Baltimore's biggest philanthropists reveal what motivates them

  • Baltimore area philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown are big contributors to the Crossroads School at the Living Classrooms Foundation.
Baltimore area philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown are… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
January 11, 2013|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

Featured in Scene Baltimore is home to some generous souls. There are those who give time, others who share their ideas and plenty of people willing to open their wallets.

Over the years, a number of people have built reputations as philanthropists. Yet however publicly they give, their reasons for doing so are often strikingly personal. Here are a few of their stories:

Edward St. John

EdwardSt. John learned something about giving in college. When he was a senior, a freshman wanted his help campaigning to become class president. St. John worked hard and the kid was elected but never thanked him. "I became very aware right then that you should help people because you want to, not because you're looking for thank-yous or accolades or anything else," he says. "You do it because it's the right thing."

He started St. John Properties in 1971, a company that now manages real estate in Maryland and five other states, and created a foundation about 15 years ago, giving away 7.5 percent of the company's net profit.

St. John, who's 74, likes to put his money into education-related projects in the communities where he does business. One of his largest gifts was $10 million to the University of Maryland, his alma mater, to build a learning and teaching center on the College Park campus. The classroom building, which will be called the Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center, is slated to be completed in 2016.

Over the years St. John has given more than $40 million to hundreds of schools. Baltimore's Mount St. Joseph High School, Towson University, Severn School in Severna Park and McDonogh School in Owings Mills are just a few.

A lifelong science geek who almost became a pilot, an institution close to St. John's heart is the Maryland Science Center, where he's chairman of the board. There, life-size dinosaurs stalk Edward St. John Hall and people are surrounded by movies at the St. John Properties IMAX Theater.

"We all have the power to make a difference," he says. "We have the choice to make it personal, create a legacy and be a role model. It's probably the most important thing we do in our lives."

Eddie and Sylvia Brown

The child of an unwed 13-year-old mother, Eddie Brown was raised by his grandparents in an impoverished part of rural Florida. But he made it to Howard University because an area businesswoman paid his tuition.

Education and the generosity of others changed Brown's life, giving him the start that led to what would become a billion-dollar asset management company. Now Brown and his wife, Sylvia, are devoted to trying to give children in Baltimore the same leg up.

One such program, where they've invested millions, is the Turning the Corner on Achievement Program they helped launch through Living Classrooms. Middle school students not only get a rigorous academic intervention but help before and after school for their entire family. "We want to help broaden their vision of what's out there beyond what narrow vision they may have in their community," Brown says.

The Browns focus their giving in three areas: heath initiatives in impoverished communities, the education of inner-city youth and the arts — mainly to expand collections of African-American art and provide scholarships to talented African-Americans.

The couple has generously given to area organizations including the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

One of their biggest gifts, however, falls outside those parameters. When Maryland Institute College of Art launched a building campaign, Eddie Brown wondered how many prominent private buildings in major cities were named for African-Americans. When he found out the answer was zero, he wrote a $6 million check for what would become MICA's Brown Center.

"Those who are blessed should be a blessing to others," says Brown, 72. "We asked: What can we do that's meaningful?"

Ben and Candy Carson

"When I was a kid growing up in Detroit and Boston we were very poor," says Dr. Ben Carson. "I remember how much I appreciated and felt special when people who weren't poor paid us some attention. That's something that has never left me."

When he become one of the world's most respected pediatric neurosurgeons, Carson, 61, knew he wanted to give other children that same sense of being valued. When he and his wife launched the Carson Scholars Fund in 1994, Carson says he hoped to empower young people and help them understand they can determine their life's direction.

The couple started by awarding scholarships, one to a student in each Maryland county. Now, their fund gives 500 $1,000 scholarships a year and has helped more than 5,000 students since inception. Carson has watched their career trajectories with pride. Some became physicians, others scientists and engineers and economists. One recently applied to the neurosurgery department at Hopkins.

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