Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Bridge Builder's Gift

The girls are having a snack in the museum basement. It’s Family Day at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and before we jump into the treasure hunt and the koi ogling, we need a short break to fuel up. The girls crunch goldfish crackers and to keep them eating, I offer to read to them one of the beautiful picture books strewn on one of the little tables.

It’s The Quilt Maker’s Gift by Chicago artist Jeff Brumbeau. The rich colors and sweet details of Gail De Marken’s illustrations suck me in, but it is the story that nearly knocks me over.

A rich king so loves his possessions that he declares his birthday celebrated twice a year and demands all his subjects give him gifts. He is still not happy. He hears of a quilt maker, whose intricate and beautiful hand-sewn quilts draw people from near and far to try to buy one for their own. They are all turned away, because the woman finds homes for her quilts in a singular way. Once she had completed one of her masterpieces, she leaves her home at night and wanders the streets of the city until she finds a homeless soul sleeping on the street. She covers him with her quilt and returns home to begin another.

“Give me a quilt!” demands the king.

“Make presents of everything you own,” replies the woman. “And then I’ll make a quilt for you.”

At first the king refuses and his efforts, along with those of his bumbling army, to force a quilt from the woman are foiled in gentle ways that made my girls laugh and cheer. When the king eventually, reluctantly, agrees to the quilt maker’s plan, he can only make himself part with a single marble. The gift makes a boy smile. The king next brings out some velvet coats. The people who receive them are solemnly grateful, and the king feels the beginnings of gratification, but something is still missing. He decides to take his collections of blue dancing cats and clear glass fish and his merry-go-round with live horses to the village square. This gift creates an explosion of joy from both receivers and givers that the king did not know he had been longing for.

He packs his wagons and begins to travel the world, giving away all that he has accumulated. Every time he gives a gift, he sends a sparrow to the quilt maker and she adds another square to his quilt.

By the time the king has given away all his wealth and the last weary sparrow arrives at the quilt maker’s door, my tight throat has pinched my reading voice into an emotional squeak and my nose and eyes are running.

The king's sacrifice is not what has me in tears. When I look at De Marken's images of the king, I see in their place a real man who lived his life in this way.

Thomas J. White, the co-founder of the revolutionary health organization Partners in Health, died this month at the age of 90. By the time he reached his eighties, White had given away nearly all of his personal fortune, tens of millions of dollars, to provide education, health care and services for the poorest of the poor.

A few weeks before he died, Tom White sent a last check of $5000 to Partners in Health, the Cambridge-based organization that has transformed the model of aid-giving from one of charity to one of community partnering. "My role is pretty much played out," read the note accompanying the check, "but on to the future!"

I first encountered stories of Tom White's generosity in the book Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder's account of the birth of Partners in Health. Kidder writes how White's initial seed money of one million dollars enabled Partners in Health to begin with a clinic in rural Haiti. That clinic, Zanmi Lasante, evolved into a public health system across 12 sites in Haiti, employing nearly 4,000 people, most of them Haitians, and serving a population of 2.6 million in 2008. The organization has established community partnerships in Kazakhstan, Peru, Boston and the African nations of Rwanda, Lesotho and Malawi, with partner projects working to implement the community-based model of PIH in Mexico, Guatemala, Burundi, Mali, Liberia and Nepal.

Tom White's financial support made much of this possible. His wealth came from J.F. White Contracting Co., a successful Boston construction company White inherited from his father and nurtured from a foundation excavator to a major builder of hotels, stadiums, dams, subways, and bridges.

The word "philanthropist" usually brings to my mind a grainy black and white image of John D. Rockefeller in a somber suit handing out nickels to bewildered-looking children. We're expected to be grateful for the largess of civic donors - our great cities' hospitals and museums, like the one where I brought my girls on this free of charge Family Day, were built and funded from their generous sharing.

But who thinks of a philanthropist as brave? Who thinks of a philanthropist as so selfless he could go against conventional thinking that urges continuous financial growth? So empathetic that he would rather halt the agony of today's sick and hungry than take faith in the metering out of future interest? Instead of treating retirement like a tightrope walk that is foolhardy without a voluminous savings cushion, Tom White used the time as a chance to divest himself of his accumulated wealth. He was able to watch the transformation he made possible as the humblest of homes were improved with solid roofs and floors, as third world lives were saved with the modern medicine we take for granted in U.S. hospitals.

White not only uttered the common sentiment of desiring to die poor, he lived it. "I can't take it with me, my kids are OK, and my wife's taken care of," he told the Boston Globe in 2004. After his children were grown, (thirteen total, from two marriages), he sold his larger houses and lived in a modest two-bedroom condo in Cambridge with his second wife, Lois.

Here is the gift Tom White left for me: a question that feels both revolutionary and of great ethical importance. Why die with money? White cast new doubts on the idea that growing and maintaining the largest financial surplus possible is a worthwhile goal, or even a moral one. Once our children are grown capable and comfortable, what greater needs will they have than those of the world's poor?

I've read the biographies, heard the stories of great men and women who lived lives of self-imposed austerity: Dorothy Day, Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi. For some reason it was this man who brought the message home. A modern man, a builder of bridges and clinics, a man who favored plaid golf pants to the white robes of a penitent, who made presents of nearly everything he owned.