Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

‘I’m sponsoring Yo-Yo Ma’: Mary Ellen Litzinger recounts personal reason for supporting concert

By Heather Longley

Mary Ellen Litzinger—a longtime member of the Center for the Performing Arts and the new chairperson of its Community Advisory Council—got the experience she bargained for when she and husband Tom sponsored a performance by classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott.

The story starts in the late 1990s with Mary Ellen caring for her dad, Vincent Verzaro. She spent many hours sitting with her ailing father, and they found common interest in Ma’s soothing recordings.

“When it became clear that my dad didn’t have long to live, we had a conversation where he said, ‘If you ever have a chance to share Yo-Yo Ma with more people, I want you to do it,’” she recalls. “So I kind of put that away and didn’t think much about it.”

Fast forward almost two decades. Mary Ellen attended an advisory council meeting at which center director George Trudeau revealed his plan to present Ma in concert. The announcement reminded her of conversations with her father that she hadn’t thought of in at least eighteen years.

“They just popped into my head,” she says. “After the meeting, I jumped up. I said, ‘I’m sponsoring Yo-Yo Ma.’”

“Do you know how much money they’re talking about?” Trudeau asked.

“You’re crazy,” Tom told her later.

After the shock and excitement wore off, she says she had a chance to gather her wits and face the financial magnitude of her decision.

“By this time, I’ve kind of come back down to Earth,” she says. “I’m thinking, OK, this is going to be substantial, but I’m doing this for me. I’m doing this for my father, and I made this promise. This is my legacy. I have to do this.”

The numbers aren’t important to the story, but the Litzingers worked out an agreement with the center to be the lead sponsors for the performance. By all accounts, the concert was a success and featured multiple encores, including a rousing rendition of “Ave Maria.” But for Mary Ellen, the experience was about more than just the music.

“The whole evening was just a magical evening for me,” she says. “I had to keep pinching myself. A couple times, I just sort of looked at the ceiling and I said, ‘Dad, how about this? Is this good enough for you?’ It looked like the biggest mosh pit in the world ... . I thought people were going to take this wonderful classical musician, and they were going to do crowd-surfing. It was wonderful.”

The evening’s pièce de résistance, however, was Mary Ellen’s chance at the post-performance reception to tell Ma her story. She says the musician responded, “I understand it was your duty but was also for the love you have for your father. And that makes this concert more special to me.”

Vincent, an electrical engineer who built some of the first transistors for the NASA Space Shuttle program, “wasn’t particularly musical,” Mary Ellen remembers.

“Towards the end of his life, music started to occupy him ... . It was lonely, and he needed sound. And so he, I think, found that Yo-Yo Ma’s music filled a void. When you live alone, particularly when you’re older and you’re housebound, you need the sound of something happening. Yo-Yo Ma was his thing.”

Mary Ellen and her family are no strangers to the world of philanthropy. While growing up, she says, her family took charitable giving and actions “pretty seriously.” This sponsorship opportunity, she adds, was “the dream of a lifetime.”

“You don’t think you’re ever going to get a chance like this to do something that somebody asks you to do, basically on their deathbed, and I got it,” she says.

Mary Ellen, who took over as advisory council chairperson in May, hopes to encourage charity among others.

“Philanthropy can be anything. It can be whatever you want it to be,” she says. “If you give from the heart, whatever it is, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do ... . It can be the smallest thing in the world, but as long as it’s meaningful, that’s all that matters.”

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.

Tom and Mary Ellen Litzinger sponsorship history

• 2018–19: Sybarite5

• 2017–18: Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott

• 2016–17: “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood LIVE”

• 2016–17: Cirque Éloize in “Saloon”

• 2015–16: Sybarite5

• 2014–15: The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center