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Philanthropy Her Own Way

May 8, 2003

Philanthropy Her Own Way


She does not have the name recognition of a Brooke Astor or a Sanford I. Weill. But Sheila C. Johnson has been making a philanthropic mark in the elite horse country of Virginia, where she lives; in Washington, where she lived for many years; and, most recently, in New York, which she visits about twice a month.

A co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and one of the wealthiest black women in the United States, Ms. Johnson is reshaping her life after the breakup of her 33-year marriage to Robert L. Johnson. In 2000, the Johnsons sold their company, BET Holdings, to Viacom for $2.3 billion in stock, splitting $1.5 billion of the proceeds, Ms. Johnson said.

Until now, her giving has been closely related to her personal interests. She gave $3 million to the Hill School in Middleburg, Va., where her son Brett is a student, for a performing arts center. She has also supported equestrian activities — her daughter, Paige, is a competitive rider — served as a trustee at Carnegie Hall, and raised money for Bill Clinton.

Last month, the Parsons School of Design honored her for a $7 million gift — and her promise to help the school find other donors. It was by far the largest gift in Parsons's 107-year history.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stopped by to thank her "on behalf of eight million New Yorkers." Former Senator Bob Kerrey, now the president of New School University, which includes Parsons, talked of her "class, intelligence and charm." And after the big names had departed, a bevy of style-conscious fashion design students clustered around her and offered their own tribute.

"It's awesome to see someone that cares," Natalia Fedner, a design student from Ohio, told Ms. Johnson, who blushed and smiled widely.

And last fall, Ms. Johnson announced that she was giving $1 million to the State University of New York campus at Morrisville, the largest gift that school had ever received, too.

It is not that Ms. Johnson has been inactive until now, but she was often overshadowed by Mr. Johnson, a situation that infuriated her.

"Long before I married, I was my own person," she said in an interview. "I had a career as a violinist. I built a music conservatory. I can hold my own."

A doctor's daughter who grew up outside Chicago, she developed her sense of self early. She loved the violin and woke up at midnight to practice for three hours in the kitchen after everyone else had gone to sleep.

She met Mr. Johnson at the University of Illinois and they married in 1969. Throughout her marriage, she juggled a number of activities related to young people and the arts. She taught violin, founded and ran a 140-member children's orchestra, and established a music conservatory in Jordan. At BET, she created Teen Summit, a weekly program for teens to address issues like pregnancy, drugs and AIDS, and she worked as an executive vice president.

Now 54, she lives with her two children on Salamander Farm, a 167-acre spread in Virginia, about 40 miles west of Washington. In the next month or two, she will break ground for a 40-room luxury resort, Salamander Inn, on a nearby property she bought at the urging of a local environmental group. Ms. Johnson has also designed a set of luxury linens carrying the Salamander name.

The two New York college gifts were both somewhat serendipitous, made after brief introductions to each school.

She decided on the SUNY Morrisville gift last year after speaking at the college's commencement and receiving an honorary doctorate. (Her staff members now address her as Dr. Johnson.) James Hastie, a Morrisville official who knew Ms. Johnson from her involvement with the United States equestrian team, where he formerly worked, thought she might be a good speaker because the college has a large equine program and about a third of its students are black.

At the school's invitation, she toured the campus, tasting the school's homemade vanilla ice cream and visiting the barn and the horses. She returned for graduation last May, giving a motivational speech that capsulized her own philosophy: a combination of pushing herself and helping others.

"I realized that after I graduated from high school, I always had a drive in me that desired to be the best that I could be," she said. "But still, I believed you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

It was "a very touching moment," said Ray W. Cross, the college's president.

The audience gave her a standing ovation. And at the reception in the greenhouse afterward, Dr. Cross said: "Mothers of all colors came up to her and embraced her. That was the beauty of it. She was reaching across color lines. It was a great commencement."

A few months later, Ms. Johnson told Morrisville that she wanted to help the college. The result was a $1 million gift to create the Sheila Crump Johnson Institute to support diversity and character-building initiatives through fellowships, scholarships and special programs. (The fellows have already visited her at her farm and at the Washington International Horse Show.)

Morrisville officials are providing her with regular reports so she can judge the impact of the programs she is financing — and maybe decide to give more.

"She said she'll consider more," Dr. Cross said. "But we have to prove ourselves. That's very fair."

Her introduction to Parsons was similarly idiosyncratic.

She met Tess Gilder, a Parsons graduate who serves on the school's governing board, in Florida, and Ms. Gilder suggested that Ms. Johnson might find Parsons interesting.

In the summer of 2001, Ms. Johnson visited Parsons, met its dean, H. Randolph Swearer, and toured the school. She loved it, she said, but concluded that it badly needed to upgrade its facilities to serve its students, whom she called "the most focused, energetic, intelligent kids I have ever run into."

"This is a very special place," she added. "But they need more."

Early last year, she joined the Parsons board. By spring, she had become head of the school's strategic planning and development committee, and in the fall she became a member of the board's executive committee. By the end of the year, after many meetings with Mr. Swearer and with New School's president, Mr. Kerrey, she decided to give the school $7 million.

"I remember that she kept saying, 'We've got to get some action here,' " Mr. Swearer said, calling her "the philanthropist from heaven."

He and Ms. Johnson are now making the rounds of other potential donors, a couple a month.

In his comments, Mayor Bloomberg warned Ms. Johnson that the gift was not likely to be the last she gives the school.

"It is the Willie Sutton phenomenon," he said. "You always go back to where you got the money. So expect more calls."

Whether Ms. Johnson will continue to give so freely remains to be seen. She is building her own foundation — her goal is $100 million in assets — and thinking about how she wants to run it.

Last month, she flew to Seattle to chat with William H. Gates, co-chairman of the $21 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the father of the founder of Microsoft. Ms. Johnson said she was impressed by how smoothly the huge foundation ran.

Did she pick up any lessons?

Yes, she said. One was that when you are trying to lure other donors, "it is important to be last."

"That way you make sure others kick in," she said.

But she quickly added that she had no regrets about being first at Parsons.

"Other institutions have needs that are not so immediate," she said. "Here, their needs are immediate."

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