The West Philadelphia community is mourning the loss of a leader who possessed an open mind as well as an open heart.
Nancy Cox, a 1971 Nursing graduate who co-founded the University City Arts League and the University City Swim Club in the 1960s with her husband, died on Aug. 28 after suffering a stroke. She was 81.
Cox grew up in Philadelphia, living in a small house on 10th Street and Girard Avenue. She earned both undergraduate and masters degrees in nursing at Penn and worked as a registered nurse at Pennsylvania hospital.
In 1963, she and her husband, James — a 1953 graduate of the School of Medicine — helped establish the swim club, which from its start had been envisioned as a racially integrated club. It was for this vision that the Coxes and the other founders were unable to receive a loan from local banks to fund the project and were forced to raise the money privately.
Two years later, the Coxes contributed their time and resources to help found the UCAL, which today enrolls about 4,000 students.
Noreen Shanfelter, current executive director of the UCAL, said Cox “set the gold standard for her service to the community.”
Cox was active in the UCAL up to just a couple of years ago, and she remained a member of the board of directors until the time of her passing, Shanfelter said.
Cox had often chaired the UCAL Annual Auction, the organization’s largest fundraiser, and in the past had served as executive director for what Shanfelter called an “abominable salary.”
In addition to founding these lasting neighborhood institutions, Cox will leave a deeper impression on those who knew her well.
“You’ll find everybody tells these stories about her, what she did for them and for the neighborhood,” said Rebecca Wright, owner of the Saturn Club salon on Sansom Street, where Cox often visited.
Wright said Cox would stop by with her husband — chatting about her fond memories of the neighborhood — and “all of the staff would hear her stories and just say, ‘Wow.’”
She added, “It reminds people what kind of leaders we have around us.”
Cox epitomized the “consummate leader,” and was the “most gracious person,” Shanfelter said.
“If anyone did something for the Arts League, she would write a personal note, which we know is becoming a dying art,” Shanfelter added. “But she kept up with it.”
That belief in striking a personal note with friends and colleagues didn’t end with written notes.
Cox’s youngest daughter, Christine, founder of the Philadelphia ballet company BalletX, recalls her mother as being “one of a kind.”
“Everybody in the neighborhood knew my parents,” she added.
Christine, who took her first ballet lessons at the UCAL and later became a professional dancer, explained that “for a child that needed art, [the UCAL] was a fantastic outlet for me and so many other children.”
Christine credits her parents for inspiring her to found BalletX.
She added, “You don’t realize how much your parents are affecting you because you’re living your life, and then you look back and say, ‘I founded something.’”
Cox was also involved with the Democratic party and served as vice ward chair in the 46th Ward.
Cox is survived by her husband, five children and nine grandchildren.