A Local Life: Isabelle Scott, 70; heiress assumed many identities, endured hardship in a life of giving

Isabelle Scott, left, was deaf, but many of the people closest to her did not know about her disability.
Isabelle Scott, left, was deaf, but many of the people closest to her did not know about her disability. (Family photo)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 12:11 AM

One Christmas Eve, Nathan Baxter, the former dean of Washington National Cathedral, was in his study and left instructions not to be disturbed while he prepared his Christmas sermon. Awhile later, his secretary interrupted to say a woman had come to see him.

Baxter said he was busy, but his secretary said she had a feeling he'd want to see this visitor. It was Isabelle Scott, who handed Baxter an envelope. He noticed that it contained a check, offered his thanks and was returning to his sermon when he took a closer look.

The check was for $1 million.

With that gift, Ms. Scott established the Girl Choristers for students at National Cathedral School, from which she had graduated in 1958. When the group was formed in 1997, it became one of the first girls' choirs at an Episcopal cathedral in the United States.

When the choristers gave concerts or sang at religious services, Ms. Scott often attended. But she always stayed in the background and never interacted with the girls.

"She was always discreet," Michael McCarthy, the National Cathedral's director of music and the leader of the choristers, said Saturday. "She would always stand far off. The girls had no idea. She was referred to as the guardian angel."

The Girl Choristers did not learn the identity of their guardian angel until Ms. Scott died of leukemia on Nov. 15 at her home in the District. In the months before her death at age 70, Ms. Scott gave an additional $3 million to create an endowment for the choristers and provide scholarships for girls in the group.

"It was a legacy she felt she had to leave," McCarthy said. "She was very aware of other people's needs. It was striking, the impact she had."

In the final five years of a life remarkable for its challenges, setbacks and triumphs, Ms. Scott became devoted to music. As well as supporting the Girls Choristers, she became a singer in her own right.

She began taking vocal lessons with acclaimed soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, who started her at a child's level by teaching her "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." After three years, Ms. Scott was able to audition for the National Cathedral's volunteer choir, the Cathedral Voices. She was accepted.

About two years ago, she took up the piano, yet no one close to her - not her teachers, not her choir director, not her fellow singers - fully understood how great that achievement was: Isabelle Scott, it turns out, was deaf.

With the help of powerful hearing aids, which she concealed beneath her shoulder-length hair, and by teaching herself to read lips, she managed to compensate so well for her hearing loss that most people in her life - many of whom knew her for years - had no idea.

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