Humbug Square - Venture philanthropist

Even a mean boy can learn to give

My old friend Tom Glenn walked onstage in front of 900 people at the Georgia World Congress Center last week, and I couldn't help but marvel at how strange it felt to see someone I knew as a goofy kid grow up to amount to something.

I joined in the standing ovations as he took the stage and as he left. He looked good for a middle-aged man; he's stayed slim and kept most of his hair, although it might not be as red as it used to be.

He was introduced by William Clarkson, president of the Westminster Schools, who said many people had written letters about Tom and that he would like to read one in particular. It started off like this: "To Whom It May Concern: Tom Glenn was a mean boy. ..."

The letter was so preposterous that it drew a good laugh. Clarkson stopped reading it and went on to say some wonderful things about Tom, who was being honored as Philanthropist of the Year by the Atlanta chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

I had to smile as Clarkson started reading the letter about Tom being mean.

As it so happens, I wrote that letter.

In it, I recalled an incident in the fall of 1960 on the stairs at the Boys School at Westminster. Tom was glaring at a scowling fat boy, a new eighth-grader he hadn't seen before. Tom became convinced he would get into a fistfight with the new kid who was lumbering up the steps.

I was that fat boy. And, 44 years later, Tom hasn't hit me yet.

Instead, we became friends, because we have similarly warped senses of humor. An example of that was the day we pointlessly started a rumor that one of our classmates had a wooden leg. Some boys went up to our victim and kicked him in one leg, then the other. They were disappointed when both limbs proved to be made of flesh.

Tom and I have stayed in touch over the years. I went to his dad's funeral. He came to my mother's viewing.

Tom grew into a marvelous storyteller and accomplished bluegrass guitarist who performs as Rhode Island Redd with the New Nancy Creek Ramblers. Along the way, he earned a Ph.D. in business administration, raised two wonderful daughters with his wife, Lou, and — out of the blue — became one of Atlanta's most visionary philanthropists.

In his introduction at the awards luncheon last week, Clarkson said Tom is known as a "venture philanthropist."

I didn't know what that was. In fact, for a long time, I didn't even know Tom was a rich kid.

Tom grew up in Sandy Springs when it was deep in the country, speckled with the ramshackle homes of the poor. Hammond Drive was a dirt road.

For his first few grades, Tom attended the old Hammond Elementary School. In first grade, the kids drew names of classmates to give Christmas presents. The boy who drew Tom's name gave him a small sack of marbles, a disappointing gift even then.

A few days later, Tom accompanied his mother as she delivered boxes of canned goods to poor families. "We carried a box to a family that lived in a hovel," he recalls. "In there was the kid who gave me the marbles."

A boy who had nothing had given Tom as much as he could. Tom felt bad that he had been disappointed in the gift and felt deeply moved to see his classmate's poverty.

"That really stuck with me," he recalls.

After we became friends, I visited Tom's home and got to know his parents, Wilbur and Hilda, who were friendly, down-to-earth, unpretentious people. His dad went to work every day as executive vice president of Atlantic Steel in Midtown. The late Gov. Lester Maddox once worked for Mr. Glenn and spoke highly of him. The Glenns lived in a nice house, but it wasn't spectacular like the places some of our classmates lived, such as the Nunnally mansion on Blackland Road.

I knew the Glenn family had property, a 400-acre estate topped by Glenridge Hall, the 22-room Tudor mansion off Abernathy Road that Tom's grandfather and namesake built in 1929. The mansion is now occupied by another branch of the family.

But I didn't know the whole story. Tom's grandfather, T.K. Glenn, had been president and chairman of Atlantic Steel, president and chairman of the Trust Company of Georgia, now SunTrust, chairman of the First National Bank of Atlanta, and an early director of the Coca-Cola Company. Profits of those companies helped create the old money that led to Atlanta's growth and cascaded down through generations, growing the way an avalanche builds size and strength.

Tom was an only child and inherited the family fortune when his parents died. Some heirs of Atlanta's old money are content to sip toddies at Sea Island. But as president of the Hilda and Wilbur Glenn Family Foundation, Tom began making focused and thoughtful donations across a wide range of charities in health, education and human services. He is a trustee of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. He also helps poor kids go to college through the Boys and Girls Clubs.

When he is described as a "venture philanthropist," it means he sometimes makes donations that other foundations might find too risky. He and Lou donated the bulk of the million-dollar-plus price tag for sophisticated molecular research equipment at Emory's Winship Cancer Institute that has great promise in cancer research, but also will quickly become obsolete.

Tom is best known nationally for teaching kids to give. He funded and helped develop the innovative Philanthropy 101 summer course at Westminster, in which high-school students receive money and decide what charities to help with donations, after learning how to make wise gifts.

A few years ago, a woman at the Council of Michigan Foundations, which is developing philanthropy curriculum for public schools, told me they had worked in Detroit with inner-city kids and found that poor children, given the opportunity, were as thoughtful and generous as peers from richer families.

That has haunted me. We live in a time when the disparity in America between rich and poor is becoming vaster by the day, and many people at the top seem to snarl at those who don't keep up.

One of the most powerful books I've read this year was Sore Winners: (And the Rest of Us) in George Bush's America by John Powers, who writes about the arrogance of many successful Americans.

"Today's Winners don't simply win, they win badly: bragging, sneering, lording it over the Losers, and promoting themselves with a crassness that would leave Duddy Kravitz blushing," Powers writes.

Tom Glenn is not like that. He is the opposite of a sore winner. He is a gracious winner. He is using his family fortune to help lift up the poor, heal the sick and teach others to give. He is an inspiration. As I wrote in my letter, "If a mean little boy like Tom Glenn can grow up to become Philanthropist of the Year, then there is hope for us all!"

Humbug Square was Atlanta's 19th-century venue for soap-box orators and snake-oil salesmen. Doug Monroe continues that tradition in his column. You can contact him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com