City Desk

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Just Gives It Away

For the almost expirational print platform of Washington City Paper, I wrote an update on the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and focused on how the group helped out a great kid in my neighborhood.

The foundation, founded after the 1997 death of the former Washington Redskins owner, was funded from the start with money that Cooke's estate got from the sale of all his worldly goods.

The worldliest and goodest good, of course, was his football team.

It now seems apparent that before his death Cooke didn't grasp just how massive his charity would be. His original last will first stipulated that the foundation reserve its scholarship gifts just for college graduates looking for a way to pay for grad school.

But then along came that $800 million windfall from Dan Snyder, far more bucks than the Redskins were expected to fetch at auction.  Throw in the proceeds from sales of Cooke's other belongings, and for a time there was some thought that Cooke's endowment could reach the $1 billion mark.

That's a lotta grad school scratch.

I wrote the following in March 1999:

By federal law, a trust has to disburse a minimum of 5 percent of its resources each year—meaning that the Cooke Foundation, if and when it reaches the billion mark, could shell out $50 million or more in grants every year, according to a report in the Philanthropy Journal.

According to figures from U.S. News & World Report's graduate school guide, for $50 million, the foundation could subsidize the entire student bodies of the Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins medical schools, and still have enough cash leftover to re-sign Leslie Shepherd to a generous five-year, $6.45 million deal.

(Leslie Shepherd was a middling Skins receiver in the late-1990s, not a budding grad schooler. )

The Cooke Foundation has not yet accrued a billion dollars in reserves—current IRS records show the group had $535,480,126 in assets as of its last filings. But that's still too much money for Cooke's initial grad-school-only idea.

So, because of the huge kitty, the foundation opened its coffers to scholarly pursuits at other levels. The group now funds, for example, private prep school tuition for deserving high schoolers (such as Brielle Tucker, who went to Madeira via Cooke's largesse).

And current executive director Lawrence Kutner told me he wants to steer the foundation toward giving out more grants to youngsters pursuing the arts.

They're already in that ballgame. I recently spoke with Cynthia Nystrom, a Montgomery County resident who told me the foundation now funds her teenage daughter's music and dance training. Such niceties weren't fathomed when the ex-owner first thought about establishing a do-gooder group as his legacy. (Full disclosure: Washington City Paper staffer Ally Schweitzer is another daughter of Nystrom's.)

"For my daughter, they pay for all her ballet lessons, her piano lessons, things that she would need for those programs, such as ballet shoes," says Nystrom. "They bought her a laptop, to make sure she had acess to the internet, and provide her with a summer [dance and music] program and an advisor. Every summer she's gotten to do these great programs, nothing I could afford on my own."

"If there's one thing that Jack Kent Cooke could have done to benefit the community and the country in general, this is it," says Nystrom of the Foundation's works. "He did a good thing."

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