Shall we gather at the river?
Tulsa, Oklahoma, offers good examples of how local philanthropy enriches American lives. The community foundation of this small city is endowed with $3.8 billion in assets, and a new park taking shape along the Arkansas River shoreline illustrates how generous donors can enliven a town. Funded principally by oilman and banker George Kaiser, the $200 million, 67-acre project, called “A Gathering Place,” will break ground in 2014. Drawing on suggestions from public meetings, it will connect four riverside sites into a cohesive park with amenities like bike trails, boating, tennis courts, open lawns and gardens, playgrounds, a skate park, water features, and public meeting spaces. “Whatever the Kaiser Foundation has done in the way of development has been done with excellence,” says Matt Meyer, head of the river park authority, whose city looks forward to wearing a fresh green crown.
It’s a jungle in there
The Omaha Zoo was a sleepy little city-run affair, like hundreds of others, when in 1963 the widow of the publisher of the local newspaper gave $750,000 to improve the facilities as a memorial to her husband, Henry Doorly. Within two years a nonprofit society had organized itself to plan, expand, operate, and maintain the zoo in the future. The Doorly gift sparked a steady string of additional major donations, and the result is a triumph of philanthropy. Measured as a combination of animals, species, and acreage, the Doorly Zoo has grown into the largest in the world, and, more importantly, one of the most beloved. It features the world’s largest indoor desert, largest indoor swamp, and largest nocturnal exhibit, plus the nation’s largest indoor rainforest—all richly stocked with plants and animals easily accessible to visitors. It also hosts the largest cat complex in North America and dramatic orangutan and gorilla living spaces. Users of the popular TripAdvisor website have rated the Doorly as America’s best zoo.
“Equal before fishes”
In 1929, newly inaugurated President Herbert Hoover bought 164 acres in Virginia’s Blue Ridge near the headwaters of the Rapidan River, which tumbles down to the Chesapeake Bay. He and his wife, Lou, built themselves a rustic camp as a Washington getaway. Although they welcomed a few dignitaries—Thomas Edison, Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Winston Churchill—they preferred to use it as a place to unwind with horseback riding (the first lady) and trout fishing (the President). “Fishing seems to be the sole avenue left to Presidents through which they may escape to their own thoughts and may live in their own imaginings and find…refreshment of mind in the babble of rippling brooks,” Hoover wrote. “Moreover, it is a constant reminder of the democracy of life, of humility, and of human frailty—for all men are equal before fishes. And it is desirable that the President of the United States should be periodically reminded of this fundamental fact.” After leaving office, the Hoovers donated Rapidan Camp to the federal government to become part of the new Shenandoah National Park, stretching 100 miles along the spine of the Blue Ridge.
In addition to Grand Teton, John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his son Laurance were involved in the creation or expansion of dozens of national parks. Laurance took a special interest in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which he considered an unspoiled tropical paradise. In 1956, he funded the purchase of 5,000 acres of St. John Island to create Virgin Islands National Park, and he donated a former sugar mill turned personal estate to become a small resort within the park boundaries. Laurance also gave funds to purchase properties within the authorized area for the park as they came on the market—cleverly creating a unified park experience.
A family place
In 1933, L. R. Stradley built a small family fishing resort on Camano Island in Washington’s Puget Sound region. For decades, the cedar cabins played host to families of modest means, allowing them to return home with enough fish and berries to fill a pantry. Stradley’s granddaughters had grown up there and wanted to see it preserved. “I had the right to sell it, but in some real, moral, bigger-picture way, I really had responsibilities,” says one. The sisters donated the land to become Cama Beach State Park. The cabins were restored with historically appropriate updates, and an outpost of Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats offers boat-building classes, welcoming families anew.
The Maine thing
Generous donations of land and money from residents gathered most of Maine’s Mount Desert Island for the first national park in America’s east. Resident George Dorr was the driving force, serving as the park’s first superintendent and spending his entire inheritance on the project. John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated 10,700 acres to the project and spent millions of his own funds to create an immaculate 45-mile network of horse-drawn carriage roads to make the lovely mountain and seascape accessible. Every year, more than 2 million Americans visit what is now Acadia National Park.