Long before Giving Tuesday began to nudge consciouses around the world in 2012, the spirit of philanthropy poured from Euclid Avenue. The likes of Rockefeller are painted with disdain as Gilded Age robber barons, but these complicated people were as shrewd as they were charitable. Their donations reflect the era: healthcare, recreation and fine arts. Religious philosophy, says Cleveland historian and author Dan Ruminski, had a major influence on these figures. “[On] Euclid Avenue with all the mansions, there were also over 20 churches that were mixed into that neighborhood,” Ruminski says, pointing out Rockefeller’s devotion to the Baptist faith. “The philosophy was you could make as much money as you possibly could, but when you were all done, you had an obligation to do something big for society. As a result, you and I are enjoying this marvelous, marvelous legacy.” Here are three of Cleveland’s major contributors.
John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937)
In his lifetime, Ruminski says Rockefeller gave more than half a billion dollars to charities. But even before then, the Central High School student was the epitome of volunteering, spending his time at the YMCA or teaching Sunday classes at the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church. In 1897, Rockefeller donated roughly 270 acres to the city that would become Rockefeller Park. The swath included the ultramodern greenhouse, lagoon, cultural gardens and Chas. F. Schweinfurth’s magnificent bridges. “Rockefeller never did anything halfway,” Ruminski says. Ruminski hopes Rockefeller’s generosity dispels the myth he hated the city. “When his son asked, ‘Where do you want to be buried?’ He said, ‘Son, our home is Cleveland, Ohio.’”
Samuel and Flora Stone Mather (1851-1931) (1852-1909)
The second-wealthiest man in Ohio after Rockefeller, Mather’s portrait can be found in University Hospitals’ vestibule. With his son-in-law, Dr. Robert Bishop, a globetrotter bent on curing tuberculosis, Mather raised the hospital system from four struggling clinics. Flora, Mather’s wife, inherited millions after her father’s suicide. Flora donated this fortune among 35 charities throughout Cleveland, then-Western Reserve University and the College for Women. “She felt strongly that women, as they were becoming of age and [after they secured] the right to vote, needed to be educated,” Ruminski says. “Many people described her as rather angelic, which I thought was an unbelievable description that she had that way about her.”
John Long Severance (1863-1936)
The 1920s saw the Cleveland Orchestra homeless, playing between Public Auditorium and Gray’s Armory. Severance and his wife, Elizabeth, organized for a concert hall, donating $1.5 million in 1929. That year, Elizabeth died. Severance increased the contribution to $2.5 million. “It became a monument to her in terms of remembrance,” Ruminski says. “He was taken a big hit during the Great Depression and actually struggled financially a little bit to come up with the funds.” But Severance preserved. The exquisite lace pattern that shimmers across Severance Hall’s ceiling today was modeled after Elizabeth’s wedding dress. Ever fine arts patrons, the Severances also financed the Cleveland Museum of Art's acquisition of the Macomber collection, a medieval armory collection, in 1916. Upon his death, the museum received an additional personal collection valued at more than $3 million.
Cleveland Giving in the Present
Dan Ruminski himself is a link in Cleveland’s legacy of charity. Fourteen years ago, the Willoughby Rotary Autism Project began to purchase iPads for students in Lake County, as well as Autism Speaks and the Music Settlement. The iPads have proven instrumental to improving the kids’ communication skills. To date, the rotary has given 500 iPads, Ruminski himself donating a portion of his book and Cleveland Storyteller proceeds to the cause. “The whole rotary just sat there in astonishment,” Ruminski says of one student’s iPad acceptance speech. “It was so articulate. It was one of the best speeches I’ve heard.” In years past, the Mayor of Willoughby Charitable Golf Outing has raised half of the project's funds each June. Accompanying this, Ruminski foresees a second June fundraiser held in the Mather Mansion next year, emphasizing every penny goes directly toward iPads. “Not only do we improve the life of the special needs student, but as a parent, I can’t imagine not being able to communicate with my children. This has been thrilling.”