A gift for all ages

December 24, 1998|By William R. Brody

HE DIED one of the richest men in the world. Since he had neither a wife nor children, people wondered how his fortune would be disbursed. And there was talk, of course. There always is.

They said he was cheap -- so parsimonious he hesitated before replacing worn-out carpets in his house because he hated the thought of losing the interest that much money could generate.

He was never a fancy dresser, but in later life, his clothes seemed noticeably threadbare. And even in the coldest weather he declined to wear an overcoat, apparently because he had never purchased one. Hadn't one of the wealthiest men of the day, the noted financier George Peabody, described the old man as the only person he knew "more thoroughly anxious to make money" than himself?

Major gift

Yet when Johns Hopkins died on Christmas Eve 125 years ago, it was not his tremendous wealth that was the talk of Baltimore, but rather, his tremendous generosity. Of his fortune of some $8 million dollars -- an unheard of sum in 1873 -- he left about $1 million to nephews, nieces, friends and loyal servants.

The remainder of his estate, including land, warehouses and thousands of shares of stock in the fabled B & O Railroad, he specifically directed to be used to found a hospital and a university bearing his name.

Each institution, which would have separate but closely interlinked boards of trustees, was given about $3.5 million to establish itself. It was, at the time, the largest philanthropic bequest in U.S. history.

By comparison, that same year Cornelius Vanderbilt endowed a university in Nashville, for the grand total of $1 million. Johns Hopkins' gift seemed to dwarf any previous comparison.

Today, we are still grateful to philanthropists who give with the idea of providing for the future. Such gifts come not only from the pocketbook, but also from the imagination. Gifts that dare to dream of a better, healthier, richer world-to-be that the giver may not be around to witness.

America has a tremendous history of private philanthropy and Baltimore's part in that continuing story has been significant. From the Enoch Pratt Free Library to the Walters Art Gallery, from the Peabody Institute to Johns Hopkins Hospital and University, the foundations of our civic life have been greatly strengthened by many outstanding acts of philanthropy.

Generous spirit

Less noted, but every bit as significant, are the everyday acts of generosity that individuals of common or even modest means make on behalf of their neighbors and fellow citizens.

We are tremendously grateful for the hundreds of millions of dollars we have raised in the past four years from donors around the world to support the work of Johns Hopkins. In fact, two-thirds of the gifts have come from outside of Baltimore.

Yet we are no less proud of the tremendous generosity of the women and men who work at Johns Hopkins. This year, they have donated an unprecedented $1.6 million to the United Way, in addition to volunteering many hundreds of hours in numerous projects throughout the community.

This is the essence of philanthropy, the true spirit of giving that burns brighter and gives greater light and more warmth than any trinket bought in a shopping mall.

Johns Hopkins did indeed die a wealthy man. But he knew the value of his money was not to be gained in the hoarding, but in the investing for the common good.

His was a gift that never stopped giving, and we are all the wealthier for it.

William R. Brody is president of Johns Hopkins University.

Pub Date: 12/24/98

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