While Lillian Disney, wife of Company founder Walt Disney, worked behind
the scenes in many ways to support the Company's growth, her most
celebrated contribution is the naming of a certain animated character.
In 1928, as he rode a train from
Walt devised a new character to turn around a serious business setback,
"Not Mortimer," Lillian replied when he told her his idea. "It's too
formal. How about Mickey." The rest, as they say, is history.
Idaho, Lillian grew up in
Idaho, on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, where her father worked as a
blacksmith and federal marshal.
She moved to
in 1923, and won a job at the fledgling Walt Disney Studio as a secretary
and "inker" of animated cels. Lillian met the boss, who sometimes asked
her not to cash her $15-a-week paycheck. Soon, the boss met her family and
July 13, 1925,
they married in
"I think my dad fell in love with her almost immediately ... she was an
independent little lady," says daughter Diane Disney Miller.
Lillian traveled with her husband on many of his business trips, including
the government-sponsored Good Will tour of South America
in 1941, which resulted in the production of such animated features as "Saludos
Amigos" and "The Three Caballeros".
While raising their two daughters, Lillian
served as a sounding board for her husband as he created films and the
theme park that made him and his company known internationally. Lillian
was a conservative balance to Walt's daring, and yet was indulgent, too,
allowing him to dig a tunnel under her prized flower garden for his
backyard railroad at their Holmby Hills estate.
As her nephew Roy E. Disney recalls, Lillian was "always prepared to speak
the truth, tough and warm and loving at the same time. She was a very
special person. You couldn't help loving her and you'd never forget her
... or her hearty laugh."
The publicity-shy Lillian ventured into the public arena after Walt's
death in 1966 to lend support to the fulfillment of his dreams. In October
1971, she attended the dedication of Walt Disney World in
Orlando, Florida, along with Company co-founder and Walt's loyal brother
Roy O. Disney.
"I think Walt would have approved," she said to Roy and those who helped
realize her husband's dream. Eleven years later, she returned to
to attend the 1982 dedication of EPCOT Center.
Lillian also lent support to Walt's venture into education, the
multi-disciplinary California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which
opened in 1971 in Valencia. Among her gifts to the school were funds to
remodel a campus theater and rename it the Walt Disney Modular Theater in
May 12, 1987,
Lillian announced a gift of $50 million to build a new symphony hall
designed by architect Frank Gehry in Los Angeles.
A long-time patron of the arts, this was her ultimate gift to the
community and to the love of her life. The
Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, debuted in
Lillian Disney suffered a stroke on
December 15, 1997,
31 years to the day after the death of her husband, and died the following