37-year volunteer continues to make impact in community


The same lush greenery and landscape of the original portions of the University of Iowa campus today has served as a longstanding home for local volunteer Miriam Canter.

Volunteering her talents at the gift shop, knitting caps for newborn babies, and initiating the birth of organizations in the UI School of Music, Canter’s charisma and influence have long graced the UI with inspiration — particularly in the Old Capitol Museum.

“There’s always something to learn; I mean, you’re never too old for that,” the UI graduate said. 

Canter began working as a volunteer in the UI’s original campus building — the first year it began operation as a museum, in 1976.

At the time, she said, she was persuaded to become a volunteer by Susan Hancher, the wife of former UI President Virgil Hancher (1940-1964). A growing passion for interacting with young people has motivated her to remain a volunteer.

Shalla Ashworth, the Old Capitol Museum associate director, said Canter is an “energetic and feisty person.”

“She thoroughly enjoys being with the young people, and she maintains coming to the museum so she can learn from them and they can learn from her … I’d be lost without her,” she said.

In working alongside her for the past 21 years, Ashworth said, Canter nearly never misses volunteer shifts at the museum, even recounting an instance in which a word was misspelled on an exhibit and Canter encouraged the exhibit’s revision.

Ashworth said “She’s a confidant, mentor, and my grandma all rolled into one.”

In an email statement, UI President Sally Mason expressed gratitude for Canter’s long service.

“She embodies the extraordinary spirit of volunteerism that makes Iowa City one of the most generous communities in America,” she said.

Beginning as a freshman at the UI, Canter met the man who became her husband, Arthur, and befreiended Samuel Becker, the namesake of the Becker Communications Studies Building.

Married in 1945, Canter said they “always joke that what brought [Arthur] to Iowa City was that [she] was waiting for him.”

The power couple has long served as generous donors to Hancher Auditorium and the music program.

Her enthusiasm for the arts sparked the idea to create two influential arts organizations — the Hancher Guild and the Opera Supers.

Executive Director of Hancher Chuck Swanson has been acquainted with Canter since he began his career at the UI in 1985. He said she has been a constant supporter of the arts, calling her “one in a million.”

“She’s kind of an unsung hero, you know; a lot of people don’t realize all of the work that she’s done,” Swanson said. “She’s been an amazing friend to Hancher, and we couldn’t be more grateful. I can just see it in her interactions that she loves people; she really gets a joy out of helping others.”

Swanson went on to say that Canter organizes a potluck dinner for the Hancher Guild and that she’s a great baker, noting that she even bakes cakes for many of the staff members on their birthdays.

Despite the volume of change she has observed over the years, Canter said, she thoroughly enjoys living in a university town where something is always going on and that “the older [she] gets, the more interesting it becomes because she gets to see more and more young people.”

Continuing to play her role as an influence at the UI from behind her gift-store desk in the basement of the museum and fostering her passion for young people, Canter offered students at the UI advice.

“Make the most of the opportunities,” she said. “And look around — see what else there is that you didn’t know about, and try something new. It’s an opportunity you’ll never have again.”

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