When Mo Dana lost her battle with breast cancer at 52, the world lost a remarkable individual who never understood that some things were impossible and others simply not appropriate for a young woman who couldn’t do anything halfway.
“There are no words to describe her,” said Michelle Grubb, a close friend who met Mo 36 years ago when both rode ponies for Jimmy Lee. “She was my very special friend, and her spirit lives on in so many of us who knew and loved her.”
Grubb was a key supporter when Mo realized how ill she was. She created a place for Mo in her home, and with friends in Florida created a job working with horses for so she could stay busy. Sadly, by the time she arrived in Florida, she was too weak to manage the responsibility, and, eventually had to return to Des Moines for hospice care.
Mo’s mother, Christiane Laroque Dana, is French and she named her daughter, Monique. It didn’t take long, however, for family and friends to shorten her formal name to the diminutive “Mo.” The 5’2” dark haired rider was very fit and hard working, and she left a trail of loyalty, love and respect everywhere she went.
In Des Moines, everyone referred to her as “The Dynamo,” so the knick name stuck through all the amazing stages of her life.
Mo’s Middleburg: “Good Morning, Mr. Matheson”
Mo was a familiar face at the Middleburg Training Center where she galloped racehorses in the mornings.
Teresa Ramsay met Mo when her husband Greg began shoeing horses for Mo when she was riding SillySal,. Later, when Teresa kept her horse with Mo, she helped her gallop the race horses in the mornings and helped her train pony classes in the afternoons.
“I believe Mo’s horse career began at Jane Dillon’s in Great Falls,”
Teresa said. “When her parents moved to Fox Ridge, she settled into Northern Virginia with delight.”
As a girl who loved racing, she broke nearly every bone in her body.
Later, she turned her passion for riding into a career, training horses for Jackie Onassis, Paul Mellon and members of leading horse community families like the Wyeth-Duponts, Bloombergs, Firestones and Johnsons.
She worked Yearling Sales at Saratoga and Keenland for well-known horseman Clay Camp, and she rode ninth in the Point-to-Points where she had a very successful career. She once went hunting with Prince Charles and she showed, bought and trained horses for nearly 25 years. But, Mo may best be remembered by the many young riders she trained in Middleburg.
Mo’s pony classes evoke startlingly crisp memories among the children she taught to ride and hunt.
“We trailed three days a week and worked in the ring three days a week,” remembered Lisa Hubbard Patterson, who, with her brother, Jay, were regular riders in Mo’s classes.
“During hunting season, we had to be ready at the crack of dawn in full regalia with our ponies groomed and braided impeccably,” Lisa explained.
Mo is remembered as a stickler for civility, and insisted that her young students extend a clear “Good Morning” and a tip of the hat to all adults, at all times. Ten or more children from ten to 16 years hunted with her regu larly with Mo in the lead and Teresa bringing up the rear.
“We always followed the adults, “ Lisa remembered, “…and one morning, when we had not yet greeted Charlie Matheson before the Hunt began, we rode past him as we approached a jump. Although he had been thrown and was sitting in the grass, every one of Mo’s pony class students tipped their hat and said, ‘Good Morning, Mr. Matheson,’ as we went over the jump he had missed.”
“We had so much fun riding with her,” Lisa said. “I’m certain the boys wouldn’t have worked so hard or enjoyed riding so much with any other teacher.”
When Mo left Middlebug, she trained and worked with Allison Fire stone, Katie Prudent and Michelle Grubb.
“She was simply an amazing person and an unforgettable friend,” said Denise Perry, who remembers galloping over the hills with Mo with her Pony Club riders following closely behind.
“She will be dearly missed,” Perry said sadly.
“Horses were her world until she moved to Des Moines where her brother Greg lived,” said Teresa. “We saw Mo occasionally after she moved West, but she never talked about how successful she was at the Art Festival or on her radio show. My husband, Greg and I really had no idea about her accomplishments until all the articles and the NBC segment aired after Mo’s death.”
But no one in Middleburg who knew Mo was at all surprised when they learned how successful she’d been in Iowa. Everyone agreed that, once she put her mind to it, Mo could do anything with the highest level of enthusiasm and accomplishment.
She was tough, but fair-minded, patient but demanding. She was kind and lighthearted and she respected her young students as much as she respected every horse she ever rode.
Mo’s Des Moines A gravely voice & legendary chutzpah
Until her last days in Des Moines, Mo “zipped around the streets in her beloved 2005 Mercedes Benz convertible.” A horse of a somewhat different stripe, but a horse none the less.
Mo arrived in Des Moines in 1996, after she had spent time in New York City where she was married and divorced.
“I love New York City,” she once told the Des Moines Register, “…But I tell my friends that New York is the greatest spectator sport in the world. If you want to participate in life, you’ve got to come to Iowa.”
“Of course, to say Dana merely participated in life is like saying P.T. Barnum organized a few talent shows,” according the Register.
When she moved to Iowa, she took a job with Von Maur selling shoes because, she said, she couldn’t stand to go a day without working. A year later, she applied to the Des Moines Arts Festival in response to an advertisement for an assistant director of the Des Moines Arts Festival.
The Register article notes that Mo was not a perfect fit for the job, but she wanted it so badly that, in her interview, she “blurted out that she would work for free.”
She remembered that she couldn’t keep her opinions to herself.
“I said, ‘you want to have this arts festival in nine months? With $20,000 in the bank, no name and no site picked out for it yet? Who do you think would move here for this job? Let me have a shot.”
The Board decided to give her the top job.
According to the Register, she hit the bulls-eye. The Arts Festival had originated in the late ‘50’s in a parking lot with student organizers. Professional artists joined the event in the 1980’s and it grew into space in Greenwood Park before it moved to the State Fairgrounds.
When Mo took over in 1997, the festival moved to the downtown bridges and she “invited” local companies for donations, routinely building a fund of a million dollars for the event each year.
How did she do it? By being Mo.
She created exciting new ideas, commanded a small army of volunteers, and suddenly, replicas of English gardens were growing on the riverbanks, elaborate fountains danced from the middle of the bridges, twenty-foot paintbrushes towered above the festival entrances and she moved earth to install new sidewalks.
Mo listened carefully to the artists. She searched for problems and fixed every one of them. She encour aged shy Iowans to chat up the artists and, by doing so, built understanding and appreciation that created an unshakable foundation of trust and appreciation for the festival.
When Greg Lawler, editor of the Art Fair Source Book created an award for the country’s best art fair directors in 2005, the first award went to Mo Dana.
“I wanted to recognize her for the incredible contribution she made to this whole business nationwide,” Lawler said. “She helped artists and her community.”
Now, to memorialize Dana, Lawler intends to name the annual award for her. “Mo was a spark plug for us all,” said Martha Willits, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. “She always asked, ‘Can we pull ourselves together in big ways for fun?’
Although Mo had accepted an offer to be the first executive director of the Des Moines Downtown Community Alliance, she was being lured back to New York for a fundraising job.
Des Moines leaders were devastated to lose her, and she was sad to leave, but the opportunity excited her and she made plans to move east;
Unfortunately, doctors discovered cancer in her breast, lungs and lower spine.
She declined the job and returned to Iowa to be with friends and family and for treatment.
When her health deteriorated during a visit with Michelle Grubb and friends in Palm Beach, Florida she returned to Des Moines and entered Mercy Hospice November 2nd.
Mo Dana died at Mercy Hospice November 9th after an eight-month battle with cancer.
Best Actress Award
There have been celebrations in her memory, and many tributes in the press and on the NBC affiliate. But what Mo may like best will be the tribute to her at the National Horse Show. November 30th in Wellington, Florida.
“We’re going to roast Mo during the service for her,” said her good friend Michelle Grubb. “We’re going to place her ashes in an Oscar statuette, like the ones that are awarded at the Academy Awards.”
“That’s precisely what she said she wanted, and we’re going to engrave the Oscar with these words: ‘Awarded to the best actress in a medical drama,’ just as she asked before she died.”
As so many said as this story was being researched,
“We have all lost a great friend, and an exceptional human being.”