You might say Mary D. Allen is in the dream business.
Allen is too hardheaded to see it quite that way. But the description is apt for a woman who is just as energetic a philanthropist now as she was a businesswoman who made her money running the Beacon Oil refinery back when women were only supposed to inherit fortunes.
She gave $3 million to build a tower at the Doheny Eye Institute, and there is a lobby named for her in an orthopedic hospital downtown. She donated her first guide dog for a blind person in 1970. Now, she is up to 25.
A few years back, Allen was touring the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation's quiet residential campus, which nestles against the Santa Susana Mountains in Chatsworth. Allen turned to Norma Mowrey, the smiling, fast-talking administrator of the five-acre facility, and asked, "What are some of your dreams?"
"One of our dreams is to enclose the pool," Mowrey replied. The pool outside the main administration building not far from where Amtrak trains roar by several times a day is one of the residents' favorite places. In the water, they can make their twisted and constricted bodies obey them better. Yet the pool could only be used three months of the year because victims of cerebral palsy, which is not a disease but a collection of physical symptoms caused by brain injury, are susceptible to the elements and are particularly vulnerable to pneumonia.
Allen nodded to Mowrey. "You've got it," she said. "How much do you need?"
Flabbergasted, Mowrey estimated that $50,000 would do it.
Actually, by the time the Mary D. Allen Aquatic Therapy Center was dedicated Wednesday, the bill had grown to almost $200,000. But Allen, who was honored at a special ceremony in the facility, now surrounded by 15,000 square feet of glass, said she never gave her commitment "a second thought."
"This is the only pleasure they have in life," she said of the 65 residents.
That might be a bit of an overstatement, but you couldn't tell it from the reactions of three cerebral palsy sufferers who were brought in for an impromptu therapy session while about 40 dignitaries of various stripes looked on. Two men in wheelchairs made plaintive noises and a young woman, the only one of the three who was ambulatory, wrapped her thin legs around her therapist in her eagerness to get to the water.
The water is not just a place for recreation and relaxation. Mowrey explained that it allows the tensed muscles to relax and helps prevent osteoporosis, a common problem for those with cerebral palsy.
When Allen stepped up to a microphone a few feet from the water to accept a bouquet of flowers, she received a prolonged round of applause that echoed off the reinforced glass walls.
Allen's charitable work has added years to her life. When someone guessed her age as 65, she laughed uproariously. She is 82.
While Allen was still accepting thank-you handshakes, Mowrey went off to give another tour.