SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month

Notes from Boomerang Creek: The Magnificent Laura Perez-Mesa

Cathy Salter
Cathy Salter, center, with Laura Perez-Mesa, right.

How can I ever adequately describe Laura Perez-Mesa? There simply aren’t enough words. When Laura passed away the morning of August 11, 2020, those of us who knew her lost a treasured friend. Her family shared these words, “To all those who had the good fortune of knowing her, she was the embodiment of effortless elegance, charm and class.” She was truly magnificent.

Laura’s classic elegance and boundless energy made her appear ageless. She was the embodiment of joy, love and light. When Laura was in a room, she filled it with hearty laughter and a can-do spirit born of her rural Iowa roots. Her gorgeous silver hair brushed into a stylish bun gave her a Latin flare. Her last name hinted that her heritage might have been Spanish or Cuban. Once while visiting Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art with friends, she was mistaken for the museum’s founder, Alice Walton. Dressed in bold red, black, yellow and white colors, she was a living Mondrian work of art. Her silver jewelry, itself a statement of her love of art, made her literally shine.

Laura embodied the best of what Columbia is all about. She was a longtime supporter of the Columbia Art League. Her home was a virtual art gallery filled with bold and whimsical creations that brought her joy and made her smile. Years ago, I teamed up with a group of incredible women I called “the Magnificats”—Laura, Libby Gill, Sabra Tull Meyer, Jane Flink, and Jenifer Flink—in an effort to put a new face on the Montminy Art Gallery in the Boone County Historical Museum. Together, we organized fabulous exhibits and loved seeing the Montminy come alive again. That experience of working with Laura and the Magnificats is one I will treasure forever.

Like her remarkable Cuban-born husband Dr. Carlos Perez-Mesa, who was often described as a renaissance man, Laura loved music and was a loyal supporter of the “We Always Swing” Jazz series. She loved dining out with friends, hosted small gatherings in her home and rarely missed a community event having to do with the arts. Laura also regularly attended Osher Lifelong Learning classes and exemplified the organization’s mission. Over the past six years, she became a fixture at Osher’s monthly Saturday Morning Book Talk series. With a coffee and scone in hand, she’d take a front row seat next to her pal Sabra, eager to listen to and learn from the community of writers, poets and book enthusiasts assembled.

One of Laura’s greatest gifts to Columbia was sharing her husband’s belief in the healing power of medicine and the arts in our lives. When I learned of her passing, I contacted her great friend Dr. David A. Fleming. As head of the MU Center for Health Ethics, I knew Dr. Fleming was the person who could best express the impact Laura and her family have had on the Center’s work. What follows is Dr. Fleming’s tribute to Laura Perez-Mesa and to her legacy.

“Laura was a beautifully elegant lady with a kind and gentle soul. Her magnanimous nature and gregarious personality swept any room, beckoning with a gleaming smile that became her trademark. The many who knew Laura also loved her and her presence will be deeply missed…but the influence of that loving presence lives on.

“What she and her family have done for the medical humanities in our community is unparalleled. In 1999 they established the Carlos Perez-Mesa, M.D. Lectureship in Medical Humanities in memory of her husband, Carlos – an amazing person in his own right. Laura and Carlos shared a love of great music and great times with good people who shared their zest for life. In the past twenty years the MU Center for Health Ethics has offered this lectureship to the community and it has been a huge success. We have had a long list of world class scholars and artists who graced us with their presence, all health care professionals skilled in performing and demonstrating the healing nature of their art.

“Laura remained actively engaged in the work of this lectureship, never missing a planning meeting and often opening her home to the artists and guests following presentations. She and her family also took their front row seats early for each Perez-Mesa lecture. Over the years a growing number of students and trainees have attended the lecture each April, now a regular learning experience in some of the health care professional curricula. Laura, Carlos and family have given something very unique and impactful to our community and it will be felt for generations to come. We are all deeply thankful.

“On a personal note, let me offer a deep sense of gratitude for the impact Laura has had both personally and professionally on my life. She taught me the strength of a kind heart, gentle manner, and giving nature…that a warm smile and caring presence can heal in equal portions to science in the art of medicine. I will be forever grateful to you Laura.” (David A. Fleming, Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Senior Scholar, MU School of Medicine).

To me, she will always be Laura the magnificent. A beautiful friend whose radiant inner light will forever shine.

Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.

Cathy Salter