Family Comes Full Circle with Ford Center Gift

McKnight makes planned contribution to support performing arts center

Kay Castellow McKnight, with husband French McKnight, is a cousin of Gertrude Castellow Ford (in portrait). McKnight is continuing the Castellow family’s legacy by contributing to the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, calling it one of her passions in life. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – Family historian Kay Castellow McKnight is finding out more similarities between herself and cousin Gertrude Castellow Ford following a recent search through the family archives.

After reconnecting with her father’s side of her family, McKnight is also expanding a legacy begun by her cousin at the University of Mississippi.

“Gertrude was the most profound of the family involved in the arts,” said McKnight, of Atlanta. “She was a child prodigy of the violin and the piano as well as a Shakespeare scholar. I also love the performing arts and opera, so all of that is part of me and my passion for life, as well.”

It is McKnight’s shared passion with her Castellow cousin that led her to make generous planned gift to the university’s Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

“Uncle B.T. Castellow began this legacy with his money that went to Gertrude and is now here at Ole Miss,” said McKnight, who remembers childhood visits from her uncle Bryant Thomas Castellow when he was home in Georgia. “To be a part of a small contribution to continue the family legacy means so much to me.”

Castellow, who served as a U.S. congressman in Georgia during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, was double first cousins with McKnight’s father. McKnight remembers the man she called “Uncle B.T.” around often as she was growing up.

While she only met Gertrude once because she spent most of her time being educated in Washington, D.C., and at New York University, stories of her resonate with McKnight to this day.

“Uncle B.T. told one story about when he and Gertrude were delegates at the Democratic National Convention, and Gertrude stood on the table to give a speech,” McKnight recalled. “He said she took the hall down.

“The DNA runs strong between Gertrude and me. Now I finally know where my positive fireball of energy comes from. B.T. would often say he was so blessed to have a bright, intelligent child. He was determined to see her pursue her talents, and she was so gifted.”

Gertrude Castellow Ford was fluent in French, Latin and Spanish, as well as an accomplished flutist, violinist and pianist. She was also exceedingly well-read in poetry and classic literature.

Raised in a generations-old tradition of philanthropy, which began more than 150 years ago with a $25 donation from her family to the Andrew Female College Building Fund in Randolph County, Georgia, Ford established the Gertrude C. Ford Foundation in Jackson with generous resources in 1991.

In 1998, the Ford Foundation awarded Ole Miss $20 million to design and build the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Since opening in March 2003, the Ford Center hosts an average of 150 events annually and is the centerpiece of the university’s cultural and scholarly mission to present the finest in performing arts and visiting lecturers.

It is particularly significant to have McKnight, a family member, provide support to the facility bearing the Gertrude Castellow Ford name, said Julia Aubrey, director of the Ford Center and the UM Opera Theatre, as well as an associate professor of music.

“We are deeply grateful to Kay for this generous support of the Ford Center and are honored that she would invest in the performing arts on our campus,” Aubrey said. “Most performing arts centers like the Ford Center rely on gifts from individuals, businesses and foundations to sustain exceptional programming and operations.

“Mrs. Ford, we believe, would be moved by this support from her family member, paying tribute to her love of the performing arts. Ford Center performances invite audiences to share someone else’s story for a brief period of time. Whether the story is told through music, drama or dance, audience members are able to share visceral or intellectual experiences, helping them to become more empathetic human beings.”

Planned giving, such as McKnight’s IRA contribution to the Ford Center, is becoming increasingly commonplace with philanthropists, said Byron Liles, the university’s senior director of gift planning.

“Making the UM Foundation beneficiary on a retirement account is an easy way to have a profound impact on the university, while also having potentially positive tax consequences for your family,” Liles said.

For McKnight, her contribution feels like the family is coming full circle, noting a conversation she had with Cheryl Sims, Gertrude C. Ford Foundation president, about how pleased she thought Ford would be to know a family member was involved with the performing arts center.

“I agree with Cheryl in thinking that Gertrude would be extremely happy that a part of her family was here and involved with the center,” McKnight said. “My father wanted so badly to see what B.T. and Gertrude had established here before he passed.

“Now that I’ve visited for myself, I want my gifting to be for the Ford Center’s continuation of the Castellow family’s legacy from my family and me.”

Anyone interested in contributing to the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts can send checks, with the name noted in the memo line, to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Ave., University, MS 38655; or give online at

For more information on supporting the Ford Center, contact Rob Jolly, associate director of development, at or 662-915-3085.

For information on including Ole Miss in estate planning, contact Byron Liles, senior director of gift planning, at or 662-915-7601.