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Feeling Philanthropic

mulling the future of Eau Claire’s philanthropic traditions

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by Eric Rasmussen

I wonder how the townspeople of Eau Claire felt about Mr. L.E. Phillips when he was alive. Was he the sort of wealthy tycoon who strutted around town with his fancy cane, monocle firmly in place, flipping nickels to the young rapscallions who followed him around? Or was he the type of person who sat in his darkened study, maniacally counting hundred dollar bills, while Bob Cratchit-like employees begged for more coal to heat the National Presto building?

I find it very interesting that as far as modern Eau Claire is concerned, it makes absolutely no difference what sort of person he actually was, because he will always be remembered as a generous, community-minded philanthropist. With a library, senior center, university science building, treatment center, Boy Scout camp, and planetarium, we all make the assumption that he was one of those rich people that we love, who understood how he had benefited from the community and was willing to return the favor. Whether those contributions came directly from him, or from his charitable foundation after he passed away, we love the guy.

I started thinking about Mr. Phillips, and Eau Claire’s strong historical tradition of philanthropy from the likes of Misters Hobbs, Carson, Owen, Randall, Phillips, and many more after reading an article in Time magazine about a massive, breathtaking new art museum in Arkansas built by Alice Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune. I have enjoyed hating Wal-Mart for a long time, and can conjure up a truly impressive amount of smugness about my decision to avoid Wal-Mart for all of the popular reasons – killing downtowns, environmental unfriendliness, and not paying their employees livable wages. I have noticed as Wal-Mart has tried to improve their image, but nothing has cracked my retail loathing of them. But this museum … Look, they still are a major drain on a community, and the way they’ve sometimes treated their employees is inexcusable, but this institution Walton has created is not some PR-oriented TV commercial. Spending $1.2 billion on what may become one of America’s greatest art institutions means something. And just imagine how much that destination will economically enrich the community of Bentonville, AR. We’re not cool, Wal-Mart, don’t get me wrong. But that’s a pretty good start.

We are in the midst of the occupy movement, which is politics, which means I have just broken out in hives, because writing about anything political means people out there might get mad at me, which means I will have to bake a lot of cookies to make it up to everyone. But since we are talking about rich people and how the rest of us feel about them, it certainly can’t hurt to ask. We like L.E. Phillips. We generally like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, with their foundations and promises to give away half of their wealth. Why are these rich people OK, while the collective opinion of the rest of the moneybags out there is continuing to decline in value?

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