Baltimore's biggest philanthropists reveal what motivates them

Baltimore area philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown are big contributors to the Crossroads School at the Living Classrooms Foundation.

Baltimore is home to some generous souls. There are those who give time, others who share their ideas and plenty of people willing to open their wallets.

Over the years, a number of people have built reputations as philanthropists. Yet however publicly they give, their reasons for doing so are often strikingly personal. Here are a few of their stories:


Edward St. John

EdwardSt. John learned something about giving in college. When he was a senior, a freshman wanted his help campaigning to become class president. St. John worked hard and the kid was elected but never thanked him. "I became very aware right then that you should help people because you want to, not because you're looking for thank-yous or accolades or anything else," he says. "You do it because it's the right thing."


He started St. John Properties in 1971, a company that now manages real estate in Maryland and five other states, and created a foundation about 15 years ago, giving away 7.5 percent of the company's net profit.

St. John, who's 74, likes to put his money into education-related projects in the communities where he does business. One of his largest gifts was $10 million to the University of Maryland, his alma mater, to build a learning and teaching center on the College Park campus. The classroom building, which will be called the Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center, is slated to be completed in 2016.

Over the years St. John has given more than $40 million to hundreds of schools. Baltimore's Mount St. Joseph High School, Towson University, Severn School in Severna Park and McDonogh School in Owings Mills are just a few.

A lifelong science geek who almost became a pilot, an institution close to St. John's heart is the Maryland Science Center, where he's chairman of the board. There, life-size dinosaurs stalk Edward St. John Hall and people are surrounded by movies at the St. John Properties IMAX Theater.

"We all have the power to make a difference," he says. "We have the choice to make it personal, create a legacy and be a role model. It's probably the most important thing we do in our lives."

Eddie and Sylvia Brown

The child of an unwed 13-year-old mother, Eddie Brown was raised by his grandparents in an impoverished part of rural Florida. But he made it to Howard University because an area businesswoman paid his tuition.

Education and the generosity of others changed Brown's life, giving him the start that led to what would become a billion-dollar asset management company. Now Brown and his wife, Sylvia, are devoted to trying to give children in Baltimore the same leg up.


One such program, where they've invested millions, is the Turning the Corner on Achievement Program they helped launch through Living Classrooms. Middle school students not only get a rigorous academic intervention but help before and after school for their entire family. "We want to help broaden their vision of what's out there beyond what narrow vision they may have in their community," Brown says.

The Browns focus their giving in three areas: heath initiatives in impoverished communities, the education of inner-city youth and the arts — mainly to expand collections of African-American art and provide scholarships to talented African-Americans.

The couple has generously given to area organizations including the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

One of their biggest gifts, however, falls outside those parameters. When Maryland Institute College of Art launched a building campaign, Eddie Brown wondered how many prominent private buildings in major cities were named for African-Americans. When he found out the answer was zero, he wrote a $6 million check for what would become MICA's Brown Center.

"Those who are blessed should be a blessing to others," says Brown, 72. "We asked: What can we do that's meaningful?"

Ben and Candy Carson


"When I was a kid growing up in Detroit and Boston we were very poor," says Dr. Ben Carson. "I remember how much I appreciated and felt special when people who weren't poor paid us some attention. That's something that has never left me."

When he become one of the world's most respected pediatric neurosurgeons, Carson, 61, knew he wanted to give other children that same sense of being valued. When he and his wife launched the Carson Scholars Fund in 1994, Carson says he hoped to empower young people and help them understand they can determine their life's direction.

The couple started by awarding scholarships, one to a student in each Maryland county. Now, their fund gives 500 $1,000 scholarships a year and has helped more than 5,000 students since inception. Carson has watched their career trajectories with pride. Some became physicians, others scientists and engineers and economists. One recently applied to the neurosurgery department at Hopkins.

The couple believes in heralding their scholars with the same pomp and circumstance that comes to athletes, with ceremonies before the student body and trophies for the school display case.

"When we choose them, we know they're spectacular and they're going to do great, but by putting them on a pedestal, you make them somebody other kids want to emulate rather than saying there's that nerdy guy," Carson says.

They began creating reading rooms in 2000, fun welcoming places in Baltimore and across the country where kids could discover books — which Carson credits with setting him on the right path. The fund has invested more than $1 million in them. He remembers his first book, "Chip the Dam Builder." It was about a beaver, and it whet his appetite to read about more animals — and then more about everything, helping him to become a better speller, a better grammarian and eventually a man who could express himself and think creatively.


"Not everyone has a tremendous amount of money to give away, but there are things you can do to positively impact lives of others — plenty of things," he says. "You never know whose life you are going to touch, people who can then have the ability to change other lives because of what you did."

Helen and E. Magruder (Mac) Passano Jr.

This family's charitable streak can be traced back several generations, to 1943 when E. Magruder Passano Jr.'s grandfather, who started the Baltimore publishing company that became Waverly Press, created the Passano Foundation to award grants for medical research.

When Passano joined the family business in the 1960s, he started an attendance improvement program at an area vocational school. Kids who regularly came to school were showered with public accolades and McDonald's gift certificates — the very best got a chance to meet Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

In that small way, Mac Passano, now 70, embarked on a philanthropic career, becoming, along with his wife, Helen, 65, and their three daughters, one of the region's biggest contributors to health and education causes.

Johns Hopkins University, Notre Dame of Maryland University, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Calvert School and Roland Park Country School are a few of their favorite causes.


The Passanos taught their girls about giving early, making sure each one had a dollar to drop into the church collection plate. These days Mac and Helen Passano and their three daughters have family meetings to discuss where they'd like to see the money go. They vote with the understanding that they'll make more of a difference if they focus on a few projects.

"Our goal as a family is to try to make this area a better place," he says. "We are blessed to have been successful in business and having the wherewithal to give."

Helen Passano gave Notre Dame $2 million to renovate the campus chapel in honor of mother and father, who worked multiple jobs to put her through school there.

Passano graduated from Hopkins while his wife earned her master's there. They gave $1 million to support the school's Downtown Center, where a lobby is named for the family.

They support fellowships for young clinicians starting research careers at Hopkins and Maryland.

And Passano is part of the group trying to save the now-private Pride of Baltimore. He'd like to see it become a floating school to creatively teach teachers.


"For success to be realized," he says, "it really needs to be shared, I think."

Senator Francis X. and Janet Kelly

The Kellys founded an insurance company out of their Timonium basement in 1976. The success of that company, Kelly & Associates Insurance Group, has allowed the couple to become one of the region's most prolific philanthropists.

But even before the couple had money, they believed in giving back, volunteering and helping out at their church.

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"We certainly weren't giving money because we didn't have a lot to give," Janet Kelly says of the leaner days. "But we grew up with the tithing tradition, giving 10 percent of what little we had and as time grew and we grew and the company grew, we were able to give financially."

Janet Kelly jokes that when it comes to giving, her husband is the accelerator and she's the brakes. In any case, they work as a team, married 51 years and rarely agreeing to any cause unless they're both on board.


It was during his time in politics, as a state senator, that Kelly really began learning about the area's needs. He committed himself then to what would become the University of Maryland's R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center. He chairs the center's board and led its building campaign. He calls Shock Trauma "my baby."

The Kellys' giving runs the gamut — dozens upon dozens of organizations and projects — but the couple targets healthcare, education and athletics, giving to a number of area hospitals, high schools and colleges as well as to Cal Ripken's foundation and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The couple donated the athletic field for Calvert Hall — twice. And they gave $100,000 to the Community College of Baltimore County.

One project leads to another, the Kellys say. And their sons — all givers in their own right — introduce their parents to new ideas, like an effort to bring bicycles to Africa.

"You do one thing, you get into it and you see all these other opportunities," he says. "There are so many needs we see out there we can't possibly get to them all."