The Good Citizen, continued

That process began in the tiny farming village of Kalvishken, East Prussia, near the border of present-day Lithuania, where Annenberg’s father, Moses, lived with his parents and 10 siblings. In 1885, when the elder Annenberg was eight years old, the family emigrated to the U.S., settling in Chicago. There, on the city’s brutal streets, “Moe,” who quit school before the fifth grade, picked up critical survival skills—which he would later pass on to his son—and entered the then rough-and-tumble world of newspaper publishing. Starting out selling subscriptions for William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago American, he eventually rose to oversee circulation for Hearst Publications and to make millions of his own in newspaper distribution.

In the 1920s, he purchased the Daily Racing Form—the gambler’s bible of detailed statistics on racehorses—and founded Cecelia Investment Company. Though Cecelia grew to include a number of other publications, including The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Tribune, it was the Form that brought the Annenberg family its real wealth. When the Inquirer, then a leading Republican newspaper, launched an editorial attack on Roosevelt’s New Deal politics in
the 1930s, the president got even with Moses. Federal indictments for tax evasion and corrupt business practices relating to the Form’s racing statistics followed. In 1940, Moses pleaded guilty to a single count of tax evasion and agreed to pay $9.5 million in penalties. He went to jail, but was sent home to die two years later. The company was renamed Triangle Publications, but the stain on the family name remained.

In later years, Walter Annenberg’s philanthropy would be described by detractors as an effort to atone for the sins of his father. Indeed, a brass plaque that still sits on his massive oak desk in his foundation office is inscribed with the words, “Cause my works on earth to reflect honor on my father’s memory.” This said, the atonement theory falls short of explaining the sheer, heartfelt vigor with which Annenberg approached his philanthropy even 60 years after the indictments—and, in fact, Walter’s first charitable gift long predated his father’s legal troubles.

Walter Hubert Annenberg was born to Moses and his wife Sadie on Friday the 13th of March, 1908, in Milwaukee. The family moved to Long Island for Moses’s job as Hearst’s righthand man when Walter was 12. The youngest of eight children, he grew up in a privileged world of mansions, servants, piano lessons, and fine clothes, coddled by his mother and seven sisters. Sensing that his son needed more discipline and a solid education, particularly if he were to one day take over the family business, Moses chose The Peddie School, a Baptist boarding school in Hightstown, New Jersey, for its educational practices and egalitarian principles.

Years later, Walter Annenberg would speak of his five years at Peddie as some of the happiest of his life. He arrived there in the eighth grade, a shy, lonely boy with a bad stutter, who had been born with a deformed ear and partially deaf. The small school offered “Annie,” as he was known there, a safe harbor. He graduated a self-confident young man, popular with both students and teachers, and voted “best businessman” and “most likely to succeed.”

“He came here and found family,” says Anne Seltzer, Peddie’s director of development. “Whenever we tried to thank him for anything, he would always say, ‘I’m the grateful one.’” Annenberg refused to allow the school to rename itself after him, as was offered more than once. “’I went to Peddie. I didn’t go to Annenberg.’” Seltzer recalls him replying.

In his lifetime, Annenberg donated more than $200 million to Peddie, including a $100 million gift announced—no coincidence in timing—on Father’s Day, 1993, that propelled it from an obscure prep school to one of the nation’s seven richest schools in a single day. (Those funds were announced as part of a $365 million dollar package—the largest gift to private education thus far—that also included grants to Penn, the University of Southern California, and his son Roger’s alma mater, Harvard University.)

Even before he left Peddie, in his first act of philanthropy, Annenberg donated $17,000 he had made in the stock market during his senior year for the construction of a cinder running track. So that his gift to Peddie would keep on giving, he intended that the track also be rented out to local schools to generate revenues. This concept—teaching others to fish rather than giving them a fish—would become Annenberg’s fundamental philanthropic tenet.

Young Walter’s gift for picking stocks would prove his undoing at Penn, where he headed after graduation from Peddie, entering the Wharton School in the fall of 1927. Moses had pushed Penn, for both its distinguished business school and its renowned speech-disorders clinic headed by prominent speech pathologist Edwin Twitmyer, who would later work on Annenberg’s congenital stutter. (This was a lifelong battle for Annenberg; into his nineties, he performed elocution exercises every morning in an effort to keep his persistent stuttering at bay.)

Jews were not permitted to pledge gentile fraternities at the time, so Walter joined the Jewish fraternity Phi Sigma Delta. Popular on Penn’s lively campus, he developed a distaste for Wharton’s curriculum, which he considered too hypothetical. With the ever-rising stock market beckoning, Walter began cutting classes in favor of frequenting a Philadelphia brokerage office. By the start of his second semester at Wharton, the 21-year-old’s portfolio was worth $3 million. By the close of his first year, Walter had departed school to play the market full-time.

His father, disappointed in his decision to quit school, warned him about speculating on the market. Walter didn’t listen. When the crash came in 1929, he had nothing left except $350,000 of debt. (Moses bailed him out, in exchange for the promise that he never again trade on margin.) Annenberg would later tell Christopher Ogden, who authored Legacy—A Biography of Moses and Walter Annenberg, that leaving Wharton was “ridiculous … the biggest mistake I ever made.”

Annenberg was an eternal optimist, who comforted his friend Richard Nixon with the axiom, “Life is 99 rounds,” during the Watergate debacle and whose usual response to the query, “How are you?”—delivered with conviction in his booming voice—was, “Hopeful and grateful.” He would have his secretaries type onto index cards short sayings that inspired him—Beware of despairing about yourself (St. Augustine) and There is always room at the top (Daniel Webster)—that he kept on his desk and within eyesight. He took to heart Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same;/ … Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,/ And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools/ … Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,/ And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Annenberg’s own son, Roger, never made it to manhood. Roger’s suicide in 1962 at the age of 22, while on leave from Harvard to undergo therapy for schizophrenia, would become Walter Annenberg’s greatest tragedy. Yet it didn’t dampen his determination to “stoop and build ’em up” for other young people.

Even when his altruistic efforts were met with scorn, Annenberg had a knack for turning a negative into a positive. When his offer to ante up $40 million to build a branch of his Annenberg School for Communication at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was panned—rather coarsely—he didn’t hold a grudge. Rather, he later selected the Met over several runners-up to receive his beloved art collection because, he said, “quality should go to quality.”

When President Nixon appointed Annenberg to the coveted post of U.S. Ambassador to London’s Court of St. James, the most venerable honor of his life, the British press made Annenberg out to be garish, inept … a laughingstock. Critics had him resigning, but he stayed the course. In time, Annenberg would become the only U.S. ambassador to be knighted by the queen, who, like many British citizens, came to greatly admire Walter and Lee.

Criticism was a strong motivator for Annenberg. Following his landmark grants to private education in 1993, a prominent newspaper derided him for not doing anything to assist public schools. Rather than shrug off the attack, recalls Gregorian, Annenberg researched the issue in depth. He concluded that the paper made a valid point and, by year’s end, went to the White House to announce the Annenberg Challenge, a five-year, $500 million gift to reform public education. Gregorian, then the president of Brown University and a chief architect of the project, calls it “the first public act of rallying everyone around public education.”

Annenberg knew that it would take far more than half-a-billion dollars to fix public education. No matter, says Levin: His goal was to shine a bright light on the problem. It worked. The challenge generated over $600 million in matching grants from private and public sources, and earmarked a total of $1.1 billion for initiatives at 18 sites, in more than 2,000 schools, affecting some 1.5 million students around the nation. “The Annenberg gift reawakened Americans’ support and understanding that receiving a quality public education is the basic step one takes to do well in life,” says Wendy Puriefoy, president of the Public Education Network, in Washington, D.C.

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In 1986, Annenberg was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

 

 

 


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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 02/28/03