The stately “Welcome to Saratoga Springs” statue of Native Dancer surrounded by flowers where Union Avenue meets Congress Park was one of Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson’s many exceptional contributions to this city. I go by it all the time, and I always think of Marylou and John, always meaning to tell them both, thank you. Thank you for this beautiful gift.
I think I told them all of this before. But I meant to send Marylou a note about it a few weeks ago, when I saw people posing for photos in front of the statue, as I often do, year-round. I procrastinated, as I often do, even knowing that Marylou was in failing health. Yesterday, on July 19, 2019, she passed away at her home in Saratoga Springs.
I first met Marylou close to 40 years ago, when I became managing editor of The Saratogian. My husband and I enjoyed her black-tie summer galas, attended by a mix of local people, big names in racing, and assorted celebrities. Crowds would gather in Congress Park outside the Canfield Casino to watch Marylou’s grand entrances and try to spot some of the rich and famous guests. Saratoga Springs was revived as a place to be in no small part because of Marylou’s parties, beginning well before my arrival in the city, the Whitneys’ generosity and their role in horse racing, and the sheer power of her personality.
My colleague at The Saratogian, Jeannette Jordan, whose duties included society coverage, and her husband, Augie, hit it off with Marylou. They’d frequently meet up for dinner at places like Winslow’s. “You didn’t have to have money to be a friend of hers. She loved everybody and was kind to everybody,” Jeannette told Times Union reporter David Lombardo (yes, my son).
Yet not everyone was kind to Marylou. Sometimes people would complain to me that the newspaper had “too much” coverage of Marylou Whitney. I’d explain they were mistaken to brush her off as merely a socialite, the wife and later widow of the accomplished C.V. Whitney, rather than the philanthropist, horse owner and lover, and keen businesswoman she really was. They didn’t understand or appreciate how important she has been, for decades, to Saratoga Springs and horse racing. She did plenty for this city — without seeking recognition.
Marylou was extremely gracious, generous, smart — and funny. A few years ago, she and her husband, John Hendrickson, were driving on Route 50 heading home when they passed my husband and me walking to a show at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (which, by the way, she helped create back in the 1960s and supported for decades). Months later we saw them, and Marylou leaned in to tell me, “If you need a ride to SPAC, let me know.”
Marylou and John, nearly 40 years her junior, married in 1997. Longtime friend Maureen Lewi yesterday told The Times Union: “No one thought so in the beginning, but it was a match made in heaven. They both know how to have fun and they both have such generous hearts.” Maureen is right. John has truly been a loving husband and, as the need arose, a devoted caregiver.
Marylou and John have generously donated millions of dollars, countless hours and hands-on leadership to continue to benefit the city – enhancing Saratoga Hospital and other health care institutions (especially in Kentucky); creating, funding, organizing and attending programs for the backstretch workers at Saratoga Race Course; underwriting much of the celebration of local thoroughbred racing’s 150th anniversary in 2013, including the old-fashioned Floral Fete. This was one of the most amazing, heart-warming things I ever saw in this city – some 40,000 people lining Broadway to cheer a parade of dozens of people on homemade floats.
Today I’ll brave the heat to visit the Congress Park garden of long-stem, scented pink Marylou Whitney roses that John commissioned for her 85th birthday. Classic, like Marylou herself. I’ll stop for a selfie at Native Dancer’s “Welcome to Saratoga Springs.” And I’ll say thank you, Marylou. Thank you for this beautiful gift. Thank you for everything.