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Gift Grew Out of Philosophy and Personal Chemistry

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The process by which Walter H. Annenberg decided to make public education a primary beneficiary of his massive fortune provides an interesting tale of philanthropic philosophy and personal chemistry, according to players in the drama that culminated in last month's announcement.

The origins of the $500 million pledge lay in Mr. Annenberg's determination not to follow the example of past titans of wealth, who endowed foundations that were intended to continue dispensing money long after their deaths.

Instead, Mr. Annenberg decided some time ago to give away his money during his lifetime to people and organizations he knew and trusted.

The chief vehicle for carrying out that decision was the Annenberg Foundation, created in 1990 with some $1.2 billion in profits from the sale of Triangle Publications.

The mission of the foundation, according to a 1991 statement, is to "advance the public well-being through improved communications.'' The statement also explains, however, that the foundation's focus is not on "chips and wires,'' but more broadly on education.

Formulating Ideas

The crucial step in transforming that focus into a specific commitment to public education may have come on the campus of the Peddie School, the Hightstown, N.J., private school Mr. Annenberg attended as a youth and the recipient of several of his donations, including a $100 million gift last year.

Attending a school-reform forum at Peddie several years ago, Mr. Annenberg first met Theodore R. Sizer and learned of his work with the Coalition of Essential Schools.

"[Mr. Annenberg] was intently listening,'' recalled Anne L. Seltzer, the director of development at Peddie. "I think he started formulating ideas, that he would give this money, not for guards at schools, [but would] find what is most effective for the most number of people.''

In 1991, Mr. Annenberg became a founding board member of the New American Schools Development Corporation, soon after giving NASDC a $10 million grant. He has known NASDC's chairman, David T. Kearns, for several years.

"His interest in education and mine and the country's are what brought us together,'' Mr. Kearns said.

Last year, after Mr. Annenberg announced major grants to Peddie and three universities, he remarked publicly that his next project would be to try to assist the nation's public schools.

An avid newspaper reader, Mr. Annenberg at that time was becoming increasingly aware of the rising violence in classrooms and communities across the country.

He turned to a longtime friend, Vartan Gregorian, the president of Brown University, for advice.

"He is frightened by the prospect that we're accepting the loss of our youth as normal,'' Mr. Gregorian explained at an informal briefing last month.

About the same time, Mr. Sizer was awarded the Walter H. Annenberg Distinguished Professorship at Brown, a rotating endowed chair.

"In response to that honor,'' Mr. Sizer recalled, "I went down to call on Mr. Annenberg to thank him.''

Soon after, Mr. Annenberg asked Mr. Gregorian, Mr. Sizer, and Mr. Kearns to help him develop a strategy for how to use his fortune in behalf of public schools.

Over the next few months, the three met with Mr. Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, at his office in St. David's, Pa., several times.

"Mr. Annenberg's direction has been very clear right from the beginning,'' Mr. Sizer said. "The question was how to shape this into something that would ultimately be effective.''

'A Real Statement'

Last fall, Mr. Annenberg asked U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to keep in touch with Mr. Sizer, Mr. Kearns, and Mr. Gregorian, said Terry Peterson, a counselor to Mr. Riley.

William Galston, an assistant domestic-policy adviser to President Clinton, meanwhile, worked to place the gift announcement on Mr. Clinton's schedule.

"Both the President and Secretary Riley wanted to make a real statement, especially during this holiday season,'' Mr. Peterson said last month.

They also saw the announcement as a complement to the Administration's proposed "Goals 2000'' program and the standards-setting efforts under way in various academic subjects.

Mr. Peterson said U.S. Education Department officials will act as advisers to Mr. Sizer, Mr. Gregorian, Mr. Kearns, and Mr. Annenberg.

"It's really a nonprofit gift, and they will determine ultimately how to use it,'' Mr. Peterson said. "But they'd like to hear our suggestions.''

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