Posted on Mon. Jul. 07, 2008 - 08:00 am EDT

Helene Foellinger: Pioneer in the industry

She also led in philanthropy, creating the Foellinger Foundation

Chelsea Brune

The Foellinger family has been a driving force in the Fort Wayne community since the 1930s.

The family legacy began with Oscar Foellinger. Born in 1885, he was the son of Martin Foellinger, a shoemaker active in civic affairs.

Oscar Foellinger left school after the sixth grade, at age 12, and went to work for a bank.

He left banking to become a business manager for The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in 1906, at age 21. In 1912 he took the same position at the rival Fort Wayne Daily News.

In 1918, the newspaper merged with The Fort Wayne Daily News to become The News-Sentinel. In 1921, Foellinger purchased The News-Sentinel and became its publisher.

Foellinger always took a personal interest in politics and was a friend of President Herbert Hoover, who appointed him state manager for his presidential campaign. The rest of the Foellinger family, continued the tradition of taking an active interest in politics.

Oscar and his wife, Esther, had two daughters, Helene and Loretta, who both attended South Side High School. Helene worked on the school newspaper and graduated in 1928 as valedictorian. worked on the school newspaper.

After graduating from the University of Illinois with a math degree, Helene returned to Fort Wayne to work for her father at The News-Sentinel. She became the editor of the now-obsolete “Women's Page.” The page was filled with items that were “fit” for a woman, such as charity information and recipes.

Her position as editor of the women's page was unique for the day, because nearly all industries - newspapers included - were male-dominated.

In 1936, Oscar Foellinger died unexpectedly during a trip in Canada. He had previously told his family that when he died, they should sell the newspaper because they would get about a million dollars. However, Helene decided to take over the paper instead.

“She (Helene) was really quite the pioneer,” said Cheryl Taylor, president and CEO of the Foellinger Foundation. Helene had plenty working against her: She was young, she was a woman and it was the 1930s. But against all odds — at age 25 — she became one of the first women publishers in the country.

As publisher, she increased readership, profits and size. She helped change the opinion that women couldn't run major businesses. She also took great care to help improve the community.

In 1958, remembering the deaths of Oscar on a trip and Loretta on her honeymoon, Esther and Helene decided to start the Foellinger Foundation, a philanthropic organization, in case they didn't return from their own world travels.

They did return, and began operating the foundation. The requirements for grants were “broad,” according to Taylor.

“They were very much focused on supporting effective work,” she said.

During her life, Helene was mostly in charge of the distribution of money by the foundation. Since her death, in 1987, her legacy lives on.

After Helene Foellinger's death, the foundation had to set up a structured way of distributing the Foellingers' money. Because the foundation is, in simplest terms, the steward of the Foellingers' money, it took great care to examine, and define its donors' intent — how they would have given money.

To do this, the foundation looked back. The family's personal items (property of the foundation), writings, as well as people who knew the family's priorities helped shape the principles from which the foundation would work.

Those who knew her described Helene as frugal and precise. Being frugal did not mean stingy, and precision was not a downfall for Helene. These qualities helped frame the way the foundation would function. Organization is key, and so is purpose.

“She was pointed,” said Taylor of Helene.

While Helene and Esther were dedicated to work that would result in a better community, they were not big supporters of specific church-related programs. Their own giving records also clearly indicated that the grants given by the foundation were not to substitute for government funds.

The values of the Foellingers, and therefore of the foundation, are summarized by four principles that continue to help define its mission: integrity, accountability, responsibility and results. These principles help narrow the focus of the foundation's area of giving.

Ultimately, the foundation's focus — reflecting the Foellingers' focus — is on “children, youth and families.” According to Taylor, they seek the biggest needs with the least opportunities.

The charitable grants of the Foellinger Foundation serve only Allen County. Over the years, the foundation has given millions of dollars to local organizations, to help them help others.

The amount of grant money distributed has grown substantially, thanks to good investments and interest, from $5,500 to nearly $8 million annually.

Last year, the foundation gave nearly $7.7 million to programs including Arts United, Turnstone Center, local YMCA and YWCA, and many more.

The foundation was also instrumental in establishing the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, a downtown landmark, and the Foellinger Theatre in Franke Park.

While area residents may not know the history of the foundation, or its creators, the community is certainly aware of its contributions to make Fort Wayne, and its residents, better.

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