Michael and Karen Kitt’s donation to NAU’s music department will serve generations of student musicians.
Michael and Karen Kitt aren’t from northern Arizona. Neither of them attended NAU. Neither is a musician. So why did the couple choose the NAU School of Music as the recipient of an overwhelmingly generous gift?
The answer is threefold: avid intellectual curiosity, a deep appreciation for creative expression, and an insatiable zest for life.
The Kitts’ gift is the largest donation the College of Arts and Letters (CAL) has ever received. In appreciation of the Kitts’ sizable gift to CAL’s School of Music, the department has been officially renamed the Kitt School of Music.
Counterpoint (the simultaneous sound of two or more melodies)*
Set against the stories of their lives, the Kitts’ beneficence makes perfect sense. Michael and Karen both grew up and went to college in New York. Both developed a passion for music in childhood.
Karen’s family encouraged her when she wanted to play the violin in elementary and middle school. In college, her roommate was a piano major. Mike grew up in a musical family. “I was the one who had no musical talent,” he quips.
After college—they are both first-generation college graduates, Mike with degrees in chemistry and business management, and Karen in political science—they each led successful professional lives in Manhattan. Karen was 25 years into an IT career at Verizon when a reorganization effort gave her the chance for early retirement.
“So at the age of 46 and a half they said ‘Karen, would you like to retire with full pension, healthcare, dental care, telephone discounts?’ I said, ‘Where do I sign?’”
Around the same time, she started dating and then married her neighbor, Mike. From the beginning, music was integral to their life together. “Music, a love of classical music, was something we both developed before we met,” Mike says. “Music was something we had in common.” The couple took full advantage of the cultural riches of Manhattan, attending numerous concerts at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and many other venues.
Soon after they married, Mike retired from a 30-year career in strategic planning at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. They wasted no time launching into a lifetime of adventures. The Kitts traveled…a lot. They bought a motor home and toured the United States and Canada, driving 73,000 miles over the course of 11 years—enough to circle the globe nearly three times. They’ve been to every National Park west of the Mississippi. Mike’s lifelong passion for astronomy resulted in many trips to Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory. They met every experience with curiosity and enthusiasm. And at every step along the way, there was music.
Allargando (gradually decreasing in tempo and broadening in manner)*
In December 2012, after living in the Catskill Mountains in southeastern New York and Palm Desert, California, they moved to Flagstaff full-time. A quiet retirement was never a consideration. Both Karen and Mike jumped feet first into enjoying and serving in the community. “It’s just our natural inclination to get involved,” Mike says.
They formed relationships with the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of Northern Arizona, The Arboretum, and other groups around town, continuing their association with Lowell Observatory. “When we came to Flagstaff, NAU wasn’t even on our radar,” says Mike. In the beginning, NAU was just a place to take nice walks. But soon, the couple’s passion for music drew them to campus for more than just walks.
“We’ve always enjoyed music,” Mike says. “It was very natural for us to come to NAU for some performances. And we were quite impressed. We realized that there’s a lot of unrealized potential there.”
That potential is a product of NAU’s ability to attract the best and brightest. Mike calls it “the Flagstaff effect.” He adds, “there are people who could go to almost any university, but they’re looking at quality of life and the kind of lifestyle and general atmosphere that NAU offers. And so we attract good people, whether it’s faculty or students. Really, really high quality.”
Accelerando (a gradually increasing tempo)*
The Kitts made some initial donations to the music department. Over the years, their support deepened as they watched the talented faculty take gifted but untested students and form them into accomplished musicians. They also saw that the department was underresourced. So their philanthropy increased, and in 2019, they were the principal backers of the new Kitt Recital Hall.
The vision, says Kitt School of Music Director Eric Lenz, went beyond providing a quality space for students. “Michael and Karen consider music a powerful force capable of bridging our university with the community and region.”
From the moment it opened, the facility was enthusiastically embraced by the Lumberjack community and music lovers across northern Arizona and beyond. Ye Lynn Han, a 2019 Vocal Performance graduate, was one of the first to sing there. “The new Kitt Recital Hall, that’s a game-changer,” he says. “The acoustics—you feel like a professional.”
The hall won national awards for its stunning design and outstanding acoustics. “That’s what we wanted,” says Mike. “We wanted it to be something that would inspire performers and audiences at the same time.”
For the Kitts, the quality of the new facility and the depth of its impact on the music program galvanized them to expand their vision. “Once we saw what the recital hall did, it was an easy, easy step to the next level.”
Magnum opus (the greatest achievement of an artist)**
The next level means a significant donation and a new name for the school. The terms of the donation allow Kitt School of Music faculty and administration to create the academic unit of their dreams.
“It’s really up to the school to figure out its vision,” says Mike. “Because what we might want is not necessarily what suits them best academically. We’ve basically said to the leadership, ‘Think big. Think about all the things you’ve wanted to do for years and didn’t have the resources to do.’”
Lenz says the Kitts’ donation will have a profound impact on the school because of its size and flexibility. “We are incredibly excited that the gift has been written in a way that allows the director and faculty to decide collaboratively how funds are committed,” Lenz says. “The open-ended nature of the Kitt donation will allow us to evolve over the years in order to best serve successive generations of musicians.”
In the words of President José Luis Cruz Rivera, “The NAU family is proud to recognize the Kitts as Lumberjacks for life. Mike and Karen’s foresight and generosity have had a transformative impact on NAU faculty, students, and the Flagstaff community, elevating NAU’s prestige in Arizona and the region for excellence in the musical arts.”
Finale (the closing section of a musical composition)*
The Kitts hope that their philanthropy will inspire others to give across campus. “We’d like to serve as an example to others,” they both say. “We hope the university can use this as a catalyst for engaging other potential donors. There are many other worthy programs that could benefit from similar support.”
As for the Kitt School of Music, the Kitts can’t wait to see the school compose a bright future, cementing the couple’s legacy at NAU.