In the days ahead, there will be much reported about philanthropist Mary Anne Cree‘s countless acts of generosity. But to treasure her legacy, it’s necessary to start back in the late 1800s, when her father Charles Addison Sammons was born in Ardmore. It was just 12 years later he found himself an orphan and moved to his aunt’s farm in Plano. It didn’t take long for the boy to decide that agriculture was not where his future lay. Nonetheless, he was an industrious lad. During his high school years he had a laundry route; following high school he ventured into such undertakings as hay and grain, cotton trading and eventually insurance.
In the late 1920s he met and married a young Dallas woman by the name of Rosine Smith, who had just graduated from SMU majoring in journalism. It was in 1931 that they had their one and only child — Mary Anne.
Seven years later Charles created Reserve Life Insurance Company, forming the foundation of a mighty empire-to-come — Sammons Enterprises. Its success was due to his innovation and hard work. According to the Los Angeles Times, “He was the first to sell health insurance and pioneered the concept of monthly premiums. In less than 25 years he had expanded his business interests to include cable TV, printing, ceramics and gifts, industrial distribution and hospitality.”
In the meantime, Rosine was also creating their daughter’s building blocks for the future. In addition to doing pro bono public relations work for Dallas’ Community Chest [aka today’s United Way of Metropolitan Dallas], Rosine organized Dallas’ first Brownie troop.
Life was good for the family. Business was growing; Mary Anne was married with children; and Rosine was working on remodeling the Sammons home in the Park Cities. But that all changed on August 26, 1962, when Rosine died from injuries that she received in a fall from the house’s attic. She was just 60; Mary Anne was 31.
It was about that time that Mary Anne would meet Dick Cree. He was the stuff that made great movies. After listening to the radio report of Charles Lindbergh’s flight over the Atlantic, young Dick got a job at Love Field tending and cleaning planes to earn money for flying lessons. At the age of 13, he took his first solo flight by piling pillows on the pilot’s seat of a Fleet biplane.
But that was just the start of his ventures. He sold a song called “Dream” for $150 to bandleader Glenn Miller, who kept the melody but changed the lyrics, resulting in “Moonlight Serenade.”
After a brief stint of stunt flying in movies, Dick returned to Dallas where he married Ethel Gensur, started raising a family and instructed young pilots headed for World War II duty. After the war he became a commercial airline pilot, but eventually joined his family’s automotive parts business and became its president.
It was following Ethel’s death from cancer that Dick was introduced to Mary Anne. She was now a single mother with
three four sons and a daughter; Dick was a single father with three four sons and a daughter. They were married on January 12, 1968, and with their blended families set up housekeeping in Greenway Parks.
Their marriage was filled with new sons- and daughters-in-law, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, travels to far off places and “waking up every morning to each other’s smile.”
In addition to her family, Mary Anne had carried on the Sammons family philanthropic projects. For instance, in 1988 she founded the Sammons Center for the Arts, which “is home to 14 diverse arts organizations and serves more than 90 others.”
As Sammons Center Executive Director Joanna St. Angelo said, “She was so gracious and humble, I don’t think Dallas fully understands the powerful impact Mrs. Cree’s support has had across the Dallas arts community. She certainly helped the Sammons Center successfully support dozens of arts organizations, and her giving extended to large institutions as well. Her passion for the arts has made a significant and enduring effect in Dallas.”
But a turning point came when she lost Dick at the age of 94 due to a stroke on April 10, 2015.
Despite Dick’s death, Mary Anne was not without purpose. She had been raised by Rosine and Charles “to take care of the people we love.” That love extended beyond blood kin; it also meant the community the Sammons family called home.
Mary Anne was generously supporting all types of endeavors that she felt her parents would have approved, like the Rosine Smith Sammons Butterfly House at Fair Park’s Texas Discovery Garden, the Rosine Smith Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics at SMU, Girls Scouts of Northeast Texas, Baylor Scott And White Dallas Foundation, Texas Women’s Foundation, Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Arboretum, SMU, The Dallas Opera, Café Momentum, Dallas Historical Society, Dallas Museum of Art, AT&T Performing Arts Center, Communities Foundation of Texas and the United Way of Dallas’ Unite Forever campaign, to name a few.
When Mary Anne turned 90 last year, she told her children that she knew exactly what she wanted — a gift of $10M for the United Way’s Unite Forever. In turn, the United Way named its building after her. When told of the naming, Mary Anne first protested and asked that it be named for her mother.
Mary Anne explained in a Dallas Morning News interview, “My mother died at an early age, so I often regret that she didn’t have the chance to make some of these gifts that I’ve had the chance to do. That’s why I like to put her name on things.”
But “her stepson, Brian Paul Cree, and United Way President/CEO Jennifer Sampson persuaded her to accept the honor and name the building The Mary Anne Sammons Cree Building.”
When Charles Sammons died in 1988, Forbes magazine considered him to be among the richest people in America. The late Sammons Enterprises President Robert Korba described Charles this way: “Nobody in Dallas knew who he was. He couldn’t have cared less about personal prominence.”
One person, upon hearing of Mary Anne’s death this morning, said, “Was she somebody very important?” Mary Anne probably would have chuckled with that wonderful twinkle in her eye, knowing her parents would have been proud that their daughter had carried on their legacy with grace, humility and respect for the old adage — “To whom much is given, much is expected.”