Thursday, September 9, 2010

Possible passage through the eye of that needle?

My father, another dirt-poor German-American kid, was at Columbia College with retired media mogul (and  sometime Albemarle County resident) John Kluge. This tickled Pop immensely. "Where did I go wrong," he used to say, as he watched Mr. Kluge pile up billions. "Maybe I should have played more poker?"

Pop was alluding to the Columbia fact(?) legend(?) that Mr. Kluge had paid his way through the College in part with his poker winnings.

Both Pop and Mr. Kluge credited their Columbia experience with changing the course of their lives for the better. Pop paid the College back in quiet, low-budget ways; his classmate with 500 million dollars in bequests.

“If it hadn’t been for Columbia, my path would have been entirely different in life,” Kluge said six years ago at a celebration of his 90th birthday in [Columbia College's] Low Library. “Columbia gave me an opportunity, and the only way you can really repay that opportunity is for you to help someone else.”

John Kluge also sprinkled tens of millions of dollars worth of gifts around the University of Virginia and the Charlottesville area. Anyone ever known a child who benefited from going to the Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center? And Mr. Kluge donated hundreds of millions elsewhere around the country, as well.

Even after all this giving, he was reported to be worth $6.5 billion when he died late Tuesday.

I remember when John Kluge and his third wife, Pat, moved to Albemarle County in the mid-1980s. They created, shall we say, quite a stir. Hook editor Hawes Spencer reminded us of several of the couple's more tacky excesses in an article posted on the news site Most people (am I dealing in gossip on a public radio blog?) credit his then-wife for these ostentatious escapades. But still, John Kluge paid the bills for them.

The terms of the couple's divorce settlement as reported in People are mind-boggling for us folks of ordinary financial status. 

Still, on balance, Mr. Kluge does seem to have been a very, very rich man who strove to give back. Not enough, of course, to threaten his richness; but still, he did seem interested in not just what money can buy, but what it can do. If you want more information about his corporate and philanthropic life, there's a comprehensive remembrance  in today's Washington Post.

Maybe I'm cutting John Kluge some slack because he was at school with my father, but still, the man did seem like a very rich person who, if any very rich person ever can, did not let his money smother his humanity.

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