June 14, 2012

Vanderbilt mourns loss of Frances Williams Preston

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Frances Williams Preston

Vanderbilt mourns loss of Frances Williams Preston

Frances Williams Preston, one of the most successful female music executives in the history of the entertainment industry, and a member of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Board of Overseers, died from congestive heart failure at her home in Nashville, surrounded by her family, Wednesday, June 13. She was 83.

Mrs. Preston spent most of her career with music performance rights giant BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) and was one of the icons of Nashville’s music industry, first as head of BMI’s Nashville office and later as president of the company (1986-2004), headquartered in New York City.

While rising through the ranks of the music industry, Mrs. Preston also developed a reputation as a strong community volunteer, serving as longtime president of the board of directors of the T. J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia, Cancer and AIDS Research, the music industry’s leading charity.

After receiving Martell’s Humanitarian Award in 1992, she expanded the foundation’s outreach to include the Nashville community and spearheaded the creation of new research facilities at what was then Vanderbilt Cancer Center — now Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC). The “laboratories without walls” were named the Frances Williams Preston Research Laboratories.

Harold L. (Hal) Moses, M.D., founding director of VICC, leads the Preston Laboratories and has worked with Mrs. Preston since the inception of the cancer center.

“Frances Preston has always been a true friend and partner in our efforts to expand cancer research,” said Moses, Hortense B. Ingram Chair of Cancer Research and director emeritus of VICC. “Her vision and commitment to philanthropy made it possible for us to explore scientific questions that have been crucial to the understanding of how cancer cells grow. She was a charming and extremely intelligent woman who understood the importance of basic research and how that eventually translates to patient care.”

Today, the Preston Laboratories include the work of 20 senior scientists with nearly $40 million in active funding from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Defense, the pharmaceutical industry and private donors.

“Frances Preston was a visionary leader and a tireless advocate for excellence in cancer research and patient care,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., director of VICC. “It’s safe to say our efforts would not have been as successful without Frances’ unwavering support.”

Mrs. Preston was so influential in her advocacy for cancer research that Vanderbilt’s Medical Research Building II, which houses many cancer research laboratories, was renamed the Frances Williams Preston Research Building.

“Frances was a true trailblazer in her profession. With her success she was committed to making a palpable difference in our community. She stood with Vanderbilt as a steadfast ally in the war against cancer, shaping the research and health care at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center from its very beginnings in myriad ways that have impacted countless patients here and across the nation,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “Her passing leaves us with a tremendous sense of loss. Thanks to her leadership and generosity, she will continue to impact patients with cancer for generations to come.”

A graduate of North High School, Mrs. Preston attended George Peabody College for Teachers at Vanderbilt University. She started her career as a mail messenger for National Life & Accident Insurance Company in Nashville. The company also owned legendary country radio station WSM and while serving as a receptionist for WSM, she began hosting a fashion and style program on WSM-TV. She moved into the promotions department, working on telethons and the annual disc jockey conventions that eventually grew into Fan Fair (now the CMA Music Festival).

In 1958, she was hired to open a Nashville office for BMI, which she ran with an assistant from her parents’ garage. In 1962, BMI opened its own offices on 16th Avenue South, in the heart of Music Row.

Under Mrs. Preston’s direction, BMI became the first organization to dedicate an awards program to the songwriters and music publishers who created the songs that made Nashville “Music City.” She became known as a champion for the rights of these artists and over the years she worked with such well-known singers and songwriters as Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings and Tammy Wynette.

Mrs. Preston’s influence was so great that she was honored on many stages over the years. In 1992, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and was welcomed into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in 1999. At the 1998 Grammys she received a National Trustees Award, the greatest recognition given to a non-performer.

During her work with the Martell Foundation, she helped launch the “Country in the Rockies” ski and music fest, held for several years in Crested Butte, Colo. Many Vanderbilt-affiliated individuals attended these events where famous singers and songwriters provided entertainment and mingled with researchers and donors. “Country in the Rockies” was one of the most successful fundraising events hosted by the nonprofit foundation.

“Frances was just one of those special individuals you rarely come across in a lifetime,” said C. Wright Pinson, MBA, M.D., Deputy Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and CEO of the Vanderbilt Health System. “She was a revered pioneer, serving as a beacon to others in the music industry. She also pioneered the successful marriage of music and medicine, working tirelessly to further cancer research and new treatments by graciously supporting the Frances Preston Laboratories at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. Through her longtime relationship with Vanderbilt, and through the T.J. Martell Foundation, her legacy of leadership and philanthropy will live on.”

Mrs. Preston’s survivors include three sons, six grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Visitation for family, friends and colleagues will be held Sunday, June 17, from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Country Music Hall of Fame, where Mrs. Preston will lie in repose in the Rotunda. A private funeral will take place at First Lutheran Church, with a private graveside service and burial to follow at Nashville’s Spring Hill Cemetery.

Spring Hill Funeral Home & Cemetery, 5110 Gallatin Road, is handling the arrangements.

Memorial contributions may be made to the T. J. Martell Foundation, 15 Music Square West, Nashville, Tenn., 37203, 256-2002 or the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, 2301 Vanderbilt Place, Nashville, Tenn., 37240-7727 (c/o Gifts Processing PMB 407727), 936-0233.