Giving Large

In the event of a windfall, charity begins at home.

On my way home from work every day, I am struck dumb by an illuminated billboard at the corner of 16th and Illinois streets. In red LED numbers, the huge sign flashes the current Powerball jackpot and, I believe, the amount to be won in the Hoosier Lotto, although I rarely look at that. When $123 million is staring you in the face, it’s hard to think about anything else.

This is an effective advertising gimmick. For the next several blocks, I plan where I will buy a ticket, mentally searching for places that will, in retrospect, make sense when announced as the home of the winning stub. You rarely hear reports of the ticket having been purchased at Walgreens or Whole Foods. Jackpots are won at remote gas stations or convenience stores in places I never frequent. I must get out more if I intend to win.

And make no mistake, I need to win. There are matters of funding to consider that reach far beyond my selfish desires. I would love to buy my kids big new houses, for instance, or treat my family to a private cruise of the Greek islands. Beyond that, I like to think I’m as philanthropic as the next guy. This year, for example, I upped my United Way pledge by 35 percent, which had nothing to do with the fact that the 6-foot-5-inch company spokesperson for the charity cornered me in front of two colleagues. The increase was simply the right thing to do.

We tend to donate the way we vote. If there is something personal about an issue, we connect and, therefore, support. My brave and lovely friend Sharon Bassett began a foundation providing assistance to families living with breast cancer when she was fighting the disease herself. Her beauty, strength, and altruism touched me, and to this day, nearly five years after her death, I continue to support her cause.

My Butler University journalism professor and mentor, Art Levin, put me on the career path I have followed for 25 years. I owe him, and the best way to give back is to contribute to the scholarship fund in his name, so I do. Once, when I was on a tour of the Girls Inc. facilities, a lonely little girl in need of attention glommed onto me, sticking like glue to my pant leg. I think about the agency’s worthwhile programs every time I write my check, sure—but mostly I think about her.

I would also direct my economic windfall toward civic concerns.

The first place that needs my help is the City Market. Perhaps I am naive, but the current locavore movement seems the perfect backdrop to reinvigorate this Indianapolis treasure. I can just see the glorious historic structure come alive again with stands brimming with fish, meats, cheeses, artisanal breads, and pumpkins, squash, eggs, and milk fresh from the farms that give Indiana its very identity. I still miss Libby’s, a deli where we’d lean against the counter and snarf down the best hotdogs in town, just to name one of the venues that once populated the place. The city has budgeted $2.7 million to upgrade it, but so far, bids have come in too high to provide even this modest renovation. It’s too much to expect our version of San Francisco’s lavish Ferry Building, home to local produce, flowers, wines, cafes, and more. But a girl can dream.

I also worry about the Indianapolis–Marion County Public Library, and, once I win, vow to aid this struggling entity. The library is in the hole for an estimated $4 million, a drop in the bucket as Powerball jackpots go; I hope my cash infusion will save jobs and allow branches to remain open. I have tender memories of the old Broad Ripple location, where I spent hours in the lower level, reveling in the children’s books and carting home as many as I could wrangle. Today’s libraries offer more modern media services but still house the cherished classics.

Public education is another hot button for me, and, with my winnings, I’m torn between financing more charter schools and creating a walloping slush fund for teacher merit pay. Should the jackpot approach $200 million, perhaps I can afford both. Charter schools operate freely, control their own curricula, hire whom they want, and purchase what they need. Their academic standards are higher, and so is their student achievement. As for merit pay, I was a teacher myself—and gave it my all. I slaved over my first-grade lesson plans, tried to make learning fun, and happily taught nearly 100 kids not only to read, but to enjoy it. Performance bonuses work in business, and they would work in education, too. If nothing else, perhaps a more robust carrot at the end of the teaching stick would attract the best and brightest to the profession, those with the brains and confidence to make a difference.

Should I not beat the 1-in-195-million odds and all my plans fall apart, perhaps some of Indy’s super-rich will pitch in. I don’t believe the Hulman family really needs to drill for oil on its property near Terre Haute. And although I realize no salary increases were in the cards for WellPoint executives last year (pity), can CEO Angela Braly possibly spend her overall compensation of $13.1 million? Perhaps Bren Simon won’t need all of the $250,000 a month she is drawing from her husband’s $2 billion estate to operate her homes, and if Forrest Lucas can wave off his $3 million purchase of the 33-acre Hilbert estate as costing no more than a 30-second commercial for his oil during the Super Bowl, I’ll bet he has some cash left over.

Ironically, I know a Powerball winner, a philanthropic fellow who lucked into $90 million 15 years ago. Every year for the holidays, he gives me a generous check payable to whatever charity I want. The amount won’t bail out the City Market, the library, or our public schools, but it’s a start.

Illustration by Valeria Petrone.

This column originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.