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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010 06:55 am

Putting your name above the door

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After a $1 million gift in 2004 from Family Video owners Kathleen and Charlie Hoogland, Springfield’s downtown arts venue became known as the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

On Sept. 11 a grateful Springfield learned that Tony Kerasotes, head of that family’s movie house chain, had made a gift of $2 million to the YMCA building fund. It is a generous gift, graciously given as a “thank you” to the city that had helped his family’s rise.  

Every town of any size has been enriched by similar gestures made by its successful sons and daughters – not that you used to be able to tell. Springfield’s founding families apparently believed (to rephrase Emanual Swedenborg) that true charity is the desire to be useful to others without thought of publicity. The scions of the wealthy clans felt no need to festoon buildings with their names; everyone whose opinion they cared about knew of their contribution anyway, usually because they sat on the boards of the institutions blessed by their largesse.

In 1941, the board of the old Springfield Hospital – Lutheran by birth, public by adoption – set out to raise capital for a new building by public subscription. The fundraising  campaign promoted the hospital as a memorial to all donors, and changed the hospital’s name  to Memorial Hospital. In the end, fully half of the needed million – nearly $7.5 million in today’s debased currency – was anted up by only four donors. In spite of their generosity, the names of Alice Bunn, Mildred Bunn, Bertha Lanphier and Susan Bartholf did not end up above the door. Such self-effacement was already a social anachronism in 1941; were these ladies to do the same today it would be regarded as heroic, or pathologically secretive.

That tradition continues among some of those families. The gift of $350,000 that in 2001 secured the purchase of the old Masonic Temple as a performing arts center came from siblings Carolyn Oxtoby and Stephen Bartholf, yet we were more likely to see them busking on the sidewalk on show nights than to see their names on the façade. [See “Supercharged,” IT, Dec. 24, 2003.]

Springfield still is a place where clever and diligent people can make a lot of money. Alas, it also is still a place that needs help from its rich to provide the good things a city needs that it cannot or will not provide for itself. The gifts these days do not come with strings attached, but they do, unlike those of most of their predecessors in giving, come with names attached.

A different ethic animates civic giving, plainly, but why? Perhaps because the scions of Springfield’s founding families so identified with the city – they owned much of it, after all – that civic charity was more like an investment in their own property; they would no more insist of putting their name on a hospital than on their new garage.

Then there is the matter of styles. Springfield’s old money came mostly from land and banking. The current generation of donor consists mostly of entrepreneurs in retailing, entertainment, computers, media, people full of brash and push. One such is Charles Hoogland, who transformed a family appliance business into the largest privately owned video-rental business in the country and donated a million bucks to what was gratefully named the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

Such people tend to think in terms of brand-building rather than civic betterment. One of the venues in the Hoogland is the LRS Theatre, so-named after the Levi, Ray & Shoup Foundation that was set up by that firm to formalize corporate gifts such as the $500,000 it gave to the theater. Buying naming rights is easy to dismiss as mere vanity, but something more complex is going on. At the time the gift was announced, Dick Levi, LRS cofounder and CEO, said that many of his workers “have a sense of pride that their employer has been involved” in such projects. Such remarks carry a hint that recruiting and workforce morale might have figured in the decision to give.

To the businessperson, even charity ought to make a return on investment. I mean no personal slight. Even donors in the 25 percent tax bracket expect to be given credit where credit is due, by having their names engraved in plaques or memorial bricks. Developers of big bucks projects such as the auditorium at UIS would sooner open without restrooms than open without a donor wall. Givers thus buy a chance to display themselves to the neighbors as cultured, and with cash to spare. On such places celebrity and the business cultures intersect; what is celebrity if not one’s own brand?

Happily this matters very little except as fodder for sociological speculation that might  enliven a dull party. What does matter is that the city will have a new YMCA that it might not have had otherwise. And a Kerasotes locker room by any other name would smell as … well, you know what I mean.   

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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