Through the enthusiasm of Mrs. Leroy L. Lewis of Pittsburgh and of Mrs. John S. Tennant of the New Jersey Chapter, the Pittsburgh Chapter of NSAL was created. The arrival of three new Pittsburgh residents from Birmingham, Alabama, displaced from the Birmingham chapter, added excitement and organizational expertise to the original ladies’ efforts. In September of 1965, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters became a reality.
Mary Tennant sponsored the first Pittsburgh meeting in the United States Steel Suite atop the William Penn Place Building. The original five, Mary Tennant, Nancy Lewis, Allen Gibbs, Janice Wade, and Peggy Thomas attended, along with twenty other men and women representing Pittsburgh’s diversified arts community. Emma Sharp and Ella Owens joined the group. Sam Hanzo, just beginning his celebrated Poetry Forum, also attended.
Organizational meetings were held in the United States Steel Suite at the Duquesne Club, described in early Minutes as Headquarters for the Pittsburgh Chapter. On November 22nd, 1965, the following officers were elected to serve two-year terms:
President – Mrs. Leroy L. Lewis
First Vice-President – Mrs. H. Parker Sharp
Recording Secretary – Mrs. Richard S. Giese
Treasurer – Mrs. Robert W. Holman
Corresponding Secretary – Mrs. Robert W. Thomas
Installation of the first slate of Pittsburgh Chapter officers took place on January 7th, 1966. An important and welcome addition to the membership in 1967 was Mildred Miller Posvar; transferring from New York’s Empire State Chapter, Mildred was then leading mezzo-soprano of the Metropolitan Opera. The instant publicity was welcome and resulted in helping to increase the early membership.
A history of the Pittsburgh Chapter would be incomplete without mentioning the efforts and generosity of long-time munificent member Estelle Smith Campbell. Mrs. Campbell served on both the Pittsburgh and National Boards for many of her 31 years as a member. Her monetary gifts to our local Chapter and at the National level are legendary. The Second Place Award given annually in the National Competition is The Estelle Smith Campbell Award funded by her generosity in perpetuity. In tribute to Estelle Smith Campbell, the First Place Award in the Pittsburgh Chapter’s Music Competition is awarded in her name.
We are proud that one of our Pittsburgh Chapter members, Mary Jane Cook (then Geisinger) was elected National President of the National Society of Arts and Letters; she served between 1976-1978. In appreciation of her national level achievements and personal Chapter accomplishments, the Pittsburgh Chapter awarded Mary Jane Cook honorary status in 2003.
In the forty-plus year history of the Pittsburgh Chapter, three competitors have won National First Place Honors:
1968 – Bruce Saylor, Music Competition
1977 – Gwendolyn Bradley, Music Competition
2004 – Megan Hilty, Musical Theater
In 2006, there had already been twenty-six First Place Pittsburgh Chapter Winners who received additional awards in the National Competitions. The Pittsburgh Chapter has twice hosted the National Conference and Competition. In 1990, Pittsburgh was the Host Chapter for the National Ballet Competition, chaired by Connie Thomas. In 2001, Pittsburgh hosted both the National Conference and a most successful Art Competition, chaired by President Carole Kamin.
In 2001, the National Society of Arts and Letters, Pittsburgh Chapter gave the Mrs. Leroy L. Lewis and Mrs. John S. Tennant National Society of Arts and Letters Pittsburgh Archives to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania by Deed of Gift. All documents are now housed in the archival library of the John H. Heinz Regional History Museum.
Upon the death of Mrs. Leroy L. Lewis in 2002, The Nancy Lewis Career Advancement Award Fund was created. The Pittsburgh Chapter started the fund with an initial contribution of $5,000. The purpose of the fund is to assist and help advance the career needs of Pittsburgh Chapter Award winners.
When she died on October 20, 2002, Mrs. Lewis left a legend of love and devotion to NSAL. Only now, as we seek answers to questions confronting us, do we realize how much we depended on her guidance in having our chapter run smoothly. From the inception of the Pittsburgh Chapter on January 7th, 1966, Mrs. Lewis never wavered in her loyalty to the Chapter or to the National Headquarters. Nancy was a people-oriented person who was vitally interested in the young, talented artists and their careers. A perfectionist herself, she expected no less from her fellow members. She was happy and willing to help with any problem. Mrs. Lewis will be a never-forgotten figure in our hearts and in the history of the National Society of Arts and Letters.