Record gift `off street'

Couple who gave $1.28 million had no links to Friends School

May 02, 2008|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun Reporter

The couple were visiting Baltimore for the first time 17 years ago when they decided to make an impromptu visit to a private school on Charles Street.

Paul and Margaret Strasburg met with administrators at Friends School, a conversation that eventually turned into a $1.28 million pledged endowment at the time of their deaths, the largest gift ever received by the school.

The Strasburgs' benevolence has captivated former and current administrators at the school. Neither of the Strasburgs attended Friends. They did not live in Baltimore. And they did not previously know any of the administrators, students or alumni.

"It struck me as being one of the most unusual ideas and propositions I'd ever come across," said Byron Forbush, who was Friends' headmaster when the couple made the pledge.

As quickly as the couple extended the offer, they left and never returned to the school, Forbush said. Friends received 40 percent of the Strasburg estate, school officials say.

Paul Strasburg, a Navy pilot in World War II, died in Washington in 2003, his wife in 2006. Strasburg worked with the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

The endowment fund will give scholarships for two 4-year-old African-American children beginning in pre-kindergarten and continuing through fifth grade. The school has also pledged to finance the students' education through the middle and upper schools.

Two new students will receive scholarships every six years.

Schools officials say they had about 35 applicants, and decisions were based on standard admissions criteria, including visits with families and financial need.

The students, whose names the school is not releasing, will begin school in September.

Forbush and another administrator helped broker the scholarship over a seven-year period.

What attracted the Strasburgs was the school's pre-kindergarten program, schools officials said. Two of the Strasburgs' three children attended Sidwell Friends in Washington, but that school admits children starting in kindergarten.

The couple lived in Calvert County and had briefly considered endowing the fund at Sidwell, but didn't care for the fact that the school did not have a program for 4-year-olds.

Specific details of his conversation with the Strasburgs remain vague for Forbush, but he believes he spoke of Friends' history, its mission and some of its endeavors to improve minority enrollment. Friends had helped establish BEST (Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust) and its precursors, the Baltimore Project for Black Students and Training for Tomorrow.

Forbush, who retired in 1998 after 38 years at Friends, said his words appealed to the Strasburgs.

"I shake my head to this day when I think this [endowment] came from someone off this street." Forbush said. "This was the only one in my lifetime from someone unrelated to Friends School. We've had alumni leave us much more modest offerings than this particular endowment. But nobody, to my knowledge, [has] left money without any prior commitment to the school."

Friends School was founded in 1784 by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). The school in the 5100 block of Charles St. has about 1,000 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Tuition at Friends is about $19,000 a year.

The endowment is one of many received from donors to area private schools the last few years.

Donors have given the Bryn Mawr School more than $1 million recently and the Gilman School $10 million. McDonogh School received a matching gift of $20 million from a private donor.

The largest recent gift to the city public school system came from Art and Patricia Modell, who pledged $5 million last year to help start a public boarding school for disadvantaged students.

Seven-digit gifts are rare for Friends. The previous high was $1 million from the Charlesmead Foundation in 2006.

The school's annual fundraising goal is about $1.4 million, a figure almost met by the Strasburgs.

"Every time you have a landmark gift like this ... it emphasizes for people that others out there see tremendous value in what we're doing here," said the Head of School, Matt Micciche. "It makes them think that much harder in what they can do to support it. You're inspiring people of similar means to invest in what the school is hoping to accomplish."

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