Saturday, November 23, 2002

A billionaire's ode to charity: $100 million to poetry journal
By James Warren
Tribune staff reporter

November 17, 2002

In the early 1970s, an unsolicited poem arrived in the Chicago office of Poetry, a small, influential but typically financially strapped literary magazine. It was from a Mrs. Guernsey Van Riper Jr. of Indianapolis.

Joe Parisi, the editor, thought it good but not up to the standards of a monthly known for running the works of titans of 20th Century poetry, including William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas.

Perhaps it was Parisi's handwritten rejection note. Or similar rejection notes he'd send over the years to the same woman, whom he has to this day never met or even spoken with. But, along the way, Mrs. Van Riper grew to have affection for the publication, the kind that may change the state of poetry in America.

Van Riper, who later divorced and switched back to her maiden name of Ruth Lilly, is the last surviving great-grandchild of Col. Eli Lilly, founder of Eli Lilly and Co., the pharmaceutical giant. At 87, she is a very low-profile, ailing billionaire-philanthropist who will now alter the 700-square-foot world of the four-person magazine housed in the basement of Chicago's Newberry Library.

Lilly will stratospherically increase her own previous donations to Poetry by giving it well in excess of $100 million over the next 30 years, with no strings attached. The stunning development, the result of a new estate plan approved by an Indianapolis court and confirmed by lawyers, was outlined, though not fully detailed, by Parisi Friday at a dinner that the magazine held at the Arts Club of Chicago.

"Yes, it does seem to have a couple of extra zeroes at the end of the number," said Billy Collins, the U.S. poet laureate, who attended the dinner. "It is probably an unprecedented gift to a literary publication. It's a wonderful and good thing, unambiguously good, that Mrs. Lilly has done."

And, in a grand understatement inspired by the turn of events, Parisi said last week, "Ruth Lilly has ensured our existence into perpetuity."

The monthly, whose paid circulation is a modest 10,000, was founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, a former art critic for the Chicago Tribune, and its storied past includes running the first major works of Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, as well as important efforts by Robert Frost, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. It has flirted with poverty, frequently having less than $100 in its till, but it has never missed an issue, and thus is believed to be the oldest continuously published literary publication.

Lilly, who is childless, began writing poetry in the mid-1930s, said her attorney, Thomas Ewbank. She "did not take personally" the rejections from Poetry and proved to be a fan and loyal contributor, establishing in 1986 its annual Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which was initially $25,000 and has grown to $100,000. She also has sponsored two $15,000 annual fellowships via the magazine, as well as a professorship in poetry at Indiana University.

Lilly has been no less an enigmatic presence in Indianapolis, donating significant sums to academic and arts institutions, but in very understated ways.

The most notice she's received, besides the various donations, came amid some controversy several years ago over millions of dollars spent on European and Hawaiian travel for her and entourages of more than 30, including 26 personal staff members. The money came from the conservatorship into which her estate was placed in 1981.

But even knowledge that her estate exceeded $1 billion did not prepare the Chicago magazine for what was in the offing.

Message from a lawyer

Ewbank contacted Parisi last year, indicating that he had been instructed to devise a new estate plan for Lilly. Ewbank "suggested we obtain counsel, since the plan was so complicated," Parisi recalled. At that point, Parisi had no clear sense of the money involved, but he enlisted the services of estate specialist Richard Campbell.

As the Chicago attorney explained, there are essentially six different pots of funds created by what are known as charitable lead and remainder trusts. For example, out of three trusts, there will be one annual payment to the Modern Poetry Association, which oversees the magazine as its publisher, for as long as Lilly lives; a second annual payment over the next 15 years; and a third annual payment over the next 30 years.

With much of her wealth turning on Eli Lilly stock, which has had a topsy-turvy year (dropping from the mid-$80s to the mid-$40s, closing Friday at $61.30), one can make only broad estimates of values. Ewbank, citing his client's personal preference, did not engage in estimates, leaving them to the magazine.

But, by conservative assessments, the first payment, in January, will be about $10 million. And, over the course of the 30 years, a conservative estimate is $100 million, but it could well be closer to $150 million, Campbell said.

Ewbank would only say, "There are people who can snatch defeat from the jaw of victory. But assuming they have a good investment committee and controls, all they need be is prudent and conservative and this will provide them the base they need."

Such a sum would vault the association into the forefront of vaguely similar, arts-related non-profits. By comparison, the total assets of New York's John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation are $219 million.

For sure, change will come swiftly once word breaks out about such good fortune. Old donors may well be reluctant to maintain their level of giving, while fledgling poets and others may inundate the magazine with requests for money.

With so much funding from one source, tax laws will require the Modern Poetry Association to become a private operating foundation rather than a so-called 501c3, its current tax-exempt status conferred to qualifying political and cultural institutions and interest groups. It is applying to change its name to the Poetry Foundation, but it will still be able to receive tax-deductible contributions.

High hopes for big bucks

Deborah Cummins, president of the association's board of trustees, said the group will seek to increase its various educational programs; devise seminars for teachers nationwide to teach poetry (aimed at middle and high school teachers); expand grants and fellowships; and increase the publication of books via its Poetry Press.

And, no surprise, it wants to use the money to buy its own, far larger and separate headquarters in Chicago. Along the way, it also hopes to find public space for thousands of books of poetry, which surpass those of most colleges and universities but are virtually all in storage.

"The magazine, as our crown jewel, will obviously remain. Perhaps we can pay our authors more [whether you're a Pulitzer Prize winner or unknown undergraduate, it pays $2 a line]. We aim to keep it the premier journal devoted to poetry in the country," she said.

As for long-term impact, Collins said, "The only thing I am sure of is that when the news breaks, it will draw a lot of good attention to the magazine and poetry itself.

"It reminds me of my father, a New York businessman, not being too impressed by my poetry writing. Then I got a $25,000 grant from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), and he started taking poetry seriously."

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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