Strings on gifts a knotty problem

June 05, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

Anyone remember the donor who gave all that lacrosse equipment to Patterson High School last June? Anyone? I didn't think so. Even I couldn't remember - and I was really paying attention at the time. Had to look it up.

Turns out, the benefactor was AT&T.

The communications giant was corporate sponsor of the 2007 NCAA lacrosse championships, held at M&T Bank Stadium over the Memorial Day weekend. The company collected used equipment from fans, as well as new equipment from exhibitions and demonstrations at the tournament, then gave it to Patterson High.

Why Patterson?

Because the school's lacrosse program was so poor the players had taken to removing from a memorial wall in their locker room equipment that once belonged to their senior captain, Christopher Clarke.

Clarke was killed after practice one March evening, an innocent bystander in a street shooting near his home in Northeast Baltimore.

His teammates and coach took the gloves, blue helmet, lacrosse stick and blue-and-white No. 24 jersey out of Clarke's locker and fastened them to a bulletin board.

But, equipment being meager and most players unable to afford their own - only six of them had ever touched a lacrosse stick before - the team in time had to take pieces of the memorial to continue playing games.

We reported this in The Sun in May 2007 and, later that month, someone at ESPN remembered the story during a conversation about the equipment collected at the NCAA tournament. That's what led AT&T to make the donation, worth an estimated $5,000, to Patterson's team three weeks later.

There was a brief "media event" June 25, with AT&T officials, Patterson Principal Laura D'Anna, lacrosse coach Jonathan Kehl and three of Clarke's teammates. The Sun covered it and reported the AT&T donation. That's not something we always do but, in this case, we were following our own story.

The point is, media coverage of the donation was not a condition of AT&T making it.

A year later, we have another story about a gift to the kids at Patterson High, and it's not quite as pretty.

Castle Toyota/Scion promised $8,400 worth of scholarships to four Patterson seniors on their way to community college next fall. But the car dealership withdrew the offer after the principal, D'Anna, decided there would be no media coverage of the school's senior awards assembly, where the scholarships were to be presented. As The Sun reported this week, the May 23 assembly took the tone of a memorial service after the school's longtime JROTC instructor died of a heart attack a few days earlier.

Now, instead of having no publicity for his gesture, Howard Castleman, the dealership owner, has a dose of bad publicity. And he did himself no service with his quotes in The Sun of Tuesday, saying that his experience with Patterson would also end his involvement in an annual Christmas party for poor kids. "I'll never, ever, ever give money again. This is it. I'll never have another Christmas party for these kids. It doesn't pay."

Doesn't pay.

Pardon me while I have an interlude.

Two years ago, an acquaintance made a generous gift to a nonprofit with which I'm involved. His gift was anonymous, which seemed to be in keeping with the nonprofit's embrace of charity and humility. Still, the donor's identity was no secret; these things have a way of becoming known within organizations.

Ultimately, however, the giver identified himself publicly, something he had every right to do, but something that, at the time, came across as obnoxious own-horn blowing, ego trumping humility.

I mentioned this to a Jewish friend, who pointed me to one of the central tenets of Judaism - tzedakah. This refers to the obligation to give to charity and perform acts of philanthropy, foundations of a rich spiritual life. The medieval rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides, created a kind of Tzedakah Top Ten, listing forms of charity from greatest to weakest.

Near the top, coming in at third, is giving anonymously to some deserving person known to the giver.

The second highest form of tzedakah is giving anonymously to a deserving person unknown to the giver. (No. 1 is helping a poor person in a way that leads them to a life without a need for charity.)

So Maimonides held anonymity of the giver in the highest regard.

In my book, there's nothing wrong with recognition for charitable giving and deeds; it just shouldn't be the givers primary motivation.

But that's exactly the opposite of the proposed Castle Scion/Toyota scholarships - they appear to have been conditioned on publicity.

Brother.

You have to wonder what Howard Castleman expected. Television news coverage and a front-page story in The Sun for a $8,400 donation? His company's donation might have warranted a story and photo in the Baltimore Guide, but probably not much beyond that.

Such recognition could have been achieved despite D'Anna's concern about the awards ceremony being turned into a "media circus." It's hard to believe that would have happened.

Now, after taking some heat, Castleman's wife has offered to make the donations to the Patterson students, but D'Anna told them, in so many words, to take a hike.

That's too bad. Here are grown ups who had a win-win within their grasp, and they've turned it into a lose-lose. Maimonides would not be pleased.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks can be heard on Midday, Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1, WYPR-FM.

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