MOUNT VERNON — On Dec. 19, 1944, the Mount Vernon News ran an article about which probably few people realized the significance.
Tucked in among front-page news of the day — the Battle of the Bulge, U.S. progress in the Philippines, and other World War II announcements — the newspaper quietly reported the creation of the Mount Vernon Community Trust.
Similarly, the 75th anniversary of that announcement — Dec. 19, 2019 — passed with little fanfare. Instead, the staff of the Knox County Foundation, as the trust is now called, put the finishing touches on three new endowment funds, bringing to more than 20 the number of new funds created in its anniversary year.
The trust was the brainchild of Beatty B. “B.B.” Williams, chairman of the board and former president of the C&G Cooper Co., the forerunner of Cooper-Bessemer Corp., Rolls-Royce, and Siemens Energy. He enlisted help from Clyde G. Conley, president of the Mount Vernon Bridge Co.; Bert W. Martin, president of Shellmar Products Corp.; and John W. Rudin, president of the Rudin Co. Local attorney Charles M. Zelkowitz drafted the paperwork, and the Mount Vernon Community Trust became a reality on Dec. 18, 1944.
Sam Barone, executive director of the Knox County Foundation, said it was a “momentous day for Mount Vernon.”
“At the time, community trusts were still a big-city concept, and B.B. Williams' leadership in founding the organization was relatively progressive for a rural community like ours,” he said.
The trust began with 20 donors, $130,000 in assets, and eight funds. Today, the trust holds assets of more than $80 million in 460 funds and awards more than $4 million in grants countywide, including more than $1 million in scholarships.
Barone said that when he was hired 18 years ago to be the first executive director of the organization, the board gave him two challenges: 1) broaden the community's knowledge and understanding of the organization and 2) expand its donor and asset base.
“With the help of very dedicated volunteer board members and our extremely talented finance and program directors, Marc Odenweller and Lisa Lloyd, we're beginning to show significant progress on both fronts,” he said. “The combination of significant financial support from donors and wise investment of our endowment over seven-plus decades, principally by our partners at the First-Knox National Bank Trust Department, has resulted in an $80 million endowment capable of generating more than $4 million per year in charitable grants and scholarships. I think B.B. Williams would be very pleased!”
Short- and Long-term Impact
The trust's 1969 annual report states that “it was [B.B. Williams'] conviction that the Mount Vernon Community Trust would ultimately become the most beneficial of all the benevolent enterprises in which he had engaged.” Truer words have perhaps never been spoken.
One of the early investments the trust made was for a bookmobile so that the Mount Vernon Public Library could serve rural areas of the county. Other investments include $85,000 to buy the site of Mount Vernon's City Hall and construction and renovation of the former Martin Memorial Hospital. From funding music and reading classes in the elementary schools to helping the Red Cross and local colleges to repairing street signs in Brinkhaven, Williams' vision has reached into all corners of the county.
“We are fond of saying, and it's no exaggeration, that it is difficult to identify a major capital project in Knox County that has not benefited in one way or another from Knox County Foundation support,” said Barone. “We observed our anniversary this year by making the largest single grant in the foundation's 75-year history: a $300,000 gift to the YMCA renovation effort in honor of our founder, Beatty B. Williams, who spearheaded the effort to construct that facility in 1965 and who had a lifelong commitment to the international YMCA movement.”
Barone said he believes the foundation's most visible impact in recent years is in the area of green space preservation (Wolf Run Regional Park and being the “foundation” in the Ariel-Foundation Park name), the economic development studies underway in county villages, the re-imagining of Mount Vernon's South Main Street into a viable education corridor, and the more than $1 million annual scholarship program that benefited 350-plus students in 2019.
“A Foundation for All”
Williams, Conley, Martin, Rudin, and Zelkowitz provided the majority of the start-up money for the trust. In the following years, they continued to be heavy contributors. Other substantial gifts came from the Gelsanliter Family, Cooper-Bessemer Corp., and the estates of James Debes and Maude McCreary.
That pattern still holds today, due in part to a matching gift from Ariel Corporation.
“In years past, we created numerous named endowment funds with minimum gifts of just $5,000,” said Barone. “Today, thanks to the philanthropic creativity of former board chair Karen Buchwald Wright, most funds are created with at least $10,000, which qualifies their fund for an immediate 50% matching gift from the Ariel Corporation's New Philanthropy Fund. It's an opportunity that is hard to pass up, and over the past six years or so, more than 60 new funds have been created with Karen's New Philanthropy incentive grants.”
Barone acknowledges that the trust has funded many major projects over the years because “some very generous individuals made substantial gifts to the foundation.” But, he says, those gifts account for only a fraction of the 460 funds the trust administers.
“The Knox County Foundation very much fulfills the vision of its creators to be a 'foundation for all,'” he said. “The foundation's general fund, which enables many of the competitive grant program awards we make each year, is supported by hundreds of gifts in the $25 to $1,000 range. In recent years, our Youth Philanthropy Initiative endowment fund, used by our 25 student grant-makers from Knox County high schools, has attracted up to $30,000 per year itself in small and large annual gifts. This truly is a community endowment that donors of all means can participate in.”
Growth and Evolution
As the trust's assets increased over the years, so, too, did the number of projects funded.
“As assets grew, the ability to make larger grants for significant capital projects like hospitals, libraries, and schools grew as well,” said Barone. “Scholarships came into the picture in the late 1950s but really didn't accelerate until the '90s.”
The purpose and direction of the trust have also evolved over the years. The trust expanded its focus to include all of Knox County in the 1970s and '80s. It reflected that expansion by changing its name to the Mount Vernon/Knox County Community Trust in 1994. It underwent another name change in 2001, becoming the Community Foundation of Mount Vernon & Knox County when it changed from a trust to a more flexible corporate structure.
On Jan. 1, 2019, the organization rebranded to become the Knox County Foundation.
“Today, as the Knox County Foundation, we are decidedly a countywide philanthropic institution, both from a fundraising and grant-making perspective,” said Barone.
He said the most recent evolution has been the board taking a more proactive role in directing the assets of the foundation rather than merely reacting to grant requests. That proactive distribution role includes the board's economic development initiative.
“As part of that initiative, we have supported new staff positions at the Area Development Foundation, funded local economic development studies in our villages, and, most recently, launched a new scholarship program to assist students who are choosing to pursue vocational studies and trade certification rather than four-year baccalaureate degrees,” said Barone. “We listened to our local industries about the need for skilled tradespeople, and we responded with an innovative scholarship solution that is not typical in the community foundation world.”
Civic leadership has been the hallmark of the organization since its founding. Leaders from all sectors — including industry, medicine, banking, legal, and government — have stepped forward with their time and money to, as Fred Lorey puts it in his “History of Knox County, Ohio 1876-1976,” “serve permanently the educational, charitable, and health and welfare needs of the community.”
“Milestone anniversaries like the current one are great opportunities to look back on leaders who have had a profound impact on the institution,” said Barone. “The genius of B.B. Williams and his five co-originators in bringing the community foundation concept to our small town in 1944 is self-evident. But there were other transformative leaders along the way, too.”
Barone cited a few of those leaders:
- Gordon Bone, who began moving the trust's focus countywide
- William Stroud, who created the Special Project Fund to make timely grants for major public green space acquisitions
- Maureen Buchwald, who expanded the board to better reflect the needs of all of Knox County and convert the trust to the more flexible foundation form of organization
- Mark Ramser, who led the foundation during the modernization of its investment and distribution policies
- Bruce Hawkins, who focused on scholarship development and the youth philanthropy initiative
- Karen Wright, who created the innovative New Philanthropy Fund, tremendously expanding the foundation's asset base
“And most recently, Chairs Terry Divelbiss and Dr. Amy Murnen, who led us through a major branding transition and our migration to a more proactive distribution stance,” said Barone. “Each in his or her own way played a transformational role in the foundation's history.”
In a 2005 interview observing Mount Vernon's bicentennial, the late William Stroud, former president of First-Knox National Bank and chairman of the trust from 1989-1997, said, “We still have needs that still need funds, and the amount of funds are greater, but the needs have become greater. The needs — we'll always have needs. And when we don't have needs, we're gone.”
As the foundation heads into 2020, it, along with the county, will face challenges and encounter change. The foundation's board, under the leadership of incoming Chairman Richard Mavis, who will be newly retired from his long tenure as mayor of Mount Vernon, will seek to meet those challenges, adapt to the change, and continue the legacy of caring that began 75 years ago.
To paraphrase Lorey, in 2019, as the foundation closes out its 75th anniversary, all indications are that the Knox County Foundation “will continue to be an important part of many community projects as long as this community endures.”