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Essay
Volume 39 Issue 2 • May 7-21 2009
now in our 39th season

Philanthropy

by Robert P. Barsanti

On a Saturday night, I sat with Jason Gulley and several other Nantucket High School graduates at a fire pit at Slosek’s Farm.  He shook my hand and pointed to the just planted fields.  “I saw 183 deer here once.” He said.  “That is one of the things about Nantucket. We don’t remember what was really here.”  I nodded.

The late April night hung cold and wet.  The smoke from the fire rose up through a hole in the fog to a glowing moon. The hour had stretched deep and many of his fellow alumni were close to the fire, delaying the moment when they would have to go.  They had grown into middle age by now, with careers, families, and mortgages to match.  Like any group of alumni, the circle around the fire had a wide variety of occupations.   They had found their way into law, medicine, construction, and even wilderness preservation; not all were successes, yet none were failures.  Fifteen or more years on from high school, Gulley’s words rang true. It was hard “to remember what was really here.”

Literally, it wasn’t that hard to remember Slosek’s Farm, nor will it be for my children or for Jason’s.  The land beneath our feet had been farmed for at least 250 years.  The Land Bank and the Conservation Foundation bought the development rights to keep the farm growing forever.  As for the alumni, it might be hard to remember what had been there once.  The adults in their thirties had little in common with the adolescents who had been shirking their homework and whining about tests two decades previous.   Conservation groups weren’t going to pay them to stay the same and undeveloped; quite the contrary, philanthropists had conspired and plotted to make them grow. 

Many, many people had donated time and money to these kids over the years.  Their parents were front and center, of course.  The hard work of educating and civilizing the loud bundle in the diapers fell into their waiting hands.  But behind them came an array of coaches, teachers, and mentors.  They not only ran practices, graded homework assignments, and demonstrated the proper way to toss a trash bag into the back of the trash truck.  They also manned the rummage sale, bid on items at the silent auction, baked the cupcakes, and bought the raffle tickets.

In America, we don’t fund education as much as we should.  Town, state, and federal governments believe that no one wastes money quite the way that teachers and principals do.  So, school budgets are scraped of geegaws and frippery like paper and books.  As a result, parents find themselves standing inside the Finast, selling lottery tickets for uniforms, field trips, and classroom heating. 

Bill Gates, in his autobiography, writes of his own junior high school, Lakeville, in Seattle Washington.  The mothers had a rummage sale in order to buy computer time on the local GE mainframe.  Gates, Paul Allen, and their buddies learned programming early on as a result of out-of-fashion jeans and t-shirts.  How many future Gates and Allen are fading away because the rummage sales aren’t enough anymore?

On Nantucket, the funding for students and graduates has always been extraordinary.  At graduation, over $650,000 is given to worthy graduates.  The Friends of Nantucket Public Schools has been generous with the results of their Antique Show, the softball game, and Christmas Stroll House Tour.  Recently, the Nantucket Golf Club has added to the rummage sales and Chinese auctions with an August charity golf tournament.  In the seven years, the foundation has raised, and disbursed seven million dollar to the same children of Nantucket.  More impressive, the Nantucket Scholars program gives two full, four year, tuition scholarships to two Nantucket graduates.

Money always buys something.  Like fertilizer, it always makes something grow.  To whom much is given, much is expected.  In this case, all of this scholarship money has brought forth a generation of educated young men and women back to the island.  They teach in the schools, patrol the streets, farm the soil, heal at the hospital, and, God forgive us, litigate in court. The scholarships awarded in the early year of the Clinton administration brought in the island professionals at the time of Obama.

Nantucket has been shaped and hewed by philanthropy.  Good wishes and signed checks have developed the island more than whaling or fishing ever did.  Outside of town, the moors and empty spaces have faded price tags paid by the Land Bank, Conservation Foundation, and the Trustees of Reservations.  The N.H.A., the Atheneum, the Pacific Club, and now the Dreamland owe their continued existence and good health to generous people with warm hopes, open checkbooks, and a taste for fine wine and antique furniture.

Our global economy has taken a great deal from the island.  In the name of increased efficiency and better stock returns, Nantucket has lost many of the back room jobs that our mothers and fathers had.  Fifty years ago, a five dollar bill would make two or three stops before it left the island.  Today, the numbers make a brief blip on our computer screen before they stop in San Francisco and then fly to Shanghai.  Not the charitable money, however.  It stays here, bounces off of our children, friends, and neighbors before planting itself in the ground.

These days, fewer dollars are bouncing either here or to Beijing.  In our current economic morass, everything has been cut far back.  We go out to dinner less, travel to the mainland less, and play fewer rounds of golf than we once did.  We can’t spend money that doesn’t come in, whether it be on cheese burgers or champagne magnums.  But even in the tightest of circumstances, we should still keep an eye on our charities. Those are the dollars that will stay on island and grow.

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