Lifetime Leaders: Larry and Dorothy Ely

LAUNCHING ANY NEW ARTISTIC ENDEAVOR is risky business. Many moving parts have to be synchronized. The results can be unpredictable and depend on a strong vision with dedicated people willing to rise to the challenge. All of the elements came together beautifully (and quickly) for Des Moines Metro Opera in 1973, in large part because of Dr. Lawrence (1919-2011) and Dorothy Ely (1920-2021), our first community leaders. The Elys understood that quality performances didn’t have to be found only in America’s largest cities, but could belong to everyone.

Larry Ely was born in 1919 and raised in Guthrie Center, Iowa. He attended the University of Iowa where he obtained his medical degree while working several jobs to pay for his schooling. There he met his wife Dorothy in a church choir, and they married in 1942. Larry served in World War II, and in 1952 they moved with their growing family to Des Moines to join a medical practice. The Elys had five children: Patricia, Larry Jr., Stephen, Bennett and Carolyn.

It was through Stephen and because of Larry’s love for singing that their lives intersected with the launch of a professional opera company for Iowa 49 years ago. “Our second call was to the father of former student Stephen Ely,” said Founder Robert L. Larsen in 2019. “Larry Ely was a well-known physician surgeon in Des Moines—and that evening was really the beginning of the Company. Larry thought it was a good idea—this forming of an opera festival—and he volunteered to chair a board that he would create with his friend Don Easter. The nucleus of that board of very special people stayed with us for a number of seasons.”

Dorothy and Larry Ely with Margot Burnham

“Robert and Doug Duncan asked Larry to form a board and raise $20,000. Larry raised it. I have always been so proud,” said Dorothy in 2019. In the early years, the Elys would join in painting scenery and routinely assisted their son Stephen, who was the first lighting designer. “In the first years we all just pitched in. We were backstage pounding nails and painting. I don’t know how many times I swept the floor and cleaned up the stage. We would even pull our own curtains for the performances. That curtain was heavy. One night we needed a flower bed for an opera so someone went to a cemetery after Memorial Day to gather the cast-off artificial flowers. It was my job to sift through the load to sort roses from daisies and make a garden. I always marveled at how Robert and Doug could get people to contribute and participate.”

Their dedication continued for decades to follow. Though Larry Ely passed away in 2011, Dorothy continued to be involved as a member of the Honorary Board and the Des Moines Guild Chapter. She attended performances every season. Since their initial efforts, the Company has benefitted from a Board of Directors of which any organization would be proud. Because the Elys led the way with advocacy in the community, generous philanthropy, and good old-fashioned hard work, they set a model for success which continues to guide the Company today.

Dorothy Ely hugging Robert L. Larsen

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