Jean M. Handley, co-founder of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, died Tuesday night at her home in Guilford. She was 83. A woman of extraordinary wisdom, and an individual of exceedingly high standards who was generous with her talent and time, Ms. Handley provided thoughtful and effective leadership as a lifelong champion of many of the region’s arts, cultural, social, and educational organizations.
The Festival that she boldly envisioned along with Anne Tyler Calabresi and Roslyn Milstein Meyer blossomed into one of New England’s most significant cultural undertakings, attracting audiences of more than 100,000 people each June. In 2003, The Toronto Star declared the Festival to be “one of the most conceptually imaginative and comprehensive arts festivals on the continent,” and in 2008 the New York Times called the Festival “a happening hard to top for sheer scale and variety.” Not content to found a Festival that would present “art for art’s sake”, they pictured performances and presentations by world class artists and thinkers which would also serve to celebrate diversity, build community, and impact the regional economy.
In 1994, Ms. Handley commissioned a market study which confirmed that the City of New Haven had a vast potential audience for an arts festival within a day’s round trip. She even researched the weather, looking for the best two week period of the year for crowds of people to come together.
Since the inaugural Festival in 1996, Ms. Handley served continuously as a Festival Board Member and contributed to the well-being of the institution tirelessly in myriads of ways. “Her strategic thinking, coupled with passion and a willingness to dream was an amazing combination” said Mary Lou Aleskie, Executive Director of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. “She was always involved, committed and full of hope.”
Ms. Aleskie called Handley one of the true giants of the greater New Haven community. “She was such an inspiring visionary, especially to women in leadership,” said Ms. Aleskie. “She was out there well before any of us could even imagine what our opportunities would be. When I think about her and all that she did in her life, she made it all possible”.
“Jean contributed her energy and thoughtfulness to all that the Board of the Festival dealt with,” said Gordon Geballe, Board Chair of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. “She could be counted on to be at meetings and volunteer for tasks, and by her participation she got all of us around her to do more. We will miss her guidance and friendship.”
Born and raised in Manchester, Connecticut, Ms. Handley graduated with honors from Loomis Chaffee in Windsor. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Government with a Minor in English Literature from Connecticut College, where she was on the Dean’s List; and a Master of Arts in English Literature from Northwestern University, where she was a Catherine White Scholar.
In 1950, Ms. Handley began her decade-long year tenure as Executive Director of the Connecticut League of Women Voters. Her corporate career started in the Public Relations Department of the Southern New England Telephone Company (SNET) in 1960, where she served in positions of increasing responsibility as a writer, editor, employee communications and advertising manager over the next 12 years.
In 1972, Ms. Handley went to AT&T as Press Relations Manager, where she initiated contracts with national business and financial publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and Fortune. She eventually served as their Press Relations Director in New York.
In 1978, Ms. Handley was named Vice President of Corporate Relations and Advertising of SNET, the company’s first-ever female vice president. In 1984, she was named Vice President of Personnel and Corporate Relations, one of five senior officers on the Chairman’s Strategy Council. For five years, she directed a 300 member public relations and personnel department that served 14,000 employees.
Ms. Handley’s creation of the Festival was preceded in 1992 by her co-founding of New Haven’s Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership (LEAP), a ground-breaking model enrichment program for youth. Ms. Handley was an Associate Fellow of Yale University’s Calhoun College, and also the first woman to be invited to join the Quinnipiack Club.
Some of Ms. Handley’s most recent awards and honors included Connecticut’s Most Uncommon Women Award from the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in 2006, Business New Haven’s Citizen of the Year in 2007, and the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism’s Distinguished Advocate for The Arts Award in 2008. In December 2009, Ms. Handley was the recipient of the C. Newton Schenck III Award for Lifetime Achievement In and Contribution To the Arts from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven.
The International Festival of Arts & Ideas is grateful for Jean Handley’s vision, passion, tireless service, and indomitable spirit. We celebrate all that she did for the City of New Haven and the State of Connecticut, and express our condolences to her family.
Donations can be made in Ms. Handley’s memory to the Festival, LEAP, and the Long Wharf Theatre. Contributions to the Festival can be made by calling 203.498.3758 or 888.ART.IDEA, by mail to International Festival of Arts & Ideas, 195 Church Street, 12th Floor, New Haven, CT 06510, or online.
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