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The Danson Legacy

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 55, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 245-250 | 10.1353/jsw.2013.0005

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This entertaining biography of Edward Bridge (“Ned”) Danson is an important contribution to a neglected corner of regional history. After the West was won, the railways and, later, the highways, made it possible for easterners to experience the natural and cultural wonders of that great region. Some of those visitors were seduced by that experience to move to the part of the West that most fascinated them. Among these newcomers were a few individuals with the artistic and scientific background, the educational and professional skills, and above all the material wealth to devote to satisfying their curiosity about their adopted region. Some were quiet lone wolves happily adding to the local store of knowledge. Others established societies, institutes, museums, research centers, and cultural organizations that multiplied the impact of their curious and often highly personal investigations. Many of these efforts matured into important regional resources, but some failed to survive often because of the lack of adequate leadership following the death or departure of the founding generation.

The Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) in Flagstaff is one organization that escaped this problem and became an important research center in the Four Corners region of the country, in large measure because Danson provided the critical second generation of leadership that converted it from a respected family center for science and art into a modern research establishment of international standing.

When MNA’s founders, University of Pennsylvania zoology professor Harold Sellers Colton and his artist wife Mary-Russell Ferrell, visited Flagstaff during their honeymoon in 1912, they knew that they had discovered their special corner of the West. They continued to visit Flagstaff and moved there permanently in 1926 when a substantial


Click for larger view

Harold Sellers Colton (1881-1970), founding director of the Museum of Northern Arizona.

(Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona. Photograph by Helga Tewes)

inheritance from his father gave them the resources to implement their vision for western life. In 1928 they founded MNA under the auspices of the Northern Arizona Society for Science and Art.

By the 1950s Colton, approaching seventy and eager to retire, was unsuccessfully seeking a younger colleague to groom as his successor. In 1956, he invited Danson to accept the position of assistant director. Ned met Colton in 1941, finished writing his dissertation while a summer resident at MNA in 1951, and had been serving on the MNA Board of Trustees since 1953. When Colton retired in 1958, Danson became MNA’s second director, a position he held until his retirement in 1975.

Colton chose well, for Danson’s effective style of leadership guided MNA from a family-based organization to a modern institution at a time when others were unable to make that transition. On the one hand, he was an insider maintaining the personalized concern and interaction that was Colton’s style. On the other, he was an outsider introducing new ideas for improving and expanding the administrative structure and procedures. He nurtured the continuing support of the Colton family, broadened the funding base, attracted new donors, modernized the governance, added to the collections, expanded research, deepened relationships with Native Americans, and cooperated with state and federal efforts to protect the nation’s cultural resources. Building on the solid foundation established by the Coltons, he put MNA in a position to meet the challenges of the late twentieth century.

The work of the Coltons has been well documented (Mangum and Mangum 1997; Miller 1991; Plateau 2012; Wilcox 2010), as is true of the founders of other regional institutions.

However, in most cases, the important transitional work of those who took over from the founders is little known. Eric Penner Haury, using his mother, Jan Danson Haury, as research assistant, has filled that gap in the case of MNA with this biography of his grandfather that chronicles Danson’s achievements.

Ned Danson was born in 1916 to a “comfortable” family in Glendale, suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, where he learned many of the social graces and people skills that later served him so well. He was a teenager growing up at the beginning of the motor car era and he became a serious automobile aficionado at an early age. Right up to...



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