Mary McCullough-Hudson's original plan was to be an opera star. Born in Hamilton to parents of modest means "” "actually, modest would be generous," she says "” she was nonetheless exposed to good music, early and often. Her father played the saxophone, clarinet and piano, picking up gigs during the Big Band era that would enable him to finish his University of Cincinnati degree after 13 years.

Mary headed for her father's alma mater at the College-Conservatory of Music, still planning to be an opera singer. "I should have known better," she says. "I was going to school with Kathleen Battle and Barbara Daniels."

When her classmates went on to Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and opera houses around the world, Mary went to Covington as a performer on a government grant.

"A star was not being born," she says. She pictured herself in a lifetime of hotel rooms in a dizzying array of cities "playing the third maid from the right. I wanted to find something I could do better than anyone else. Singing wasn't it."

She talked her way into a secretarial job at the Fine Arts Fund more than 25 years ago. Since 1994, she has been president and CEO of Cincinnati's FAF, which has raised more dollars from more donors than any of its peers in the United States. Mary also, as they say on Oprah, has a life. She has two children: Megan, who just finished school at Mt. Holyoke, and Drew, a spring graduate of Summit. Her husband of 25 years, Gregory, teaches at Northern Kentucky University and Cincinnati State.

Newly trim "” "I just eat less and exercise more" "” she politely fends off attempts to center the message around the person at the helm. "Volunteers are key," she says. "And the incredible and historic support of this community. I admire the way our organizations are managed, but they work on very slim margins. Our goal is to provide a base they can count on."

Besides the major arts organizations such as the Cincinnati Art Museum and Symphony Orchestra, the FAF also supports 60 to 70 smaller groups through grants and programs, such as an umbrella health care plan, marketing assistance and board development training.

"Fine Arts is more expansive than some people think. It includes church music and the Madcap Puppet Theatre. We're not a one-trick pony," she says.

It's a variety mirrored by the donors themselves. More than 45,000 individuals, corporations and foundations contributed to this year's campaign, which raised just over $10.5 million. A key component was the Fine Arts Fun Card, offering discounts to area arts. "We have our big donors, the corporate givers. But we also have a lot of people, just giving what they can. They say they do it for their kids. Or because it's good for the community," she says.

Wearing bold gold jewelry and a classy taupe pantsuit with a hint of shimmer, she is definitely not the third maid from the right, not a bit player. She's a star of a different kind. When Mary abandoned her original plan, she chose instead to provide the means for hundreds of voices to be heard, for thousands of instruments to play, for generations of people in this region to see dancers and paintings and actors. Even people of modest means.