only child and Suzanne came from a single parent family with six children, as her father died when she was three. Although college was not an option for Suzanne due to economic considerations, Jim, thanks to academic scholarships and fellowships, was the first in his family to attend college. While at the University of Michigan, he graduated with honors, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics in 1952 and a Master of Science degree in 1954.
The couple met in the summer of 1952. Suzanne was a secretary at Edison’s Research Lab in Detroit and Jim was there on a summer internship. The two were married the following year.
Suzanne’s interest in art was encouraged by her mother while growing up. With Jim’s support, she began painting and attending nighttime art classes. “It was a wonderful outlet for me when Jim was traveling a lot, and I was raising three children,” she says.
Later, Suzanne studied at the Art League and Otis Art Institute in Southern California and took private lessons from noted artists. From 1960 to 1980, she was one of the artists represented by the Ira Roberts Galleries in Beverly Hills and New York City with several one-woman shows. Two of her impressionist landscapes were published as art prints and cards.
Meanwhile, Jim, after serving in the Army Signal Corps in the mid-1950s, went to work for Hughes Aircraft Company, prompting a family move to Southern California. He was recruited four years later by Litton Industries and spent the next 22 years there. While at Hughes and Litton, he received numerous patents relating to digital computing technology and also authored more than 30 articles in national and international publications.
Jim’s final move was to General Dynamics Corporation in 1980, where he remained as CEO/Chairman until his retirement. He was in his element with a company that was on the cutting edge of designing fighter aircraft, nuclear submarines, main battlefield tanks, missiles and electronics of all kinds. Jim’s work with General Dynamics transformed the company. Several business schools, including Harvard and the University of Chicago, opted to use the turn-around of General Dynamics as the basis for several courses.
“I took the technology-based company to focus on shareholder value and the company became a favorite on Wall Street,” Jim says. “Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway bought 15% of General Dynamics because of it.”
Another smart move by Jim was moving the company from St. Louis, Missouri to Washington, D.C., where it thrived. It was during these early years that the Mellors’ philanthropic passions began to flourish. Suzanne serves on the Exhibition Circle of the National Gallery of Art and became a huge supporter of the National Museum of Women in the Arts as a member of its National Advisory Board in 1991 to the present. The Mellors established the $500,000 Mellor Prize in 2006 to award $50,000 in ten different years to the most definitive scholarly book written about a female artist.
Jim began his tenure on the board of trustees of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in the 1980s where he continues today, as does his tenure with the National Endowment for the Humanities. During those years, he was also a trustee of Ford’s Theater.
Ten years ago, the Mellors set up the James R. Mellor Lecture Series at the University of Michigan, which recently hosted former Secretary of State Colin Powell. At the College of Engineering, there is an endowed chair in Jim’s name as well as the merit-based Mellor Scholarship.
When the Mellors moved to Laguna Beach in 1981, they split their time between Laguna and Washington, D.C. until Jim retired in 1997 from General Dynamics and they made Laguna their permanent home. Although Jim remained the Chairman of General Dynamics and continued to serve on multiple corporate boards, it was much to Orange County’s, and particularly Laguna’s, gain that the couple retired here.
The Mellors’ philosophy of giving involves not only giving financially but also giving their time and expertise to organizations they care deeply about. Jime credits Suzanne for helping shift his focus from science, engineering and mathematics to the arts and humanities. He feels strongly that the arts are a powerful tool to stimulate critical thinking and curiosity.
Both longtime supporters of Laguna Playhouse, Jim continues to serve on its board of trustees following Suzanne’s six-year tenure. She is a Playhouse Women founding member and has been know to paint sets for Playhouse productions. Honored at the 2017 Playhouse Gala, The Mellor Fund was established to provide free tickets to young playgoers in Orange County. They both serve on the Laguna College of Arts and Design board of trustees. Jim, the immediate past chairman, received an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from LCAD last spring. Jim served on Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ board as well as UCI’s board of trustees. Suzanne served on UCI’s Dean’s Advisory Council for the School of Art and is an emeritus member of Segerstrom Center’s Angels of the Arts. Currently, Suzanne serves on the Laguna Beach Arts Commission, is a trustee of the Laguna Art Museum and is a lifetime member of the Orange County Museum of Art. Suzanne was one of 14 artists to paint a violin, which was auctioned to benefit the Pacific Symphony’s Youth Program. Outside the arts, the Mellors support the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.
For their collaborative efforts, the Mellors were honored in 2016 by the Laguna Beach Art Alliance as “Individual Arts Patrons of the Year,” and the City of Laguna Beach proclaimed “Mellor Day” on April 11, 2017 in recognition of their significant contributions to the arts.
The accolades and honors go on and on, including, for Jim, the “Order of the Crown” by His Majesty King Baudouin of Belgium in 1987, “Man of the Year” by the Boy Scouts of America in 1997, “Alumnus of the Year” from the University of Michigan and “Industrialist of the Year Award” by the Association of the US Army in 1996. He also received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 1998.
Suzanne’s love of decorative arts led her to supervise the design, construction and remodel of eight different properties, three of which were featured in design books, and she is a member of the Decorative Arts Society of Newport Beach.
In closing, this dynamic couple says of giving:
“Growing up, I was the able to attend camp, thanks to the Detroit Free Press, and I remember receiving Christmas boxes from the Detroit Police Department and reading glasses from a charity,” Suzanne recalls. “That taught me to be thankful for all the support I received and how important it is to give back.”
“By giving, we also receive with a big multiplier,” Jim says. “We feel privileged to serve.”