Mrs. Ford enjoys time spent in Natchez

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 8, 1999

Jennifer Nasser wants a hoop skirt. &uot;I have to get these dresses,&uot; said the wife of Ford Motor Co. CEO Jacques Nasser, hours after visiting several of Natchez’s antebellum houses. &uot;I’ll walk into the Detroit Opera House in one of these Scarlett O’Hara dresses.&uot;

Nasser and her mother, Jean Ellis, were in town Wednesday during a stop on their American Queen tour. They not only toured houses, they also visited with the mayor, who made them honorary citizens of Natchez.

&uot;We’re the first Aussies to be honorary citizens,&uot; Nasser said. She and her husband are both native Australians.

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Over mint juleps at D’Evereaux, Nasser met several people involved with the Natchez Opera Festival. Nasser herself is a strong supporter of opera in Detroit, and is helping raise money to complete funding for the new Detroit Opera House.

&uot;I’ve always loved music and the performing arts,&uot; she said. Her interest in supporting Detroit opera began slowly, when she was asked to serve on the Detroit opera board.

At the time she still had three of her four children living at home, and she thought the commitment would only be one meeting a month.

&uot;But I’m the type that if I see something that needs help, I want to do what I can to help,&uot; she said.

So even though she &uot;hates fund-raising,&uot; Nasser is doing just that.

And opera lovers in Natchez hope that her success can rub off down here.

&uot;We’re just hoping the seed gets planted,&uot; said Dr. Don Killelea, president of the Natchez opera board.

This year, the Natchez Opera Festival moves to Margaret Martin School. Classrooms are being cleaned by volunteer groups, and the auditorium is being renovated through donations.

&uot;When (Mrs. Nasser) asked how we were going to fund it, I said prayer,&uot; Killelea laughed.

Ron Switzer, who lives in both Natchez and Detroit and supports opera in both cities, said he hopes the Opera Guild will host its convention in Natchez next year.

&uot;That’s what I hope, but that’s not why I’m doing this,&uot; he said of his tour with Nasser. Shortly after meeting her in Detroit, Switzer had invited Nasser to Natchez for mint juleps.

Natchez Opera Festival Director David Blackburn told Nasser the festival strives to educate the community about opera.

&uot;One of our whole purposes is to reach children,&uot; he said.

Although the scale of opera in Detroit is greater than in Natchez the Three Tenors will perform in Detroit this summer Nasser said she appreciated the Natchez festival’s efforts to reach out to the community.

&uot;I love all that, especially with the young children,&uot; she said.

But opera is not Nasser’s main focus. In Detroit, she is also involved in raising funds and awareness for cerebral palsy and cancer research. She has recently become involved with the Red Cross’s efforts to recruit blood donors.

Nasser was inspired by a recent Ford tragedy six people were killed and several injured in a plant explosion earlier this year. She learned how important enough blood donors are, not only during a tragedy, but every day.

&uot;I’ve become a champion of this cause now,&uot; she said.

And she also may become a Southerner, although she points out she’s even more Southern than Natchez, having been raised in Melbourne, Australia.

&uot;I’m so impressed (with Natchez),&uot; she said. &uot;Everybody I’ve met seems to be involved in the process of keeping this history alive.

&uot;I think I am a Southerner in a past life. I feel at home here.&uot;