Imagine a 24-year-old woman launching an advertising agency in downtown Terre Haute that quickly became a $1-million-a-year business.
Now, imagine that happening in 1949.
Myra Janco Daniels did that. And she did it while still studying at Indiana State Teachers College and working nights at Meis Department Store.
Those years marked the first steps in a career that saw Daniels become a national force in advertising; transform Naples, Fla., into a thriving and elite arts community; and raise significant funds for philanthropic projects. In 1967, she married an equally influential advertising executive — Draper Daniels.
He created the iconic Marlboro Man, Jolly Green Giant and All-State’s “You’re in Good Hands” ad campaigns and partially inspired the leading Don Draper character in the 1950s-based TV series “Mad Men,” which aired on AMC from 2007 to 2015.
Draper Daniels met Myra at Chicago in 1965, bought the ad agency for which she was serving as executive vice president, and asked her to stay on as its president, impressed by her style. Myra became the only woman to hold such a position with a major national ad agency, according to her personal website. Draper served as the agency’s creative director. Myra handled its marketing. Their company thrived, handling accounts for Colgate-Palmolive, Maytag and other popular brands.
Her accomplishments continued, though, well after his death from cancer in 1983 following their move to Florida.
“She was quite remarkable,” said Bernie Carney, a retired, 92-year-old businessman who was a student in college classes Daniels taught at Indiana State.
Other friends said the same about Daniels, who died June 22, just four days short of her 97th birthday.
“She was a very small, diminutive lady — under 5 foot — but her stature was so enormous,” longtime friend and businesswoman Ursula Pfahl said Tuesday by phone from Naples. “There was this very small person who accomplished enormous things.”
Daniels started humbly but impressively. She was born and raised in Gary during the Great Depression. As a 4-year-old, Myra was asked by her grandmother, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“In charge,” the little girl responded, according to Pfahl, who’d heard Daniels tell that story.
Terre Haute was the first place to see her realize that goal.
She chose to attend Indiana State, rather than the University of Chicago and Northwestern, after Indiana State president Ralph Tirey met her at the local bus station for a campus visit and took her to lunch, hoping Daniels would join the Sycamores’ debate team. Daniels did more than that.
Needing a place to stay, Daniels accepted an offer to live with a retired New Goshen school teacher, Goldie Hiatt, agreeing to do housework and typing in exchange for rent. “The only problem was, Myra had never done laundry,” Pfahl explained.
So she took Hiatt’s laundry to a local laundromat and brought it back to the house. Impressed by the outcome, Hiatt asked to also do laundry for a friend. “Myra realized she had to fess up,” Pfahl said.
The two women became friends, and Daniels wound up caring for Hiatt in Chicago through the woman’s final years.
While just a freshman at Indiana State, Daniels served as editor of The Statesman, the campus newspaper. She soon sought a job at the Terre Haute Tribune newspaper, but its editor refused to hire a young female college student, whom he labeled “a paper doll.” So, Daniels walked down Wabash Avenue to Meis Department Store and immediately landed an advertising job.
A few years later, she took $200 from her savings account and started her own ad agency, Wabash Advertising at 522 Ohio St. Within the first year, she had 10 employees and $1 million worth of invoices. Daniels was still attending Indiana State.
“I mean, she was busy,” Bernie Carney recalled. Daniels also taught marketing classes at Indiana State and Indiana University, adding a master’s degree.
Daniels often spoke of her Terre Haute years, said friend Laney Meis, whose late husband Lucien served as Meis stores president and was a young store employee when Daniels worked there.
Daniels could be demanding, Laney Meis said, but only because “she wanted everything to be top drawer.”
Her passing, Meis added, “is like the end of an era.”
Once Daniels and her late husband moved to Florida following his retirement, she directed her energies toward developing the arts and philanthropic projects. She helped bring “top drawer” community assets to Naples on southern Florida’s Gulf Coast. Her most notable creation was the Philharmonic Center for the Arts — now known as Artis-Naples — in that affluent city of 21,750 residents. More than a music center, “the Phil” is also a hub of cultural learning experiences for kids and adults. Daniels also led a fundraising effort to develop a symphony orchestra on Marco Island, Daniels’ initial Florida residence, which later became the Naples Philharmonic.
Those assets helped Naples get named “Best Small Art Town in America” in the 2005 book “The 100 Best Art Towns in America” by John Villani.
“She put this town on the map,” Naples resident and ISU graduate Norm Winski said by phone Tuesday.
Obviously, Daniels disproved the “paper doll” label placed on her decades ago back in Terre Haute, many times over. Her contrasting first encounters with the Indiana State college president, Draper Daniels and Goldie Hiatt also reflect Myra Janco Daniels’ legacy.
“None of us should underestimate the impact we have on people, especially young people,” Pfahl said. “Because those impressions we have can last a lifetime. And those were clearly her Terre Haute impressions, and she spoke of them often.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]