Chattanooga arts community loses strong advocate in Molly Sasse French

Molly Sasse French speaks on March 10, 2015, at ArtsBuild's Ruth Holmberg Arts Leadership Award ceremony at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga.

While Molly Sasse French held her "dream job" as executive director of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera, she was a strong advocate for all arts in Chattanooga, her friends and colleagues said.

"She was an incredible force for the arts and the community," CSO board President Don McDowell said.

photo Molly Sasse French

Sasse French died early Tuesday after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Services will be Saturday at 3 p.m. at First-Centenary United Methodist Church on McCallie Avenue. As part of its next Masterworks concert Oct. 20, the CSO will perform Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, a favorite of Sasse French's and a piece that celebrates art and life, said music director Kayoko Dan.

McDowell and others said Sasse French was an advocate for more than just music.

"She really believed in the arts, whether visual or music or arts education, and she knew how important art education is for kids because of what it did for her," McDowell said.

Sasse French was active for many years with the local arts advocacy and fundraising organization Allied Arts, now ArtsBuild, before becoming interim executive director of the CSO in 2007. She was named to the position full time the next year and resigned for health reasons in January.

"I am deeply saddened by Molly's death," said music director emeritus Robert Bernhardt. "I know she considered being executive director of the CSO her dream job. She loved her job.

"She played a significant role for decades in the cultural life of our city," Bernhardt said. "Personally, she was both my friend and my colleague, and she was a great supporter of my work. For those things I will be forever grateful."

ArtsBuild President Dan Bowers said her death is a big loss for arts in this area.

"Chattanooga's arts community has lost one of its greatest champions," he said.

"Molly has been synonymous with the arts in Chattanooga for the past three decades and was one of our greatest advocates. We in Chattanooga, and others across Tennessee, mourn her passing."

Jo Coke, a longtime friend who served as past president of the CSO Guild and now is on the CSO board of directors, said Sasse French was an inspiration to others.

"Molly was a special person, not only for the organizations and staffs with whom she worked, but for all of us who admired her fair and forthright attitude toward life and its challenges. She inherited a huge loss at the CSO, and managed to turn it around through her own dedication and her inspiration of others. She was a supreme fundraiser, and an excellent role model. I will miss her competent leadership."

Sasse French was named a Woman of Distinction in 2011 by the American Lung Association in Tennessee.

Former Chattanooga Music Club President Charlynn Fry said Sasse French was a "very supportive" member of that organization.

"She initiated bringing the Veterans Day programs with the CSO to Memorial Auditorium, with the assistance of the Chattanooga Music Club, so that the restored Austin organ could be used in the programs," Fry said. "The concerts were held following the Veterans Day ceremonies in the National Cemetery."

Sasse French's second husband, Jim Sasse, died in 2012, and she married Gaylord French in 2015. She had two children from her first marriage, Mary Coulter of Knoxville and Dave Teague of Chattanooga.

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.