by Ben Swenson
Last year, Americans gave nearly $428 billion to charity – roughly $1,300 for every man, woman and child in the country. The amount of money devoted to charitable causes was larger than the individual economies of all but 15 states.
No matter the reason for giving, or what it looks like, there are always stories behind the philanthropy.
Here are eight different philanthropists who tell us what compels them to give. These are people who have offered their time, talent and financial resources for the good of the community.
Ultimately their stories are key to nurturing a more philanthropic society. “If you get people to believe, they give,” says Kathy Laing, program manager for the Institute on Philanthropy at the University of Richmond.
Helping society achieve goals
The rhythm of work and routine can obscure the beauty of our world, but in Newport News there are conspicuous glimpses of artistry meant to brighten our surroundings. One local businessman has played a major role in making those encounters possible.
Robert L. “Bobby” Freeman Jr. is CEO of Tower Park Management Corporation, a property management firm based in Newport News. The son of a well-known community pillar, Freeman has, like his father, forged a successful path in business, and cultivated a devotion to sharing that prosperity with his neighbors.
Part of Freeman’s appreciation for his
hometown can be found in the Newport News
Public Art Foundation, which he founded nearly 20 years ago to enhance city life through public sculpture. By placing permanent, grand-scale artwork in special locations throughout the city, the foundation aims to inspire pride, add beauty and pleasure to the community, and cultivate a unique identity.
Among the 20 pieces of artwork around Newport News is the graceful, crouching form of Selene. The 7-foot sculpture of white marble by María Gamundí rests on a small pond island in a natural setting between Mariners’ Museum Park and the James River. And there’s Hammer Tribute, a 16-foot nod to the eponymous tool, fashioned from plates of Pittsburgh steel by Jim Benedict and sitting at an intersection in the city’s industrial and commercial district, Oyster Point.
Freeman’s love of place can also be found in the artists that regularly visit the mixed-use development Port Warwick, which he helped bring to the city in the early 2000s. The Port Warwick Foundation is a nonprofit organization that hosts public and performing arts events such as the Port Warwick Art & Sculpture Festival and the Port Warwick Summer Concert Series.
The activities the organization hosts have “grown phenomenally since they started,” Freeman says, “and provided quality of life activities for the community, which I saw was a real void.”
Freeman is now stepping back from the Newport News Public Art Foundation and Port Warwick Foundation to make sure that those organizations prosper after he’s gone.
The arts have been a major component of his philanthropy; he has also backed institutions such as Peninsula Fine Arts Center and The Mariners’ Museum and Park. But he has supported schools, too, among them Peninsula Montessori School, Hampton Roads Academy and Christopher Newport University.
Freeman says his desire to endorse so many causes can be traced back to the unflinching generosity of his father, Robert L. Freeman Sr., and all the civic leaders of that generation. “Dad said yes to everyone,” he says.
His father believed philanthropy allows civil society to accomplish goals that have virtually no chance of significant government funding. “Private philanthropy adds to the culture of a community in a way that could not happen through government support alone,” he says.
Helping runs in the family
THE STRELITZ FAMILY
The Strelitz family’s penchant for charitable giving has roots in the world’s darkest hour. E.J. Strelitz, CEO of Virginia Beach-based Haynes Furniture, says the previous generation of his family, including his father Leonard Strelitz, witnessed the Holocaust during the formative years of adulthood.
Like other American Jews, the Strelitzes felt a sense of powerlessness to save their brethren because the Jewish community in the United States at the time did not have the collective political and economic strength it does today. “That left a very big mark on my father,” Strelitz says.
That experience would be the foundation of a furniture empire known as much for philanthropy as for business acumen.
The Strelitz family first took over Haynes Furniture when patriarch Ellis Strelitz bought the Downtown Norfolk furniture store in 1930. Since then, various family members have filled top executive positions in the company, and all of them have displayed a sense of obligation to share their good fortune with people in need.
In the years after World War II, the family business was booming, and by the 1960s Leonard Strelitz and his family were making regular trips overseas to help Israel and its citizens adjust to statehood. He also assumed leadership roles in local and national Jewish support organizations.
That philanthropic spirit continued long after the fate of the Jewish nation and its citizens worldwide stabilized. The family has made gifts to honor their cultural and religious background, taking prominent roles in Jewish causes. But the family never restricted their largesse to a single cause.
There was plenty of family discussion
about supporting their Jewish heritage, says E.J.
Strelitz, “but in the same breath, there was a lot of talk about supporting our community here.”
Eastern Virginia Medical School’s Strelitz Diabetes Center was named to honor the significant gifts and fundraising of the family. Acts of kindness were a hallmark of the family’s generosity as well. Leonard Strelitz’s 1999 Daily Press obituary recalled a time that he furnished an entire home for a family of Laotian refugees in need.
E.J. Strelitz, his wife Randi (Haynes’ executive vice president) and other family members continue to contribute money and time to a host of local and national causes large and small. They recently gave $5,000 to the Virginia Beach Tragedy Fund, created by the United Way of South Hampton Roads to help victims of the mass shooting in May.
Strelitz sees the preservation of this charitable legacy as a sort of a tax on their success. “We have to give back to the community that has supported us so well,” he says.
David Brand, a former Haynes executive, current president and CEO of Alliance for Global Good and E.J. Strelitz’s brother-in-law, says that the success of the furniture business has afforded the family the opportunity to drive giving among others in the community, such as Haynes employees. “The benefit of philanthropy is not only the end user but also when we let our associates know the things we’re doing and engage and encourage their support,” Brand says.
Planting seeds that grow
GOODY TYLER & BEE MCLEOD
When officials at The College of William & Mary broke ground on a wellness center in 2017, H. Elizabeth “Bee” McLeod and J. Goodenow “Goody” Tyler III were among those ceremonially hurling the first shovels of dirt.
The goal behind the center, which opened in 2018, is to provide a holistic approach to wellness that helps take the edge off of campus life. McLeod and Tyler endorsed the idea with a gift well into seven figures.
Wellness is central to the couple’s marriage – they met one another on a New Year’s Day run – and to the causes they support. With their careers behind them and much of their lives now largely devoted to looking outward, McLeod and Tyler are using the power of philanthropy to show that well-being comes in many forms.
McLeod has decades of business experience, most recently with Cox Communications and formerly with Landmark Communications. Tyler is a retired nurse anesthetist who worked both in the U.S. Army and in public hospitals in Virginia and North Carolina.
Keeping fit is second nature for the couple, who reside in Norfolk. McLeod ran competitively, was a triathlete and served as president of both Tidewater Striders and Road Runners Club of America. Tyler participated recreationally and has been on the governing boards of those organizations.
But they both understand that strength and endurance are just one part of a continuum. And supporting total well-being requires deliberate commitments, which is why they have shared their wealth with numerous causes.
Their contributions to schools voice an endorsement for the transformative power of education. The couple funds three scholarships at McLeod’s high school alma mater, Notre Dame High School in Lawrence, New Jersey, and their first significant support of William & Mary, where McLeod earned an undergraduate degree in 1983 and an MBA eight years later, went to the school’s library and school of business.
Since then, the couple has offered financial support for numerous William & Mary endeavors. Through the years, the couple has also been active on the boards for the William & Mary’s library, capital campaign and philanthropic foundation, which funds priorities with private money.
The McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, named to honor their generosity, opened on the campus in August 2018, and offers a range of services for students and faculty including recreational and fitness programming, mindfulness classes and professional counseling, everything from yoga to therapy. McLeod says the wellness center is a haven for psychological relief.
It’s that sort of big-picture approach to well-being that has steered the couple’s attention toward other causes, such as Camp Dreamcatcher, a Pennsylvania-based organization that offers year-round programming for children affected by HIV and AIDS.
Puppies Behind Bars is an organization
that allows inmates to train service animals, many of whom find their forever
homes alongside first responders and veterans. The couple has also been
significant supporters of Norfolk Botanical Garden, where
McLeod serves on the board of directors.
Leading by conspicuous example was not the couple’s first choice, McLeod says. But ultimately that gesture sets an example. As a result, she says, “we’ve shown a younger person how to give.”
Tyler says that the commitments he and his wife are making are investments in people as much as they are in institutions. It’s ultimately about planting a seed that grows for a long time. “We get more in return than we give,” says Tyler. “The money comes back tenfold.”
An obligation to share
Shirley Liverman will never forget something her father said the first time she earned money babysitting. Not all of that belongs to you, he told her. She needed to set aside some for others.
Liverman took that message to heart. And she would one day marry a man, Milton R. Liverman, who shared the same values.
The bonds that held the couple together were so strong that Milton’s death in 2017 only strengthened her resolve to live generously as a homage to his life. Out of that desire came the Dr. Milton R. Liverman Memorial Scholarship, which helps Suffolk students pursue higher education.
The scholarship is presented to selected student applicants in Suffolk Public Schools with a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher who have financial need and show potential for leadership.
The Livermans, both lifelong educators, met at Booker T. Washington Intermediate School. Shirley was a teacher. Milton was assistant principal. Their love developed alongside their careers. Milton eventually became superintendent of Suffolk Public Schools, a position he held for 10 years. All told, Milton and Shirley worked in public education for 37 and 38 years, respectively.
The Livermans, who both came from relatively humble beginnings, were able to achieve a level of prosperity, in part, through the generosity of others. “We were able to attain what we did because of financial assistance,” she says.
So, when Milton died of a rare form of cancer in 2017, Shirley knew a scholarship was the best way to honor his legacy. Through the Hampton Roads Community Foundation and the Suffolk Education Foundation, Shirley has already been through two rounds of awards in 2018 and 2019.
It has been three years since she lost her husband, and Shirley says she’s still not 100 percent sure of her purpose without him. But the scholarship is a good start, and there’s definitely more philanthropy to come. She inherited from her mother a tidy house on Godwin Boulevard in Suffolk that she knows will soon be put to good use, but its true intention is not yet clear.
But there is an unmistakable theme driving her path forward. “When you’ve been blessed, you have an obligation to share that with others,” she says.
Set a high bar, and believe in it
MAC PENCE & JEFF WELLS
Mac Pence and Jeff Wells have led their lives with foresight and vision – in their professional callings, in their relationship to one another, and in the commitment they’ve made to leave the world a better place than they found it.
Now, as the couple approaches their 60s, they continue to believe that big goals require ambitious intention.
Pence is a Richmonder who majored in
business at Furman University, and eventually
became president of the Pence Auto Group dealerships. Wells grew up in Tidewater, a Kempsville High School grad who studied English and law, and whose legal career eventually took him to Richmond as an attorney for the Office of Staff Council for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2008, the men opened a bed and breakfast, Maury Place at Monument, which had a successful six-year run. Today they share a handsome home in Richmond’s Fan District.
Long before same-sex marriage became legal in the United States in 2015, Pence and Wells formally committed their lives to one another. They had a union ceremony in their home in 1999, and 10 years later legally married in Boston.
Service has been part of their mutual identity from the beginning. Pence has served on the board of CEDEPCA USA, which helps educate and empower women in Guatemala, and chaired the board of directors of what’s now Diversity Richmond, an LGBTQ advocacy group. Wells has always had an affinity for performing arts, and serves as president of Richmond Allied Voices, a nonprofit that supports performance ensembles.
The men have also made significant financial commitments and through the Community Foundation for a greater Richmond created the PenWel Fund, which provides grants for acute needs in some of the world’s poorest areas.
Pence says that organizing is just as important as individual gifts. They’ve always tried to be available “to help nonprofits appeal to donors,” he says.
Often the proposals they champion are large-scale. Pence and Wells co-chaired two successful capital campaigns. The first was a $5 million appeal for their church, Richmond’s Second Presbyterian Church. The men say they were brought up to believe in the religious and more duty to help others.
Much of their philanthropic drive rests in their identity, too. Pence and Wells co-chaired a $1 million capital campaign for Richmond Triangle Players, a nonprofit theater company that stages performances to support and emphasize LGBTQ issues.
When Pence and Wells decide where to spend their time and energy, “we are tuned into whether these organizations are open to and accepting of LGBTQ communities,” Wells says.
Although watching good work bear fruit is gratifying, the men emphasize that the sacrifice it takes to get there requires chutzpah, and a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone.
In initial discussions about what the goal of the Richmond Triangle Players’ capital campaign should be, $500,000 was a figure floating around in discussions, according to Wells. An advisor convinced organizers to aim for double that amount, a target they settled on and one that vigorous fundraising eventually helped achieve.
That experience also imparted an important lesson about courageous conviction. “It’s important to set a high bar and believe in it,” Wells says.