He felt the bumps, smooths the way

Philanthropy: A Baltimore man puts his riches to work supporting inner-city schoolchildren.

September 25, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

LaUanah King-Cassell still remembers the call. A rich man was on the phone, making noises about wanting to visit her school full of poor, East Baltimore students.

"I really thought he was a salesman or a crank call," said King-Cassell, the principal of St. James and John School. "I was like, `What?' I was very short with him."

But once she met Wilson "Tom" Gildee, King-Cassell changed her mind: "I'll just say I knew it was a gift from God."

Gildee, a self-made millionaire from Pimlico, had plucked the school's name out of the Yellow Pages - a first attempt at his new career as a philanthropist. Five years later, he is paying tuition for 120 children in four inner-city private schools, including St. James and John.

Parentless by the age of 5 and a largely absent father for years to his own son, Gildee has embarked on a campaign to pay for the education of hundreds of children in private schools like the one that formed his earliest experiences.

When his philanthropic plan is fully realized seven years from now, Gildee will be giving more than $1 million a year to educate 260 children at a time, from kindergarten to high school graduation.

Gildee is a man of contradiction. He grew up poor in Pimlico to reach what many would consider the pinnacle of success, making more than $15 million from the sale of a technology company he founded. He sings "The World on a String" on his answering machine, yet his life is whipsawed by an endless quest for self-improvement.

An atheist, he is paying for children to learn at Catholic and Christian schools. A smart-mouthed troublemaker as a student, he expects his scholars to act right and fly straight.

His tale shows how coming into wealth, the dream of many a poor kid, is seldom the end of a story. For Tom Gildee, it has been an instrument for good along the path of a personal evolution that, one senses, will never be finished.

Wiry and well-dressed, Gildee, 55, speaks with the energy of an entrepreneur in an accent from the Baltimore streets. His hair is curly, as if wild with his head's ideas. His face has an elfin quality that springs to life when he talks about children - and about his own constantly evolving possibilities.

"If I wanted just to feel good, I would just give $1 million a year until I retire," Gildee said. "But I want to know how it turned out."

Gildee is far from the only millionaire to throw his money into private-school scholarships. Paying for low-income children to attend such schools has become a popular form of philanthropy over the past decade. The Children's Scholarship Fund, started with $100 million by two wealthy businessmen, is one of the largest, providing grants in Maryland and 48 other states.

Do-it-yourself project

Gildee's program is unique locally, educators and philanthropists say, both because of its magnitude and because he has designed it largely on his own. The gifts have drawn the admiration of the area's established philanthropic sector.

"This is a guy who can walk with college presidents and walk with the most disadvantaged kid, and communicate with both of them at the exact same level," said Walter D. Pinkard, chairman of the Baltimore Community Foundation board, who invited Gildee to be a member.

Gildee's beginnings couldn't have predicted his life would turn out this way. He lived in a modest rowhouse across from what is now Pimlico Elementary School, with his mother, grandmother and older brother.

He never knew his father. By the time he was 5, his mother had left, too, without explaining why or keeping in touch.

But one constant was St. Ambrose Catholic School a few blocks away, where Gildee's grandmother sent him. She thought that it was important for him to get a good education and that the nuns there would provide structure.

Some of the nuns believed in the boy. Others thought he was nothing but trouble. Gildee was a class clown who, through the years, grew more belligerent. In eighth grade, he announced he didn't believe in God and was banned from graduation.

"He was a hellion - I mean capital H," said Joe Spinnichio, a computer programmer at the Social Security Administration and Gildee's best friend since grade school. "He was in your face, with people, teachers, school. ... He could have easily had his entire life ruined, many more times than several."

When Gildee was 15, his grandmother died - and his wild streak got worse.

He lived with a few different relatives, even with Spinnichio's family for a time. Though he was accepted to the prestigious "A-course" at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute - then one of the nation's top engineering high schools - he began drinking and had frequent encounters with the police.

Finally, he was caught cheating on a calculus final he hadn't studied for - the last exam of the last year of high school.

"Some guys thought it was tragic," said Lou Sardella, a fellow A-course student who went on to found his own successful company, Sun Automation, in Cockeysville. "And other guys thought it was coming to him."

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